Bertrand Russell on Pragmatism, Power, and related issues.

Pragmatism in a philosophical sense -- these are selections of comments of Russell about some philosophies of pragmatism, which sum up his core objections:

The reality of what is independent of my own will is embodied, for philosophy, in the conception of 'truth'. The truth of my beliefs, in the view of common sense, does not depend, in most cases, upon anything that I can do. It is true that if I believe I shall eat my breakfast tomorrow, my belief, if true, is so partly in virtue of my own future volitions; but if I believe that Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March, what makes my belief true lies wholly outside the power of my will. Philosophies inspired by love of power find this situation unpleasant, and therefore set to work, in various ways, to undermine the commonsense conception of facts as the sources of truth or falsehood in beliefs... This gives freedom to creative fancy, which it liberates from the shackles of the supposed 'real' world.

Pragmatism, in some of its forms, is a power-philosophy. For pragmatism, a belief is 'true' if its consequences are pleasant. Now human beings can make the consequences of a belief pleasant or unpleasant. Belief in the moral superiority of a dictator has pleasanter consequences than disbelief, if you live under his government. Wherever there is effective persecution, the official creed is 'true' in the pragmatist sense. The pragmatist philosophy, therefore, gives to those in power a metaphysical omnipotence which a more pedestrian philosophy would deny to them. I do not suggest that most pragmatists admit the consequences of their philosophy; I say only that they are consequences, and that the pragmatist's attack on the common view of truth is an outcome of love of power, though perhaps more of power over inanimate nature than of power over human beings.

Power, Bertrand Russell.

The most prominent pragmatists were: Peirce, James, and Dewey

From B. Russell, History of Western Philosophy, "William James", Ch. 29:

... Except in the matter of 'experience', I find myself in agreement with James' radical empiricism.

It is otherwise with his pragmatism and 'will to believe'. The latter, especially, seems to me to be designed to afford a specious but sophistical defence of certain religious dogmas -- a defence, moreover, which no wholehearted believer could accept.

... The *Will to Believe' argues that we are often compelled, in practice, to take decisions for which no adequate theoretical grounds for such a decision exists, for even to do nothing is still a decision. Religious matters, says James, come under this head; we have, he maintains, a right to adopt a believing attitude although 'our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.'...

The moral duty of veracity, we are told, consists of two coequal concepts: 'believe truth', and 'shun error'. The skeptic wrongly attends only to the second, and thus fails to believe various truths which a less cautious man will believe. If believing truth and avoiding error are of equal importance, I may do well, when presented with an alternative, to believe one of the possibilities at will, for then I have an even chance of believing truth, whereas I have none if I suspend judgment.

The ethic that would result if this doctrine were taken seriously is a very odd one. Suppose I meet a stranger in the train, and I ask myself, 'Is his name Ebenezer Wilkes Smith?'. If I admit that I do not know, I am certainly not believing truly about his name: whereas, if I decide to believe that that is his name, there is a chance that I may be believing truly. The skeptic, says James, is afraid of being duped, and though his fear may lose important truth; 'what proof is there,' he adds, 'that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear?' ...

But, you will say, 'the instance is absurd, for, though you do not know the stranger's name, you do know that a very small percentage of mankind are called Ebenezer Wilkes Smith. You are, therefore, not in that state of complete ignorance which is presupposed in your freedom of choice.' Now, strange to say, James never mentions probability....

It would be unfair to James to consider his will to believe in isolation; it was a transitional doctrine, leading by a natural development to pragmatism. Pragmatism, as it appears in James, is a new definition of 'truth'....

The principle of pragmatism, according to James, was first enunciated by C.S. Peirce, who maintained that, in order to attain clearness in our thoughts of an object, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve. James, in elucidation, says that the function of philosophy is to find out what difference it makes to you or me if this or that world-formula is true. In this way theories become instruments, not answers to enigmas.

Ideas, we are told by James, become true in so far as they help us get into satisfactory relationships with other parts of our experience: 'An idea is 'true' so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives.' Truth is one species of good, not a separate category. ... He adds that, 'The true is only the expedient in the way of our thinking... in the long run and on the whole, of course.' In other words, 'our obligation to speak truth is part of our general obligation to do what pays.'

In a chapter on pragmatism and religion he reaps the harvest. 'We cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life result from it.' 'If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily, on the whole, in the widest sense, it is true.'

