“Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed”

As the semester begins and teaching resumes, the pleasantly self-directed pace of the summer rapidly accelerates to the breakneck speed of classwork. In the change from one to the other, it’s worthwhile to recall Bertrand Russell’s ten rules for the Liberal Outlook. While they are intended for everyone, no matter their profession, they are particularly apposite for those reflecting on how to command a classroom. I’m especially fond of the third rule.

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

(h/t Maria Popova)

Happy teaching, and happy learning, RBC.

14 thoughts on ““Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed””

  1. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

    Would have given Bertrand a bad grade on this one, it sounds like the anti-vaccination crowd. I agree with you on number 3 though.

    1. Keith, I suspect you have underrated the esteemed Dr. Russell. I think his principle number 4, which immediately precedes the one you don’t like, clarifies his view in number 5. I think he’s saying you shouldn’t take as a given that somebody who has the credential has the right answer. Rather, you are expected to find out the reason for his position, and assess its credibility.

      With regard to the vaccination brouhaha, which is a good example, we don’t accept that we need vaccinations merely because the Surgeon General tells us we do. We accept it because he is able to back up his position with reasons, with data, with detailed assessments of the consequences of vaccinating and of not vaccinating. To the degree that his evidence is convincing, we strengthen our conviction that he is right, and after several such experiences, we tend to give credence to his recommendations. But many of us never stop asking “why?”

      1. I’m with Keith (which is to say, I’m with Popper and Bayes) rather than Russell on this one. On most topics I need to have opinions about, there are people who know so much more than I do that I’m not actually competent to assess their evidence and reasoning beyond a low level. So I wind up, most of the time, believing what the experts I trust tell me to believe.

        No credentials aren’t enough. Yes, some of what counts as expert knowledge today we’ll make fun of in ten years. But life is too short to be spent chasing down the evidence against the latest crank theory.

        In the narrow range of issues where I can speak as an expert, I claim my full Russellian right to back my own view against the rest of the world, though even then if I fail to persuade other experts I need to put an asterisk next to my belief. And on that narrow range of issues, I feel an obligation to defend my views to those competent to evaluate them, but not to teach (e.g.) Drug Abuse 101) to every ignorant twit with an opinion and a keyboard who scrawls his opinion as a comment on some random website that quotes me on something, or in an email to me, and shouts triumphantly, “Now prove to me that I’m wrong or you’ve conceded that I’m right!”

        To take the current instance: I write above as if I knew that Russell had stated those ten principles. In doing so, I rely on Johann’s authority, and the probability that if he’s wrong about the source someone will point that out. And I write also as Russell’s views, and Popper’s, count as evidence, in the Bayesian sense, about where the truth is likely to lie.

        1. I respect your knowledge and intelligence, Mark. I realize that’s one type of authority. The other type, the more common type, the type that comes from guns and clubs, or position and power, or money? No, I don’t respect that at all*. Your authority (to the extent your position carries such) with the state of Washington gets my respect; put Asa Hutchinson in that job and his authority would get my contempt.

          *Not quite true. I went to court on a petty violation recently–it’d never been the United States vs. Me before. I’m still regretting pleading no contest–and I both visibly showed my respect for the court (my coat was dirty but I wore a shirt and tie), which I would do in almost any case, and felt an internal level of respect for both the judge and the prosecutor for the decency with which they treated those in front of the court. (More mercifully than I might have in one case. That surprised me.) The last time I spent a day in court, I felt that way about the judge–perhaps it isn’t that rare for a judge to reject a guilty plea and tell the defendant (essentially) to get a lawyer and go to trial, but I’d never seen it before, and he was decent in other ways–but not one tiny bit for the prosecutor. Even I would have known better than to try some of those shenanigans.

          1. Yes, Russell is making a standard anti-Scholastic point. When he says “authority,” think Aristotle or Aquinas, not Bismarck or Lenin. But he seems to extend it to any sort of expert. That’s where I don’t think he’s right.

        2. Teaching is impossible if students bring pyrrhonian scepticism to the desk or lecture hall. A limited suspension of disbelief is as necessary to learning as it is to literature. Russell’s formulation here is careless.
          His argument for truth-telling is weak. In many circumstances lying is the winner in utility. You need a non-utilitarian argument like Kant’s to make veracity a strong principle.

          1. I’ve mostly given up hope I’ll be remembered for anything by anyone other than family and friends, but I still think it’s just barely possible people might still say “Skepticism is the worst form of gullibility” after I’m gone.

          2. Pyrrhonian? A new word for my already over-inflated vocabulary.

            As far BR’s rigor, he used up several lives worth of rigor with Alfred Whitehead and the Principia.

          3. @Dennis:

            But what on Earth do you mean? What about the following lacks rigour?

            “1 + 1 = 2. The above proposition is occasionally useful.”
            — Volume II of Principia

            : )

          4. In another place, which I can’t find now, Russell explains his idea of skepticism more or less as fiollows: If the experts agree on “X,” then you should be very skeptical of “not-X.” When the experts are not agreed, you should be skeptical of any position.

      2. Re: vaccination brouhaha, a case in point. Unvaccinated members of a congregation at a Texas mega-church are experiencing a bit of an epidemic of Measles (21 afflicted so far, mostly children whose parents decided for them not to get vaccinated). The pastor has apparently changed her mind and is now urging her congregation to get vaccinated. Better late than never, I suppose.

        1. Quelle suprise, non?

          The motto of my alma mater is, Rule by Obeying Nature’s Laws. Ma Nature can be a bit of a hard-case for those who choose to ignore her …

    1. If you liked this, then I encourage you to browse through Maria Popova’s “Brain Pickings” website. It’s absolutely filled with gems, all the time.

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