The Relevance of Philosophy
The value of Philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of Philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from the convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation of his deliberate reason.
Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy.
Philosophy is commonly thought of as an activity reserved for Oxbridge high-brows; or a sort of intellectual table-tennis indulged in by the Ancient Greeks to while the time away before television came along. Russell suggests that it may actually serve a purpose for everyone.
In the first line, Russell is clearly contrasting his own belief in the inherent uncertainty of philosophy with the attitude of those people who dedicate their lives to a search for the "right" theory, in an attempt to understand the "truth" about human nature. He argues that, were a philosopher to write the perfect, unanswerable theory, the solution to life, the universe and everything, then philosophy would itself become responsible for inducing the very mental laziness which it should help us to avoid.
Disagreement and debate between the adherents of rival theories is, moreover, essential to the health of philosophy. Just as many major advances of science are catalysed by war, so the great intellectual insights are sparked by discussion. If there were universal agreement on one philosophical theory, then all further thought would be rendered useless. (See p.319, Small World by David Lodge: "...what matters in the field of critical practice is not truth but difference. If everybody were convinced by your arguments, they would have to do the same as you and then there would be no satisfaction in doing it.")
Russell talks of three different factors involved in the formation of prejudice. Each is considered in detail below.
The first type of prejudice is derived from common sense. This is interesting: it appears that Russell is suggesting that common sense is to be avoided. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines common sense as "sound, practical sense, especially in everyday matters". In theory, any sound sense is to be welcomed, where appropriate; the distinction to be made here is between applying common sense to mundane problems, which Russell would certainly not advise against, and taking it out of context as a set of rules which can be followed without any further thought, no matter what the circumstances. For example, if you are feeling hungry, and you are holding a biscuit, then a philosophical debate is not required to reach the conclusion that you eat the biscuit: it's common sense. Fair enough; but if there is then a debate on the problem of starvation in Africa, and you were to say: "We should obviously collect food to send to the starving people; it's common sense." then you would be taking the simple biscuit decision out of context and into an area where many factors must be considered, such as whether short term food aid would prevent the people of Africa from reaching a long term solution to their problems. So Russell is not arguing against common sense per se; what he is warning against is the replacement of careful reasoning with a system of ready responses that masquerades as common sense, to provide an excuse for not thinking.
The sources of the second type of prejudice responsible for our imprisonment are "the convictions which have grown up in one's mind without the co-operation of one's deliberate reason". These convictions occur partly as a consequence of the social conditioning (or "brainwashing") which, whether consciously devised or not, seems to be the inevitable result of education in a large-scale society such as our own. A consequence of this conditioning is the tendency to na�vety and an unquestioning acceptance of anything taught as fact, which is present, in varying degrees, in all school leavers in our society.
The success with which this na�vety is subsequently shaken off, and the resistance that an individual shows to further brainwashing from such sources as the Sun newspaper, both depend, according to Russell, on the degree of exposure to philosophy. I believe that this stands up to scrutiny: for example, graduates of university are extremely unlikely to read the Sun; the exposure to a climate of extreme intellectual freedom (students are often the main proponents of change to the status quo) makes the graduates resistant to the blatantly manipulative articles. I do not wish to enter into the debate on whether intellectual freedom is ever attainable, or whether it is always an illusion; the fact remains that the ability to question apparent truths will be aided by the study of, or exposure to, philosophy. (For it is clearly not only those who have sat in a class entitled "philosophy" that have had a "tincture" of it.)
Mention of the gullible Sun reader raises the question of what is wrong with an unthinking but contented life. I would argue that nothing is wrong with such a life, provided it is truly contented. I think Russell believed that nobody could be content with an unthinking life. This theme is explored in many literary works and novels, e.g. Huxley's Brave New World, and Willy Russell's Educating Rita.
Thirdly, there are prejudices derived from "the habitual beliefs of our age or our nation". These include the prejudices people are familiar with, such as racism or sexism, and an equally important, but less obvious group of prejudices: those caused by peer pressure - e.g. if you move to Saudi Arabia as a child, there will be strong pressure on you to become a follower of Islam.
It is clear to me that Russell was something of a cynic, at least where popular sentiment was concerned. He is advocating that you be very careful of the supposedly obvious, or of anything that is accepted as fact simply because it is repeated regularly - truisms and mantras should be subjected to your own personal scrutiny before you accept them.
The "imprisonment" referred to in the second line is the loss of mental freedom, a result of both holding the prejudices discussed in detail above, and of the lack of a philosophical perspective which would allow you to recognise and question these prejudices. This is, in fact, a description of the "unthinking human" discussed above. He is akin to a drone bee or a worker ant, obeying orders blindly and working mindlessly.
What sets Homo sapiens apart from other species is the ability to question the world in which it lives. Philosophy has a vital r�le to play in the lives of all men, enabling them to realise this ability: it serves as an antidote to the "prejudices, habitual beliefs and convictions" which threaten their mental freedom.
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