12 April 2014
This book is wise and clever and dry and witty and challenging and entertaining . . . and at times it is even humorous. There are more concise listings you can read of who said what, where and when but few that will place the facts of how the ideas we still debate today came to be, came to hold sway, came to be such a critical part of all of our lives whether we know it or not, whether we have any idea at all about some any or all of them.
They so thoroughly permeate our lives, how we look at our world, how our world gets presented to us, how we look at each other - family, friends, our countrymen, refugees, foreigners, aliens and gods, and even at ourselves, that to look away from a work such as this is a folly, a sin of omission as those nasty nuns tried to beat into me.
Instead of reading this, many of us would prefer a preacher or a guru or a parent figure to walk us through some system of thinking which they generally sell as a formula for living, as a manual for what to think and how to act, and in doing this we so often sell ourselves and the rest of the people on the planet way, way short of the truth.
We notice it easily when we see ordinary good people joining up as Jehova's Witnesses, as scientologists, as yoga devotees, as Catholics or as Protestants. We "get it" when we see people living by the words of those who make grandiose claims for the Koran or the Bible, the Torah or the Book of Morman. But we generally don't get it at all when it comes to whatever beliefs we have grown in to ourselves, because like most people, our beliefs are more explored and mined for further possibilities, rather than critically examined.
Bertrand Russell is arguably the greatest logician and philosopher, and possibly even the greatest mathematician, of the twentieth century and this is no mean feat in a century where ideas were published and distributed like no other. Even now we can see great swathes of the world who have not yet adapted to this relatively recent world of easily available ideas, where the censorious notions of "being offended" or "blasphemy" or "incitement" are over played to stifle debate. I am not saying that we should stand by and allow hate speech, or incitement to hate crimes, or that we should live in a world that feels it must ridicule all ridiculous ideas, but we have to allow and actively promote the study of ideas different from our own and we should be prepared to put any ideas we put out there as having applicability beyond our own lives to the test of unhindered public scrutiny.
The problem comes when the scrutiny itself relies on cherished beliefs rather than rigorous debate, logic and philosophical insight.
Make no mistake, you have an abundance of theory and philosophy in your life. You couldn't set your watch or pat your cat without theory to inform your practice. A lot of what we do is all mapped out through repetition and our brain's capacity to file things i place for . . . so we don't after a certain young age have to think about where we should put the spoon or the cup or the toilet tissue. It's automatic. We can think about other things while we drink a hot coffee without scalding ourselves by mistaking our ear for our mouth.
But disturbingly in the post Bill Clinton era of KISS (keep it simple stupid), where sound bites shape our news and current affairs, and were "txting has rplced wrting and eevn spleling", and we way too often trade off being concise for something that is really just being approximate and too often plainly stupid. if we keep it up for much longer, and the signs are fairly beak, this urge to act on minimal information, to avoid complexity, to slag off at things and people and ideas we do not really understand, to purge what little we think we know on talk back radio, while we listen to other tossers doing the same, to delight in our own shorthand take on almost everything that might actually matter, from how we treat refugees to how we give massive tax breaks to the rich, we will yet see large parts of our planet become uninhabitable. And the weak minded journalists and commentators who profit handsomely from it all lead a chorus of ignorant, fearful, simple-minded climate change deniers into our collective oblivion!. I will defend your right to believe what you want, but unlike Voltaire, I draw the line at having to die as a consequence of your scientific illiteracy and your intellectual arrogance. It's the situation we find ourselves in when so many people turn to radio shock jocks and often highly prejudiced print columnists to get answers to critical scientific questions, rather than turning to our scientists who are fighting for airspace. Our scientists have the difficult task of struggling to reduce highly complex arguments to ideas we can get our heads around, but which then often become absurdly knock-able. The widespread of laziness hiding behind the KiSS principle has long appalled me. Once you reduce complex ideas to what they are not . . . simple ideas . . . you betray the truth to convenience and to sound bites.
So here it is. A challenge. Read this book, not with a view to demolishing it with your current cherished prejudices, and take whatever time you need to come to terms with the panoramic intellectual journey on which Russell will lead you.
Your reward may be an increased dissatisfaction with the shallow KISS level of public debate, but you will at least know something worth knowing about the struggle of good men and women over millennia who have tried to walk us out of the dark places where stupidity lurks, where prejudice reigns, where we sanction harming our fellow travellers rather than have our own intolerance too challenged or exposed.
I imagine many people will find this book difficult at different levels, and clearly some who have review it wrote ill of it or make it out to be less than it is in order to soften its challenge to their own belief systems. Approach it for the history of western thought, realise that other non-Western traditions of thought have also developed, and you will emerge from it grateful to Bertrand Russell for living and thinking and bothering to share such an encyclopaedic mind.
Russell has a highly developed sense of the human condition, of how unfair it is and of the ways in which ideas on social justice have arisen and been resisted, abused and sometimes actually succeeded. He wrote this magnificent book without the benefit we all have derived from the work of that other truly great Briton, Alan Turing, the inventor of the computer. Anyone whose mind could span such a wide universe of ideas, arguments, counter arguments and often complex propositions, and put it into a readable single volume without resorting to Wikipedia or the moron-making KISS principal, deserves to be read and valued for what is a monumental contribution to the life of anyone who reads it.
And a footnote. You can download it for free from various sites because it is out of copyright but you will soon learn that it has not been typeset as a free publication. You will almost certainly be downloading a scan which has been made using an optical character recognition program . . . and so, on every second page or so you will need to sort out a typo, which will have arisen because the inking or typesetting or printing of the original was not 100% perfect. It becomes very imperfect and tiring trying to read a scanned copy and my very strong recommendation is that you PAY for a copy that comes from a current publisher who will ensure that your hardcopy, or your download, is not only inexpensive but is all that you would want for such a brilliant book.