... I find great intellectual difficulties in this doctrine. It assumes that a belief is 'true' when its effects are good.. If this definition is to be useful -- and if it is not to be condemned by the pragmatist's test -- we must know (a) what is good, (b) what are the effects of this or that belief, and we must know these things before we can decide if a belief is 'true', since it is only after we have decided these things that we have a right to call it 'true.'

... There is another difficulty. Suppose I say there was such a person as Columbus; everyone will agree that what I say is true. But why is it true? Because of a certain man of flesh and blood, who lived 450 years ago -- in short, because of the causes of my belief, not because of its effects. With James' definition, it might happen that, 'A exists' is true although in fact A does not exist. I have always found that the hypothesis of Santa Claus 'works satisfactorily in the widest sense'; therefore, 'Santa Claus exists' is true, although Santa Claus does not exist...

James' doctrine is an attempt to build a superstructure of belief upon a foundation of skepticism, and like all such attempts it is dependent on fallacies. In his case, the fallacies spring from an attempt to ignore all extra-human facts. ... But this is only a form of the subjectivistic madness which is characteristic of most modern philosophy.

From "John Dewey", Ch. 30:

The main difference between Dr. Dewey and me is that he judges a belief by its effects, whereas I judge it by its causes where a past occurrence is concerned. I consider such a belief 'true', or as nearly 'true' as we can make it, when it has a certain kind of complicated relationship (sometimes very complicated) to its causes. Dr. Dewey holds that it has 'warranted assertibility' -- which he substitutes for 'true' -- if it has certain kinds of effects. This divergence is connected with a difference of outlook on the world. The past cannot be affected by what we do, and therefore, if truth is determined by what has happened, it is independent of past or future volitions; it represents, in logical form, the limitations of human power. But if truth, or rather 'warranted assertibility', depends on the future, then, in so far as it is in our power to alter the future, it is in our power to alter what should be asserted. This enlarges the sense of human power and freedom. Did Caesar cross the Rubicon? I should regard an affirmative answer as unalterably determined by a past event. Dr. Dewey would decide whether to say yes or no by an appraisal of future events, and there is no reason why those future events could not be arranged by human power so as to make a negative answer the more satisfactory. If I find the belief that Caesar crossed the Rubicon very distasteful, I need not sit down in dull despair; I can, if I have sufficient skill and power, arrange a social environment in which the statement that he did not cross the Rubicon will have 'warranted assertibility.'

Throughout this book, I have sought, where possible, to connect philosophies within the social environment of the philosophers concerned. It has seemed to me that the belief in human power, and the unwillingness to accept 'stubborn facts', were connected with the hopefulness engendered by machine production and the scientific manipulation of our physical environment. This view is shared by many of Dr. Dewey's supporters. Thus George Raymond Geiger, in a laudatory essay, says that Dr. Dewey's method 'would mean a revolution in thought....'...

Dr. Dewey's world, it seems to me, is one in which human beings occupy the imagination; the cosmos of astronomy, though of course it is acknowledged to exist, is at most times ignored. His philosophy is a power philosophy, though not, like Nietzche's, a philosophy of individual power; it is the power of the community that is felt to be valuable. It is this element of social power that seems to me to make the philosophy of instrumentalism attractive to those who are more impressed by our new control over natural forces than by the limitations to which that control is still subject.

The attitude of man towards the non-human environment has differed profoundly at different times. The Greeks, with their dread of hubris and their belief in a Necessity or Fate superior even to Zeus, carefully avoided what to them would have seemed insolence towards the universe. The Middle Ages carried submission much further; humility towards God was a Christian's first duty. Initiative was cramped by this attitude, and great originality was scarcely possible. The Renaissance restored human pride, but carried it to the point where it led to anarchy and disaster. ... Man, formerly too humble, began to think of himself as almost a God...

In all of this I feel a great danger, the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety. The concept of 'truth' as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness -- the intoxication of power which invaded philosophy with Fichte. I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy which, however unintentionally, contributes to it is increasing the danger of vast social disaster.

Russell on Power Over Opinion:

It is easy to make out a case for the view that opinion is omnipotent, and that all other forms of power are derived from it. Armies are useless unless the soldiers believe in the cause for which they are fighting, or, in the case of mercenaries, have confidence in the ability of their commander to lead them to victory. Law is impotent unless it is generally respected. Economic institutions depend upon respect for the law; consider, for example, what would happen to banking if the average citizen had no objection to forgery. Religious opinion has often proved more powerful than the State. If, in any country a large majority were in favor of Socialism, Capitalism would become unworkable. On such grounds it might be said that opinion is the ultimate power in social affairs.

