Bertrand Russell: The Everyday Benefit of Philosophy Is That It Helps You Live with Uncertainty

On the strength of a few quotations and the popular lecture Why I am Not a Christian, philosopher Bertrand Russell has been characterized as a so-called “positive atheist,” a phrase that implies a high degree of certainty. While it is true that Russell saw “no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology” — he saw them, in fact, as positively harmful — it would be misleading to suggest that he rejected all forms of metaphysics, mysticism, and imaginative, even poetic, speculation.

Russell saw a way to greatness in the search for ultimate truth, by means of both hard science and pure speculation. In an essay entitled “Mysticism and Logic,” for example, Russell contrasts two “great men,” Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, whose “scientific impulse reigns quite unchecked,” and poet William Blake, in whom “a strong hostility to science co-exists with profound mystic insight.”

It’s interesting that Russell chooses Blake for an example. One of his oft-quoted aphorisms cribs a line from another mystical poet, William Butler Yeats, who wrote in “The Second Coming” (1920), “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Russell’s version of this, from his 1933 essay “The Triumph of Stupidity,” is a bit clunkier rhetorically speaking:

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

The quote has been significantly altered and streamlined over time, it seems, yet it still serves as a kind of motto for the skeptical philosophy Russell advocated, one he would partially define in the 1960 interview above as a way to “keep us modestly aware of how much that seems like knowledge isn’t knowledge.” On the other hand, philosophy pushes reticent intellectuals to “enlarge” their “imaginative purview of the world into the hypothetical realm,” allowing “speculations about matters where exact knowledge is not possible.”

Where the quotation above seems to pose an insoluble problem—similar to the cognitive bias known as the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”—it seems in Russell’s estimation a false dilemma. At the 9:15 mark, in answer to a direct question posed by interviewer Woodrow Wyatt about the “practical use of your sort of philosophy to a man who wants to know how to conduct himself,” Russell replies:

I think nobody should be certain of anything. If you’re certain, you’re certainly wrong because nothing deserves certainty. So one ought to hold all one’s beliefs with a certain element of doubt, and one ought to be able to act vigorously in spite of the doubt…. One has in practical life to act upon probabilities, and what I should look to philosophy to do is to encourage people to act with vigor without complete certainty.

Russell’s discussion of the uses of philosophy puts me in mind of another concept devised by a poet: John Keats’ “negative capability,” or what Maria Popova calls “the art of remaining in doubt…. The willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity.” Perhaps Russell would not characterize it this way. He was, as you’ll see above, not much given to poetic examples. And indeed, Russell’s method relies a great deal more on logic and probability theory than Keats’. And yet the principle is strikingly similar.

For Russell, certainty stifles progress, and an inability to take imaginative risks consigns us to inaction. A middle way is required to live “vigorously,” that of philosophy, which requires both the mathematic and the poetic. In “Mysticism and Logic,” Russell sums up his position succinctly: “The greatest men who have been philosophers have felt the need of science and of mysticism: the attempt to harmonise the two was what made their life, and what always must, for all its arduous uncertainty, make philosophy, to some minds, a greater thing than either science or religion.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Sherlock Hound: Hayao Miyazaki’s Animated, Steampunk Take on Sherlock Holmes

With such majestic, painstakingly crafted films as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki has made his name as Japanese animation’s preeminent artistic visionary — and quite possibly animation’s preeminent artistic visionary as well. But before he co-founded Studio Ghibli, the house that has become synonymous with Miyazaki’s kind of lush, universally appealing, and award-winning films, he worked on various kinds of animation, for different media and pitched at different levels of seriousness. One of the most notable projects of the end of that chapter of his career transposed the adventures of Sherlock Holmes into a world of anthropomorphic dogs.

The Italian-Japanese co-production Sherlock Hound aired as a television series between 1984 and 1985. Of its 26 episodes, which sent the corgi Sherlock Hound and terrier Doctor Watson after a variety of thieves and on all sorts of adventures across a steampunk London, Miyazaki directed six.

In the Miyazaki-directed episode “Treasure Under the Sea” at the top of the post, for instance, the detecting duo go after a submarine purloined by recurring antagonist of both Holmes and Hound, Professor Moriarty, who here takes the form of a wolf.

