Mysticism Versus The Will To Succeed


I’ve been reading a lot of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) recently, prepping for a class on his philosophy I’m planning to teach next year. In this passage from one of his thousands of letters to Ottoline Morrell (his closest confidant and intermittent lover), Russell, a pioneer of symbolic logic and analytic philosophy, reveals his concern with a conundrum that would be familiar to a student of Zen Buddhism-

The rare moments of mystic insight that I have had have been when I was free from the will to succeed. But they have brought a new kind of success, which I have at once noticed & wanted & so my will has drifted back into the old ways. And I don’t believe I should do anything worth doing without that sort of will. It is very tangled.

(As quoted in Ray Monk’s excellent biography, Bertrand Russell – The Spirit of Solitude, p. 476)

In Russell’s case, it seems that although he found mysticism very seductive (as many intellectuals did a century ago), associating it with high art, expansive emotions, intuitions of subject-object unity, and the deepest sorts of intimate relationships, his hyper-rationality blocked any attempts to explore it very seriously – unlike, for a time, his student Ludwig Wittgenstein. It’s debatable, I suppose, whether this was for the best (for him, and for his philosophy).

More publicly, Russell was extremely taken with the China he found in 1920, where he’d been invited to spend a year lecturing. Disgusted by the mechanized slaughter of World War I and by the “disease in our Western mentality” that, on a visit to Russia a few months earlier, he’d found the Bolsheviks were “attempting to force upon an essentially Asiatic population”, he seemed to think that the West had much to learn from the still pre-industrial East-

The Great War showed that something is wrong with our civilisation… Efficiency directed to destruction can only end in annihilation, and it is to this consummation that our civilisation is tending, if it cannot learn some of that wisdom for which it despises the East.

(The Problem of China, pp. 17-18)

No doubt he would have been troubled to see today’s China’s ever-accelerating emulation of Europe and North America – its embrace of authoritarian Capitalism. But what’s more striking to me, in terms of intellectual history, is just how closely Russell’s 1920 views foreshadowed, both socially and politically, those of the 1960s “New Left”, to which (at the age of 94!) he contributed by forming the so-called “Russell-Sartre Tribunal” that found the United States guilty of war crimes in Vietnam.

Texas GOP Officially Opposes Critical Thinking!?


On page 12 of the Texas Republican Party’s 2012 Platform you will find the following rather astounding statement-

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Since I have no idea what the jargon “values clarification” and “mastery learning” mean, I’m hoping that this plank of the platform does not mean what it seems to. Could they really be opposed to the teaching of critical thinking skills, or do they mean something by that phrase other than what it standardly means (e.g., learning (1) how to logically analyze the structure of an argument and (2) how to evaluate its form and content)?

Music, Scores, Nature, and Physics


I recently read Bertrand Russell’s The ABC of Relativity, his 1925 attempt to write a “popular” book on Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity. It’s notoriously difficult to non-mathematically conceptualize (let alone imagine) space-time in any clear way, but Russell did an admirable job of presenting the basics in relatively (excuse the pun) simple English, with a few geometrical constructions to help. Near the end he allows himself to philosophically muse a bit on the mathematical abstraction of such theories, and on how little – according to his view of science and reality at the time – they actually tell us of the “intrinsic nature” of matter and energy; here’s perhaps the best passage on this topic-

Between a piece of orchestral music as played, and the same piece of music as printed in the score, there is a certain resemblance, which may be described as a resemblance of structure. …when you know the rules, you can infer the music from the score or the score from the music. But suppose you had been stone-deaf from birth, but had lived among musical people. You could understand, if you had learned to speak and do lip-reading, that the musical scores represented something quite different from themselves in intrinsic quality, though similar in structure. The value of music would be completely unimaginable to you, but you could infer all its mathematical characteristics, since they are the same as those of the score. Now, our knowledge of nature is something like this. We can read the scores and infer just so much as our stone-deaf person could have about music. But we have not the advantages which that person derived from association with musical people. We cannot know whether the music associated with the scores is beautiful or hideous; perhaps, in the last analysis, we cannot be quite sure that the scores represent anything but themselves. But this is a doubt that the physicist, in a professional capacity, cannot entertain.

-Bertrand Russell, The ABC of Relativity (pp. 217-218)