Russell and Philosophy in Real Life

Posted on May 10, 2018 by

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Bertrand Russell (May 18th 1872-February 2nd 1970) writes in the prologue of his autobiography “What I Have Lived For”:

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness – that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what – at last – I have found.
With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me. (1967, 3–4)

Though perhaps well known to some, recently I stumbled upon that passage for the first time. This analytic philosopher was, of course, one of the Greats. I was prompted to remind myself of Russell while reading van Fraassen’s book Scientific Representation (2008). Van Fraassen finds a proto-version of structuralism in Russell’s work from which to build his empiricist structuralism, though we can leave structuralism for another day. To read Russell’s reflection on his own life only three years before his death is certainly worth the pause. I’d like to just briefly explore how philosophy can (still) be important for real life. While it feels like I have not yet “deeply” come to know the connection between life and philosophy, perhaps that feeling is never settled even in old age. After all, as philosophers one shared aim is to understand better how we find ourselves in the world, one way or another. Existentialists called this the ‘human condition’, from what I recall. However, Russell’s words remind us that finding meaning can be complicated and messy, rather than easy. As far as I can tell, Russell was divorced four times and died while still married to his fifth partner. I can’t imagine that trajectory to be an easy one for anyone involved in those marriages to say the least.

Russell’s reflection is particularly striking because of the current climate of philosophy as a discipline. I once had a favourite professor in my undergraduate degree identify the existentialists (i.e. Sartre, de Beauvior, Camus, etc.) as the last rock stars of philosophy. Why? Because the public cared about what they said. Now that may seem harsh; certainly, philosophy is still relevant and sharpens skills used to navigate a complex socio-political and technological world. Or at least philosophy provides a scaffolding to approach many problems of that sort. However, my undergraduate professor attempted to identify a disconnect not only between philosophy and the public, but also among branches of philosophy. The disconnect, as I remember and often still wonder about today, was partly due to a high degree of specialization, but also to the subject matter itself. Philosophers, like Russell and the existentialists (though I would hesitate to group those individuals all together for fear of being hunted down by those who fostered my philosophical upbringing), dabbled in more than just their specialized interests. That is, they wrote papers, passages, books, and in the present case a prologue, which the average person could read and not only relate to, but also find meaning in their own lives through words written on a page. Perhaps a safe generalization is that most people, academic or otherwise, search for some sort of meaning in life whether external or devised internally and by their own terms. Passages like Russell’s provide a grand, yet locally-sourced, perspective; a platform to ask oneself, “What have I lived for?” Certainly, that question can be considered regardless of age or stage of life: one can find and have meaning in life without living to the age of 97. And if Camus taught us anything, such meaning need not be found outside of that which we give ourselves. These kinds of questions and interests are just a few examples of how philosophy intersects with personal life. So, these days, why don’t we see more of it?

There is a push for practical applications of philosophy and the skills obtained therein both from within and without the discipline. From within the discipline, one finds the philosophy job market riddled with ties to business, STEM, medicine, and policy (science or otherwise), and requests for public engagement. From outside of the discipline, obviously there are financial pressures on humanities generally with career services in universities, as well as organizations like Mitacs, all working hard to bridge humanities with industry. Even the latest Canadian federal budget, which contains heavy research funding (yay more Canadian university jobs!) is geared towards industry advancements. There are and will be plenty of opportunities for philosophers to answer the interdisciplinary call. Many have already.

However, to task philosophy with the need to be more relevant to real life—the sort of personal, day-to-day experience and struggle—calls for a complicated response from philosophers. Not just a particular subset of philosophers is equipped to do this, however, sometimes stepping outside one’s comfort zone is needed. Certainly, I hesitated to write this post because Russell is not necessarily someone whose work I read frequently, nor will I even pretend to be an expert concerning his philosophy, and I am definitely not some insightful guru that can give and find meaning always in the mundane, complicated mess that life can be. But I do remember the way I felt in my very first philosophy class, and a glimmer of that feeling returned while reading Russell’s prologue. Dr. Peter Campbell (URegina) was lecturing and at the time it seemed that he must have had all the answers for every question in the world. However, for a dear and life-long friend sitting next to me in that very same class, the feeling was not shared; she dropped the course the very next day. And so, the relevance of philosophy to someone’s life will not be the same across the board and is probably in some respects context dependent.  Each philosopher may need to ask themselves: How ought I to view this relevance-to-life call for myself given my expertise, interests, and personal experiences?