“The Sovereign Gold Coins” finds Hound and Watson in pursuit of that seemingly more traditional stripe of criminal known as a safecracker, and in “Mrs. Hudson is Taken Hostage,” their landlady (who seems considerably more youthful in Miyazaki’s vision than the matron in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s) goes missing, though her kidnapper badly underestimates the difficulty of pulling off his plan under Hound’s watch. Miyazaki would direct three more episodes (“The Stormy Getaway,” “The Crown of Mazalin,” and “The Four Signatures”) before a rights dispute with Conan Doyle’s estate threw a wrench into production. The show later went on under other creators, and U.S. viewers can see the whole, still-delightful run on Hulu, but Miyazaki didn’t look back — and seeing as Nausicaä had come out that same year, he didn’t need to.

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Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in CinemaFollow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Peter Sellers Covers the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” “She Loves You” & “Help!”

In the early sixties, Peter Sellers, one of the greatest comic actors of his generation, met perhaps the greatest musicians of the age, the Beatles, through their mutual producer George Martin. The particularly British sensibilities of the band and the actor—slapstick and wordplay, accent and costume changes—had surprisingly broad appeal in the sixties, and a common history in their mutual admiration of English comedian and writer Spike Milligan.

Sellers rose to prominence on the Milligan-created BBC radio program The Goon Show, which the Beatles cited as a major influence on their work. Their constant patter in interviews, films, even rehearsals, their tendency to break into music hall song and dance, comes right out of Sellers in a way (see, for example, the great comic actor in a rare interview here), but was also very much an expression of their own extroverted personalities. It stands to reason then that Sellers and the Beatles, as Open Culture editor Dan Colman wrote in an earlier post, “became fast friends.”

And as the Beatles had paid tribute to Sellers’ comedy, he would return the favor, covering three of their most popular songs as only he could. At the top of the post, see Sellers do a spoken word version of “A Hard Day’s Night” as Lawrence Olivier’s Richard III. And above and below, he gives us several renditions of “She Loves You,” in several different accents, “in the voice of Dr. Strangelove, again with cockney and upper-crusty accents, and finally with an Irish twist. The recordings were all released posthumously between 1981 and 1983 on albums no longer in circulation.”

There are many more Beatles/Sellers connections. Before taping his “Hard Day’s Night” skit for Granada television special “The Music of Lennon & McCartney,” Sellers had presented the band with a Grammy for the song, which won “Best Performance of a Vocal Group” in 1965. “Incidentally,” writes Mersey Beat’s Bill Harry, “the [Grammy] presentation was made on the studio set of ‘Help!’ and, interestingly, Sellers had originally been offered the script of ‘Help!’ (Obviously under a different title) but turned it down.” Sellers and the Goon Show cast had previously worked with Richard Lester, director of the Beatles films and the John Lennon-starring How I Won the War.

Completists out there may have also heard the recorded conversation between Sellers and the Beatles that appears at the end of a bootleg version of the White Album, which circulated for years under the title The Peter Sellers Tape. That the band and the comedian got along so famously is no great surprise, nor that Sellers had so much fun reworking the rather silly, and infectiously catchy, pop songs of the Beatles’ early career, bringing to them his battery of characters and voices. We’ve saved what may be Sellers’ best Beatles cover for last. Below, hear him—in the voice of a lecturing vicar and with a backing choir—deliver “Help!” as a 45 RPM sermon.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

B.B. King Changes Broken Guitar String Mid-Song at Farm Aid, 1985 and Doesn’t Miss a Beat

Last week, after we learned of the passing of B.B. King, Josh Jones highlighted some electric live performances of the blues legend — performances that put his virtuosity on full display. Yesterday, an Open Culture reader sent us a pretty amazing clip that shows what a musician King was at heart. The scene is Farm Aid, 1985, attended by a crowd of 80,000 people. The song is “How Blue Can You Get.” And the key moment comes at the 3:10 mark, when King busts a guitar string, then manages to replace it before the song finishes minutes later. All the while, he keeps the song going, never missing a beat and singing the blues. Enjoy.

via Guitar Player

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David Lynch’s Twin Peaks Title Sequence, Recreated in an Adorable Paper Animation

Yea, and there was a rejoicing all round the land last week when Showtime and David Lynch finally worked out a deal to bring back Twin Peaks after initial reports that Lynch had backed out.

So while we wait for 2016, check out Matthew Fuller’s re-creation of the Twin Peaks title sequence in animated paper cut outs. Fuller’s rough hewn creation is adorable, staying true to the languid pace and dreamy objects of the original. (I had kind of forgetten that very large log on display at the one minute mark.)

