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A Plear for Clear Thinking, 1947, by Bertrand Russell

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Bertrand Russell Quotes 366
WORDS have two functions: on the one hand to state facts, and on the other to evoke emotions. The latter is their older function, and is performed among animals by cries which antedate language. One of the most important elements in the transition from barbarism to civilization is the increasing use of words to indicate rather than to excite, but in politics little has been done in this direction. If I say the area of Hungary is so many square kilometers, I am making a purely informative statement, but when I say that the area of the U.S.S.R. is one sixth of the land surface of the globe, my statement is mainly emotional.

The Meaning of "Democracy"

All the stock words of political controversy, in spite of having a definite dictionary meaning, have in use meanings which differ according to the political affiliation of the speaker, and agree only in their power of rousing violent emotions. The word "liberty" originally meant chiefly absence of alien domination; then it came to mean restrictions of royal power; then, in the days of the "rights of man," it came to denote various respects in which it was thought that each individual should be free from governmental interference; and then at last, in the hands of Hegel, it came to be "true liberty," which amounted to little more than gracious permission to obey the police. In our day, the word "democracy" is going through a similar transformation: it used to mean government by a majority, with a somewhat undefined modicum of pesonal freedom; it then came to mean the aims of the political party that represented the interests of the poor, on the ground that the poor everywhere are the majority. At the next stage it represented the aims of the leaders of that party. It has now come, throughout Eastern Europe and a large part of Asia, to mean despotic government by those who were in some former time champions of the poor, but who now confine such championship exclusively to inflicting ruin upon the rich, except when the rich are "democratic" in the new sense. This is a very potent and successful method of political agitation. Men who have long heard a certain word with a certain emotion are apt to feel the same emotion when they hear the same word, even if its meaning is changed. If, some years hence, volunteers are required for a trial journey to the moon, they will be more easily obtained if that satellite is re-christened "home sweet home."
It should be a part of education, as it is of science and scientific philosophy, to teach the young to use words with a precise meaning, rather than with a vague mist of emotion. I know from observation that the pursuit of scientific philosophy is practically effective in this respect. Two or three years before the outbreak of the late war I attended an international congress of scientific philosophy in Paris. Those who attended belonged to a great variety of nations, and their governments were engaged in acrimonious disputes which it seemed practically hopeless to settle except by force. The members of the congress in their professional hours discussed abstruse points of logic or theory of knowledge, apparently wholly divorced from the world of affairs, but in their unprofessional moments they debated all the most vexed questions of international politics. Not once did I hear any of them display patriotic bias or fail through passion to give due weight to arguments adverse to his national interest. If that congress could have taken over the government of the world, and been protected by Martians from the fury of all the fanatics whom they would have outraged, they could have come to just decisions without being compelled to ignore the protests of indignant minorities among themselves. If the governments of their several countries had so chosen, they could have educated the young to an equal degree of impartiality. But they did not so choose. Governments in their schools are only too ready to foster the germs of irrationality, hatred, suspicion and envy, which are all too easily fructified in human minds.

Political passion is so virulent and so natural to man that the accurate use of language cannot well be first taught in the political sphere; it is easier to begin with words that arouse comparatively little passion. The first effect of a training in intellectual neutrality is apt to look like cynicism. Take, say, the word "truth," a word which some people use with awe, and others, like Pontius Pilate, with derision. It produces a shock when the learner first hears such a statement as "truth is a property of sentences," because he is accustomed to think of sentences neither as grand nor as ridiculous. Or take again the word "infinity"; people will tell you that a finite mind cannot comprehend the infinite, but if you ask them "what do you mean by 'infinite,' and in what sense is a human mind finite?" they will at once lose their tempers. In fact, the word "infinite" has a perfectly precise meaning which has been assigned to it by the mathematicians, and which is quite as comprehensible as anything else in mathematics.

Experience in the technique of taking the emotion out of words and substituting a clear logical significance will stand a man in good stead if he wishes to keep his head amid the welter of excited propaganda. In 1917, Wilson proclaimed the great principle of self-determination, according to which every nation had a right to direct its own affairs; but unfortunately he forgot to append the definition of the word "nation." Was Ireland a nation? Yes, certainly. Was northeast Ulster a nation? Protestants said yes, and Catholics said no, and the dictionary was silent. To this day this question remains undecided, and the controversies in regard to it are liable to influence the policy of the United States toward Great Britain. In Petrograd, as it then was, during the time of Kerensky, a certain single house proclaimed itself a nation rightly struggling to be free, and appealed to President Wilson to give it a separate Parliament. This, however, was felt to be going too far. If President Wilson had been trained in logical accuracy he would have appended a footnote saying that a nation must contain not less than some assigned number of individuals. This, however, would have made his principle arbitrary and would have robbed it of rhetorical force.

Translating Problems into an Abstract Form

One useful technique which scientific philosophy teaches consists in the transformation of every problem from a concrete to an abstract form. Take, for example, the following: Had the Irish the right to object to being included with Great Britain in one democratic government? Every American Radical would say yes. Have the Moslems the same right as against the Hindus? Nine out of ten American Radicals would formerly have said no. I do not suggest that either of these problems can be solved by being stated in abstract terms, but I do say that, when for the two concrete problems we substitute a single abstract problem in which the letters A and B replace the names of nations or communities about which we have strong feelings, it becomes very much easier to see what sort of considerations ought to be involved in arriving at any impartial solution.

Political problems cannot be solved either by correct thinking alone, or by right feeling alone: correct thinking can contribute neutrality in the estimation of facts, but right feeling is needed to give dynamic force to knowledge. Unless a wish for the general welfare exists, no amount of knowledge will inspire action calculated to promote the happiness of mankind. But many men, owing to confused thinking, can act under the direction of bad passions without any realization that they are doing so, and when, by purely intellectual means, this realization is brought home to them, they can often be induced to act in a manner which is less harsh and less apt to promote strife. I am firmly persuaded that if schools throughout the world were under a single international authority, and if this authority devoted itself to clarifying the use of words calculated to promote passion, the existing hatreds between nations, creeds, and political parties would very rapidly diminish, and the preservation of peace throughout the world would become an easy matter. Meanwhile, those who stand for clear thinking and against mutual disastrous enmities have to work, not only against passions to which human nature is all too prone, but also against great organized forces of intolerance and insane self-assertion. In this struggle clear logical thinking, though only one of the actors, has a definite part to play.