Bertrand Russell: A Philosophy for Our Time (1953)

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Although this is my subject I do not think that the tasks of philosophy in our time are in any way different from its tasks at other times. Philosophy has, I believe, a certain perennial value, which is unchanging except in one respect: that some ages depart from wisdom more widely than others do, and have, therefore, more need of philosophy combined with less willingness to accept it. Our age is in many respects one which has little wisdom, and which would therefore profit greatly by what philosophy has to teach.
The value of philosophy is partly in relation to thought and partly in relation to feeling, though its effects in these two ways are closely interconnected. On the theoretical side it is a help in understanding the universe as a whole, in so far as this is possible. On the side of feeling it is a help toward a just appreciation of the ends of human life. I propose to consider first what philosophy can do for our thoughts, and then what it can do for our feelings.

The Here and the Now

The first thing that philosophy does, or should do, is to enlarge intellectual imagination. Animals, including human beings, view the world from a center consisting of the here and the now. Our senses, like a candle in the night, spread a gradually diminishing illumination upon objects as they become more distant. But we never get away from the fact that in our animal life we are compelled to view everything from just one standpoint.
Science attempts to escape from this geographical and chronological prison. In physics the origin of co-ordinates in space-time is wholly arbitrary, and the physicist aims at saying things which have nothing to do with his point of view but would be equally true for an inhabitant of Sirius or of an extra-galactic nebula.
Here again there are stages in emancipation. History and geology take us away from the now, astronomy takes us away from the here. The man whose mind has been filled with these studies gets a feeling that there is something accidental, and almost trivial, about the fact that his ego occupies a very particular portion of the space-time stream. His intellect becomes gradually more and more detached from these physical needs. It acquires in this way a generality and scope and power which is impossible to one whose thoughts are bounded by his animal wants.
Up to a point this is recognized in all civilized countries. A learned man is not expected to grow his own food and is relieved to a considerable extent of the useless expenditure of time and worry on the mere problem of keeping alive. It is, of course, only through this social mechanism that an impersonal outlook is in any degree possible. We all become absorbed in our animal wants in so far as is necessary for survival, but it has been found useful that men with certain kinds of capacity should be free to develop a way of thinking and feeling which is not bounded by their own need. This is done to some extent by the acquisition of any branch of knowledge, but it is done most completely by the sort of general survey that is characteristic of philosophy.

Different Pictures of the Universe

If you read the systems of the great philosophers of the past you will find that there are a number of different pictures of the universe which have seemed good to men with a certain kind of imagination. Some have thought that there is nothing in the world but mind, that physical objects are really phantoms. Others have thought that there is nothing but matter, and that what we call "mind" is only an odd way in which certain kinds of matter behave. I am not at the moment concerned to say that any one of these ways of viewing the world is more true or otherwise more desirable than another. What I am concerned to say is that practice in appreciating these different world pictures stretches the mind and makes it more receptive of new and perhaps fruitful hypotheses.
There is another intellectual use which philosophy ought to have, though in this respect it not infrequently fails. It ought to inculcate a realization of human fallibility and of the uncertainty of many things which to the uneducated seem indubitable. Children at first will refuse to believe that the earth is round and will assert passionately that they can see that it is flat.
But the more important applications of the kind of uncertainty that I have in mind are in regard to such things as social systems and theologies. When we have acquired the habit of impersonal thinking we shall be able to view the popular beliefs of our own nation, our own class, or our own religious sect with the same detachment with which we view those of others. We shall discover that the beliefs that are held most firmly and most passionately are very often those for which there is least evidence. When one large body of men believes A, and another large body of men believes B, there is a tendency of each body to hate the other for believing anything so obviously absurd.
The best cure for this tendency is the practice of going by the evidence, and forgoing certainty where evidence is lacking. This applies not only to theological and political beliefs but also to social customs. The study of anthropology shows that an amazing variety of social customs exists, and that societies can persist with habits that might be thought contrary to human nature. This kind of knowledge is very valuable as an antidote to dogmatism, especially in our own day when rival dogmatisms are the chief danger that threatens mankind.
Closely parallel to the development of impersonal thought there is the development of impersonal feeling, which is at least equally important and which ought equally to result from a philosophical outlook. Our desires, like our senses, are primarily self-centered. The egocentric character of our desires interferes with our ethics. In the one case, as in the other, what is to be aimed at is not a complete absence of the animal equipment that is necessary for life but the addition to it of something wider, more general, and less bound up with personal circumstances. We should not admire a parent who had no more affection for his own children than for those of others, but we should admire a man who from love of his own children is led to a general benevolence. We should not admire a man, if such a man there were, who was so indifferent to food as to become undernourished, but we should admire the man who from knowledge of his own need of food is led to a general sympathy with the hungry.
What philosophy should do in matters of feeling is very closely analogous to what it should do in matters of thought. It should not subtract from the personal life but should add to it. Just as the philosopher's intellectual survey is wider than that of an uneducated man, so also the scope of his desires and interests should be wider. Buddha is said to have asserted that he could not be happy so long as even one human being was suffering. This is carrying things to an extreme and, if taken literally, would be excessive, but it illustrates that universalizing of feeling of which I am speaking. A man who has acquired a philosophical way of feeling, and not only of thinking, will note what things seem to him good and bad in his own experience, and will wish to secure the former and avoid the latter for others as well as for himself.

