Maarten Maartensz

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This are notes are by Maarten Maartensz to the text of Bertrand Russell's "Problems of Philosophy". Russell's text is in another file, that can be reached when on line by clicking on underlined "Back" at the end of the note.




CHAPTER XI

ON INTUITIVE KNOWLEDGE

Note 1: Starting with the common beliefs of daily life, we can be driven back from point to point, until we come to some general principle, or some instance of a general principle, which seems luminously evident, and is not itself capable of being deduced from anything more evident.

I largely agree, but the references to evidence (and luminous evidence) are mistaken though natural: assumptions from which deductively follows what we desire to explain need not be evident or luminous at all, and indeed usually are not ("God made it!", "Santa Clause gave it!"), and only become so by familiarity.

In general terms, we may assume what we please and deduce from it what we can. But we don't need to know more than such assumptions, and we also don't need to worry about such evidence they seem to have initially, provided we can deduce conclusions from them that are supported in experience, for such conclusions provides real evidence for them, that again may be independent from what we would wish to believe is evident or luminous. Back.


Note 2: (..) there is no reasoning which, starting from some simpler self-evident principle, leads us to the principle of induction as its conclusion.

I disagree, but my reasons are too technical to state here. And again, the true explanation of things need not at all be self-evident to be true nevertheless. Back.


Note 3: (..) the propositions deduced are often just as self-evident

Sometimes - and this is the more interesting case - the propositions deduced by self-evident principles from self-evident truths are not at all self-evident themselves. (Thomas Hobbes somewhere gives a nice account of his first encountering Pythagoras' Theorem in Euclid.) Back.


Note 4: All arithmetic, moreover, can be deduced from the general principles of logic (..)

This is what Frege and Russell believed themselves to have proved, but they were mistaken on the current understanding of logic, since to deduce all arithmetic we need, besides the general principles of logic, some principles about classes or numbers. Back.


Note 5: It would seem, also, though this is more disputable, that there are some self-evident ethical principles, such as 'we ought to pursue what is good'.

Why the existence of ethical principles, self-evident or not, should be more disputable than the existence of logical and arithmetical principles is not altogether clear to me. Probably the reason is that there seem to have been more disagreement between humans concerning ethical principles than concerning mathematical or logical principles. However, most such disagreements did not concern ethical principles as such, like 'people should not steal' and 'people should not murder' since the disagreeing parties nearly always agreed on them, but disagreed about their scope or application. (Indeed, the self-evident (?) ethical principle most people seem to live and survive by is that it is better to conform with than to deviate from one's fellows: "if in Rome, do as the Romans do", even if it involves gloating over dying gladiators in the circus, since conformism generally is much safer than non-conformism). Back.


Note 6: Only those who are practised in dealing with abstractions can readily grasp a general principle without the help of instances.

This seems to me unduly empirical. This may be true in many cases, but especially in the present context, in which our intuitive knowledge is considered, it should be noted that it seems as if human beings know some general principles without the help of instances. Two of these may be those that are involved in learning from experience: that all things come in kinds, and that recurrences recur (or thirdly, whatever happened several times thereby has a somewhat increased chance of happening again). Another may be our intuitive grasp of symbols and signs i.e. that given experiences may include clues or information about something else. (In this remark, as in others, I am not aiming at the precise literal and eternal metaphysical truth of the matters at hand, but only at some rather clear expression of what seems likely to me, and may be better and more fully expressed elsewhere.) Back.


Note 7: In addition to general principles, the other kind of self-evident truths are those immediately derived from sensation. We will call such truths 'truths of perception', and the judgements expressing them we will call 'judgements of perception'.

In view of Russell peculiar opinions about sense-data and universals, this will need some remarks, as he himself notes in the text that follows. I'll try to be as brief as I can. Back.


Note 8: The actual sense-data are neither true nor false. A particular patch of colour which I see, for example, simply exists: it is not the sort of thing that is true or false.

Here the puzzles start. If sense-data are things or events, it is obvious they are neither true nor false, for the same reason as, say, sausages or the weather are not things that are, themselves, true or false. But even so, they are supposed to be true or false of the things they are sense-data of (since we may hallucinate), while it seems a bit odd to say, without further clarification, that a particular patch of colour one sees 'simply exists', for if it does, it does not necessarily exist in the same sense as does a real sausage. The reason is, again, that a patch of colour may be a hallucination. Back.


Note 9: Thus whatever self-evident truths may be obtained from our senses must be different from the sense-data from which they are obtained.

On Russell's own account this cannot be true: Surely, there are truths derived from our senses about sense-data, for else we could not know there are sense-data. I agree that what our experiences are experiences of differs normally from our experiences and may be known by means of them, but that again is something that is difficult to understand on Russell's account. Back.


