Saturday, August 07, 2004

Careful To Inform Ourselves

From my reading of Betrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy I wanted to excerpt a section that Russell himself excerpted from John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Russell uses this section to demonstrate the sort of moderation, forebearance, and acceptance of multiple viewpoints that Russell finds characteristic of the early enlightenment, a reaction to the intolerance, bloodshed, and destruction of the Reformation and the 30 Years War. It serves that purpose, but it also struck me as an elegant statement of collegiality and a guideline for productive discourse. This passage certainly holds with Henry's feelings that people of earlier times had a much better command of the language, and it also has prompted me to use the word "methinks" more often. The excerpt follows:

"Since therefore it is unavoidable to the greatest part of men, if not all, to have several opinions, without certain and indubitable proofs of their truth; and it carries too great an imputation of ignorance, lightness, or folly, for men to quit and renounce their former tenets presently upon the the offer of an argument which they cannot immediately answer and show the insufficiency of; it would, methinks, become all men to maintain peace and the common offices of humanity and friendship in the diversity of opinions, since we cannot reasonably expect that any one should readily and obsequiously quit his own opinion, and embrace ours with a blind resignation to an authority which the understanding of man acknowledges not. For, however it may often mistake, it can own no other guide but reason, nor blindly submit to the will and dictates of another. If he you would bring over to your sentiments be one that examines before he assents, you must give him leave at his leisure to go over the account again, and, recalling what is out of mind, examine the particulars, to see on which side the advantage lies; and if he will not think over arguments of weight enough to engage him anew in so much pains, it is but what we do often ourselves in the like case; and we should take it amiss of others should prescribe to us what points we should study: and if he be one who wishes to take his opinions upon trust, how can we imagine that he should renounce those tenets which time and custom have so settled in his mind that he thinks them self-evident, and of an unquestionable certainty; or which he takes to be impressions he has received from God himself, or from men sent by him? How can we expect, I say, that opinions thus settled should be given up to the arguments or authority of a stranger or adversary? Especially if there be any suspicion of interest or design, as there never fails to be where men find themselves ill-treated. We should do well to commiserate our mutual ignorance, and endeavour to remove it in all the gentle and fair ways of information, and not instantly treat others ill as obstinate and perverse because they will not renounce their own and receive our opinions, or at least those we would force upon them, when it is more than probable that we are no less obstinate in not embracing some of theirs. For where is the man that has uncontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds, or of the falsehood of all he condemns; or can say, that he has examined to the bottom of all his own or other men's opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay, often upon very slight grounds, in this fleeting state of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than to restrain others... There is reason to think, that if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others."

I find Locke, based on Russell's treatment of him, to be admirable in many respects, and well deserving of the place history has given him. His pragmatism and reasonableness set him apart from many of his contemporaries. Where Liebniz, Descartes, and Spinoza construct elaborate, unified theories of philosophy, which, looking back, now appear absurd, Locke had no grand theory and applied himself in areas where he felt that the new empiricism could yield new insights. While certain of his ideas have come to appear to be as absurd as others, they are all guided by a keen intuition and reasonable logical arguments. And as Russell argues, even in many cases where Locke was wrong he created systems of thought that proved very productive to other theorists. He intuitively avoids many of the pitfalls of linguistic issues (universals, substance, and essence and the like) that had much occupied Plato and Aristotle and had sent astray nearly every philospher since the early Greeks. In his embrace of empiricism he laid a sound foundation on which other Enlightenment philosophers would build.

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