I’d had high expectations of this book, and I wasn’t disappointed. Since reading it I’m very much a confirmed Bertrand Russell fan, and if I was in the habit of putting pictures of my heroes on the wall, I’m sure his would be among them. The full title of the book is A History of Western Philosophy And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, and the preface to the edition I read starts as follows:
In other words, Russell wants to put philosophy into its social and political context, and I think he succeeds very well. That said, and excellent though this book is, it could still have been better if Russell had spent slightly less time on the Middle Ages and on people like Plotinus, St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and dealt more fully with the much more interesting philosophers of the last few centuries. Ever since I started to look into western philosophy in any detail, I’ve become more and more convinced that although many of the pre-Socratic philosophers, certainly up to Democritus, did their best to search for truth in an honest, dispassionate and careful manner, things went rapidly downhill from there on. While people like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle certainly were great thinkers and had some brilliant ideas, the basis of their thought was fundamentally flawed, and they sent philosophy off in completely the wrong direction. As soon as it fell into the hands of the Christians things got even worse, and we have to wait till the Renaissance before they gradually start to improve and get back on the right track. Only with people like Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant can we really say that honest, unprejudiced investigation has regained its rightful place. Reading this book I see plenty of evidence that Russell would more or less agree with this analysis, so why does he waste so much time on the Middle Ages, rather than moving on more quickly to something more interesting? If and when I read this book again, there are large sections which I shall be skipping!
This is a particularly long post, so I’ve broken it up into sections:
followed by my comments on:
- Bertrand Russell’s introduction
- The ancient Greeks
- Plato and Aristotle
- Some more Greek philosophy
- Jewish religious development
- St. Augustine
- The Dark Ages
- Mohammedan Culture and Philosophy
- John the Scot
- Saint Thomas Aquinas
- Franciscan Schoolmen
- The Rise of Science
- Hobbes’s Leviathan
- David Hume
- The Romantic Movement
- The Utilitarians
- William James
- John Dewey
- The Philosophy Of Logical Analysis
As has often been said about this book, it’s anything but a neutral account of western philosophy. Russell writes about philosophers in the same way that I tend to, i.e. he’s constantly comparing their ideas to his own, so that the book tells us as much about him as it does about the subjects he deals with. The preface to the 1946 British edition starts in a tone of utmost modesty, with the words:
It soon becomes obvious, however, that this apparent modesty is no obstacle to a refreshingly critical view of the great philosophers of history and of his own time. If he doesn’t appreciate someone, then it doesn’t matter how well-respected and influential they might be, he comes out and says so.
Because of Russell’s own philosophical preferences, he tends to be very critical of those philosophers, from Kant onwards, who belong to the ‘continental’ tradition, while being much more sympathetic to those nearer the Anglo-American analytic school. This has led to accusations of bias from those with different preferences, but Russell is always honest when presenting his own opinions, and I don’t think he ever claimed to hide them or was under any obligation to do so. Russell’s preferences tend to coincide with my own (and not only since reading this book!), so this ‘bias’ doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but on the other hand maybe I should try to read more on the ‘continental’ philosophers, to get a more balanced view and to give them a chance – just to be on the safe side…
Russell always keeps his two feet very much on the ground, and does not depart from common sense unless he sees a good reason for it. However, he’s no slave to common sense either, and if he does see a good reason to depart from it (as with relativity and quantum theory) then he has no hesitation in doing so. Even in the case of John Dewey (not one of his favourite philosophers), he’s willing to admit that common sense might be changing, and that in the future it might prefer Dewey’s views to his own:
Quite apart from his wide knowledge of history and philosophy, Russell is a wise man and a good writer with an excellent sense of humour. The book is filled with enlightening and often amusing comments on philosophy in general, and on modern life, i.e. life during the 1940s (the book was written during the war). Just to give a few random examples:
…to which I would reply: Philosophers definitely must be ‘men with a certain breadth of mind’, who are capable of seeing life from a higher level, rising above the details (both those of their own lives and those of the period in which they live) to see general principles. Ideally they shouldn’t ‘invent consolations’, but rather try to do something to improve the world!
And last but not least, I really love Bertrand Russell’s dry humour and the way in which he’s capable of saying, ever so politely, that he finds the ideas of some highly respected and influential philosopher a complete load of rubbish. He has a wonderfully understated way of making it clear that he’s not impressed by the arguments on offer, by the subtle use of such phrases as “we are told”, “it would seem”, and (my personal favourite) “one gathers”. I often had to laugh out loud at some of his comments!
I shall now go through the book section by section, more or less, starting with the excellent introduction…
The introduction to this book could easily stand alone as an inspired and brilliantly written ten-page essay, and tells us a lot about Russell and his ideas, so I’ll give it the attention it deserves. He starts by trying to define what philosophy is and how it relates to the rest of life:
Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge – so I should contend – belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy. Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries. (introduction, p.xiii,1)
He then goes on to sketch in broad outline the development of western philosophy, from Greece in the 6th. century B.C. via the ancient world, the rise of Christianity, the barbarian invasions, the Middle Ages, the Reformation and the development of science, up to the present day (i.e. 1945). He analyses this development mainly in terms of the conflict between social cohesion and individual liberty, making some very interesting points in the process. He repeatedly shows that what is best for the individual is not necessarily what is best for the group, and that in the competition between groups, victory inevitably goes to the group which is strongest rather than to that in which the individuals are the happiest, the most productive or the most civilised:
He ends the introduction (pp.xx – xxiii) with an examination of the effects of the Reformation, and draws a parallel between subjectivism in philosophy, anarchism in politics, and mysticism in religion. He contrasts this with the opposite extreme, i.e. the sort of disciplined society where the individual is completely subservient to the whole, and concludes as follows:
It is clear that each party to this dispute – as to all that persist through long periods of time – is partly right and partly wrong. Social cohesion is a necessity, and mankind has never yet succeeded in enforcing cohesion by merely rational arguments. Every community is exposed to two opposite dangers; ossification through too much discipline and reverence for tradition, on the one hand; on the other hand, dissolution, or subjection to foreign conquest, through the growth of an individualism and personal independence that makes co-operation impossible. In general, important civilizations start with a rigid and superstitious system, gradually relaxed, and leading, at a certain stage, to a period of brilliant genius, while the good of the old tradition remains and the evil inherent in its dissolution has not yet developed. But as the evil unfolds, it leads to anarchy, thence, inevitably, to a new tyranny, producing a new synthesis secured by a new system of dogma. The doctrine of liberalism is an attempt to escape from this endless oscillation. The essence of liberalism is an attempt to secure a social order not based on irrational dogma, and insuring stability without involving more restraints than are necessary for the preservation of the community. Whether this attempt can succeed only the future can determine. (introduction, p.xxii,7)
“Each party to this dispute” may well be “partly right and partly wrong”, but there’s still no doubt as to where Bertrand Russell’s main sympathies lie: his description of the less extreme libertarians as being “scientific, utilitarian, rationalistic, hostile to violent passion, and enemies of all the more profound forms of religion” could be applied perfectly to himself.
I find it interesting that he sees the main threat to a society rich in individualism and personal independence (in other words the sort of society in which the individual is likely to be the most happy) as being “subjection to foreign conquest”. Perhaps this “endless oscillation” will only end when there is finally a world government – an idea to which Russell was far from hostile.
I think that what Russell is talking about here – and the same ideas keep recurring in the rest of the book – is something very basic: the conflict between ‘primitive’, individualistic man, aiming quite naturally (and I would say quite rationally) towards his own happiness, and the sort of larger entities which are an unavoidable result of what we call ‘civilisation’. Entities which, following their own autonomous and inevitable logic, swallow up the individual and make his happiness subservient to the needs of the group, and which always triumph over the individual, just as larger groups triumph over smaller ones, simply because they are stronger and better organised. The principle by which these larger entities organise themselves is what later came to be called ‘division of labour’: each individual, rather than being an independent whole, becomes a small part of something bigger, a cog in the machine. Inevitably, the distribution of power, of happiness, of leisure and of material goods between the individuals comprising the group will not be even, so some of them, usually a minority, will be individually better off than they would have been in a more ‘primitive’ and less organised society, while others will be worse off. The success of the group has very little to do with the general level of happiness of the individuals comprising it, so that successful groups can easily consist mainly of relatively unhappy individuals. Even at the individual level, some aspects of life will be better under ‘civilisation’ while others will be worse, so no matter how well-off the individual, or how prosperous and successful the group, there will always be a certain nostalgia for the pre-civilised state. This conflict between nature and civilisation is as old as civilisation itself, and can be found in the background of all human culture and at the basis of all human conflict.
So much for the introduction. The main part of the book goes chronologically through world history in general and the development of western philosophy in particular, so I’ll do the same, giving my comments (both on the philosophers and ideas concerned, and on what Bertrand Russell has to say about them) on whatever I especially agree with, disagree with or otherwise find interesting…
The ancient Greeks:
In the section on the Pre-Socratics we see that the above-mentioned conflict between nature and civilisation was already in full swing, and was expressed in the form ‘prudence versus passion’. In this period the nostalgia for the pre-civilised state found its expression in the worship of Bacchus/Dionysus, a god imported from the much less civilised Tracians:
The ancient Greeks in general, and most of their philosophers in particular, seem to have been a lot more religious/superstitious than I’d always assumed. The Ionians had a rationalist, scientific tradition, but of the rest, very few would fall under my definition of a ‘real’ philosopher.
