BRS Board and Society Meeting Minutes – 1997
BERTRAND RUSSELL SOCIETY
1997 ANNUAL MEETING AND CONFERENCE REPORT
May 30 – June 1, 1997
(from the August 1997 BRS Quarterly – #95)
[Note: The meeting minutes for the 1997 BRS Annual Meeting were not printed in the Society’s Quarterly. This report of the meeting by John Lenz was printed in its place. JO]
The Bertrand Russell Society held its annual meeting on May
30-June 1 at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, NY (outside Buffalo).
This year we
participated in a joint meeting of ourselves, the Humanist Association
of Canada, and the Campus Freethought Alliance. The CFA represents
student groups at colleges and universities around the U.S. and Canada.
It was wonderful to see such vitality among young people at this event
entitled “Humanism: The Next Generation.” Several russell-l subscribers were in attendance, among other BRS members. Here is a brief report of Russell-related events.
At the opening plenary session, the BRS President (myself) made
short remarks about two messages “the good Lord” would send to
us today (if spirits had e-mail): skepticism and hope. (By the way, I
found a little known line of Russell’s published for the first time in
the Bibliography by Blackwell and Ruja: “Let us hope, for as yet there is no tax on hope.”)
It was pleasing to see that two other speakers paid homage to
Russell in the opening session. Derek Araujo, a student at Harvard, CFA
(we’re proud to say) a BRS member, said Russell was a major influence on
him. Jeff Lowder, President of Internet Infidels which maintains the
Secular Web (This is fantastic! www.infidels.org) said that he was introduced to free thought in high school through reading Why I Am Not a Christian
and “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish.” He actually gave pride of
place to BR among the people he thanked at the beginning of his talk!
(It was fascinating to hear about and to see the uses to which e-mail
and the WWW are being put – whether or not Principia Mathematica, a book which almost no one has read, had anything to do with computers! )
Friday, a luncheon was held at the home of Prometheus Books (like
the Center for Inquiry, founded by Paul Kurtz). All walked away with
purchased. By the way, in connection with the activities of this
formidable group in Buffalo, it was noted that the first line of the new
blockbuster film, “The Lost World” (the sequel to Jurassic Park; but I
would be pained if this mention caused anyone to go to see the film)
mentions their periodical Skeptical Inquirer.
At the afternoon session Tim Madigan of Free Inquiry
magazine and the BRS hosted the BRS session. Thomas Magnell (chair of
Philosophy at Drew University – my colleague here in Madison, New
Jersey) spoke on “Present Concerns and Future Interests.” Tom has
published on this topic in various ethics journals (he edits the Journal of Value Inquiry)
but we asked him to explain it to us in view of the theme of the
conference. He distinguished between the “politically enfranchised” and
the “politically unenfranchised” futures and argued that ignoring the
interests of the latter (say, for the sake of argument and example only,
the future after 100 years from now) entails a new form of bigotry,
Michael Rockler (BRS Chairman and Professor at National-Louis
University in Washington, D.C.) and John Novak (of Brock University and
editor of the
John Dewey Society newsletter) staged another in their series of
“Russell vs. Dewey” debates. This one, the 6th or so, addressed “Dewey
vs. Russell on Democracy.” Their wide-ranging critiques embraced much
more than democracy. There was no clear-cut winner.
On Saturday, the morning plenary session heard outstanding
reports from student organizers and activists, notably Adam Butler from
Alabama who is
rallying troops against the “10 commandments” judge (and the governor).
We were moved by (among others) Ibn Warraq on “Why I Am Not a Muslim” –
this is also the Russell-inspired title of his book from Prometheus. He
told me that BR is a pervasive influence in that work and that he
intends to join the BRS.
At lunch we were treated to another delightful and well-informed
performance by the good Lord himself, personified by Trevor Banks of the
Association of Canada. Trevor comes to look more like BR all the time.
The afternoon session included four papers: James Alouf (Sweet
Briar College) spoke on “Russell and the Teaching of History.” He
had new things to say even after old timers noted that this was the
third BRS talk on this popular topic in the past 16 or 17 years. John
Shosky (American University) addressed “Bertrand Russell on Power,”
particularly discussing the contemporary relevance of his thinking about
organizations. He acknowledged work on the book Power presented
to the BRS in previous years by Peter Stone. Catherine Kendig, a
graduate student at American University, read Victoria Patton’s paper on
“Russell’s Theory of Judgment.” This paper won the 1997 BRS student
paper prize, but Victoria, from the University of Western Australia,
could not attend. She is a student of Stewart Candlish. We will publish
this paper in the BRS Quarterly (under the new editorship of John Shosky).
Peter Stone (University of Rochester) gave a stimulating talk on “Russell’s Political Thought: What’s Ethics Got to Do with
It?” He examined the unified theory of ethics and politics that Russell offered in one of his last works of political theory, Human Society in Ethics and Politics.
This theory is grounded in a theory of good very similar to
utilitarianism. The primary difference is that Russell replaces
“utility” with “desire satisfaction.” Peter then examined both the
coherence and the relevance of the theory of the good. While the
conclusions he offers are rather preliminary, he believes that a
coherent version of the theory runs the risk of irrelevancy. In other
words, a coherent version of the theory might not be capable of
providing guidance to a person as to how to act which any person
(including Russell himself) might have reason to follow.
An annual highlight was the Red Hackle Hour preceding the banquet
on Saturday night. Chairman Michael Rockier made some appropriate
remarks in a brief after-dinner address.
On Sunday, the BRS conducted meetings of its Board and of the
Society at which, among other things, it was resolved to plan a meeting
for Tampa or
St. Petersburg, Florida at the end of May 1998. That will be our 25th
annual meeting. Jan Eisler will host this meeting.
The last official BRS presence at this joint gathering was when
John Lenz was flattered to introduce Paul Kurtz for his valedictory
“The Future of Humanism.” Paul Kurtz (who is bouncing back from
triple-bypass surgery) is a past recipient of the annual BRS Award for
work in Russell’s spirit.
It was a great pleasure as always to come together to express our
shared values and interests. This event was largely organized by the
indefatigable Tim Madigan of Free Inquiry magazine, whom we thank
again along with the entire staff of the Center for Inquiry! By the
way, I should repeat that the BRS offers a half-price initial membership
to anyone who attended this conference.
P.S. On a personal note, the presence of the CFA was a special
delight to me. I was a founding faculty co-sponsor of the Agnostic and
Group at Texas A&M University (where it was and still is sorely
needed) and (anecdotes omitted) this group spawned the Internet Infidels
now extremely ably run (elsewhere) by Jeff Lowder. (I knew my presence
there was in line with some higher purpose.) Check out their
mega-resource, the Secular Web, at: www.infidels.org.
John Lenz, President
Bertrand Russell Society