Fuller just started this YouTube channel And the World Was Paper two weeks ago, kicking it off with a recreation of the new Star Wars trailer. He is also promising a new paper video every fortnight, so be sure to subscribe.

Meanwhile, this paper version of Twin Peaks isn’t the first time the titles has been recreated. Check out Filthy Frackers 8-bit version here:

via Welcome to Twin Peaks

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

William S. Burroughs — Alternative Rock Star — Sings with Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits, REM & More

William_S_Burroughs visual

Image via Christiaan Tonnis

Like many of the best countercultural icons, William S. Burroughs had at least two separate periods of underground fame. The first came in the late 1950s and 60s when he wrote such classics-to-be of Beat literature as JunkieNaked Lunch, and the “cut-up”  trilogy of The Soft MachineThe Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express. The second came in the 1980s and 90s, when a new wave of countercultural icons, themselves raised on Burroughs’ writing, came of age and sought out their hero for collaboration.

“How a novelist with no musical background who began his career in the 1940s became so popular an alternative music figure that Kurt Cobain backed him up on one of Cobain’s last recordings is one of the odder, more fascinating footnotes in this otherwise heavily examined musical era,” says Music for Maniacs. Many rockers who looked up to Burroughs attended his live readings, but for some, “it wasn’t enough to just listen to Burroughs read his own works, with increasingly elaborate musical backings, but to hire him to perform on recordings. And that is what we have here: not Burroughs’ own releases, but his various miscellaneous appearances on other bands’ songs.”

Above, hear Burroughs with Tom Waits on jazz tune “T’Ain’t No Sin” and with Ministry on “Quick Fix.” You can listen to all of these recordings, in which Burroughs records with or covers the material of REM, The Doors, Laurie Anderson, Marlene Dietrich, Kurt Cobain, and others, at Ubuweb. The playlist runs as follows. Click to listen:

  1. Fuck Me Kitten (with REM, from “Songs in the Key of X: Music from and Inspired by ‘the X-Files'” – 1996)
  2. Is Everybody In? (with The Doors, reciting Jim Morrison poetry, from “Stoned Immaculate: The Music of the Doors”)
  3. Sharkey’s Night (with Laurie Anderson, from “Mister Heartbreak” – 1983)
  4. What Keeps Mankind Alive (from Kurt Weill tribute album “September Songs”)
  5. ‘T ‘Aint No Sin (1920s jazz song, performed on Tom Waits’ “The Black Rider” – 1993)
  6. Quick Fix (w/Ministry, “Just One Fix” b-side – 1992)
  7. Old Lady Sloan (w/The Eudoras, covering a song by a Lawrence, Kansas punk band from “The Mortal Micronotz Tribute!” – 1995
  8. Ich Bin Von Kopf Bis Fub Auf Liebe Eingestellt (Falling In Love Again) – Marlene Deitrich cover, from “Dead City Radio” – 1988
  9. The “Priest” They Called Him – (w/Kurt Cobain, 1992)

Not only do performers like Burroughs rarely enjoy a two-act career like his, they hardly ever put out material as odd in their last act as they did in their first. But nothing in the life of the “rock star to rock stars,” as Music for Maniacs calls him, happened in the traditional matter. And once you get through his stint as an alternative rock star, do have a look at his stint as an alternative performer on the silver screen.

via Ubuweb

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Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in CinemaFollow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Art of Making Intelligent Comedy Movies: 8 Take-Aways from the Films of Edgar Wright

We’ve posted a lot of stuff on this site by Tony Zhou, the creator of the brilliant video essay series Every Frame a Painting. He delivered an insightful essay on David Fincher’s visual economy and he did a truly masterful take on movement in the films of Akira Kurosawa. And, in the piece above, he delves into the work of British director Edgar Wright, who directed such cult masterpieces as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

As Zhou notes, comedies are boring these days. In movies like Bridesmaids and The Hangover, the camera oftentimes just records the actors riffing. The humor is almost entirely dependent on the dialogue. And while that might yield some yuks, in terms of moviemaking, these movies are woefully limited. Film is a visual medium after all.

Wright, on the other hand, is a terrifically inventive filmmaker who knows how to tell jokes visually. One of the reasons Shaun of the Dead and his other films are so damned funny is because he is able to cram jokes into moments where other movies would be content with just pushing the plot forward. “This is what separates mediocre directors from great ones,” says Zhou. “The ability to take the most simple, mundane scenes and find new ways to do them.”

