Citizens of the Universe

Philosophy, like all other studies, aims primarily at knowledge ... the kind which results from a critical examination of the grounds of our convictions, prejudices, and beliefs.

There are many questions - and among them those that are of the profoundest interest to our spiritual life - which, so far as we can see, must remain insoluble to the human intellect unless its powers become of quite a different order from what they are now.

Yet, however slight may be the hope of discovering an answer, it is part of the business of philosophy to continue the consideration of such questions, to make us aware of their importance, to examine all the approaches to them, and to keep alive that speculative interest in the universe which is apt to be killed by confining ourselves to definitely ascertainable knowledge.

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty.  

The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived form common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason.

To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected.

Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom.

Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they might be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Apart from its utility in showing unsuspected possibilities, philosophy has a value - perhaps its chief value - through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from this contemplation.

The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests: family and friends may be included, but the outer world is not regarded except as it may help or hinder what comes within the circle of instinctive wishes. In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free.

The free intellect will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears, without the trammels of customary beliefs and traditional prejudices, calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge - knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for a man to attain.

The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable.

Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man's true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions [...] but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination, and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation [...]

[Bertrand Russell]
The Problems of Philosophy, p.90-4

Related posts:-
Taking the Rough with the Smooth
Escaping Uncertainty
Dangers of Dogmatism
Where language ends and art begins
Are you sure?
Assumptions

1 comment:

  1. We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be.

    There are households of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted, and you will inherit not only their name but their property too. Nor will this property need to be guarded meanly or grudgingly: the more it is shared out, the greater it will become.

    He will have friends whose advice he can ask on the most important or the most trivial matters, whom he can consult daily about himself, who will tell him the truth without insulting him and praise him without flattery, who will offer him a pattern on which to model himself.

    [Seneca]
    On the Shortness of Life, p. 24-5

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