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Does Philosophy matter ?

Prepared by the Leningrad Institute of Philosophy under the Direction of
M. Shirokov 1941

We are now more in a position to see why such practical people as the Russian communists are deeply concerned about philosophy. It is frequently assumed that a practical man can do very well without a philosophy, that the religious and metaphysical beliefs of a scientist or a politician have no kind of relation to their life's work, and that speculation constitutes a more or less leisure time occupation like music or golf.

But the Russian knows that a man's creed matters, that it may be a positive force behind exploitation and parasitism and that you cannot destroy the social disease if you do not accompany your political and industrial measures with the refutation of capitalist philosophy and the propagation of an alternative. It is for this reason that philosophical discussion plays such an important part in Russia to-day. In every higher technical school, institute, and university philosophy is a compulsory subject in the curriculum. Works chemists, textile engineers, agricultural experts and school teachers are thoroughly trained in philosophy. They know the fallacies of the system they repudiate and they have a system of their own to be " the master light of all their seeing."

This will occasion surprise in those who have always understood that the first principle of Soviet philosophy was the economic determination of ideas. But although no creed comes into existence as a mere development of thought and out of ali relation to social needs yet once a creed is born it has an activity and force of its own. If it is believed it will help to perpetuate the social system to which it belongs, if it is overthrown one of the buttresses of that system will be taken away. Therefore the Russian is inclined to believe with Chesterton that the practical and important thing about a man is his view of the universe.

"We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know · his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy's numbers, but stili more important to know the enemy's philosophy."

There has been no great movement in history that was not also a philosophical movement. The time of big theories was the time of big results. Our modern politicians who call themselves practical and belittle philosophy are mediocrities, and their policies are opportunist and vacillating.

It is not difficult to see why this is so. In the first place the main philosophical tendencies are always closely allied to the conflicting social and political movements of the day. A totalitarian philosophy lends support to State absolutism. Irrationalism fosters political "thinking with your blood." In the last century, when Spencer transformed the biological theory of evolution into a philosophy, its theory of progress through struggle and the survival of the fittest made a popular theoretical instrument for furthering the interests of the economic class that throve on competition. A philosophy may not be consciously advanced with such an aim but it will be seized upon and will spread widely if it reinforces the aims of a large section of the community engaged in struggle with an opposing class.

Secondly, fundamental questions are never of purely speculative interest, but frequently arise out of or are suggested by the urgent social problems of the time. Even the philosopher who isolates himself and devotes his attention to what he imagines" to be purely theoretical questions is affected by the spirit of the age and is unconsciously answering its questions. Bradley, a recluse, in his famous essay on "My Station and its Duties," argued that the community was a moral organism which knows itself in its members so that to know what is right we have merely to imbibe the spirit of the community. " It is a false-conscience," he says, "that wants you to be better than the world as it is." Hisessay is largely an apologia for functionalism, and functionalism which accepts the present class stratification as permanent is simply fascism.

Why not do without Philosophy ?

Nor is it possible to avoid all contamination with philosophy by becoming the perfect philistine and restricting one's attention solely to the practical sphere-the tendency of British labour leaders. For if the devil of philosophy is thrown out and the empty spaces of the mind swept and garnished, " Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other devils more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first." 

The mind that is not made up is peculiarly susceptible both to atmosphere and to passing fashions, it yields all too easily to powerful and specious movements of thought and is " tossed to and from, and carried about with every wind of doctrine." The human mind is more eager and curious than that of the pragmatic politician, and there will not be lacking vehement and persuasive philosophies of a dubious character likely to infect those not rendered immune by having a considered philosophy of their own.

It is indeed impossible to keep the mind free from philosophy. " We have no choice," says 
A. E. Taylor, " whether we shall form metaphysical hypotheses or not, only the choice whether we shall do so consciously a_nd in accord with some intelligible principle or unconsciously and at random." The philistine's mind is a mass of prejudices, un-examined assumptions, shallow and insufficiently substantiated generalities and dogmas. The man who says he is no philosopher is merely a bad philosopher.

The Relation of Theory and Practice
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