From this point onwards, there are first certain seeds of decay, […] and then a gradual decadence. What is amiss, even in the best philosophy after Democritus, is an undue emphasis on man as compared with the universe. […] In spite of the genius of Plato and Aristotle, their thought has vices which proved infinitely harmful. After their time, there was a decay of vigour, and a gradual recrudescence of popular superstition. […] it was not until the Renaissance that philosophy regained the vigour and independence that characterize the predecessors of Socrates. (p.72,8).
I would also say that Plato, like most of the other ancient Greek philosophers (definitely including Aristotle in his metaphysics!), fails to distinguish between what we can honestly say we know, and what is simply speculation. He puts forward all sorts of ideas, e.g. that all knowledge is reminiscence and that therefore the soul must have existed before birth, and about what happens to the soul after death, as if they were proven knowledge, when they are in fact pure speculation. For Plato, “the body is a hindrance in the acquisition of knowledge, and […] sight and hearing are inaccurate witnesses: true existence, if revealed to the soul at all, is revealed in thought, not in sense.” (p.136,2). In other words the world as revealed by the senses is an illusion, and the ‘real’ world is elsewhere. Unfortunately this would prove to be a very influential idea…
Sparta was an extreme example of the sort of disciplined society where the individual is completely subservient to the whole:
There are some interesting similarities between Sparta on the one hand (especially the romanticised version related by Plutarch), and Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia on the other:
There are also interesting similarities between Sparta and Plato’s ideal society!
Plato and Aristotle:
Unsurprisingly, the parts of the book dealing with these two philosophical giants take up eleven chapters and over 100 pages, but that’s certainly not because of the great respect Russell feels for them or because he thinks they made such a positive contribution to the development of ideas. If they occupy such a central position, in this book as in the history of philosophy generally, then it is purely and simply due to the great extent and longevity of their influence, rather than because of any good for which they might have been responsible.
Aristotle’s ideas on logic were his most influential, and for longest. He basically invented formal logic by inventing the syllogism, a very useful concept in its time, but one which has proven too simple and therefore too limited. Aristotle’s logic has been surpassed by later work, but for some strange reason is still popular with Catholics:
I think this says a lot about the Catholic church…
As far as I’m concerned, the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle are an excellent example of the human tendency to objectify things which are in fact (subjective) products of the mind. Plato’s forms and Aristotle’s ideas and essence are simply concepts invented by the mind in its attempt to understand and organise the information it’s received from the senses, and then projected outwards, as it were, and regarded as objective entities with their own independent existence, which the mind has simply discovered.
In his criticism of Aristotle’s logic, Russell shows how linguistic structures and conventions are transferred to metaphysics, i.e. how something which is entirely the product of the human mind is projected onto what is supposed to have an objective existence independent of human thought:
The conception of “substance,” like that of “essence,” is a transference to metaphysics of what is only a linguistic convenience. We find it convenient, in describing the world, to describe a certain number of occurrences as events in the life of “Socrates,” and a certain number of others as events in the life of “Mr. Smith.” This leads us to think of “Socrates” or “Mr. Smith” as denoting something that persists through a certain number of years, and as in some way more “solid” and “real” than the events that happen to him. If Socrates is ill, we think that Socrates, at other times, is well, and therefore the being of Socrates is independent of his illness; illness, on the other hand, requires somebody to be ill. But although Socrates need not be ill, something must be occurring to him if he is to be considered to exist. He is not, therefore, really any more “solid” than the things that happen to him.
“Substance,” when taken seriously, is a concept impossible to free from difficulties. A substance is supposed to be the subject of properties, and to be something distinct from all its properties. But when we take away the properties, and try to imagine the substance by itself, we find that there is nothing left. To put the matter in another way: What distinguishes one substance from another? Not difference of properties, for, according to the logic of substance, difference of properties presupposes numerical diversity between the substances concerned. Two substances, therefore, must be just two, without being, in themselves, in any way distinguishable. How, then, are we ever to find out that they are two?
“Substance,” in fact, is merely a convenient way of collecting events into bundles. What can we know about Mr. Smith? When we look at him, we see a pattern of colours; when we listen to him talking, we hear a series of sounds. We believe that, like us, he has thoughts and feelings. But what is Mr. Smith apart from all these occurrences? A mere imaginary hook, from which the occurrences are supposed to hang. They have in fact no need of a hook, any more than the earth needs an elephant to rest upon. Any one can see, in the analogous case of a geographical region, that such a word as “France” (say) is only a linguistic convenience, and that there is not a thing called “France” over and above its various parts. The same holds of “Mr. Smith”; it is a collective name for a number of occurrences. If we take it as anything more, it denotes something completely unknowable, and therefore not needed for the expression of what we know.
“Substance,” in a word, is a metaphysical mistake, due to transference to the world-structure of the structure of sentences composed of a subject and a predicate.
I conclude that the Aristotelian doctrines with which we have been concerned in this chapter are wholly false, with the exception of the formal theory of the syllogism, which is unimportant. Any person in the present day who wishes to learn logic will be wasting his time if he reads Aristotle or any of his disciples. None the less, Aristotle’s logical writings show great ability, and would have been useful to mankind if they had appeared at a time when intellectual originality was still active. Unfortunately, they appeared at the very end of the creative period of Greek thought, and therefore came to be accepted as authoritative. By the time that logical originality revived, a reign of two thousand years had made Aristotle very difficult to dethrone. Throughout modern times, practically every advance in science, in logic, or in philosophy has had to be made in the teeth of opposition from Aristotle’s disciples. (p.200,6)
On 08/08/2014 I wrote in my diary:
And finally, a very strange idea which I came across for the first time in this book, is that the concept of relativity (in the most simple sense of the word) seems to have posed great problems for so many ancient philosophers, and that (if Bertrand Russell is to be believed) this situation continued until quite recently:
I find it difficult to imagine that Bertrand Russell isn’t exaggerating a bit when he attributes this sort of confusion to Hegel, but I’m just about willing to believe him regarding Plato and his contemporaries, strange though the idea seems to a modern mind. Nowadays only a very young child, or someone who’s severely retarded or brain-damaged, would be expected to think in such a primitive way and to make such mistakes. Can the human mind have improved so much in the last two and a half millennia that what was once difficult and mysterious for great thinkers is now obvious to all but the smallest child? That’s difficult to believe! Did the ancient Greek language lack the words to express such relational concepts? If this is all true, however, it perhaps goes a long way towards explaining the general human tendency to regard as absolute things which are actually relative…
Some more Greek philosophy:
For Epicurus, the only thing which is real and which matters is pleasure. So far, so good, but he also had some strange ideas and an amazing lack of psychological insight: for instance he denies the human need for excitement.
Many schools of Greek philosophy, the Epicureans and Stoics for instance, weren’t very concerned with matters outside the scope of our everyday experience (big metaphysical issues, the afterlife, etc.), and simply presented an ‘attitude’ which would allow the individual to live in the best way possible. Stoicism, for instance, promoted the acceptance of things as they are, and had much in common with some Eastern philosophies. The Stoics offered some useful ideas about the interconnectedness of everything and the brotherhood of man, but ultimately they were still reliant on something outside the knowable world:
At the start of this book Russell warns us that he’s going to use a very broad definition of the word ‘philosophy’. I would be tempted to go even further and say that the book is more a history of Western thought than of what I, personally, would regard as philosophy. In few places is this better illustrated than in the long and detailed chapter which Russell devotes to Plotinus, in spite of the fact that he was really more of a mystic than a philosopher and that many of his ideas are pure religious speculation:
Plotinus was historically important, as the link between ‘ancient’ (i.e. Greek and Roman) thought and Christianity, and as an influence on the Christianity of the Middle Ages and Catholic theology. But he’s interesting in other ways too…
Again, a philosophy may be important because it expresses well what men are prone to believe in certain moods or in certain circumstances. Uncomplicated joy and sorrow is not matter for philosophy, but rather for the simpler kinds of poetry and music. Only joy and sorrow accompanied by reflection on the universe generate metaphysical theories. (p.285,8)
I think Russell includes many things in his definition of philosophy which I would rather put in the realms of art and religion. The process had already been going on long before his time, but Plotinus is a particularly good example of how thinkers went astray, substituting ‘wishful thinking’ for the real (i.e. curious, impartial, unbiased) thing:
No wonder so little progress was made during so many centuries…
Jewish religious development:
In this section we find another good example of how religious ‘philosophy’ substitutes wishful thinking for rational enquiry, adapting metaphysics to the psychological needs of the moment:
It’s also interesting to read in 2014 that:
Which, as far as I’m concerned, pretty well disqualifies him as a serious philosopher. In spite of this, he had very advanced ideas on the nature of time, and was aware of the idea of ‘eternity’ being outside of time, rather than just time going on for ever:
“What, then, is time ?” he asks. “If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.” Various difficulties perplex him. Neither past nor future, he says, but only the present, really is; the present is only a moment, and time can only be measured while it is passing. Nevertheless, there really is time past and future. We seem here to be led into contradictions. The only way Augustine can find to avoid these contradictions is to say that past and future can only be thought of as present: “past” must be identified with memory, and “future” with expectation, memory and expectation being both present facts. There are, he says, three times: “a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future.” “The present of things past is memory; the present of things present is sight; and the present of things future is expectation.” To say that there are three times, past, present, and future, is a loose way of speaking.
