Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Uses of Philosophy in Writing

Readers of British Nobel Prize laureate Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) are bound to discover ideas applicable to any intellectual discipline. Take “The Value of Philosophy,” his famous last essay in The Problems of Philosophy (1912). In making a brilliant point about why we should live philosophical lives, Russell also alludes to the challenges of writers:

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. … 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 may 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. (156-157)

If everything were certain, why would businesspeople bother to write persuasive proposals? Why would politicians fuss over crafting compelling position papers? Why would novelists labor over emotionally powerful moments in their stories? Russell is on target in asserting that the reflection emerging from doubt, not the ignorance bred by certainty, inspires a deep thinking that eschews intellectual shortcuts and prizes a comprehensive, honest approach to logical analysis. Want to keep it fresh? Take in some philosophy.

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