About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, August 05, 2005

In Praise of Idleness-II

Bertrand Russell, in his collection of essays entitled "In Praise of Idleness," goes on to discuss the role of "useless" knowledge in our society. By this he means knowledge that is valued for its own sake, regardless of any particular practical application (in a way, similar to the way we value art for its own sake, regardless of how much money we may make by selling that Picasso we all have in our attic).

"Learning, in the renaissance, was part of the joie de vivre, just as much as drinking or love-making." Interesting comparisons there, no? Indeed, one can get -- in a metaphorical sense -- inebriated by intellectual pursuits (even drunk, perhaps?), and certainly the sudden joy of discovery can be compared to love-making (though usually the sensation of release isn't quite that overwhelming...).

Russell becomes very worried about the tendency of modern society (he was writing in the 1930s) to reduce the size of its vocabulary, to make language more "practical." One consequence of this, he argues, is the potential loss of literary flourishing and of a sense of style in writing and reading. But of course, as Orwell magisterially pointed out in "1984," a much more dangerous result is the inability of people to think about certain thoughts -- especially those that are dangerous to the establishment -- because of a lack of appropriate words. Words and concepts are closely related, one can hardly have the latter without mastering of the former.

Russell, of course, isn't saying that practical knowledge isn't, well, useful! On the contrary. But there is no need why that has somehow to be seen as opposite to theoretical knowledge: culture isn't a zero sum game, and the more the better.

Most importantly, Russell points out that too much focus on practical results often leads to nervous breakdowns, or at least to unpleasant levels of stress; moreover, lack of culture affects human behavior in a most decidedly negative manner, including that of children. As he puts it: "The bully in a school is seldom a boy whose proficiency in learning is up to the average. When a lynching takes place, the ring-leaders are almost invariably ignorant men." I wonder if it is because of Bush's ignorance and sense of insecurity that we got into the Iraq mess...

1 comment:

  1. check out www.whywork.org

    Perhaps not working all the time doesn't suit everyone, but some of us wish it was an easier choice.


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