He realizes that he has not really solved all difficulties by this theory. […] But the gist of the solution he suggests is that time is subjective: time is in the human mind, which expects, considers, and remembers. It follows that there can be no time without a created being, and that to speak of time before the Creation is meaningless.
I do not myself agree with this theory, in so far as it makes time something mental. But it is clearly a very able theory, deserving to be seriously considered. I should go further, and say that it is a great advance on anything to be found on the subject in Greek philosophy. It contains a better and clearer statement than Kant’s of the subjective theory of time – a theory which, since Kant, has been widely accepted among philosophers. (p.353,9)
He also manages to reconcile predestination and free will, in a manner similar to my own views on the subject: both views are true, depending on perspective, i.e. from where the observer is standing. As Augustine would put it, from God’s point of view, in eternity, i.e. outside of time, our lives are predestined, but from our point of view, inside time, we have free will, and there is no contradiction between the two views:
Quite a bit of intelligent philosophy is mixed with a whole lot of totally moronic theology, such as the following:
The reason the world was created in six days is that six is a perfect number (i.e. equal to the sum of its factors).
There are good and bad angels, but even the bad angels do not have an essence which is contrary to God. God’s enemies are not so by nature, but by will. […]
The world is less than six thousand years old. History is not cyclic, as some philosophers suppose: “Christ died once for our sins.” (p.359,1)
I wonder what Augustine might have achieved if he’d lived in other historical circumstances and had been able to give free rein to his philosophical abilities, rather than having to make everything agree with Christianity!
While much of Augustine’s theology is basically just silly, some of his ideas have actually been responsible for a great deal of human misery over the last sixteen centuries, not least his ideas on sex:
It is evident from the above that what makes the ascetic dislike sex is its independence of the will. Virtue, it is held, demands a complete control of the will over the body, but such control does not suffice to make the sexual act possible. The sexual act, therefore, seems inconsistent with a perfectly virtuous life. (p.359,9)
Reading about certain aspects of his theology, I was very much reminded of some of the things I’ve heard my born-again Christian brother come out with, things which I found astonishing and which differ greatly from what the average Catholic believes:
These views, though they may now seem commonplace, caused, at the time, a great commotion, and were, largely through St. Augustine’s efforts, declared heretical. […]
St. Augustine taught that Adam, before the Fall, had had free will, and could have abstained from sin. But as he and Eve ate the apple, corruption entered into them, and descended to all their posterity, none of whom can, of their own power, abstain from sin. Only God’s grace enables men to be virtuous. Since we all inherit Adam’s sin, we all deserve eternal damnation. All who die unbaptized, even infants, will go to hell and suffer unending torment. We have no reason to complain of this, since we are all wicked. (In the Confessions, the Saint enumerates the crimes of which he was guilty in the cradle.) But by God’s free grace certain people, among those who have been baptized, are chosen to go to heaven; these are the elect. They do not go to heaven because they are good; we are all totally depraved, except in so far as God’s grace, which is only bestowed on the elect, enables us to be otherwise. No reason can be given why some are saved and the rest damned; this is due to God’s unmotived choice. Damnation proves God’s justice; salvation, His mercy. Both equally display His goodness.
The arguments in favour of this ferocious doctrine which was revived by Calvin, and has since then not been held by the Catholic Church are to be found in the writings of St. Paul, particularly the Epistle to the Romans. These are treated by Augustine as a lawyer treats the law: the interpretation is able, and the texts are made to yield their utmost meaning. One is persuaded, at the end, not that St. Paul believed what Augustine deduces, but that, taking certain texts in isolation, they do imply just what he says they do. It may seem odd that the damnation of unbaptized infants should not have been thought shocking, but should have been attributed to a good God. The conviction of sin, however, so dominated him that he really believed new-born children to be limbs of Satan. A great deal of what is most ferocious in the medieval Church is traceable to his gloomy sense of universal guilt. (p.364,5)
…and I would say: not only in the medieval Church! To finish with Saint Augustine:
The Dark Ages
The account of the following centuries is full of information which, interesting though it often is from a historical point of view, has nothing whatsoever to do with philosophy, e.g. the conflict between Cyril and Nestorius:
Also the chapters The Papacy In The Dark Ages (which is 100% history and totally devoid of philosophy – probably because there wasn’t any advance in philosophy during this period) and The Thirteenth Century, provide interesting background information and were useful to me in helping to fill some large gaps in my historical education, but have very little to do with the main subject of the book. I found it interesting (although also depressing) to read just how bad things were at the time and for how much evil, ignorance and cruelty the Catholic church was directly responsible, but for a book supposedly about philosophy it contains a bit too much historical detail, especially regarding the endless struggles between popes and emperors.
Mohammedan Culture and Philosophy:
Much the same could be said of this chapter: lots of interesting history, but not much philosophy. Here are a couple of interesting historical points I came across:
Various circumstances facilitated this expansion. […] The Syrians, who were largely Nestorian, suffered persecution at the hands of the Catholics, whereas Mohammedans tolerated all sects of Christians in return for the payment of tribute. Similarly in Egypt the Monophysites, who were the bulk of the population, welcomed the invaders. In Africa, the Arabs allied themselves with the Berbers, whom the Romans had never thoroughly subdued. Arabs and Berbers together invaded Spain, where they were helped by the Jews, whom the Visigoths had severely persecuted. (p.419,6)
The Arab Empire was an absolute monarchy, under the caliph, who was the successor of the Prophet, and inherited much of his holiness. The caliphate was nominally elective, but soon became hereditary. The first dynasty, that of the Umayyads, who lasted till 750, was founded by men whose acceptance of Mohammed was purely political, and it remained always opposed to the more fanatical among the faithful. The Arabs, although they conquered a great part of the world in the name of a new religion, were not a very religious race; the motive of their conquests was plunder and wealth rather than religion. It was only in virtue of their lack of fanaticism that a handful of warriors were able to govern, without much difficulty, vast populations of higher civilization and alien religion. (p.420,6)
John the Scot:
The Dark Ages were dark, not only because of the collapse of civilisation and the invasions of barbarians (many of whom were already Christians, the rest getting converted later), but because of the Christian idea that ‘revelation’ is superior to reason. Fortunately higher culture was preserved in Ireland as well as by the Moslems, and there was a careful and hesitant revival of ‘real’ philosophy with John the Scot (9th. century):
He escaped punishment, however, owing to the support of the king (p.403,3)
John the Scot was a great scholar and translator, and an independent thinker by 9th. century standards, and many of his ideas were completely heretical. But his original work ‘On the Division of Nature’ shows that even in his case ‘philosophy’ consisted mostly of pure theological speculation. Anyone who made a useful contribution to thought in the Middle Ages was at least slightly heretical…
Saint Thomas Aquinas:
Thomas Aquinas confirms the hard and seemingly ‘unfair’ doctrine found in St. Augustine, i.e. the sort of thing in which born-again Christians believe:
Having devoted a whole chapter to Thomas Aquinas, Russell concludes:
I think that just about sums up the ‘philosophy’ of the Middle Ages, and Catholic ‘philosophy’ in general!
William of Occam, in spite of being a Franciscan, seems to have been another exception to the general run of medieval ‘philosophers’, in that he did make some useful contributions to the development of thought.
On the other hand he also remained very much a monk, and saw the world as being divided into separate parts, only some of which (and not even the most important of them) could be discovered and understood by means of reason. According to Wikipedia: William of Ockham believed “only faith gives us access to theological truths. The ways of God are not open to reason, for God has freely chosen to create a world and establish a way of salvation within it apart from any necessary laws that human logic or rationality can uncover.”
In an excellent chapter on Machiavelli, Russell explains the nature of The Prince, compares it to the more liberal ideas expressed in other works and very plausibly explains the difference between them.
The Prince has always been the subject of controversy, as the pragmatic and ‘immoral’ advice given to rulers who want to gain or maintain power seems to conflict with the humanist and republican ideas contained in Machiavelli’s other works, for instance his Discourses on Livy, and this has led to some bizarre attempts at an explanation. Many writers (e.g. Rousseau) saw the book as a satire. Others thought that Machiavelli was a staunch republican who deliberately offered bad advice, which, if followed, would have led to the downfall of the prince and the establishment of a republic. Apparently Gramsci believed that the book was aimed not at the ruling class but at the common people, as a warning of what sort of tactics they could expect from their rulers. Some even said that Machiavelli must have changed his mind dramatically in favour of free republics after having written The Prince.