Like Eisenstein and Ozu and just about every other cinematic master out there, Wright is keenly aware of not just what is in the frame but what is not in the frame. Unlike Eisenstein – who, let’s face it, is not funny – Wright knows how to mine the comic potential of the frame.

Zhou ends his spiel with a challenge to Hollywood directors out there. He rattles off eight things that Wright does with picture and sound that he would like other filmmakers to work into their movies.

1. Things entering the frame in funny ways
2. People leaving the frame in funny ways.
3. There and back again.
4. Matching scene transitions.
5. The perfectly timed sound effect.
6. Action synchronized to the music.
7. Super-dramatic lighting cues.
8. Fence gags

And the bonus point

9. Imaginary gun fights.

And below is a clip from Wright’s landmark British TV series Spaced, featuring a pretty epic paintball fight.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Yoko Ono Lets Audience Cut Up Her Clothes in Conceptual Art Performance (Carnegie Hall, 1965)

Back before it was common practice to preface one’s web posts with the phrase “trigger warning” (which, BTW, might well apply here)…

Before the Internet…

And slightly before the public revelation of her relationship with John Lennon turned a Japanese avant-garde artist into an American household name…

Yoko Ono maintained an aura of imperviousness onstage at Carnegie Hall, as audience members accepted the challenge to cut away her clothing one piece at a time.

This now-famous conceptual performance was documented by filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, who captured nervous laughter and audience commentary along with the onstage action. (Ono had previously performed the piece twice in Japan where—with the exception of one man who wielded the scissors as if intending to stab her—audiences proved reticent and respectful.)

What does Cut Piece mean?

The motionlessness Ono imposed upon herself (and all subsequent performers of the work) keeps things open to interpretation.

It’s been hailed as a deeply symbolic feminist work and represented in the press of the time as an uninhibited, interactive strip show. Many an academic paper has been written.

With so much control ceded to the audience, even the performer couldn’t predict for certain whether the intention of the piece would synch with the reality.

Cut Piece cannot be mistaken for pure improvisation, however. Like John Cage’s 4’33”, it has a score, complete with variations:

 Cut Piece 

First Version for single performer: 

Performer sits on stage with a pair 

of scissors placed in front of him. 

It is announced that members of the audience 

may come on stage–one at 

a time–to cut a small piece of the 

performer’s clothing to take with them. 

Performer remains motionless 

throughout the piece. 

Piece ends at the performer’s 

option.

Ono has said that the impulse for Cut Piece came from the desire to create art free from ego, the “mentality of saying, ‘here you are, take anything you want, any part you want,’ rather than pushing something you chose on someone else.”

She also took inspiration from a familiar childhood story about the Buddha selflessly giving his own body to provide food for a hungry tiger. It seems an apt metaphor, given the facial expressions of certain audience participants. Were they faking a confidence they didn’t feel, or were they just jerks?

Did I mention the trigger warning?

Documentation, as any performance artist will tell you, is not quite the same as being there. Reenactments, too, may fall short of the original.

Ono reprised the work in 2003, at the age of 70, noting that her motivation had shifted from rage to love, and a desire for world peace.

When artist Jon Hendricks performed it in 1968, he did so in a thrift store suit, thus ignoring its creator’s conviction that part of its power came from starting out in one’s best clothes.

It’s all very ballsy, and horrifying, and compelling, and a little hard to watch.

Would you consider trying it in your local library, community hall, or as part of a school fundraiser?

A longer analysis and history of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece can be found here courtesy of Kevin Concannon.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Learn to Write Through a Video Game Inspired by the Romantic Poets: Shelley, Byron, Keats

Can a computer game teach writing and free up the creative mind? Elegy for a Dead World, a Kickstarter-funded game for Steam PC, Mac and Linux systems, hopes to do so. The creators Ichiro Lambe and Ziba Scott brought the game to E3 last year and debuted it with a brief introductory walkthrough.

The game contains three post-apocalyptic worlds based on the works of a trio of Romantic poems: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Darkness by Lord Byron, and When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be by John Keats.

Players explore the world by walking and flying through it like a regular platform game, but encounter writing prompts that begin to flesh out the backstory with the help of the player’s imagination. The developers hope that by the third or forth prompt, the player will be invested in the tale they are telling and perhaps ignore the prompts altogether.

Players can share their stories with friends. They can also print out their finished work through sites like Blurb and Lulu.

