Friday, 29 November 2013

Aufklärung 2.0

Bertrand Russell (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970) is one of those rare birds that belong not only to one flock but is at home in many. He is a man of the renaissance born centuries after, long-lived (his productive adult life spanned World War I to the Vietnam War!), and made academic contributions to almost every field of human endeavour. His pictures always have a mischievous, Mona Lisa smile.

I first came across his name in reading about set theory (the theory of infinite arithmetic) but he was a polyglot: philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian and social critic. He is famous in this set theoretic context for finding a paradox called - interestingly enough - , Russell's Paradox. It is popularly called "the barber of Seville" (the barber shaves all the men who do not shave themselves; who shaves the barber?). I think I've mentioned this paradox somewhere in this blog which I tried to "solve" linguistically (ie, the notion of a noun is not just proper names, things, ideas and places, but may also be a purely (unspecific) grammatical slot that holds the grammaticality of Aristotelian logic, say).

But it is his philosophical view that the "age of enlightenment" was "...was a phase in a progressive development, which began in antiquity, and that reason and challenges to the established order were constant ideals throughout that time" ( that I want to talk about here.

There is an almost linguistic approach of Russell - the "wrong" kind as far as I'm concerned because it is distinctly Saussurean - in all that he does, which is not really surprising given that he made great contributions to mathematics and logic. For eg, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which is a great source of synopses and introductory information to philosophy and philosophers):

...that moral judgments are neither true nor false, since their role is not to state facts or to describe the way the world is, but to express emotions, desires or even commands. This (despite some waverings) was Russell's dominant view for the rest of his life, though it took him twenty-two years to develop a well worked-out version of the theory. He tended to call it subjectivism or ‘the subjectivity of moral values’ though it is nowadays known as non-cognitivism, expressivism or emotivism. He came to think that, despite their indicative appearance, moral judgments — at least judgments about what is good or bad in itself — are really in the optative mood. (A sentence is in the optative mood if it expresses a wish or a desire.) What ‘X is good’ means is ‘Would that everyone desired X!’. It therefore expresses, but does not describe, the speaker's state of mind, specifically his or her desires, and as such can be neither truth nor false, anymore than ‘Oh to be in England now that April's here!’ If I say ‘Oh to be in England now that April's here!’, you can infer that I desire to be in England now that April's here (since absent an intention to mislead, it is not the sort of thing I would say unless I desired to be in England and thought that April was here). But I am not stating that I desire to be in England, since I am not stating anything at all (except perhaps that April is here). (

What is called "optative mood" in the above quote is now called "subjunctive mood", which Wikipedia says, in relation to the "indicative/declarative mood":

The subjunctive is a grammatical mood found in many languages. Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred – the precise situations in which they are used vary from language to language. The subjunctive is an irrealis mood (one that does not refer directly to what is necessarily real) – it is often contrasted with the indicative, which is a realis mood.

All fine and well, I suppose. It's just that, to me, a linguistics/algorithmic logical approach, especially to moral philosophy, is a doomed enterprise - doubly so since one is also at the same time trying to come up with general principles of moralistic perspective and behaviour. It is precisely that normative/legalistic statements are rarely practical let alone informative that this whole enterprise is doomed (tragic, really, because I like Russell). Morality, as the Aristotelian principle of "phronesis" states, is really about dealing with particular and unique situations that call upon one to decide on how to act:

Phronesis is concerned with particulars, because it is concerned with how to act in particular situations. One can learn the principles of action, but applying them in the real world, in situations one could not have foreseen, requires experience of the world.(

Judeo-Christian principles are more like exercises in phronesis in that they're, at their cores, based on the notion of free will, of experiencing humanity and the "teachable moments" it affords:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

Evil is not evil because G*d says so; it is because the consequences of our decisions are unavoidable (in reality). Ie, in my own experience, I have come to realize that in potentia I have in me both the possibility for right and wrong action. The thing is, in morality, the notion of personal responsibility is existential and inherent and cannot be done away with by algorithmic logic/normative measures alone. It is said that there are no laws against agape, kindness and charity.


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