Russell’s explanation is simpler and much more plausible: putting the book in the context of its time, he argues that Machiavelli separated ends and means. As far as ends were concerned, he was a liberal republican, but when it came to means he was a scientific realist. The Prince happens to be primarily about means rather than ends, and the fact that Machiavelli had dedicated it to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici in the hope of gaining his favour also made it unlikely that he would make any mention of his republican sympathies:
But there is also, in politics, the question of means. It is futile to pursue a political purpose by methods that are bound to fail; if the end is held good, we must choose means adequate to its achievement. The question of means can be treated in a purely scientific manner, without regard to the goodness or badness of the ends. “Success” means the achievement of your purpose, whatever it may be. If there is a science of success, it can be studied just as well in the successes of the wicked as in those of the good – indeed better, since the examples of successful sinners are more numerous than those of successful saints. But the science, once established, will be just as useful to the saint as to the sinner. For the saint, if he concerns himself with politics, must wish, just as the sinner does, to achieve success.
The question is ultimately one of power. To achieve a political end, power, of one kind or another, is necessary. This plain fact is concealed by slogans, such as “right will prevail” or ”the triumph of evil is short-lived.” If the side that you think right prevails, that is because it has superior power. (p.509,9)
The Rise of Science:
Having been given, in the foregoing chapters, a very interesting account of how Christianity developed and why it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and of how the power of the Papacy developed and then diminished, we arrive at the Reformation, the main benefit of which to humanity, according to Russell, was not that the new ‘reformed’ churches were any better than what they replaced, but simply that they were less powerful:
I get the impression that Hobbes was surprisingly modern in some ways. He seems to see the subjective and relative nature of things which most people tend to regard as objective and absolute. He also has a healthy aversion to religion, and was perhaps even an atheist (he was certainly accused of it), but he couldn’t be open about such matters, given the times he lived in.
I couldn’t have put it better myself!
Just like Rousseau, he attempts to explain ‘society’ as the result of an agreement or covenant which has been freely entered into:
The second part tells how men escape from these evils by combining into communities each subject to a central authority. This is represented as happening by means of a social contract. It is supposed that a number of people come together and agree to choose a sovereign, or a sovereign body, which shall exercise authority over them and put an end to the universal war. I do not think this “covenant” (as Hobbes usually calls it) is thought of as a definite historical event; it is certainly irrelevant to the argument to think of it as such. It is an explanatory myth, used to explain why men submit, and should submit, to the limitations on personal freedom entailed in submission to authority. The purpose of the restraint men put upon themselves, says Hobbes, is self-preservation from the universal war resulting from our love of liberty for ourselves and of dominion over others. (p.550,5)
But there is a much more simple explanation: stronger individuals surround themselves with weaker specimens whom they dominate, thereby forming groups. Larger and more cohesive groups have an advantage over smaller and looser groups, so that natural selection will favour the formation of families, clans, tribes, and eventually countries and empires. In this view society is the result of force, violence and competition, rather than of a freely entered agreement. Might it have been that Hobbes started out with the conviction that society is justified, and built a theory to support this view?
Following an excellent analysis of Hobbes’s ideas, Russell finishes with an interesting point which was particularly appropriate in 1945:
Descartes is justly famous for his principle of Cogito ergo sum :
This method of ‘Cartesian doubt’ represents, for me, pretty well the first ‘real’ philosophy that we’ve seen since before Plato and Aristotle.
Unfortunately Descartes didn’t doubt quite enough, and some of his arguments depend on the existence of God:
The constructive part of Descartes’s theory of knowledge is much less interesting than the earlier destructive part. It uses all sorts of scholastic maxims, such as that an effect can never have more perfection than its cause, which have somehow escaped the initial critical scrutiny. No reason is given for accepting these maxims, although they are certainly less self-evident than one’s own existence, which is proved with a flourish of trumpets. (p.566,7)
Like Plotinus, Spinoza was really more of a mystic than a philosopher and many of his ideas are pure religious speculation, for instance his claim that God does not experience pleasure and pain:
In spite of his religiosity there’s quite a lot I can relate to in the philosophy of Spinoza. He sees the interconnectedness of everything, but this is always an interconnectedness with and through God, and unfortunately his ethics depend on a belief in it.
He sees self-preservation as the ultimate basis of human action, but realises that ‘good’ behaviour is the same thing as ‘wise’ behaviour and that acting badly is simply doing that which isn’t wise. But yet again, in the end it all comes down to God:
He has a very limited view of right and wrong, but at least he sees that these are man-made concepts:
Spinoza believes firmly in determinism:
However, when he comes to talk about ethics he seems to contradict himself:
I’m not sure there’s really any contradiction here, as Spinoza sees everything as being predetermined when seen from an eternal point of view. He says we should act according to this truth:
I can very much appreciate his advice that we should try to see things from a long-term perspective – and you can’t get much longer-term than eternity! If you want to make wise decisions it’s better to think in terms of years rather than months, and consider the interest of the generations to come rather than concentrating on one lifetime, but eternity is outside the world we live in, and is so far removed from our daily lives that we can’t possibly even infer anything about it from our personal experience. In other words it is, by definition, something we can’t know, so that anything we say about eternity can only be the product of speculation and belief, and certainly not something upon which it would be wise to base our decisions. I think that Spinoza puts too much emphasis on the ‘eternal’ truth of determinism and doesn’t take sufficient account of the fact that from our everyday, non-eternal point of view, life isn’t predetermined and our decisions do have an affect.
I think the seemingly opposing points of view of free will and determinism can easily be reconciled by the idea of perspective (reality differs according to where you’re standing), but I’m not sure that Spinoza fully realised this, or fully accepted the non-eternal side of things. This leads him to the same sort of generally ‘religious’ attitude to life which can be found in St. Augustine, for instance, i.e. the idea that nothing here on earth really matters, as our time here is nothing compared to eternity, and our ‘real’ home is in Heaven. The same idea can be found in many eastern religions: our few years here on earth are totally insignificant compared to eternity, whatever is going to happen will happen and we can’t change that, so in the long term nothing really matters. I decided a very long time ago that all that’s actually true, that in the long term, when it comes down to it, nothing really matters, and that it’s not important whether I’m happy or miserable, or whether I live or die… But I also decided that if we want to be happy, in fact if we want to lead any sort of a normal life, we have to pretend that things really do matter – while keeping it in the back of our mind that they don’t really, in order to maintain the necessary detachment and to remain cool. Since I discovered perspective and realised that there’s no real contradiction between free will and determinism, I don’t have to pretend any more, but I don’t think Spinoza ever got that far. As a result, I don’t think his ideas on ethics are likely to be very useful to anyone who isn’t as religiously inclined as he was.
But, even for the rest of mankind, Spinoza does give some good advice on how to see things in perspective and develop the sort of cool and detached attitude which is likely to be useful in life – which, after all, is one of the traditional functions of a philosopher! And that, I think, more or less sums up Bertrand Russell’s very reasonable (but not tremendously inspiring) reaction to Spinoza’s ethics on pp.578-580.
Definitely a mathematical genius and an interesting character, if not, perhaps, a great philosopher. For instance he was one of the inventors of calculus, and would also have been the inventor of mathematical logic (a hundred and fifty years ahead of its time!) if he’d actually published his work. The fact that he didn’t says a lot about the pervasive, long-lasting and not very helpful influence of Aristotle:
Regarding metaphysics, however, it’s a very different matter. Here Leibniz built on the work of Descartes and Spinoza to produce a somewhat bizarre system in which the universe is made out of an infinite number of ‘monads’, which have no dimensions and are therefore made out of pure thought: they are in fact ‘souls’. They cannot interact, and the fact that interaction appears to take place is due to God having given each ‘monad’ a nature which ‘mirrors the universe’, so that
Not only that, but…
Leibniz is perhaps best known for his idea that this is ‘the best of all possible worlds’. His solution to the ‘problem of evil’ is an easy one: because God is good, he obviously created the world with the greatest surplus of good over evil, and because of the way good and evil are related that isn’t necessarily a world with no evil whatsoever. The fact that we can’t immediately see this is just due to our limited understanding, but God obviously knew what he was doing:
This argument apparently satisfied the Queen of Prussia. Her serfs continued to suffer the evil, while she continued to enjoy the good, and it was comforting to be assured by a great philosopher that this was just and right.
Leibniz’s solution of the problem of evil, like most of his other popular doctrines, is logically possible, but not very convincing. A Manichaean might retort that this is the worst of all possible worlds, in which the good things that exist serve only to heighten the evils. The world, he might say, was created by a wicked demiurge, who allowed free will, which is good, in order to make sure of sin, which is bad, and of which the evil outweighs the good of free will. The demiurge, he might continue, created some virtuous men, in order that they might be punished by the wicked; for the punishment of the virtuous is so great an evil that it makes the world worse than if no good men existed. I am not advocating this opinion, which I consider fantastic; I am only saying that it is no more fantastic than Leibniz’s theory. People wish to think the universe good, and will be lenient to bad arguments proving that it is so, while bad arguments proving that it is bad are closely scanned. In fact, of course, the world is partly good and partly bad, and no “problem of evil” arises unless this obvious fact is denied. (p.589,5)
I wouldn’t put it quite like that. I would say that the world is neutral, and that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are subjective, relative and 100% man-made concepts. The ‘problem of evil’ only arises when one denies this fact and claims that the world was created by a God who is both infinitely good and infinitely powerful.