Note 10: Another class of intuitive judgements, analogous to those of sense and yet quite distinct from them, are judgements of memory. There is some danger of confusion as to the nature of memory, owing to the fact that memory of an object is apt to be accompanied by an image of the object, and yet the image cannot be what constitutes memory. This is easily seen by merely noticing that the image is in the present, whereas what is remembered is known to be in the past. Moreover, we are certainly able to some extent to compare our image with the object remembered, so that we often know, within somewhat wide limits, how far our image is accurate; but this would be impossible, unless the object, as opposed to the image, were in some way before the mind. Thus the essence of memory is not constituted by the image, but by having immediately before the mind an object which is recognized as past. But for the fact of memory in this sense, we should not know that there ever was a past at all, nor should we be able to understand the word 'past', any more than a man born blind can understand the word 'light'. Thus there must be intuitive judgements of memory, and it is upon them, ultimately, that all our knowledge of the past depends.

This seems mainly correct. Indeed, there is a difference between our becoming aware of a memory and the memory itself, and it is important to stress that generally all that we do remember about something is far more than is delivered in any particular act of remembering it (as anyone may find out for himself by remembering something and then asking himself whether he remembers anything else about it: I usually do, even if I did not believe so before I tried).

And it is also true and important that our minds somehow label a number of our experiences as being of a certain kind: memory, sensation and fantasy being three important classes of such experiences that we generally seem to be given as such, i.e. not as just any kind of experience, but definitely as an experience which is a memory, a sensation or a fantasy. Back.


Note 11: Thus there is a continual gradation in the degree of self-evidence of what I remember, and a corresponding gradation in the trustworthiness of my memory.

All of the present paragraph seems correct to me (which itself is interesting, in that Russell describes his unique private experiences in 1912 and I agree nearly 90 years later that my own private experiences in the respect he describes his are quite similar).

The problem that memory may deceive us, and more generally that our senses may deceive us, seems to me less of a problem than it seemed to Russell. My reason is that I do not expect not to be deceived by my senses, but only expect that they usually do not deceive me, and that I often may (and will) find out if they do.

What is true is that, since memory is involved in all or nearly all our knowledge, it is important to be quite clear to what extent and in which way one relies upon it: by reference to all one's further knowledge and belief, each instance of which may be mistaken, but each and all of which may mutually support each other in such a way that judgments based upon various evidence from various senses concerning the same presumed fact may make that presumption very probable or practically certain indeed, in specific cases where we have lots of evidence. Back.


Note 12: (..) reaching a limit of perfect self-evidence and perfect trustworthiness in our memory of events which are recent and vivid.

Not unqualifiedly so. Russell's general account is correct, but he does not mention he (or someone) may be drunk, hallucinating, insane, in the throws of some strong emotion etc. on the present moment, all of which tend to make one's present memories (and other sensations and judgments) more doubtful than they would be in more ordinary circumstances. Back.


Note 13: It would seem that cases of fallacious memory can probably all be dealt with in this way, i.e. they can be shown to be not cases of memory in the strict sense at all.

I doubt it very much. Indeed, it seems from my own knowledge that sometimes I have seemed to have remembered events that in fact did not happen as I remembered them, and it seems to me most people who are honest must have similar memories about their own false memories.

For the reason mentioned in note 11 - for judgments to be credible they must be supported by various kinds of independent evidence, and many of our judgments can be thus supported - this does not much trouble me in principle. Back.


Note 14: Memories have a diminishing self-evidence as they become remoter and fainter;

Broadly speaking, I agree with the present paragraph, but I like to avoid the rather vague term 'self-evident' and replace it by the more simpler 'evident'. Back.


Note 15: Judgements of intrinsic ethical or aesthetic value are apt to have some self-evidence, but not much.

Why not? This seems to me to involve at least two serious fallacies.

First, it seems factually false. Very many human judgments concern ethical or aesthetical matters, and however mistaken or misguided they are, they often seem to be very self-evident and very well-based to those who make these judgments. (I, for one, just know beer tastes and smells awful, for me, and I have always thought so.)

Second, it seems false as a matter of principle. At least nearly everything human beings do and don't do, believe and don't believe, desire and don't desire, and so on, is done, believed, desired etc. in the context of judgments about what people should and should not believe, desire, do, think about etc. and these latter judgments tend to be undoubted, sacrosanct, beyond criticism or Eternal Verities the Nation, Church or Party is based on.

So whereas it is easy to be flippant about such matters, especially in the guise of a philosopher, the fact seems to be that most human beings organise their life, opinions and behaviour around judgments of ethical and aesthetical value, and normally do so to the extent that they hold strong opinions about (supposed) matters of fact derived - usually invalidly - from these judgments of value. Back.