It’s hard to know without spending the $14.99 whether or not Elegy really can lead you to some decent writing. Experienced writers may find the worlds too limiting, but perhaps for a beginning writer it might help with the fear of the blank page. A lot was promised in the Kickstarter campaign:

You can read other players’ works, browsing through the most-recent, the best-loved, and recently-trending stories. In our gameplay tests so far, players have expressed a variety of thoughts about what happened in each world — the silhouette of what looks like a telescope to one player looks like a rocket ship to another, and a planet-destroying weapon to yet another.

In a larger context, Elegy is another attempt by game designers to free players from the determination of goal-based, narrative video games. Leave a comment if you’ve played Elegy for a Dead World and if you created something out of it. In the meantime, watch game reviewer NateWantsToBattle for his own experience, and just revel in the beautiful graphics. We’re a long way from Type!

via Big Think

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

6 Political Theorists Introduced in Animated “School of Life” Videos: Marx, Smith, Rawls & More

“It may come as a surprise to some academics,” writes leftist political theorist Michael Parenti in his sprawling textbook Democracy for the Few, “but there is a marked relationship between economic power and political power.” Parenti exaggerates—I have never met such an academic in a humanities department, though it may be true in the worlds of political philosophy and political science.

Yet in centuries past, philosophers and scholars had no trouble drawing conclusions about the intertwining of the political and the economic. One may immediately think of Karl Marx, who—according to the above video from a new School of Life series on famous political theorists—was “capitalism’s most famous and ambitious critic.” The practical effects of Marx’s political ideas may be anathema for good reason, Alain de Botton admits, but his economic analysis deserves continued attention.

“Capitalism is going to have to be reformed,” de Botton says, “and Marx’s analyses are going to be part of any answer.” One might imagine many academics objecting to his certainty. Marx’s relevance is in question across the political spectrum, in part because the kind of capitalism he so painstakingly documented is hardly recognizable to us now.

70 years before Marx diagnosed the social and economic ills of Victorian capitalism, Scottish philosopher Adam Smith made similar observations of its 18th century precursor. Regularly cited in defense of so-called free market principles, Smith’s Wealth of Nations as often shows how little freedom actually exists in capitalist societies because of the undue influence of “the masters” and the hyper-specialization of the work force, who were unable in Smith’s time, and often in ours, to organize for their mutual interests.

Smith may not have gone as far as Marx in his conclusions, but he did advocate progressive taxation and a robust welfare state. In the 20th century, John Rawls argued for a stricter standard of political and economic equality than Smith’s appeal to sympathy. Rawls’ 1971 Theory of Justice introduced a “simple, economical, and polemical way to show people how their societies were unfair”: the “veil of ignorance.”

This thought experiment asks us to eliminate unfairness by presuming we might potentially have been born into the circumstances of any other living person on earth. Though it may not be particularly apparent, Rawls’ ideas have had some influence on policy. As de Botton points out above, he dined regularly at the Clinton White House. But his principles haven’t much changed the way we live our economic lives, in part because of his critique of the rags-to-riches story, almost a sacred myth in American society.

Like Adam Smith, Henry David Thoreau’s politics seem a little harder to pin down. A contemporary of Marx, Thoreau thought in terms of the individual, penning perhaps a founding text for both hippie homesteaders and survivalists. In Walden—written while he lived alone in a cabin on land owned by his friend and patron Ralph Waldo Emerson—Thoreau makes the case for near total self-reliance. In his Civil Disobedience, he writes, “I heartily accept the motto—‘That government is best which governs least.’”

Thoreau also believed “That government is best which governs not at all.” Yet, despite its author’s fierce libertarian bent (he refused to pay his taxes on principle), Civil Disobedience has served a founding text of progressive social and environmental movements worldwide. Speaking “practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men,” Thoreau went on, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.”

De Botton’s series on political theory profiles two more Victorian-era thinkers—poet and writer on political economy William Morris, above, and art and literary critic John Ruskin, below. Both thinkers—with rarified focus on craft and aesthetics—made their own critiques of capitalism from positions of relative luxury. Though the School of Life series doesn’t say so directly, it seems as though the six philosophers it surveys—very cursorily, I should add—were chosen as historical counterexamples to the idea that political theorists don’t observe the relationship between the political and the economic. It may be the case today in certain academic departments, but it certainly was not for over the first two hundred years of capitalism’s existence.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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