Later we read:
Judging by what I learned of Leibniz’s metaphysics from this book, I wouldn’t hesitate to describe his views as a complete load of rubbish! Russell expresses a similar sentiment in a much more polite manner, but ends the chapter as follows:
An interesting idea maybe…
The fact that Russell devotes three chapters to Locke says enough about how important a place he assigns to him in the history of western philosophy, and I think this is quite justified. In Locke we see the best example since the ancient Greeks of what I would call a real philosopher, i.e. someone who did his utmost to search impartially for the truth, rather than jumping to conclusions or simply trying to find or fabricate evidence to justify that of which he was already certain. In spite of being a religious believer he didn’t let this get in the way of his rational mind, with the result that his ideas show a degree of tolerance and a lack of dogmatism which mark him out as a big advance on almost everyone who had gone before him.
Locke found the existence of God as much of a certainty as our own existence or the truth of mathematics (p.696,9) and he was “a deeply religious man, a devout believer in Christianity who accepts revelation as a source of knowledge”, but he also said that “Revelation must be judged by reason” (p.607,2). What really seemed to motivate him above all else was his love of truth:
I, personally, would say that this philosophy would preclude a belief in God, but according to Russell:
Locke is generally best known as the founder of empiricism. He was the first philosopher, at least since the time of Plato, to say that everything we know (with the possible exception of logic and mathematics) is derived from experience:
Perception, he says, is “the first step and degree towards knowledge, and the inlet of all the materials of it.” This may seem, to a modern, almost a truism, since it has become part of educated common sense, at least in English-speaking countries. But in his day the mind was supposed to know all sorts of things a priori, and the complete dependence of knowledge upon perception, which he proclaimed, was a new and revolutionary doctrine. Plato, in the Theaetetus, had set to work to refute the identification of knowledge with perception, and from his time onwards almost all philosophers, down to and including Descartes and Leibniz, had taught that much of our most valuable knowledge is not derived from experience. Locke’s thorough-going empiricism was, therefore a bold innovation.
The third book of the Essay deals with words, and is concerned, in the main, to show that what metaphysicians present as knowledge about the world is purely verbal. Chapter III, “Of General Terms,” takes up an extreme nominalist position on the subject of universals. All things that exist are particulars, but we can frame general ideas, such as “man,” that are applicable to many particulars, and to these general ideas we can give names. Their generality consists solely in the fact that they are, or may be, applicable to a variety of particular things; in their own being, as ideas in our minds, they are just as particular as everything else that exists. (p.610,2)
Locke’s empiricism and nominalism are certainly a big step in the right direction. Plato wanted to ‘objectify’ human thought processes with his “Ideas”, but Locke shows that they are simply man-made!
On pp.611-613 Russell makes an interesting point:
I don’t quite see how this is a problem for idealism, but for empiricism it certainly is. Russell shows that Locke’s answer is unsatisfactory and that he makes inconsistent statements on the matter. He also shows that Locke’s follower Hume did no better, then goes on to say:
Locke’s ethics are somewhat less inspiring than his ideas about empiricism, and depend heavily on God, Heaven and Hell, and the doctrine of rewards and punishments in the next world. But he does at least recognise ‘pleasure’ as the ultimate driving force behind human behaviour, and for a religiously inclined person he also has some remarkably intelligent things to say on the matter of good and evil:
Moving on to politics, we hear about Locke’s demolition of the arguments for the divine right of kings – arguments which were still taken very seriously by many people in his day, for instance by Sir Robert Filmer in his Patriarcha: or The Natural Power of Kings (1680). Russell notes that hereditary rulers are becoming an endangered species:
He then goes on to make the following very good point:
To understand how Filmer’s theory could be believed, and how Locke’s contrary theory could seem revolutionary, we have only to reflect that a kingdom was regarded then as a landed estate is regarded now. The owner of land has various important legal rights, the chief of which is the power of choosing who shall be on the land. Ownership can be transmitted by inheritance and we feel that the man who has inherited an estate has a just claim to all the privileges that the law allows him in consequence. Yet at bottom his position is the same as that of the monarchs whose claims Sir Robert Filmer defends. There are at the present day in California a number of huge estates the title to which is derived from actual or alleged grants by the king of Spain. He was only in a position to make such grants (a) because Spain accepted views similar to Filmer’s, and (b) because the Spaniards were able to defeat the Indians in battle. Nevertheless we hold the heirs of those to whom he made grants to have a just title. Perhaps in future this will seem as fantastic as Filmer seems now. (p.622,3)
Having rejected the divine right of kings as the origin and justification of government, he sets out his own ideas on the subject. Just like Hobbes before him and Rousseau later, he attempts to explain ‘society’ as the result of an agreement or covenant which has been freely entered into by men in their original ‘state of nature’. Whereas Hobbes’s ‘state of nature’ involves a war of all against all, which makes life “nasty, brutish, and short”, that of Locke sounds more like a sort of anarchist paradise:
“Men living together according to reason, without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them, is properly the state of nature.”
This is not a description of the life of savages, but of an imagined community of virtuous anarchists, who need no police or law-courts because they always obey “reason,” which is the same as “natural law,” which, in turn, consists of those laws of conduct that are held to have a divine origin. (For example, “Thou shalt not kill” is part of natural law, but the rule of the roads is not.)
Some further quotations will make Locke’s meaning clearer.
“To understand political power right [he says], and derive it from its original, we must consider what state men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature; without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.
“A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection; […] (p.624,9)
Note that Locke’s ‘state of nature’ depends on the idea of “natural law”, a concept which was universally accepted at the time, and on the idea that there is a God ruling over the whole arrangement:
It seems to me that all these ideas which various philosophers have produced on the theoretical ‘state of nature’ don’t have much relation to what presumably must have been the real ‘state of nature’, i.e. the state in which we still see animals living. This was undoubtedly because, before Darwin and due to religious teachings, human beings and animals were seen as two totally different and unconnected entities. If men had been created in God’s image and likeness, and had souls and eternal life whereas animals didn’t, then there was no logical reason to expect any useful correlation whatsoever between the lives of animals and those of primitive human beings…
Before leaving the subject of the ‘state of nature’, it’s interesting to note that Locke, like Hobbes, regards the dealings between states as being governed on the same principles as those between individuals were, before there was any ‘social contract’ between them. However, whereas Hobbes’s ‘state of nature’ involves a war of all against all, that of Locke is ‘a state of equality’, governed by ‘reason’ and ‘natural law’, i.e. the sort of anarchist paradise he envisaged for individuals living in the ‘state of nature’. One would have thought that it must have been obvious to Locke that this wasn’t a very good description of the relationship between states in his time (unfortunately, that of Hobbes comes much nearer to the truth), and it’s certainly obvious to Russell, who draws the conclusion that we need a ‘social contract’ between states, i.e. a world government:
I couldn’t agree more!
It’s easy to see how Locke’s philosophy led to ‘liberalism’ in the right-wing sense of the word. His ‘law of nature’, which to him is completely self-evident to “all mankind, who will but consult it”, contains some interesting elements:
Unsurprisingly, for Locke the main purpose of government is the preservation of property:
“The great and chief end of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property; to which in the state of nature there are many things wanting.” (p.627,0)
Locke was for an independent judiciary and against absolute government:
Absolute monarchy is not a form of civil government, because there is no neutral authority to decide disputes between the monarch and a subject; in fact the monarch, in relation to his subjects, is still in a state of nature. It is useless to hope that being a king will make a naturally violent man virtuous.
“He that would have been insolent and injurious in the woods of America would not probably be much better in a throne, where perhaps learning and religion shall be found out to justify all that he shall do to his subjects, and the sword presently silence all those that dare question it.”
Absolute monarchy is as if men protected themselves against pole-cats and foxes, “but are content, nay think it safety, to be devoured by lions.”
Civil society involves the rule of the majority, unless it is agreed that a greater number shall be required. (As, for example, in the United States, for a change in the Constitution or the ratification of a treaty.) This sounds democratic, but it must be remembered that Locke assumes the exclusion of women and the poor from the rights of citizenship. (p.630,8)
What it comes down to is this:
At about this point Russell offers some interesting comments on the difference between the ‘Continental’ and ‘British’ schools of philosophy:
There is first of all a difference of method. British philosophy is more detailed and piecemeal than that of the Continent; when it allows itself some general principle, it sets to work to prove it inductively by examining its various applications. Thus Hume, after announcing that there is no idea without an antecedent impression, immediately proceeds to consider the following objection: suppose you are seeing two shades of colour which are similar but not identical, and suppose you have never seen a shade of colour intermediate between the two, can you, nevertheless, imagine such a shade? He does not decide the question, and considers that a decision adverse to his general principle would not be fatal to him, because his principle is not logical but empirical. When – to take a contrast – Leibniz wants to establish his monadology, he argues, roughly, as follows: Whatever is complex must be composed of simple parts; what is simple cannot be extended; therefore everything is composed of parts having no extension. But what is not extended is not matter. Therefore the ultimate constituents of things are not material, and, if not material, then mental. Consequently a table is really a colony of souls.