But this would only be a half-truth, since it ignores the forces which cause opinion. While it is true that opinion is an essential element in military force, it is equally true that military force may generate opinion. ...

... We thus have a kind of seesaw; first, pure persuasion leading to the conversion of a minority, then force exerted to secure that the rest of the community shall be exposed to the right propaganda; and finally a genuine belief on the part of the great majority, which makes the use of force again unnecessary...

...There are, however, some important instances of influence on opinion without the aid of force at any stage. Of these the most notable is the rise of science...

...It is customary nowadays to descry Reason as a force in human affairs, yet the rise of science is an overwhelming argument on the other side. The men of science proved to intelligent laymen that a certain kind of intellectual outlook ministers to military prowess and to wealth; these ends were so ardently desired that the new intellectual outlook overcame that of the Middle Ages, in spite of the force of tradition and the revenues of the Church and the sentiments associated with Catholic theology...

...All this effect on opinion has been achieved by science merely through appeal to fact; what science had to say in the way of general theories might be questionable, but its results in the way of technique were patent to all...

From this example, something may be learnt as to the power of Reason in general. In the case of science, Reason prevailed over prejudice because it provided means of realizing existing purposes, and because the proof that it did so was overwhelming. Those who maintain that Reason has no power in human affairs overlook these two conditions. If, in the name of Reason, you summon a man to alter his fundamental purposes -- to pursue, say, the general happiness rather than his own power -- you will fail, and you will deserve to fail, since Reason alone cannot determine the ends of life. And you will fail equally if you attack deep-seated prejudices while your argument is still open to doubt, or is so difficult that only men of science can see its force. But if you can prove, by evidence which is convincing to every sane man who takes the trouble to examine it, that you possess a means of facilitating the satisfaction of existing desires, you may hope, with a certain degree of confidence, that men will ultimately believe what you say. This, of course, involves the proviso that the existing desires which you can satisfy are those of men who have power or are capable of acquiring it....

... So much for the power of Reason in human affairs. I come now to another form of unforceful persuasion, namely that of the founders of religions. Here the process, reduced to its bare formula, is this: if a certain proposition is true, I shall be able to realize my desires; therefore I wish this proposition to be true; therefore, unless I have exceptional intellectual self-control, I believe it to be true... The cause of belief, here, is not, as in science, the evidence of fact, but the pleasant feelings derived from belief, together with sufficient vigour of assertion in the environment to make the belief seem not incredible.

The power of advertisement comes under the same head... Non-rational propaganda, like the rational sort, must appeal to existing desires, but it substitutes iteration for the appeal to fact...

...It is through the potency of iteration that the holders of power acquire their capacity of influencing belief...

... One of the advantages of democracy, from the governmental point of view, is that it makes the average citizen easier to deceive, since he regards the government as *his* government. Opposition to a war which is not swiftly successful arises much less readily in a democracy than under any other form of constitution. In a democracy, a majority can only turn against the government by first admitting that they were mistaken in formerly thinking well of their chosen leaders, which is difficult and unpleasant...

It is easy to overestimate the power of official propaganda, especially when there is no competition. ... When all opposing propaganda is forbidden, rulers are likely to think that they can cause anything to be believed, and so to become over-weaning and careless. Lies need competition if they are to retain their vigour.

Power over opinion, like all other forms of power, tends to coalesce and concentrate, leading logically to a State monopoly. But even apart from war it would be rash to assume that a State monopoly of propaganda must make a government invulnerable. In the long run, those who possess the power are likely to become too flagrantly indifferent to the interests of the common man..."

Bertrand Russell, from Power, "Power over Opinion"

See also, "The Impulse to Power", from Power:

http://www.eskimo.com/~alberrtr/Russell/power.htm

Other Russell:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/russell/

http://www.eskimo.com/~alberrtr/Russell/

http://www.luminary.us/Russell/atheist_agnostic.html

http://humanum.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/humftp/E-text/Russell/

http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/Russell/

Russell on Politics and Desire:

http://www.nobel.se/literature/laureates/1950/russell-lecture.html

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/Russell/russell-soundclips.html