Sunday, November 27, 2011

You can find more of this type thinking and analysis in either "Noble Notes on Famous Folks" or "Mein Kamp - An Analysis of Book One." For more information on either of these books click on the book covers on the right on this page. Thanks.

The Problems of Philosophy

Bertrand Russell

Book Review

By Richard E. Noble

Bertrand has written on many different subjects and many of his books can often appeal to the general reader. This book is for those interested in philosophy and who enjoy esoteric arguments. It is for the person with and average philosophical interest and not necessarily the Ph.D. candidate. It is not a difficult book but some of the problems discussed seem rather unimportant from my perspective ... but?
The first problem is Appearance and Reality. This gets into the Bishop Berkeley school of thought which has never much appealed to me. I realize that appearances can be deceiving but to jump to the notion that reality and matter really do not even exist is a little much for me. To start talking about things only having existence in the mind of God when no one can establish that a God exists and if he did exist how he could possibly have a mind is out in right field to me.
The chapter begins by asking if there is any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it. The chapter ends telling us that Leibniz believes that matter is a community of souls and Berkeley tell us that matter is an idea in the mind of God and sober science tells us that matter is a vast collection of electric charges in violent motion.
The conclusion is that maybe matter doesn't exist after all, and is really only appearances or what seems to be … a mirage, a delusion, a conjuring of the human mind.
The second chapter discusses the Existence of Matter. We immediately get into Descartes discovering himself and expand into the notion that maybe only Descartes exist and all else is the product of his imagination.
Bertrand then tells us that if we wish to become philosophers we must be willing to tackle the absurd. Obviously! By the end of this chapter the author assures us that there is something in the universe besides our comprehension of ourselves and our dreams. There does seem to be "reality" or matter even if it is perceived differently or inadequately by each of us.
The next chapter discusses the Nature of Matter. As we try to figure out what matter is, we discover that we cannot separate ourselves and our methods of perception from the investigation. This problem has led some philosophers (i.e. Berkeley and Leibniz) to conclude that matter really does not exist and is more a case of mistaken identity. Bertrand disagrees and promises us his reasoning in the future chapter.
This chapter is entitled Idealism. Bertrand once again warns us about dismissing the apparently absurd. I wonder why? But from my perspective to say that something does not exist because I am not viewing it correctly or with total objectivity or accuracy is rather absurd. But we will persist.
Bertrand goes on to tell us that the Bishop Berkeley made valid arguments that confirm that our sense data cannot have an existence independent of us. (Yeah? But the object of our senses can exist in and of themselves whether we can sense them or not.) Berkeley then concludes that matter can then only exist in the mind of the observer or some Infinite observer.
Once again, in my opinion we are back to the absurd and a rather advanced egocentricity. Bertrand then explains that the Bishop has confused the thing apprehended with the act of apprehension.
No kidding! It seems that Mr. Berkley thinks that his seeing something gives that something its existence. I'm sorry – is this really worth all this discussion? Isn't this just foolishness?
Bertrand then states that Berkeley's notion that the objects apprehended must be mental has no validity whatsoever. I agree but then why are we wasting so much time on Mr. Berkley? I guess that it is because if we want to be philosophers we must not dismiss the absurd.
Sartre also spent a lot of time and space analyzing this confusion in his book Being and Nothingness. After a while he also boarders on the absurd. The trouble with discussing things that are absurd is that eventually you will also become absurd and very possibly irrelevant.
In the next chapter we get into knowledge and how we learn things. We learn of Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description. This seems rather basic – you know something because of your personal experience with that thing or you know of it because it has been described or explained to you.
In the next chapter we get into learning by induction or inductive learning. This is predictable expectation based on past uniformity. The sun will probably rise tomorrow because of our knowledge of what the sun has done in the past. No guarantee but a good indicator.
Next we discuss experience and a priori knowledge. Some things we know because of our experience and others we know because of general principles – nothing can both be and not be; whatever is, is; everything must either be or not be.
Bertrand then states that Immanuel Kant is generally regarded as the greatest of the modern day philosophers. I didn't know that.
How a priori knowledge is possible is the next discussion. This is somewhat difficult when we start analyzing two plus two but that something either is or it isn't seems clear enough. When we get into "numbers" I have a problem.
Numbers are not "things" they are contrived representations of quantities of things. To state that mathematics is a priori knowledge of some sort is confusing to me. Obviously this a priori and synthetic stuff is an area where I need to read more. Numbers are all contrived as far as I am concerned. And any relation between them is learned or gained by previous induction episodes of learning. That numbers or mathematics has some sort of a priori significance, I don't get.
When we get into universals and Plato we seem to be returning to Berkley and the realm of the absurd. Universals can be confusing but once again when we start believing that there actually exists a universal concept of a head or a chair or a wall or a dog or whatever we are going bonkers. What exists is my head, your head and his head not a head. This is another area that has been problematic to philosophers but not to anyone else.
Now we come to intuitive knowledge and things that are self-evident. This chapter I don't understand. Self-evident seems simple enough – something is there or it isn't there. Intuitive knowledge?
Now we come to truths and falsehoods. But for my dollar truth is what is. But I'm talking "matter" and fact. Bertrand wants to talk about statements. This statement is true and this statement is false. In which case truth depends on some correspondence between belief and fact. As we all know this can get very complicated and debatable. "The greater part of what would commonly pass as knowledge is more or less probable opinion," says Mr. Russell.
The next chapter deals with those that think that we can know more than we actually can know and with those who think, on the other hand, that nothing is knowable – Hegel in the first case and Hume in the latter.
Finally we come to the nature of philosophy and its value. Philosophy deals in questioning the unknown and once the unknown becomes known it is no longer called philosophy but science. So philosophy has a rather nebulous list of achievements. Bertrand closes this book with this final paragraph:
"Thus to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind is also rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good."
Well that, of course, states the case better than anything that I could say but for my part I must offer something.
I have always been attracted to philosophy because the philosophers were asking the questions that seemed important to me and by reading and studying their answers I always felt that I was learning how to think and reason intelligently and logically. By being able to think intelligently and logically I felt that I was then better equipped to solve the problems of life – my life in particular.

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