Roots of Social Progress

Ethics, like science, should be general and should be emancipated, as far as this is humanly possible, from tyranny of the here and now. There is a simple rule by which ethical maxims can be tested, and it is this: "No ethical maxim must contain a proper name." I mean by a proper name any designation of a particular part of space-time; not only the names of individual people but also the names of regions, countries, and historical periods. And when I say that ethical maxims should have this character I am suggesting something more than a cold intellectual assent, for, so long as that is all, a maxim may have very little influence on conduct. I mean something more active, something in the nature of actual desire or impulse, something which has its root in sympathetic imagination. It is from feelings of this generalized sort that most social progress has sprung and must still spring. If your hopes and wishes are confined to yourself, or your family, or your nation, or your class, or the adherents of your creed, you will find that all your affections and all your kindly feelings are paralleled by dislikes and hostile sentiments. From such a duality in men's feelings spring almost all the major evils in human life cruelties, oppressions, persecutions, and wars. If our world is to escape the disasters which threaten it men must learn to be less circumscribed in their sympathies.
This has no doubt always been true in a measure but it is more true now than it ever was before. Mankind, owing to science and scientific technique, are unified for evil but are not yet unified for good. They have learned the technique of world-wide mutual destruction but not the more desirable technique of world-wide co-operation. The failure to learn this more desirable technique has its source in emotional limitations, in the confining of sympathy to one's own group, and in indulgence in hatred and fear toward other groups.
World- wide co-operation with our present technique could abolish poverty and war, and could bring to all mankind a level of happiness and well-being such as has never hitherto existed. But although this is obvious men still prefer to confine co-operation to their own groups and to indulge toward other groups a fierce hostility which fills daily life with terrifying visions of disaster. The reasons for this absurd and tragic inability to behave as everybody's interests would dictate lie not in anything external but in our own emotional nature. If we could feel in our moments of vision as impersonally as a man of science can think, we should see the folly of our divisions and contests, and we should soon perceive that our own interests are compatible with those of others but are not compatible with the desire to bring others to ruin. Fanatical dogmatism, which is one of the great evils of our time, is primarily an intellectual defect and, as I suggested before, it is one to which philosophy supplies an intellectual antidote. But a great deal of dogmatism has also an emotional source: namely, fear. It is felt that only the closest social unity is adequate to meet the enemy and that the slightest deviation from orthodoxy will have a weakening effect in war. Frightened populations are intolerant populations. I do not think they are wise in this. Fear seldom inspires rational action and very often inspires action which increases the very danger that is feared.
This certainly is the case with the irrational dogmatism that has been spreading over large parts of the world. Where danger is real the impersonal kind of feeling that philosophy should generate is the best cure. Spinoza, who was perhaps the best example of the way of feeling of which I am speaking, remained completely calm at all times, and in the last day of his life preserved the same friendly interest in others as he had shown in days of health. To a man whose hopes and wishes extend widely beyond his personal life there is not the same occasion for fear that there is for a man of more limited desires. He can reflect that when he is dead there will be others to carry on his work and that even the greatest disasters of past times have sooner or later been overcome. He can see the human race as a unity and history as a gradual emergence from animal subjection to nature. It is easier for him than it would be if he had no philosophy to avoid frantic panic and to develop a capacity for stoic endurance in misfortune. I do not pretend that such a man will always be happy. It is scarcely possible to be always happy in a world such as that in which we find ourselves, but I do think that the true philosopher is less likely than others are to suffer from baffled despair and fascinated terror in the contemplation of possible disaster.