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Bertrand Russell, and David Hume, on philosophy

Bertrand Russell

[Old notes.] Reading The Problems of Philosophy (1912) by Bertrand Russell. I’m inclined to agree with most of it. (In a lot of ways I’m basically a Cartesian. That’s supposed to be incompatible or in tension with being a Marxist, but I’ve never understood why. Sure, Descartes tended to emphasize the individual and Marx the collective, but I see no logical inconsistencies between positions that are taken to define Cartesianism and those that define Marxism.)

Something I hadn’t considered is that one way of expressing the denial that ‘ought’ can be derived from ‘is’ is by saying that judgments attributing or denying intrinsic value to something (such as “Happiness is good”) are a priori. They can’t be justified by, deduced from, experience; instead, we bring them to experience. On the other hand, it seems strange to call value-judgments knowledge, as Russell does. I’d prefer to reserve the term “a priori knowledge” for things like mathematics and logic. But, in a sense, this may be quibbling.

Russell sensibly rejects much of traditional empiricism, such as its denial that mathematics is a priori[1] and its nominalism. (Nominalism is at least in tension, if not incompatible, with the rationalist recognition that the mind imposes forms on experience, i.e. that we necessarily experience the world through the prism of our own mental “forms,” universal “ideas” by means of which we interpret the particularities of sensory data.) In addition, he credits Kant for showing it’s possible to have a priori knowledge that isn’t analytic, “i.e. such that the opposite would be self-contradictory.” Another topic on which I agree with Russell. Incidentally, I admit that some of my previous discussions of the so-called synthetic a priori have been confused, in part because the philosophical literature suffers from ambiguities and confusions. But my intuition that there’s a kind of a priority that isn’t merely analytic has been right, and Russell shares it.

A useful summary:

Hume (1711-76), who preceded Kant, accepting the usual view as to what makes knowledge a priori, discovered that, in many cases which had previously been supposed analytic, and notably in the case of cause and effect, the connexion was really synthetic. Before Hume, rationalists at least had supposed that the effect could be logically deduced from the cause, if only we had sufficient knowledge. Hume argued—correctly, as would now be generally admitted—that this could not be done. Hence he inferred the far more doubtful proposition that nothing could be known a priori about the connexion of cause and effect. Kant, who had been educated in the rationalist tradition, was much perturbed by Hume's scepticism, and endeavoured to find an answer to it. He perceived that not only the connexion of cause and effect, but all the propositions of arithmetic and geometry, are 'synthetic', i.e. not analytic: in all these propositions, no analysis of the subject will reveal the predicate. His stock instance was the proposition 7 + 5 = 12. He pointed out, quite truly, that 7 and 5 have to be put together to give 12: the idea of 12 is not contained in them, nor even in the idea of adding them together. Thus he was led to the conclusion that all pure mathematics, though a priori, is synthetic; and this conclusion raised a new problem of which he endeavoured to find the solution. [Namely, how is synthetic a priori knowledge possible?]

Russell has an interesting criticism of Kant’s rationalist solution. “The thing to be accounted for [he reminds us] is our certainty that the facts must always conform to logic and arithmetic. To say that logic and arithmetic are contributed by us [as Kant says] does not account for this. Our nature is as much a fact of the existing world as anything, and there can be no certainty that it will remain constant. It might happen, if Kant is right, that to-morrow our nature would so change as to make two and two become five. This possibility seems never to have occurred to him, yet it is one which utterly destroys the certainty and universality which he is anxious to vindicate for arithmetical propositions....” However Kant would reply to Russell—invoking his idiosyncratic transcendental idealism—the objection seems powerful. Actually, on one interpretation it isn’t: to explain our knowledge of synthetic a priori truths, obviously we have to invoke our human nature. We’re so constituted....etc. On the other hand, what we “know” is that things will always be such that 2 and 2 are 4, etc. Such a priori propositions are not about our human nature but about things themselves. They aren’t really, or merely, “laws of thought,” as it would be natural to call them according to the Kantian position; they’re (as far as we’re concerned) laws of things, laws of reality. “When we judge that two and two are four, we are not making a judgement about our thoughts, but about all actual or possible couples. The fact that our minds are so constituted as to believe that two and two are four, though it is true, is emphatically not what we assert when we assert that two and two are four. And no fact about the constitution of our minds could make it true that two and two are four.” Is this objection to Kant’s position decisive? It certainly seems so, but I’m not sure.

