Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Strife of Systems: Russell's insight

In his The Strife of Systems, Nicholas Rescher quotes mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell's insight as to what seems philosophy's plight: as previously intractable philosophical questions are given definite-- or nearly definite-- answers, they cease to remain under the purview of philosophy and become problems for other fields of inquiry. Russell puts it this way:

As soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science. The whole study of the heavens, which now belongs to astronomy, was once included in philosophy; Newton's great work was called "the mathematical principles of natural philosophy." Similarly, the study of the human mind, which was a part of philosophy, has now been separated from philosophy and has become the science of psychology... Those questions which are capable of definite answers are placed in the sciences, while those to which, at present, no definite answer can be given, remain to form the residue which is called philosophy.

Bertrand Russel, The Problems of Philosophy (1912)

I suspect that Russell was a funny guy. Having read his essay collection, Why I Am Not a Christian, years ago, I caught glimpses of what appeared to be his impish sense of humor. Russell's declaring philosophy a kind of "residue" seems consistent with my impression.

We can agree, I think, that his claims about the definiteness of scientific answers may have been somewhat premature. What we definitely know about the universe is best seen in what we've verifiably accomplished: buildings stay upright because we understand statics, for example; airplanes remain aloft because we understand aerodynamics. But even in these fields, there's surely room for more discovery and for the refinement of known principles. These days, I think scientists would say that the notion of definiteness still exists, but that the concept should somehow be linked with, or rooted in, theory-revision and paradigm-change. The principles of aerodynamics that keep planes in the air won't suddenly change or disappear on us, but the principles that ground those principles may have yet to be discovered: what we learn about the larger framework in which our current knowledge exists will alter the way we view current knowledge.

I'll be writing more on Rescher's first chapter once I've finished it. For the moment, I'll say that he's begun strongly. His purpose, in this chapter, is (1) to lay out the problem of the multiplicity of philosophical views and approaches as he explores the philosopher's perennial urge to reinvent the wheel; and (2) to suggest a reason for why that state of affairs has obtained since the classical period.

UPDATE: For the curious, pp. i-xii and pp. 1-55 of Rescher's book are available online at Google Books. Click this link. You can read Chapter 1 along with me if you like; it's all there, on pp. 3-16.


1 comment:

Sperwer said...

Interesting tidbit about Russell. I'd forgotten it, but now it resonates with my recent reading of Michael Oakeshott. Unlike Russell, Oakeshott was an unreconstructed Idealist in the British tradition of Moore and especially Bradley; for him the world of experience was co-extensive with thought - indeed the two are inseparable, except for analytic purposes, and one must be very careful to avoid falling into the trap inherent in our language of regarding thought and reality as different things between which some relation subsists. According to Oakeshott, therefore, the role of philosophy is not to elucidate the relation between "thought" and "reality", but to investigate the coherence and especially the postulates of any given "thought-world" (which also is a "life-world"). Once philosophy undertakes and advances such an analysis, philosophers or others amy become pre-occupied with elaborating the structure and following out the implications of any particular "thought-world" - but in that case, they are not doing philosophy (any more), but (simply) exploring the complexities of any such necessarily abstract and conditioned arrest of the world of experience-thought; while philosophers move on in a restless search for an unconditioned understanding of experience. When he was young, I think that Oakeshott believed (or wanted to believe) that philosophy could accomplish this by simultaneously clarifying the postulates and shortcomings of each conditional mode of experience - science, aesthetics, history, religion and practical judgment - and amalgamating them somehow - a vision more explicitly articulated by his contemporary Collingwood. In this sense, he then still believed in philosophy as the Queen of the sciences. Later, I think, he gave up any hope of such, conceiving of philosophy as a never-ending self-critique of reason. I find Oakeshott very appealing because he manifests at a very high level of accomplishment the tenor of my little tag line - 'the purpose of today's training is to defeat yesterday's understanding": something that I cribbed from Musashi Miyomoto.