From the thread about Bertrand Russell and the Ship of Fools; I’ve decided to expand my response to James into a thread of its own. The quoted and italicized parts are from James, formerly of the comment thread.
“You believe that Bertrand Russell presented this argument.”
No, I’ve read the argument attributed as being presented by Russell. Whether he originated the argument, or repeated a pithy formulation he encountered from someone else, I don’t know – and I don’t care. I do care whether he ever used the argument, but only because I’ve said he did (and can’t find the attribution, which I had on-hand at the time I wrote the post). If I hadn’t said that, I’d care only to the degree that it affects the perceived reliablity of the source.
One of the big problems I have with ‘philosophy’ is its focus on WHO instead of WHAT. I care about the prepositions, not the individuals who happened to speak them first. Identities provide academics with a deep fund of arbitrary information that cannot be logically derived – and thus they can profitably develop expertise that others can’t easily duplicate. But that doesn’t make the information useful or valuable.
Forget me and my claim. Let’s say we can demonstrate beyond refutation that Russell repeated the argument instead of creating it. Now: what difference does that make to its validity? What strengths does it create or destroy, what weakness?
As far as I can see, absolutely none.
“Understanding the origin of an argument and its context provides tremendous help in the proper interpretation of the argument.”
It really doesn’t. It can give insight into whether there were layered arguments – for example, Newton’s famous statement about standing on the shoulders of giants develops some interesting implications if you know he used to taunt his rival about his height, but those implications lie in the relationship between the primary meaning and a possible secondary one. It changes the main meaning of the statement not at all.
If Hooke had been a very tall man, perhaps Newton would never have made that famous statement. But would the statement have been any less, or any more, true in itself?