After disposing of Kant’s answer, Russell offers his own. First, he argues that universals (viz., nearly all words) are neither mental nor physical. I argued the same in my paper on ontology, with the difference that I said all concepts are neither mental nor physical. No doubt my terminology was inexact, but my position amounted to much the same as Russell’s and Frege’s. As for Russell’s answer to Kant’s question, I don’t entirely understand it. It has something to do with the claim, which is surely true, that “all a priori knowledge deals exclusively with the relations of universals [as opposed to particulars].” It also has to do with what Russell calls intuitive knowledge—immediate knowledge of truths, more precisely of self-evident truths. “Among such truths are included those which merely state what is given in sense, and also certain abstract logical and arithmetical principles.... Our derivative knowledge of truths consists of everything that we can deduce from self-evident truths by the use of self-evident principles of deduction.” —Right. So I guess the answer is that our a priori knowledge is of self-evident truths. Um, yes, I agree. But Kant’s purpose was precisely to explain why these truths are self-evident! It’s not a very “deep” explanation just to say, “Well, ‘2 + 2 = 4’ is self-evident, and that’s that.” I was hoping for something deeper—but I’m not surprised I didn’t get it, because there is nothing deeper in the case of a priori truths. There’s only the Kantian, or pseudo-Kantian, invoking of human nature (the structure of the mind, etc.)—which itself is pretty obvious. With regard to a priori truths, you can’t bring in further reasons aside from their self-evidence (and/or the relevant logical or mathematical laws, which are self-evident).

Not surprisingly, Russell is a “foundationalist,” like me. He recognizes there are truths that can’t be inferred from some other truth; we just “intuitively” know they’re true, as I said in my paper on the analytic/synthetic distinction. “We must sooner or later, and probably before very long, be driven to a point where we cannot find any further reason, and where it becomes almost certain that no further reason is even theoretically discoverable. Starting with the common beliefs of daily life, we can be driven back from point to point, until we come to some general principle, or some instance of a general principle, which seems luminously evident, and is not itself capable of being deduced from anything more evident.” Yes, luminously evident. Like Descartes said. Contemporary philosophers, being idiots, don’t like to agree with Descartes, but there are propositions, probably an infinity of them, that are just self-evident.[2]

Is it true, as Russell says, that there are some ethical principles that are self-evident? Is “We ought to pursue what is good” self-evident? It seems so, insofar as it seems to be a matter of definition that we ought to do what is good, not what is bad. But how would you answer this question conclusively? Is that even possible? What are the implications of the fact that it isn’t clear that the statement is absolutely, “luminously” self-evident? One of the implications is obviously that it isn’t always self-evident whether the property of “self-evidence” applies to a given statement. Weird. And that raises questions about whether it’s ever justifiable to invoke a “luminous” “intuition” of “self-evidence.” And yet sometimes it obviously is justifiable!—as in the case of ‘2 + 2 = 4.’ Ugh. Philosophy is maddening.

Russell has some reasonable suggestions relating to these doubts about self-evidence:

One important point about self-evidence is made clear by the case of memory, and that is, that self-evidence has degrees: it is not a quality which is simply present or absent, but a quality which may be more or less present, in gradations ranging from absolute certainty down to an almost imperceptible faintness. Truths of perception [i.e., of what sense-data one is perceiving at that moment] and some of the principles of logic have the very highest degree of self-evidence; truths of immediate memory have an almost equally high degree. The inductive principle has less self-evidence than some of the other principles of logic, such as 'what follows from a true premiss must be true'. Memories have a diminishing self-evidence as they become remoter and fainter; the truths of logic and mathematics have (broadly speaking) less self-evidence as they become more complicated. Judgements of intrinsic ethical or aesthetic value are apt to have some self-evidence, but not much.
Degrees of self-evidence are important in the theory of knowledge, since, if propositions may (as seems likely) have some degree of self-evidence without being true, it will not be necessary to abandon all connexion between self-evidence and truth, but merely to say that, where there is a conflict, the more self-evident proposition is to be retained and the less self-evident rejected.
It seems, however, highly probable that two different notions are combined in 'self-evidence' as above explained; that one of them, which corresponds to the highest degree of self-evidence, is really an infallible guarantee of truth, while the other, which corresponds to all the other degrees, does not give an infallible guarantee, but only a greater or less presumption. This, however, is only a suggestion, which we cannot as yet develop further....

I find myself very sympathetic to most of Russell’s arguments.[3]

Another example: he thinks truth consists in “correspondence with fact.” He rejects the coherence theory of truth, as I did in my college senior thesis, though he agrees with me that coherence can be an important test of truth (because reality is consistent with itself). These positions are utterly obvious, and it testifies to academics’ incapacity for abstract thought that they can doubt them. (Coherence as the meaning of truth?? What planet do these people live on?![4])

Russell’s summary of his discussion of knowledge:

Both as regards intuitive knowledge and as regards derivative knowledge, if we assume that intuitive knowledge is trustworthy in proportion to the degree of its self-evidence, there will be a gradation in trustworthiness, from the existence of noteworthy sense-data and the simpler truths of logic and arithmetic, which may be taken as quite certain, down to judgements which seem only just more probable than their opposites. What we firmly believe, if it is true, is called knowledge, provided it is either intuitive or inferred (logically or psychologically[5]) from intuitive knowledge from which it follows logically. What we firmly believe, if it is not true, is called error. What we firmly believe, if it is neither knowledge nor error, and also what we believe hesitatingly, because it is, or is derived from, something which has not the highest degree of self-evidence, may be called probable opinion. Thus the greater part of what would commonly pass as knowledge is more or less probable opinion.”

All that seems quite reasonable, though maybe it has to be refined.

