Saturday, May 26, 2012

Russell on the Origins of Philosophy

Bertrand Russell's Wisdom of the Westis a very, very cool book. In part because Russell is a very, very cool writer, and also because editor Paul Foulkes, designer Edward Wright and artist John Piper provide it with lots and lots of groovy pictures, one or more on every single page. As Peter Sloterdijkclearly knows, wide-ranging surveys of philosophical topics can be greatly jazzed-up with groovy illustrations.

So, I love Russell's book. I'm going to criticize it a little bit, but there's not a single book I've read which I wouldn't criticize in some way, which I could not imagine being even better. This one and some ones by Saul Bellow and William Gaddis and William Gass come close. You know what? Gass' On Being Blue,you can count that as being perfect in my book, as one I wouldn't change in any way.

So, there's one single book I've read which I consider perfect.

Okay, there's Gravity's Rainbow.And JR.Who am I, am I gonna improve one of those? No.

Okay, so there are lots of books I wouldn't know how to improve. Handke's Wiederholung.Bernhard's Ja.Voltaire's Candide.-- but wait, the latter, although so gloriously and specifically what it is and hugely popular for a reason, is entirely unfair to Leibniz.

I'm getting dizzy and this is going nowhere. Back to Russell.

p. 10: "Philosophy begins when someone asks a general question, and so does science. The first people to evince this kind of curiosity were the Greeks. Philosophy and science, as we know them, are Greek inventions."

Sorry Bertie, but I simply can't accept that sweeping statement. The earliest people who, to our knowledge, wrote down the names of philosophers and associated certain names with certain ideas and insights and experiments, were Greeks. But the earliest Greek philosophers of whom we know, we don't have any of their writings, in some cases we don't actually know whether they could write, we know of them, the pre-Socratics, only through the descriptions of later writers. All the earliest writings about their work fill one volumenot much bigger than Wisdom of the West -- with no space taken up by illustrations, admittedly, but on the other hand much space taken up by translation from Greek into German. We don't even know Socrates through anything he wrote, if he ever wrote anything. And back to the pre-Socratics, we don't know whether there were once written descriptions of still earlier philosophers, or actual writings by earlier philosophers, we don't know whether such writings still actually exist, waiting patiently for archaeologists or archivists to dig them up or find them in palimpsest, and we for damn sure don't that Greeks were the first to philosophize. This whole topic is defined by mountainous heaps of we don't know surrounding our little pebbles of knowledge, and yet you think you know for certain that science and philosophy were Greek inventions, that they sprang full-formed from Greece like Athena from the brow of Zeus? There was nothing like it previously, nothing, in Egypt or Mesopotamia or among the Hittites or Chinese or Indians or in the Western Hemisphere or Africa or among the caves of Bronze-Age Europe or anywhere out on the steppes or in the Himalayas? We know this? Bertie. It simply won't do, old bean. It's so unlike you to claim something like this with no reason. One of the reasons I like you so much is that you hardly ever do something like this. We don't know.

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