Thoughts on Philosophy–Bertrand Russell’s “History.”

Thoughts on Philosophy

A number of important writers have addressed the topic “how to read a book.” Because they themselves write books, their understanding of it is very helpful. Some have, but most of them don’t fully focus on the preliminaries of selecting and committing to doing it. I raise this point because of my rediscovery of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. (Simon and Schuster, NY: 1972 [Copyright B. Russell, 1945, E.. Russell, 1972.])

This book, 895 pages, has been an opportunity to apply a useful way to read non-fiction books. When I choose a non-fiction book, (because its title has caught my attention) I first read the dust cover, to see what the seller considers most important or interesting. Then a look at the table of contents tells me how the book is organized, which topics are addressed and whether the writer has a more or less organized way of addressing them. The Index is next—non-fiction books without a good index are suspect for me because the index is a guide to major topics, vocabulary and the writer’s focus.

Another reason to scan these parts is the get a sense of how the writer approaches the topic and major sub-topics. In addition, they provide an overview of the writer’s vocabulary. Sometimes knowing the “key words” a writer uses gives us an overview of the book. Why is this important? Mainly because it is important to know the real main ideas in the book.

For example, I once read a book on a very complex topic—how we form ideas and create meanings. Because I know something about how memory works, I expected at least a few paragraphs on memory and association. However, the word association was NOT in the index, nor used in the text. Obviously, the authors had a reason NOT to use it. I deduced that it was because they did not want to address the processes of learning, memory and association. This was, for me, enlightening, and I read the book with much more appreciation of its careful precision than I would otherwise have done.

When reading books that provide a broad perspective on topics, it is useful, actually essential, to know “how the writer’s views evolved and what points of view, personal biases, qualifiers and limitations are actually addressed by the author.” In effect, “scanning before reading”is a way of, in advance, becoming aware of how your own (known) leanings, biases, experiences and perspective differ from those presented in the book.

For most students in both science and philosophy in most colleges during the past half-century, Bertrand Russell was a familiar name. Even today his writings are well-known. A recent biography, in pictures, was published and well received. Knowing the story of his life and the development of his views seems to me essential to understanding his thinking. The fact that The History of Western Philosophy was published in 1945—the last year of WII, should provide a major insight into the background of Russell’s thought—and all the more so because we are reading or re-reading it in 2017.

What else might be useful? Knowing that Russell was a mathematician, philosopher and freethinker is important. He and Alfred North Whitehead wrote a book attempting to show that everything was in some way explainable by mathematics, but failed. This significantly affected his thought. However, near the end of his long life he said, “each day I become happier.”

Some brief comments on Russell may be helpful for those who may have had little reason to pay much attention to his life, writings or impact on our world. He was an extremely important thinker of the 20th Century and deserves the respect he receives. My view of him is that when thinkers like Russell come upon students early he can overwhelm some of those looking for the “answer” to (often unexpressed) questions about “life” and “the universe.”

My own approach, from early experiences with religion and at school and university has been NOT to read or listen with an “either-or” attitude. What is that? Some students adopt, very early, a sense that they already have, from their past experiences, enough data to be able to evaluate what is unfamiliar or new, and (this is the “flaw” in such thinking) accept or reject it fully insofar as it confirms or refutes what they currently think, and so must be true.

This is NOT skepticism but a kind of intellectual laziness based on emotional commitment rather than intelligent judgment. Our society encourages this kind of thinking in its political, economic, legal and social institutions and activities. That’s why most schools do not develop thinkers and are not generally able to. Life choices are too often organized and presented to young people, children and teens without the explanations necessary to make reasonable judgments. Organized means, “once you decide among only these, you are committed.” Presented means “decide NOW” or you will lose out. Both of these are convenient for parents, educators and the society—reducing costs, moving young people into work-related activities quickly, and most important keeping their questions about “life, existence, economics, politics, religion and ethics” at a minimum.

There are some valid reasons WHY societies function as they do. Unless there is order and reasonable behavior a society cannot remain stable or even survive for long. The recent history of our world attests to that. But if we believe that human life should be free and have meaning, and that Western democracy, flawed as it may be, has the promise of greater progress, history and philosophers can explain how that is possible.

Russell’s story of the 2500 years of history makes it seem almost miraculous that philosophy—the love of wisdom—has been able to survive. And yet it has. One reason is the existence and survival of persons with minds like Russell and the thinkers he describes (and others he identifies and characterizes).

Philosophers help to open our minds in a way that is often uncomfortable, awkward and unfamiliar. But to be truly free we need to be fully aware of our own fears, desires, and biases, especially those we protect and shelter from questions, and also of the answers people like Russell present to us and our society.

The further posts will provide specific examples of Russell’s history and the importance to us of these philosophers. Though most of them are NOT “truth,” they are the basis of what we believe today. The ideas they created have evolved since the Greeks of 2500 years ago began to examine their lives, and we can learn much from their thinking about the meaning of their existence, and OURS as well.

John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

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