Monthly Archives: August 2014

Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy

I’ve just finished reading Bertrand Russell’s “The Problems of Philosophy”. I loved the book even though I disagree with almost everything he has to say.

Here are some modest reflections about it:

  1. This book is a perfect hinge between modernity and the twentieth century. On the one hand, Russell sums up the contributions of modern philosophers like Descartes, Spinoza, Berkeley, Hume and Kant to the theory of knowledge; on the other, he sets out the foundations of the new epistemology that developed in the first half of the Twentieth Century and gave birth to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, the Vienna Circle, logical positivism and Popperian falsificationism.
  2. I was surprised to learn that Russell, for all his empiricism and positivism, was also a Platonist. That is, he thought that universals such as the principle of induction, mathematical entities (numbers, geometrical figures), the law of causality, etc. are all real. Moreover, Russell claims that they don’t exist as material entities but as perfect, immutable, immaterial forms. Russell is not willing to follow Plato in his mystic moments, and he’s not willing to embrace mystic readings of Plato’s dialogs. In addition, he doesn’t want to trace a very sharp division between doxa and episteme; as a good British empiricist, Russell sees a continuity between common sense and philosophical-scientific knowledge. He trusts our human instincts and claims that sense-data (the “sensible world”) play a very important role in providing raw material to our knowledge. But, other than that, he’s a full fledged Platonist.
  3. Concerning the last point: this is perhaps where we feel more alien to Russell now. After Sellars’ denunciation of the “myth of the given” and Quine’s holistic understanding of knowledge processes as always based on ontological commitments, we are reluctant to accept Russell’s lineal view of knowledge acquisition, which starts from value-neutral atomic data and uses it to build more complex and theoretical knowledge forms, such as knowledge by description (or inference). We now believe that sense-data are already penetrated by theory, and that our knowledge processes are circular (but not necessarily visciously circular).

 

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Bertrand Russell on the analogy between truth and justice

The following quote belongs to the penultimate paragraph of Bertrand Russell’s “Problems of Philosophy”:

The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man’s true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

This is one more beautiful example of the point I’ve made over and over again, and that you can find, expressed in different ways, in such varied authors such as Plato, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Jean Piaget, Charles Peirce, Jean-Pierre Vernant and many others: that there is a fundamental analogy between truth and justice; and that this analogy does not merely consist in a formal similarity between both concepts, but stems from a common, deeper source: the struggle for justice in the realm of the practical affairs of mankind has evolved into the search for truth in the theoretical realm.

I’m sorry

My son is an adorable and smart kid. I have talked about him in this blog, especially to provide illustrations of developmental milestones. But, in order to put his achievements in context, it’s necessary to mention that he’s developmentally delayed. That is, he’s 4 years 1 month old now, and he’s mastering certain behaviors that are typical of 2- and 3-year-olds.

For example, he has recently learned how to say “I’m sorry.” There are several ways to perform this speech act (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969) in Spanish; he uses “lo siento” instead of “perdón”, the latter being more common here in Argentina. I guess he picked up “lo siento” from TV shows such as Caillou or Go Diego Go, that are dubbed in Mexico or Spain.

The speech act of apologizing is a very peculiar and interesting one. It involves a) the recognition that one has done something wrong (something morally bad, or perhaps neglectful or careless), as well as b) the request that the person one is interacting with forgives (gives up feelings of anger and decides not to punish) this behavior. It also implies that the person apologizing is committed to avoid such wrongdoing in the future. There’s a whole conception of responsibility implicit in this apparently simple speech act.

As I have argued elsewhere, I support the Piagetian idea that action precedes thought (Piaget, 1976), which on the level of speech acts translates as: rhetorical moves precede explicit concepts. In other words, my son apologizes because he senses he can get certain pragmatic results by using this speech act. He performs the speech act pretty well, with the right tone in his voice and a cute expression on his face. So he convinces me and I capitulate: “ok, ok, but don’t do that again”.

Yet it’s easy to see he’s not mastered the rules of apology. For example, he tells me “I’m going to wash my hands”, and so I reply, “ok, but please be careful not to make a mess with the water,” and then he says “I am sorry”. Or, when he’s intentionally kicking a chair, I tell him “don’t do that again” and he says “I’m sorry” but continues kicking the chair just as before. So he’s contradicting two felicity conditions of the speech act of apologizing: in the former example he’s not committed the wrongdoing yet; in the latter, he’s not committed to avoid doing it again in the future.

To sum up: my son is pragmatically effective but he’s still not conceptually clear about what “I’m sorry” means. He doesn’t get responsibility, pardon, commitment, etc. Conceptual clarity about the meaning of apologies will arrive later, as a result of reflection on this interaction with the world, favored by social instruction, social representations and symbolic interaction in general.

 

Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.2307/3326622

Piaget, J. (1976). The grasp of consciousness (S. Wedgwood, Trans.). Cambridge Massachusettes Harvard University PressOriginal Work Published 1974.

Searle, J. R. (1969). Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (p. 203). Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Speech-Acts-Essay-Philosophy-Language/dp/052109626X