The Value of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell (Chapter XV of Problems of Philosophy)
Rubric: Explain Russell’s take on the central value of philosophy. In the final part of your answer, provide a reasoned evaluation of some aspect of Russell’s defense of philosophical inquiry that includes some discussion of an example or two that you think illustrates the importance of philosophy in relation to living and acting in the world.
Russell’s argument is of the vein that studying philosophy is an end in itself. Many fields in science offer us technical knowledge to enhance our material comforts. But this cannot be the sole objective of our existence. Deliberating fundamental questions on the meaning of life, human nature, the cosmos, etc do not have any commercial value. But a life lived without such philosophical speculation is quite limited and enslaved.
Philosophy helps us to broaden our intellectual and emotional horizons by subjugating our self-interest. It cultivates in us to focus on the non-Self, which liberates us from individual petty concerns and veers our consciousness toward bigger questions on the human condition. In other words, if specialized disciplines in science are preoccupied with the ‘how’ question, philosophy is concerned with the ‘why’ question. As Russell aptly terms it, philosophy helps us to move beyond the ‘here and now’. In
Uncertainty is a basic feature of philosophy, where various answers are proposed for any given question. It is this element of uncertainty that distinguishes philosophy from other scientific disciplines. But instead of causing ambiguity, the open-ended speculations actually enhance our imagination and identify novel solutions. As the magisterium of our mind is expanded we become calmer and more secure. Unlike the defensive and anxious behaviour of the unenlightened person, the one well-versed with philosophy is able to negotiate all sorts of contingencies in life with relative ease.
I totally agree with Russell’s assessment of the value of philosophy. I strongly believe that philosophy should be moved into mainstream academia, away from its perception as an esoteric pursuit. Today, almost every major problem in society is caused as a result of an unenlightened citizenry. With education increasingly becoming skill-oriented or vocational, generations of adults graduate from college without social consciousness. Studying philosophy mitigates this phenomenon by prompting us with valid questions. And in attempting to answer them we will actually find answers to many pressing problems of our time. Problems such as environmental degradation or potential nuclear warfare could be prevented through widespread philosophical discussions. For example, in order for us to seek solutions to the problem of global warming, we first have to agree on salvaging our species from extinction. Here, philosophy helps set our priorities.
Finally, my impression is that Russell’s take on the central value of philosophy harks back to Plato’s famous remark that ‘a life lived unexamined is not worth living’. This statement was delivered just before Plato was executed for disobeying royal orders. In his view, there can be no greater liberty than that afforded by truth, even if it were to lead to our death. On the contrary the one who lives a compromised life for the sake of safety has displayed disregard for the truth.
Hinduism is one of the oldest religions of the world. It evolved in the Indian subcontinent over 5000 years ago and has a rich body of literature. Unlike monotheistic religions such as Christianity or Islam, Hinduism is polytheistic, with thousands of deities and gods being worshipped. Even in terms of ethnography and culture there is a rich diversity of Hindu expression. The sacred rituals and beliefs related to Hinduism vary across ethnic communities in India. The Hindu scriptures explain morality in the form of legends and myths. More than a religion per se, Hinduism can be looked at as a philosophical system. The key themes of this system are that of the interconnectedness of life, repercussions of good and bad deeds (karma), the temporariness of earthly existence and the aspiration toward liberation from it (moksha). Texts such as the Upanishads and epics such as Ramayana and Mahabaratha serve as mediums of this philosophic discourse.
In Geeta Kothari’s short story the major theme is one of entrapment. She regrets the condition of her married life with Evan. She wonders morosely if she had erred by agreeing to marriage in the name of security and conformity. There are parallels to it in the Hindu conception of life, whereby, our present life carries forward and expiates the Karma accumulate from our previous life. In this cycle of birth and rebirth thus continues the one constant reality is that of suffering. Certainly Maya has a legitimate feeling of betrayal in her marriage, and she wonders why things had turned out this way. Hinduism’s answer to her pondering would be that she is presently suffering on account of the bad Karma she had acquired in previous incarnations.
While the Hindu idea of karma is deterministic, it does not promote fatalistic attitude. While the circumstances we find ourselves in are somewhat arbitrary, there is much we can alter about our future through the exercise of free will. Towards the end of the story Maya seems to realize this truth. She is seen to slowly make a resolution that she will henceforth be more faithful to her feelings and no more live in denial.
Hindu spiritual practices in the form of yoga, dhyana and yagnya are deviced to alleviate our suffering by altering our natural state of ego-consciousness. By subjugating the impulses of the ego and attuning our senses toward cosmic consciousness we reach a state where suffering ceases. It is called in Sanskrit as mukthi. Maya’s project of self-actualization is not articulated in such esoteric Hindu philosophic terms. But hers is a project of great import in the context of the constricting and adversarial reality her marriage has turned out to be.
In my own experience I’ve faced issues of melancholy in the past. In the early days, I used to feel very let down and feel victimized. But slowly I realized that remorse and helplessness lead us nowhere. I then started undergoing an attitudinal change in two aspects. First I trained myself to accept difficulties as part of life. Second I trained myself to proactively mitigate adversities. As a result I can claim that I am a much happier person now than I was a few years back. The important thing is that my circumstances have not drastically changed but my outlook and behaviour has changed. And it has made a world of difference. In this regard I share the same spirit of Maya. Between me and her, we share the Hindu philosophic outlook to addressing problems, although it took us both some time to make this transition.