Saturday, 28 December 2013

Contrasting Russellian ethics with Aristotlian ethics

I think the human brain is hard-wired to mathematical structures. I don't mean that human beings are natural mathematicians as most of the structuring is infrastructural (ie, subconscious). In fact, most people seem averse to maths of any kind. As a linguist, I'm constantly blown away by the mathematical structures that determine and inform not only the grammars of language but also the phonology and allomorphy in ways that are at once systematic and utterly subconscious.

There are mathematical prodigies to be sure, and Bertrand Russell was certainly one of them. But there is something of a tragic figure in Russell. He and Whitehead had published the Principia Mathematica - a three-volume work on the foundations of mathematics recast in set-theoretic language - when an upstart by the name of Gödel came along about twenty years later with a devastating proof called Gödel's incompleteness theorem. But, like all mathematics deemed great, the Russell-Whitehead project was far from being a waste of time and treasure. Besides inspiring maths that came after it, it defined in modern terms much of the working language (axioms) of maths.

I'm a fan of Russell. But that doesn't preclude a critical treatment of his work because even the stuff (from 20-20 hindsight) that he clearly got wrong is worth examining because even errors of a brilliant mind such as his give birth to insights worth keeping in the corpus of human achievement. I think this is perfectly acceptable in a fallibilistic worldview which treats human knowledge not as absolute but as an evolutionary process.

I mentioned Russellian ethics earlier in this blog and tried to forward an argument why normative ethics wouldn't work because of the legalistic-algorithmic frameworks in which they're couched. This is a very mathematical way of treating ethical questions (not surprising coming from a mathematically-trained mind par excellence) but when it comes to wishes and expectations of human beings and the human condition the variables and boundaries are not as clear-cut as solving for x and/or y.

Aristotle distinguished two types of knowledge: sophia and phronesis. He said that sophia (where we get our "philosophy") is a field in which the young excel because techne (mechanical and intellectual skill) does not require experience but mastery in logic and allowable forms of reasoning; whereas phronesis is a field that only maturity can master because prudentia (prudence) requires experience and knowledge and awareness of human nature. Phronesis is often translated as "practical knowledge" to distinguish it from "technical knowledge".

To quote Aristotle: "...although the young may be experts in geometry and mathematics and similar branches of knowledge [sophoi], we do not consider that a young man can have Prudence [phronimos]. The reason is that Prudence [phronesis] includes a knowledge of particular facts, and this is derived from experience, which a young man does not a possess; for experience is the fruit of years." (Nicomachean Ethics 1142a, Rackham translation)

The notion of phronesis is again evoked if not explicitly stated here (the author of the entry is talking about motivations of desire as per Aristotle's metaphysics):

...continent people [ie, persons having the capacity for self-restraint], unlike those who are completely and virtuously moderate, have depraved desires but do not, precisely because they are continent, ever act upon them (De Anima iii 9 433a6–8; cf. Nicomachean Ethics i 13, 1102b26). So their desires are insufficient for action. Consequently, he concludes, desire alone, considered as a single faculty, cannot explain purposive action, at least not completely. (

further down (given that not all people are virtuous and moderate):

In some way, he concludes, practical reason and imagination have indispensable roles to play as well. (ibid)

Aristotle's notions of sophia and phronesis are closer to Inuit Qaujimaningit (IQ or Inuit Knowledge) distinction between skill and wisdom - though they are never explicitly stated as such being as they are regarded as different (perhaps even unrelated) forms of human skill/capacity given that IQ bothers little with "metaphysics" as such - than Russell's decidedly "scientific" ethics.

In a tone of tongue-in-cheek that only familiarity breeds, an Inuit elder in a documentary interview was recorded to say that Qallunaat were once regarded as "gods" with all their power and technology; another one wondered how can a race of people so knowledgeable in the science of medicine be apparently oblivious to the human need for familial contact - capable as they are to spend years away from home and family with no apparent negative side-effects of emotional duress. There is no naivety here though but an honestly humorous/bemused observation. The subtleties of the IQ-trained mind is as august and real as any philosophy.

Russell was very much a product of his age where the reach of science seemed utterly boundless and the optimism that this apparent fact spawned in the West. But, as the many forays of Russell's polymathy indicate, there is always a danger of illusory power of novelty yet unproven in the social and ecological realms (in their most general sense). This does not take anything away from such people as Russell for without their contributions no human advancement is possible.


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