Addendum on the Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science

10 June 2015


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In my previous post, The Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science I drew upon examples from both Edmund Husserl and Bertrand Russell — the Godfathers, respectively, of contemporary continental and analytical philosophy — to illustrate some of the concerns of constituting a new science de novo, which is what a science of civilization must be.

In particular, I quoted Husserl to the effect that true science eschews “profundity” in favor of Cartesian clarity and distinctness. Since Husserl himself was none-too-clear a writer, his exposition of a distinction between profundity and clarity might not be especially clear. But another example occurred to me. There is a wonderful passage from Bertrand Russell in which he describes the experience of intellectual insight:

“Every one who has done any kind of creative work has experienced, in a greater or less degree, the state of mind in which, after long labour, truth, or beauty, appears, or seems to appear, in a sudden glory — it may be only about some small matter, or it may be about the universe. The experience is, at the moment, very convincing; doubt may come later, but at the time there is utter certainty. I think most of the best creative work, in art, in science, in literature, and in philosophy, has been the result of such a moment. Whether it comes to others as to me, I cannot say. For my part, I have found that, when I wish to write a book on some subject, I must first soak myself in detail, until all the separate parts of the subject matter are familiar; then, some day, if I am fortunate, I perceive the whole, with all its parts duly interrelated. After that, I only have to write down what I have seen. The nearest analogy is first walking all over a mountain in a mist, until every path and ridge and valley is separately familiar, and then, from a distance, seeing the mountain whole and clear in bright sunshine.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, CHAPTER XV, “The Theory of Ideas”

Russell returned to this metaphor of seeing a mountain whole after having wandered in the fog of the foothills on several occasions. For example:

“The time was one of intellectual intoxication. My sensations resembled those one has after climbing a mountain in a mist, when, on reaching the summit, the mist suddenly clears, and the country becomes visible for forty miles in every direction.”

Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1872-1914, Chapter 6, “Principia Mathematica”

…and again…

“Philosophical progress seems to me analogous to the gradually increasing clarity of outline of a mountain approached through mist, which is vaguely visible at first, but even at last remains in some degree indistinct. What I have never been able to accept is that the mist itself conveys valuable elements of truth. There are those who think that clarity, because it is difficult and rare, should be suspect. The rejection of this view has been the deepest impulse in all my philosophical work.”

Bertrand Russell, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, Preface

Russell’s description of intellectual illumination employing the metaphor of seeing a mountain whole is an example of the what I have called the epistemic overview effect — being able to place the parts of knowledge within a larger epistemic whole gives us a context for understanding that is not possible when confined to any parochial, local, or limited perspective.

If we employ Russell’s metaphor to illustrate Husserl’s distinction between the profound and the pellucid we immediately see that an attempt at an exposition which is confined to wandering in the foothills enshrouded in mist and fog has the character of profundity, but when the sun breaks through, the fog lifts, and the mist evaporates, we see clearly and distinctly that which we had before known only imperfectly and at that point we are able to give an exposition in terms of Cartesian clarity and distinctness. Russell’s insistence that he never thought that the mist contained any valuable elements of truth is of a piece with Husserl eschewing profundity.

Just so, a science of civilization should surprise us with unexpected vistas when we see the phenomenon of civilization whole after having familiarized ourselves with each individual parts of it separately. When the moment of illumination comes, dispelling the mists of profundity, we realize that it is no loss at all to let go of the profundity that has, up to that time, been our only guide. The definitive formulation of a concept, a distinction, or a principle can suddenly cut through the mists that we did not even realize were clouding our thoughts, revealing to us the perfect clarity that had eluded us up to that time. As Russell noted that, “this view has been the deepest impulse in all my philosophical work,” so too this is the deepest impulse in my attempt to understand civilization.

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