Books in a bookshop

Searching for truth

It’s with a moderate sense of accomplishment – and no small degree of relief – that I’ve finally finished reading Bertrand Russell’s 778-page History of Western Philosophy. I started it when I was in my first year of university, which was back in 1996. So it’s only taken me 27 years to get through it.

Furthermore, Russell published the book in 1946, so technically I’m still almost 80 years out of date. But we’ll gloss over that.

Having worked my way through the history of philosophical thought, from the pre-Socratics to logical analysis – by way of Anaxagoras, Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Machiavelli, Descartes, Locke, Hegel, Marx and many others – I’m struck by how much the act of thinking is influenced by the thinker.

As a student, I was quite taken with John Rawls’s notion – set out in A Theory of Justice – of the ‘original position’ as a way of thinking about the nature of a just society. In the original position, we’re prevented by a ‘veil of ignorance’ from knowing anything about our own personal needs and desires. And so, Rawls suggests, we’ll be led to principles that are fair to all.

Putting aside the fact that this is hard – and almost certainly unethical – to achieve in practice, it’s questionable whether this kind of absolute objectivism is the way to go, anyway. In Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, for example, Michael Sandel argued that it’s our values and aspirations that define who we are. And that influence what we consider to be a just society.

As individuals, we’re shaped by both nature and nurture. We have our likes and dislikes, our hopes and our dreams. We see the world through the filter of who we are. And of who we strive to be.

We’re also influenced heavily by the political and social consensus of the place and time in which we live. And it’s this that comes out most strongly in Russell’s epic tome. (Which is actually quite engaging and wittily written, by the way. Its just really, really long. And that’s without covering everything that’s happened in Western philosophy since the 1940’s.)

Three specifics come to mind here. Firstly, many (possibly most) of the philosophers discussed by Russell – and particulaly those in ancient Greece – were members of the upper tiers in their societies. The social elite. Enabled to engage in philosophy by their aristocratic position and by the lack of need to earn a living.

This tended to give them a rather inflated view of themselves and those like them. Take Plato’s idea of the ‘guardians’, for example; the small hereditary caste in his ‘utopia’ that would hold political power over the soldiers and the common people. This reflected well the nature of ancient Athens, but from our more modern perspective it looks somewhat less like a universal truth.

Secondly, it’s evident from Russell’s analysis that many of the philosophers he described were motivated not so much by the search for truth, than by the desire to prove something that they already believed to be true. In many cases, this was the existence of God. But in others it was papal supremacy or the divine right to rule of whichever king or emperor happened to be in charge at that particular point in time.

Spinoza, Descartes and Leibniz, for example, all put a considerable amount of effort into proving the existence of God. And, indeed, of His/Her/Their centrality to each philosopher’s system of metaphysical thought. And while Hobbes’s staunch advocacy of monarchy as the ideal form of government may have been entirely unrelated to his close relationship with the newly-restored King Charles II, one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Thirdly, a not-insignificant number of the philosophers featured seem to be combating deficiencies or demons in their own lives. And this inevitably comes through in their writings and in their philosophical thought.

Nietzsche’s concept of the Uebermensch (superman, overman, beyond-man, depending on whose translation you dislike least), for example, seems – to me anyway – like a direct reaction to the sickly body in which his brilliant mind found itself. And I don’t know what gave rise to his rampant misogyny, but I’m guessing there was something.

Hume was obsessed with a desire for literary fame and, alongside his genuinely important and insightful philosophical works, published the polemical History of England. Which, in an attention-seeking move of which modern-day influencers would be proud, was almost certainly designed specifically to wind up people Hume didn’t like.

Rousseau, on the other hand, seems to have simply hated everyone. Including himself. To the extent that, in one essay, he advocated for the abandonment of human civilisation itself.

It’s apposite that much of the metaphysical work described by Russell relates to the search for universality. Absolute truths that can be deduced through reasoning or induced through observation. As opposed to relative truths, which depend on one’s own perspective.

Can there be a universal truth? Many of Russell’s philosophers thought so. And the idea has shaped much of our society, from the revelations in holy scripture to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But viewed holistically, Russell’s History of Western Philosophy indicates that many of these claimed universal truths are – at least in part – products of their discoverer’s own time, place and social situation. Which, surely, makes them not so universal after all.

So do we conclude that there are no universal truths? That it’s relativism all the way? Or are such truths still out there, waiting to be discovered?

Either way, the search continues.

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Image: Tbel Abuseridze on Unsplash






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