What’s Your Philosophical Temperament?

In “My Philosophical Development”, Bertrand Russell writes:

…I have always been deeply persuaded that, from a cosmic point of view, life and experience are causally of little importance.  The world of astronomy dominates my imagination and I am very conscious of the minuteness of our planet in comparison with the systems of galaxies.  I found in Ramsey’s Foundations of Mathematics a passage expressing what I do not feel:

Where I seem to differ from some of my friends is in attaching little importance to physical size.  I don’t feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens.  The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does.  I take no credit for weighing nearly seventeen stone.

My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model to scale.  The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits.  I don’t really believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possibly animal sensation.  I apply my perspective not merely to space but also to time.  In time the world will cool and everything will die; but that is a long time off still, and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing.  Nor is the present less valuable because the future will be blank.  Humanity, which fills the foreground of my picture, I find interesting and on the whole admirable.

There is no arguing about feelings, and I do not pretend for a moment that my way of feeling is better than Ramsey’s, but it is vastly different.  I find little satisfaction in contemplating the human race and its follies.  I am happier thinking about the nebula in Andromeda than thinking about Genghis Khan.  I cannot, like Kant, put the moral law on the same plane as the starry heavens.  The attempt to humanise the cosmos, which underlies the philosophy that calls itself “Idealism”, is displeasing to me quite independently of the question whether it is true or false.  I have no wish to think that the world results from the lucubrations of Hegel or even of his Celestial Prototype.  In any empirical subject-matter I expect, though without complete confidence, that a thorough understanding will reduce the more important causal laws to those of physics, but where the matter is very complex, I doubt the practical feasibility of the reduction….

For my part, I find myself agreeing more with Ramsey than Russell.  For this reason, too, I find ethics more inspiring than physics or metaphysics, non-reductive physicalism more plausible than reductive physicalism, and Confucian ethicists more relatable than Zhuangzi.  The Confucian philosopher Xunzi criticized Zhuangzi by saying that he saw only what is Nature’s, and was blind to what is Man’s.  I agree with this criticism, although it may sound trivial in light of the fact that the human world occupies only an infinitesimally tiny spot in the entire universe.  More on this on some other occasion.

But what do you think?  Is your philosophical temperament more like Russell’s or like Ramsey’s?


2 thoughts on “What’s Your Philosophical Temperament?

  1. I share your leaning toward Ramsey rather than Russell. The response I would suggest to Russell would probably be along Confucian lines: we are ourselves human, so how can we possibly “relate” to the nebula in Andromeda? We can contemplate it, but we’re inevitably going to come up with a large question mark, or something which is simply an image of ourselves (check out Stanislaw Lem’s magnificent novel “Solaris” for a literary presentation of this point). Confucius said it best, I think: “if you cannot yet attend to what is human, how can you attend to the spirits?…if you don’t yet understand life, how can you understand death?” (Analects 11.11)

  2. Alexus, thanks for your comment. There’s solidarity in knowing that a fellow Confucian shares the same view, and I wonder if a genuine Confucian philosopher can take the Russellian view. But, on the other hand, a Confucian philosopher who is steeped in Mencius (esp. 2A2’s talk of “floodlike qi“) or the Book of Changes (like the Song dynasty neo-Confucians) might try to have the best of both Russell and Ramsey by “putting the moral law on the same plane as the starry heavens”. I am ambivalent about such views, mostly because they are incomprehensible to me.

    I agree Analects 11.11 is a great passage. It’s a nice sales pitch for Confucianism: I remember reading it under the sub-heading “Confucius’s Humanism” in either Wing-tsit Chan or de Bary’s anthology as an undergrad, and I bought into it almost immediately.

    Thanks for the Stanislaw Lem recommendation. He seems like an interesting author for philosophers to read (I came across some of his work in Dennett and Hofstadter’s The Mind’s I, I think). When I’m not worried sick about my dissertation I will read him. In general, though, when someone expresses a thought or sentiment that seems too alien for my comprehension, and that someone is otherwise a very intelligent person, I make it my policy to take their word for it, and accept that they have a viewpoint which I cannot appreciate due to quirks in my own temperament. When Russell says that he feels more at home thinking about the nebula in Andromeda, and when Zhuangzi says he was elated after his wife had died, their claims seem outlandish to me, but I’m also painfully aware that I am incapable of appreciating the same things they seem to be appreciating.

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