My initial reaction to a question of that sort is to start from what I know best. For example, there is a recent turn to open science, i.e. science as fully available to the public in all or most of its stages in many universities. I could start digging around there. But is that personal enough? It doesn’t seem to carry the same sort of weight in the “personal meaning of life” sense that Russell’s prologue carries. Or, given my previous blog posts, it’s likely obvious that I’m interested in the philosophy of epidemiology; specifically, public health and safety concerning animal by-laws, the unscientific grounds of most (if not all currently enacted) breed specific legislations, and evidence-based public policy-making in that regard. This is a bit more personally-oriented since my life, where I can live and work, is directly affected by that topic so long as I am not willing to give up my lifelong canine companion (and obviously I’m not). This is a case of how scientific evidence affects (or should affect) public policies, and the philosopher’s role, then, is a hopefully insightful, but not merely reporting, liaison between scientists and the public. However, one can still ask whether the liaison role is “real” enough—does it have the potential to carry with it, like Russell’s prologue, the kind of profound local meaning that can be understood on such a large scale? Is it personal enough? Does it need to be? I’m not sure. Sometimes it’s just so much easier to diagnose the problem rather than to answer it.

And oddly, an interesting take on any problem can be found in strange places, late at night, while staring at the TV. Alas, and though it sounds trite, sometimes the unexpected arises when you’re least expecting it, that much is true. Here’s the problem with philosophy’s relevance to life (or lack thereof) as diagnosed by a character in one of my new favourite shows on HBO, Here and Now (Season 1, episode “From sun up to sun down”). One of its main characters, Greg, is a philosopher going through his own existential crisis, which spills over into a faculty meeting:

Dude 1: “If we could maybe discuss something serious for a moment? They have changed the soap in the bathroom to this weird orange gravelly watch-a-ma-call-it. I mean c’mon, are we a university or a sewage plant?”
Greg: “Oh my God.”
Dude 2 towards Greg: “Do you have something you would like to add?”
Greg: “Yes, actually, um what are we doing here?”
Dude 2: “Having a faculty meeting.”
Greg: “Great then why aren’t we talking about how the number of students declaring philosophy as a major has steadily declined over the last 20 years?”
Dude 1: “[It’s because of] the internet?”
Greg: “No. It’s because what we are doing isn’t viscerally connected to anything. These ancient philosophers we talk about they were [persons] of action, literary giants, emperors of free thought. They lived in it, they fought for it, they were persecuted for it. The church even killed them for it. And here we are thousands of years later just decaying, in an ivory tower of insignificant old white men complaining about orange fucking soap. Nobody gives a shit. That’s the problem. Nobody gives a shit!”
Dude 2: “Greg are you drunk?”
Greg: “No. I’m not drunk” …..
Dude 2: “I’d watch my behaviour if I were you. Things you thought were charming when you were 20 are just embarrassing at 60.”

This clip sure says a lot. It plays off of the stereotyped staleness assumed of the ivory tower with a stark comparison between the activism of philosophers in the past and present. What’s interesting is how Greg is chastised for his outburst as if its juvenile. But isn’t that the point? Maybe in order to answer the relevance-to-life call we as philosophers need to consider why we fought so hard to become philosophers in the first place. What was it that pushed us to see through that goal despite the career’s rough road and all the naysayers? Let’s be real again, I would venture to guess that most people who declared the pursuit of philosophy as a lifelong career after stumbling upon it in their early 20s did receive some initial backlash from family and friends, especially over the last 20-30 years. And so, maybe a more honest and less jaded approach—akin to that young, eager philosophy student just starting out—is called for. While Greg from Here and Now may think that nobody cares, instead we can show we care by each asking ourselves the following question: What do I want to live for? Perhaps Russell would think that’s a good place to start.

-Alison