The difference of method, here, may be characterized as follows: In Locke or Hume, a comparatively modest conclusion is drawn from a broad survey of many facts, whereas in Leibniz a vast edifice of deduction is pyramided upon a pin-point of logical principle. In Leibniz, if the principle is completely true and the deductions are entirely valid, all is well; but the structure is unstable, and the slightest flaw anywhere brings it down in ruins. In Locke or Hume, on the contrary, the base of the pyramid is on the solid ground of observed fact, and the pyramid tapers upward, not downward; consequently the equilibrium is stable, and a flaw here or there can be rectified without total disaster. This difference of method survived Kant’s attempt to incorporate something of the empirical philosophy: from Descartes to Hegel on the one side, and from Locke to John Stuart Mill on the other, it remains unvarying. (p.643,2)
In the next few pages (pp.644-646) Russell extends his comparison of the ‘Continental’ and ‘British’ schools of philosophy to the areas of metaphysics, ethics and politics. I find it quite tempting to quote the entire section here – but I won’t. He continues as follows:
In general, Russell doesn’t have that much to say about the concept of ‘property’, and strangely enough the name of Proudhon does not appear in the index of this book. It would be interesting to know what he thought of Qu’est-ce que la propriété ?!
Hume continues the tradition of empiricism and nominalism with his doctrine that all simple ‘ideas’ come from ‘impressions’ (p.660,8), and complex ‘ideas’ are built up from simple ones, as in the example of a winged horse (p.661,0).
I was very much surprised to learn (because I thought it had come much later), that Hume also got rid of the necessity of a ‘self’:
What was also new to me was that Hume actually undermined the whole basis of scientific empiricism with his claim that the simple observation of two events can never provide rational proof of any causal connection between them. In other words, causality only exists in the mind, not in the real world (or at least, we can’t know for certain that it does):
The repetition of events offers no evidence that they will continue to repeat; to quote the most obvious example: the fact that the sun has risen on every day up to today offers no proof that it will rise tomorrow:
“All probable reasoning is nothing but a species of sensation. ‘Tis not solely in poetry and music, we must follow our taste and sentiment, but likewise in philosophy. When I am convinced of any principle, ’tis only an idea, which strikes more strongly upon me. When I give the preference to one set of arguments above another, I do nothing but decide from my feeling concerning the superiority of their influence. Objects have no discoverable connexion together; nor is it from any other principle but custom operating upon the imagination, that we can draw any inference from the appearance of one to the existence of another.” (p.670,5)
As a result we can never really know anything, and philosophy is useless: the ultimate scepticism (especially for a philosopher!)
Hume extends his scepticism to the senses, and the only way out of the problem for him is basically to just forget about it:
According to Russell, Hume’s scepticism had serious consequences:
According to Russell, the logical consequence of “Hume’s destruction of empiricism” was that:
In his example of “the lunatic who believes that he is a poached egg”, surely the difference of opinion between the ‘lunatic’ minority and the rest of the world has more to do with resemblance, identity or physical constitution than with causation, empiricism or induction, and it wouldn’t be difficult to find persuasive logical arguments against such a belief. After all, it’s only empiricism that Hume is supposed to have destroyed, not the whole of logic and rationality! But there’s a lot of truth in the idea that ‘sanity’ is simply what the majority decides it is. I was reminded of one of my favourite Philip K. Dick quotes:
But is Russell going too far in his view of the far-reaching implications of Hume’s scepticism in the following two centuries? After all, scientific empiricism carried on quite successfully after Hume’s apparent destruction of it, and Russell himself doesn’t have too much difficulty in dealing effectively with the problem raised by Hume. He starts by saying that:
Hume demonstrates that the principle of induction cannot be proved by empiricist means, and that true empiricism is not possible. Questioning everything makes knowledge impossible, and nothing can be known about the world without making at least one assumption, i.e. that the principle of induction is trustworthy. As far as I’m concerned, the reasonableness of this assumption is proved by its usefulness: because the empirical method has been proved to work and to produce useful results (not just in science but in everyday life), it is reasonable to assume that its basis, induction, also works. All Hume has proven is that we can never be 100% certain of our empiricist findings, and the idea of causation remains a very useful one. Russell finishes as follows:
Which, I think, is basically the same as what I just said (even if Russell expresses it more elegantly!)
I think this discussion of how certain we can be of our observations is a very different one to that of the question of whether causality really exists in the objective world or is just a product of our minds. Hume seems to have come to the latter conclusion, and (because he was working on the underlying assumption that there is an objective world out there, i.e. that space and time have objective existence) said that causality therefore doesn’t exist (or at least that it can’t be proved to exist). Kant also said that causality is just a product of our minds – but then so are space and time. This meant that space, time and causality exist on the same plane, as it were, and that causality is therefore restored to its position as a useful way of explaining events in the world.
But surely, leaving aside the question of whether causality or anything else has any objective reality, a denial of causality as such (i.e. the standpoint that time and space do exist but causality doesn’t) would amount to a denial of any order, system or consistency in the universe, and the only alternative explanations for its apparent order, system and consistency would be either coincidence or divine intervention.
I find it interesting that Russell makes no mention whatsoever of Hume’s ethics, his idea that desire rather than reason governs human behaviour, and that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” According to Wikipedia he was an adherent of moral sense theory (or sentimentalism), i.e. he believed that morality is something objectively inherent in nature, and that human beings have a ‘moral sense’ which allows them to see what is right and wrong. I find it difficult to imagine how he could have arrived at such a theory (a totally ridiculous one, as far as I’m concerned) by empiricist means.
The Romantic Movement:
Here we arrive at another aspect of Western thought which for me, influential though it was, doesn’t really deserve to be regarded as philosophy. Russell gives an excellent description of the rise of romanticism before offering his explanation for the phenomenon, which is that man is essentially solitary, but has become artificially gregarious:
I wouldn’t have put it quite in terms of Man being solitary or gregarious, but in a more general way: man has created an artificial environment and lifestyle for himself, which conflicts with his deeper, older, original, animal nature. Romanticism is part of long-running conflict between this animal nature and civilisation.
Rousseau (the ‘Father of Romanticism’) saw property as the origin of society:
Interestingly enough, this isn’t that far off from Locke’s view of the origin of society, even though these were two very different characters who drew very different conclusions from their ideas.
I wasn’t surprised to hear that Rousseau was enthusiastically religious, and that his religiosity had consequences:
Rousseau shows a strong anti-intellectualism, and finds ‘nature’ and ‘conscience’ a better moral guide than ‘philosophy’:
It’s interesting that he maintains that “our natural feelings […] lead us to serve the common interest, while our reason urges selfishness”, whereas I would have said exactly the opposite! This is really the philosophy of ‘don’t think about it, do it!’, and a very dangerous one.
Russell gives his own opinion of Rousseau’s theology:
Apart from the fictitious character of Rousseau’s “natural man,” there are two objections to the practice of basing beliefs as to objective fact upon the emotions of the heart. One is that there is no reason whatever to suppose that such beliefs will be true; the other is, that the resulting beliefs will be private, since the heart says different things to different people. […] But even if the heart said the same thing to all men, that could afford no evidence for the existence of anything outside our own emotions. However ardently I, or all mankind, may desire something, however necessary it may be to human happiness, that is no ground for supposing this something to exist. There is no law of nature guaranteeing that mankind should be happy. Everybody can see that this is true of our life here on earth, but by a curious twist our very sufferings in this life are made into an argument for a better life hereafter. We should not employ such an argument in any other connection. If you had bought ten dozen eggs from a man, and the first dozen were all rotten, you would not infer that the remaining nine dozen must be of surpassing excellence; yet that is the kind of reasoning that “the heart” encourages as a consolation for our sufferings here below. (p.693,6)
Excellent – I couldn’t have put it better myself!
I read somewhere in a review of this book that Russell doesn’t understand Kant – probably because of his refusal to believe that Kant provides the answer to Hume’s scepticism in his Critique of Pure Reason – but unfortunately I’m in no position to judge one way or the other.
Talking about the German idealists in general, he says:
And talking about Kant in particular:
All very dangerous if you ask me!
Russell makes no secret of his opinion of Kant (as a philosopher, although his opinion of him as a person is somewhat better):
On the other hand,
First of all, Kant’s metaphysics, with which I have few problems:
An “analytic” proposition is one in which the predicate is part of the subject; for instance, “a tall man is a man,” or “an equilateral triangle is a triangle.” […] A “synthetic” proposition is one that is not analytic. All the propositions that we know only through experience are synthetic. We cannot, by a mere analysis of concepts, discover such truths as “Tuesday was a wet day” or “Napoleon was a great general.” But Kant, unlike Leibniz and all other previous philosophers, will not admit the converse, that all synthetic propositions are only known through experience. This brings us to the second of the above distinctions.