Russell’s explanation in the last chapter of the value of philosophy has a lot in common with what I’ve said in the past. Philosophy enlarges, or should enlarge, the mind. Its chief value is its very uncertainty. It militates against fanaticism and ignorance. It elevates.

Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, which he considered “incomparably the best” of all his writings, is a good example. It’s a sheer joy to read. What a writer he was! A sort of Olympian elevation above vulgarity. I needn’t add that the “empiricist,” “sentiment-al” spirit that animates it is that which has animated most of my serious reflections on morality.

Insofar as its spirit is utilitarian, however, I’m more skeptical of it. I’m inclined to say to Hume, “For the sake of argument, I grant that most morals, customs, and laws have evolved on account of their social utility. Nevertheless, it is not their usefulness that makes moral things (or people) moral. Nor is it primarily because of their usefulness that we praise moral acts and virtuous people.”[6] It’s true that our knowledge that moral acts and virtuous people do good things for society, i.e. “useful” things, is psychologically relevant to our approbation; but it seems to me that on a more basic level what we value, what we consider morally worthy, is just the treating of people with respect, as ends, as beings to whom we ought to commit ourselves in much the same way as we’re committed to ourselves. We value the caring about others; we attribute moral worth to people and acts to the extent that they’re motivated by concern and respect for others (and by the application to oneself of standards that one applies to others). The good consequences that ensue for others are morally relevant only insofar as they’re signs of the character of the person and/or act that brought them about.

But I’m starting to have doubts. And Hume might not disagree with me in any case.

He’s certainly right, however, to limit the role of self-love in the human mind. It isn’t the source of every sentiment or act; the many examples he gives of unselfish sentiments suffice to prove that. “Sympathy,” a kind of disinterested pleasure or pain from the consideration of others’ happiness or suffering, is an affect of undeniable power. The admiration we feel for a person of great talents or virtue can scarcely be attributed to our self-love or self-regard. More generally, humans are susceptible to a sort of psychic contagion: cheerfulness tends to make cheerful, sullenness to make sullen, magnanimity to make magnanimous. Wit pleases; lack of confidence displeases. However such “natural sympathy” may be, in particular contexts, mixed up with self-regard, it is in principle distinguishable from it. And it is this sympathy or humanity from whence spring moral intuitions.

Against what he calls the “selfish hypothesis”—“that, whatever affection one may feel, or imagine he feels for others, no passion is, or can be disinterested; that the most generous friendship, however sincere, is a modification of self-love; and that, even unknown to ourselves, we seek only our own gratification, while we appear the most deeply engaged in schemes for the liberty and happiness of mankind”—Hume asks, “What interest can a fond mother have in view, who loses her health by assiduous attendance on her sick child, and afterwards languishes and dies of grief, when freed, by its death, from the slavery of that attendance?” It does indeed sound paradoxical to say that all her self-sacrifice on behalf of her child is done fundamentally for her own sake. I would say, though, that in fact it is a product of two causes: first, her “disinterested”[7] love for her child, the existence of which it is hard to deny; second, the fact that her devotion to her child gives her a sense of self-validation, self-reality (this other being, whom she loves, depends on her). It gives her a purpose and so makes her “happy,” however anxious she is over the health of her child. When the child dies she loses, first, this supreme object of love, this person whose existence filled her with joy; second, she loses her purpose in life and feels useless, unreal, unvalidated. She loses much of her self-regard, because the outlet for her self-activity has vanished.

But how is “disinterested” love for another person psychologically possible? What does it “mean”? How is it possible that there can be any emotion that isn’t merely a manifestation or modification or perversion of self-regard?

[1] J. S. Mill, for instance, thought that arithmetic was based on inductive generalizations. (‘So far, in my experience two objects added to two objects have always equaled four objects. But it’s possible that sometime in the future I’ll discover an instance where that isn’t true.’ Idiocy.)

[2] There’s definitely an infinity of them if you agree with Russell that “those [statements] which merely state what is given in sense” are self-evident. [But even if you don’t want to give them that august label, you can still say that no further reason—aside from your having the sense-impression in question—is discoverable for saying that you’re looking at a patch of blue or whatever. In other words, it seems to me you can be a foundationalist without having to say that the “foundational” truths are always self-evident, a concept that is difficult to get a handle on because of its vagueness or near-emptiness in a philosophical context.]

[3] [But I’m not sure it makes sense to say that self-evidence has degrees. Surely something is either self-evident or not, right? How can it be “half” self-evident, so to speak? My dad suggests that Russell is confusing self-evidence with certainty: the former is objective, the latter subjective (and either more or less, unlike self-evidence). But on the other hand, a self-evident proposition is self-evident to someone; there is therefore some role for subjectivity. Right...?]

[4] The statement “The weather today was sunny” is true not because the weather was sunny but because that statement is coherent with some ill-defined “web of beliefs”? Jesus.

[5] “Psychological inference” is a technical concept of his.

[6] It’s possible I’m misinterpreting Hume by attributing those positions to him.

[7] That word is misleading.

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