Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Is there anything to discuss? by Frank Ramsey



Science, history, and politics are not suited for discussion except by experts. Others are simply in the position of requiring more information, and, till they have acquired all available information, cannot do anything but accept on authority the opinions of those better qualified. Then there is philosophy; this, too, has become too technical for the layman. Besides this disadvantage, the conclusion of the greatest modern philosopher is that there is no such subject as philosophy; that it is an activity, not a doctrine; and that instead of answering questions, it aims merely at curing headaches. It might be thought that, apart from this technical philosophy whose center is logic, there was a sort of popular philosophy which dealt with such subjects as the relation of man to nature, and the meaning of morality. But any attempt to treat such subjects seriously reduces them to questions either of science or of technical philosophy, or results more immediately in perceiving them to be nonsensical . . .


I think we rarely, if ever discuss fundamental psychological questions, but far more often simply compare our several experiences, which is not a form of discussing. I think we realize too little how often our arguments are of the form: - A: “I went to Grantchester this afternoon.” B: Not I didn’t.” Another thing we often do is to discuss what sort of people or behavior we feel admiration for or are ashamed of. E.g. when we discuss constancy of affection it consists in A saying he would feel guilty if he weren’t constant, B saying he wouldn’t feel guilty in the least. But that, although a pleasant way of passing the time, is not discussing anything what ever, but simply comparing notes.


Genuine psychology, on the other hand, is a science of which most of us know far too little for it to become us to venture an opinion.


Lastly, there is aesthetics, including literature. This always excites us far more than anything else; but we really don’t discuss it much. Our arguments are so feeble; we are still at the stage of “What drives fat oxen must himself be fat”, and have very little to say about the psychological problems of which aesthetics really consists, e.g. why certain combinations of colors gives us such peculiar feelings. What we really like doing is again to compare our experience; a practice which in this case is peculiarly profitable because the critic can point out things to other people to which, if they attend, they will obtain feelings which they value which the failed to observe otherwise. We do not and cannot discuss whether one work of art is better than another; we merely compare the feeling it gives.


I conclude that there is really nothing to discuss; and this conclusion corresponds to a feeling  I have about ordinary conversation also. It is a relatively new phenomena which has arisen from two causes which have operated gradually through the nineteenth century. One is the advance of science, the other the decay of religion, which have resulted in all the old general questions as becoming either technical or ridiculous. This process in the development of civilization we have each of us have to repeat in ourselves. I, for instance, came up as a freshman enjoying conversation and argument more than anything else in the world; but I have gradually come to regard it as of less and less  importance, because there never seems to be anything to talk about except shop and people’s private lives, neither of which is suited for general conversation .  .  .

If I was to write a Weltanschauung I should call it not “What I believe” but “What I feel.” This is connected with Wittgenstein’s view that philosophy does not give us beliefs, but merely relieves feelings of intellectual discomfort. Also, if I were to quarrel with Russell’s lecture [ What I believe], it would not be with what he believed but the indications it gave us as to what he felt. Not that one can really quarrel with a man’s feelings; one can only have different feelings oneself, and perhaps also regard one’s  own as more admirable or more conducive to a happy life. From this point of view, that it is a matter not of fact but of feeling, I shall conclude by some remarks on things in general, or as I would rather say, not things but life in general.


Where I seem to differ from my friends is in attaching little importance to physical size. I don’t feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be larger, but they cannot think of love; and these are qualities which impress me more than size does. I take no credit for weighing nearly seventeen stone(238 lbs.).


My picture of the world is drawn in perspective and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are as small as three-penny bits. I don’t believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possibly animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but also to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die; by that is still a long time off still and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing. Nor is the present less valuable because the future will be blank. Humanity, which fills the foreground of my picture, I find interesting and on the whole admirable. I find, just now at least, the world a pleasant and exciting place. You may find it depressing; I am sorry for you, and you despise me. But I have reason and you have none; you would only have a reason for for despising me if your feeling corresponded to the fact in a way mine didn’t. But neither can correspond to the fact. The fact is not in itself good or bad; it is just that it thrills me but depresses you. On the other hand, I pity you with reason, because it is pleasanter to be thrilled than to be depressed, and not merely pleasanter but better for all one’s activities.


Quoted from The Foundation of Mathematics in  Essays in Biography by John Maynard Keynes, Palgrave/ Macmillan, 2010. First published 28 February 1925

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