An “empirical” proposition is one which we cannot know except by the help of sense-perception, either our own or that of someone else whose testimony we accept. The facts of history and geography are of this sort; so are the laws of science, whenever our knowledge of their truth depends on observational data. An “a priori” proposition, on the other hand, is one which, though it may be elicited by experience, is seen, when known, to have a basis other than experience. A child learning arithmetic may be helped by experiencing two marbles and two other marbles, and observing that altogether he is experiencing four marbles. But when he has grasped the general proposition “two and two are four” he no longer requires confirmation by instances; the proposition has a certainty which induction can never give to a general law. All the propositions of pure mathematics are in this sense a priori.
Hume had proved that the law of causality is not analytic, and had inferred that we could not be certain of its truth. Kant accepted the view that it is synthetic, but nevertheless maintained that it is known a priori. He maintained that arithmetic and geometry are synthetic, but are likewise a priori. He was thus led to formulate his problem in these terms:
How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?
The answer to this question, with its consequences, constitutes the main theme of The Critique of Pure Reason. (p.706,3)
Kant’s solution of this problem was original:
Space and time, Kant says, are not concepts; they are forms of “intuition.” (The German word is “Anschauung,” which means literally “looking at” or “view.” The word “intuition,” though the accepted translation, is not altogether a satisfactory one.) There are also, however, a priori concepts; these are the twelve “categories,” which Kant derives from the forms of the syllogism. The twelve categories are divided into four sets of three: (1) of quantity: unity, plurality, totality; (2) of quality: reality, negation, limitation; (3) of relation: substance-and-accident, cause-and-effect, reciprocity; (4) of modality: possibility, existence, necessity. These are subjective in the same sense in which space and time are – that is to say, our mental constitution is such that they are applicable to whatever we experience, but there is no reason to suppose them applicable to things in themselves. As regards cause, however, there is an inconsistency, for things in themselves are regarded by Kant as causes of sensations, and free volitions are held by him to be causes of occurrences in space and time. This inconsistency is not an accidental oversight; it is an essential part of his system. (p.707,7)
I would agree that the ‘things in themselves’, assuming they exist, are certainly unknowable, i.e. the only things we can know are what comes to us via our senses and the filter of our brain, including all its memories and preconceptions. This quick look at Kant’s philosophy isn’t enough for me to decide, one way or the other, whether he convincingly demonstrates that time, space and the various ‘categories’ (including causation) are simply products of our mind and don’t have any objective existence, or whether (as I very much suspect), he’s fallen into the trap of substituting speculation for knowledge. Russell examines his arguments and doesn’t find them convincing, and to the extent that I’m able to follow this difficult discussion, I agree with him. I am of the opinion that we can’t have a definite answer to that question at the moment, as such an answer would require knowledge beyond the limits of the metaphysical situation in which we find ourselves, and I think it’s more a matter for physicists than for philosophers anyway. Fortunately we don’t actually need to know the answer to that question to make practical progress, as my highly empirical view is that ‘applied philosophy’ doesn’t need to be, and in fact should never be, based on anything beyond what we can actually experience (and to which we can apply our reasoning powers).
Kant goes on to speak of the consequences of these ideas:
In the first, the thesis says: “The world has a beginning in time, and is also limited as regards space.” The antithesis says: “The world has no beginning in time, and no limits in space; it is infinite as regards both time and space.” (p.708,6)
It’s beyond me how anyone could hope to logically prove that the world does or does not have a beginning in time, but if Kant has demonstrated the impossibility of doing so then that’s definitely progress. Again, if such a question is ever answered, I’m sure it will be the work of physicists rather than philosophers! Much the same applies to Kant’s other three examples of “antinomies”. Kant then goes on to demolish all the purely intellectual proofs of the existence of God, which I suppose is also progress.
In contrast to his metaphysics, Kant’s ideas on ethics leave a lot to be desired. Here I have no doubt whatsoever that he’s substituting speculation and belief for real knowledge. According to Russell:
What a load of rubbish! A perfect example of how not to do philosophy! I’m very much reminded of the way in which the Jews adopted the doctrine of immortality, with rewards and punishments in the next life, once they’d noticed that virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded here on earth. I don’t know if Kant attempts to explain why the moral law demands justice, or why happiness should be proportional to virtue, and given that he seems to be convinced that it isn’t true in this life, i.e. in the only world we can actually experience, then I doubt if he does; he’s just projecting his man-made concept of ‘justice’ onto the non man-made universe.
In other words, he considers morals to be synthetic and a priori, just as (for example) geometry is, which leads me to an interesting thought. In his metaphysics he’s told us that space (like time) is subjective, and is part of our apparatus of perception, and it is for this reason that we can be sure that whatever we experience will exhibit the characteristics dealt with by geometry. Geometry is therefore a priori in the sense that it must be true of everything experienced, but we have no reason to suppose that anything analogous is true of things in themselves, which we do not experience. Now, does this mean that morals are the result of our subjective way of seeing the world, and that we have no reason to suppose that they have any other, more objective, existence? I’m not sure if that really is what Kant is implying, but it doesn’t really matter: to all intents and purposes geometry is an objective science, and Kant is putting morals into the same category. It is entirely unclear to me why Kant thinks this way, and I don’t know whether he himself offers any explanation. He talks a lot about ‘natural law’ and about ‘the Law’, with a capital L:
There are two sorts of imperative: the hypothetical imperative which says “You must do so-and-so if you wish to achieve such-and-such an end”; and the categorical imperative, which says that a certain kind of action is objectively necessary, without regard to any end. The categorical imperative is synthetic and a priori. Its character is deduced by Kant from the concept of Law:
“If I think of a categorical imperative, I know at once what it contains. For as the imperative contains, besides the Law, only the necessity of the maxim to be in accordance with this law, but the Law contains no condition by which it is limited, nothing remains over but the generality of a law in general, to which the maxim of the action is to be conformable, and which conforming alone presents the imperative as necessary. Therefore the categorical imperative is a single one, and in fact this: Act only according to a maxim by which you can at the same time will that it shall become a general law.” Or: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a general natural law.” (p.710,6)
I must admit that I don’t understand that last passage at all, and neither do I understand Kant’s use of the term law/Law. I might be tempted to think that he’s confusing two completely different meanings of the word ‘law’, except for the fact that that’s much too easy an explanation, and if it were true then Russell would have taken great pleasure in pointing it out. In any case, Kant’s famous ‘categorical imperative’ isn’t very useful. It’s always reminded me of something one of my teachers used to say when someone put their damp plimsolls to dry on the radiator in the classroom: “What would happen if everyone did that?”. It might well be that if everyone did a certain thing the results would be disastrous, whereas a few people doing the same thing would do no harm at all. Russell gives an even more ridiculous example, apparently taken from Kant himself:
His principle is also often compared to the traditional religious command to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (one which the Christians tend to claim as their invention, even though it goes back at least as far as Confucius and the ancient Egyptians and Greeks), but I think that in this case even the religious principle is more useful. So, certainly as far as his ethics go, I tend to share Russell’s low opinion of Kant.
Russell has a fairly low opinion of Hegel too. Having talked about how very influential he has been, he says:
He goes on to show Hegel’s metaphysical system to be a totally ridiculous collection of mumbo-jumbo, more a religion than an attempt at rational thought, and in many ways dangerous. I wasn’t at all surprised to read that Rudolf Steiner was influenced by him. Just like the Middle Ages, Hegel represents a big step backwards for humanity. For example:
As might be expected, he assigns the highest role to the Germans in the terrestrial development of Spirit. “The German spirit is the spirit of the new world. Its aim is the realization of absolute Truth as the unlimited self-determination of freedom – that freedom which has its own absolute form itself as its purport”.
This is a very superfine brand of freedom. It does not mean that you will be able to keep out of a concentration camp. It does not imply democracy, or a free press, [added in a note: Freedom of the Press, he says, does not consist in being allowed to write what one wants: this view is crude and superficial. For instance, the Press should not be allowed to render the Government or the police contemptible.] or any of the usual Liberal watchwords, which Hegel rejects with contempt. When Spirit gives laws to itself, it does so freely. To our mundane vision, it may seem that the Spirit that gives laws is embodied in the monarch, and the Spirit to which laws are given is embodied in his subjects. But from the point of view of the Absolute the distinction between monarch and subjects, like all other distinctions, is illusory, and when the monarch imprisons a liberal-minded subject, that is still Spirit freely determining itself. Hegel praises Rousseau for distinguishing between the general will and the will of all. One gathers that the monarch embodies the general will, whereas a parliamentary majority only embodies the will of all. A very convenient doctrine.
German history is divided by Hegel into three periods: the first, up to Charlemagne; the second, from Charlemagne to the Reformation; the third, from the Reformation onwards. These three periods are distinguished as the Kingdoms of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, respectively. It seems a little odd that the Kingdom of the Holy Ghost should have begun with the bloody and utterly abominable atrocities committed in suppressing the Peasants’ War, but Hegel, naturally, does not mention so trivial an incident. Instead, he goes off, as might be expected, into praises of Machiavelli. (p.737,0)
He finishes the chapter by pointing out Hegel’s big mistake. He shows that Hegel’s ethics are dependent on his metaphysics, and continues:
[…] Let us take an illustration. Suppose I say “John is the father of James.” Hegel […] will say: “Before you can understand this statement, you must know who John and James are. Now to know who John is, is to know all his characteristics, for apart from them he would not be distinguishable from any one else. But all his characteristics involve other people or things. He is characterized by his relations to his parents, his wife, and his children, by whether he is a good or a bad citizen, and by the country to which he belongs. All these things you must know before you can be said to know whom the word ‘John’ refers to. Step by step, in your endeavour to say what you mean by the word ‘John,’ you will be led to take account of the whole universe, and your original statement will turn out to be telling you something about the universe, not about two separate people, John and James.”
Now this is all very well, but it is open to an initial objection. If the above argument were sound, how could knowledge ever begin? I know numbers of propositions of the form “A is the father of B,” but I do not know the whole universe. If all knowledge were knowledge of the universe as a whole, there would be no knowledge. This is enough to make us suspect a mistake somewhere.
The fact is that, in order to use the word “John” correctly and intelligently, I do not need to know all about John, but only enough to recognize him. No doubt he has relations, near or remote, to everything in the universe, but he can be spoken of truly without taking them into account, except such as are the direct subject-matter of what is being said. […] The Hegelian position might be stated as follows: “The word ‘John’ means all that is true of John.” But as a definition this is circular, since the word “John” occurs in the defining phrase. In fact, if Hegel were right, no word could begin to have a meaning, since we should need to know already the meanings of all other words in order to state all the properties of what the word designates, which, according to the theory, are what the word means.
To put the matter abstractly: we must distinguish properties of different kinds. A thing may have a property not involving any other thing; this sort is called a quality. Or it may have a property involving one other thing; such a property is being married. Or it may have one involving two other things, such as being a brother-in-law. If a certain thing has a certain collection of qualities, and no other thing has just this collection of qualities, then it can be defined as “the thing having such-and-such qualities.” From its having these qualities, nothing can be deduced by pure logic as to its relational properties. Hegel thought that, if enough was known about a thing to distinguish it from all other things, then all its properties could be inferred by logic. This was a mistake, and from this mistake arose the whole imposing edifice of his system. This illustrates an important truth, namely, that the worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise. (p.744,7)
Which might almost be rephrased “To err is human, but to really cock things up you need a philosopher”! Can Hegel really have been that bad? From what I’ve seen of Russell so far, he seems far too reasonable and trustworthy a commentator to have willingly misrepresented Hegel to the extent of malicious caricature. On the other hand, if the picture he presents is even slightly accurate, how on earth can so many people have taken Hegel’s philosophy seriously, and how can he have been so influential?
I’m not quite sure why Russell puts him between Hegel and Schopenhauer, as he should really be with the Romantics. Neither do I understand why he gets a whole chapter to himself, but maybe that’s just because, as Russell points out, he was much more influential on the Continent than in Britain. As far as I can see, he has absolutely nothing of interest to say on philosophical matters.
A very strange character indeed, by the sound of things. Starting out from Kant’s ideas on the non-reality of the apparently objective world, he ends up somewhere very close to Buddhism, but with a quite amazing degree of pessimism. Russell sums him up nicely as follows:
More important than pessimism was the doctrine of the primacy of the will. It is obvious that this doctrine has no necessary logical connection with pessimism, and those who held it after Schopenhauer frequently found in it a basis for optimism. In one form or another, the doctrine that will is paramount has been held by many modern philosophers, notably Nietzsche, Bergson, James, and Dewey. It has, moreover, acquired a vogue outside the circles of professional philosophers. And in proportion as will has gone up in the scale, knowledge has gone down. This is, I think, the most notable change that has come over the temper of philosophy in our age. It was prepared by Rousseau and Kant, but was first proclaimed in its purity by Schopenhauer. For this reason, in spite of inconsistency and a certain shallowness, his philosophy has considerable importance as a stage in historical development. (758,9)
As far as I’m concerned he’s yet another philosopher, most of whose ideas are pure speculation and much nearer to religion (even if his wouldn’t have many followers!), than to anything which I’d want to describe as true philosophy.
Russell has a very low opinion of him, and doesn’t attempt to hide it: more than with most other philosophers, he tries to explain Nietzsche’s philosophy by his personality defects:
Nietzsche seems to have been quite a snob:
His elitist philosophy is actually very similar to that of a certain right-wing, libertarian Irish friend of mine:
In actual fact I don’t think Nietzsche would have been at all happy with the sort of thing his philosophy inspired, most obviously with the Nazis:
He is also not definitely anti-Semitic, though he thinks Germany contains as many Jews as it can assimilate, and ought not to permit any further influx of Jews. He dislikes the New Testament, but not the Old, of which he speaks in terms of the highest admiration. In justice to Nietzsche it must be emphasized that many modern developments which have a certain connection with his general ethical outlook are contrary to his clearly expressed opinions. (p.764,0)
Nietzsche wants, at the expense of all else, to create ‘great men’ and a ‘noble’ elite, and I assume that his final purpose (as in the case of my Irish friend) is the advancement of civilisation and culture. After all, he loves music, literature and philosophy, and thinks these things will thrive best when there is an elite with enough leisure to devote to them. But in another way, like the Romantics, he favours the state of nature above civilisation. It is natural that the strong should conquer and dominate the weak, and the philosophies which Nietzsche hates, such as Christianity, Buddhism and Socialism, all attempt to change this natural state of affairs. I don’t think Nietzsche ever explains the final purpose behind his philosophy, but Russell tries to find out the answer:
Victors in war, and their descendants, are usually biologically superior to the vanquished. It is therefore desirable that they should hold all the power, and should manage affairs exclusively in their own interests.
There is here still the word “desirable” to be considered. What is “desirable” in Nietzsche’s philosophy? From the outsider’s point of view, what Nietzsche calls “desirable” is what Nietzsche desires. With this interpretation, Nietzsche’s doctrine might be stated more simply and honestly in the one sentence: “I wish I had lived in the Athens of Pericles or the Florence of the Medici.” But this is not a philosophy; it is a biographical fact about a certain individual. The word “desirable” is not synonymous with “desired by me”; it has some claim, however shadowy, to legislative universality. A theist may say that what is desirable is what God desires, but Nietzsche cannot say this. He could say that he knows what is good by an ethical intuition, but he will not say this, because it sounds too Kantian. What he can say, as an expansion of the word “desirable,” is this: “If men will read my works, a certain percentage of them will come to share my desires as regards the organization of society; these men, inspired by the energy and determination which my philosophy will give them, can preserve and restore aristocracy, with themselves as aristocrats or (like me) sycophants of aristocracy. In this way they will achieve a fuller life than they can have as servants of the people.” (p.769,6)
But Russell doesn’t go far enough in his inquiry into Nietzsche’s final purpose; we remain with the question as to why Nietzsche should want “a certain percentage” of his readers, or anyone else for that matter, to “achieve a fuller life than they can have as servants of the people”. I suppose that if Nietzsche doesn’t offer a final purpose to his philosophy, then we have no alternative than to do what Russell does, and try to explain his philosophy by means of his biography, i.e. his personal idiosyncrasies and his bad health. And if we’re going down that road, then it’s interesting to note that neither Russell nor any of Nietzsche’s disciples pay any attention to the fact that he was mad for the last eleven years of his life. But there again, neither do fans of Napoléon pay any attention to his final defeat. Perhaps those who admire Nietzsche feel the same way about him as Nietzsche felt about Napoléon, and consider him “a great man defeated by petty opponents”.
Russell sums up as follows:
It is undeniable that Nietzsche has had a great influence, not among technical philosophers, but among people of literary and artistic culture. It must also be conceded that his prophecies as to the future have, so far, proved more nearly right than those of liberals or Socialists. If he is a mere symptom of disease, the disease must be very widespread in the modern world. (p.766,9)
I think Nietzsche is indeed a symptom of something which could be called a disease, the disease in question being the same one of which the Romantic movement, the hippies, the punks and every other rebellious movement against ‘normal society’ (not to mention religion, drugs, football hooliganism and extreme sports) are also symptoms, i.e. the inability of man to adapt his ancient animal nature to the artificial and only relatively recently developed environment which he has created for himself – the need to escape, either partly or completely, temporarily or permanently, from that which Desmond Morris calls the ‘human zoo’. In other words Nietzsche was rebelling, not just against Christianity or Socialism, but against civilisation as such, and that is indeed a widespread human need.
Russell ends the chapter by asking:
He begins with some practical arguments, to the effect that “the attempt to secure his ends will in fact secure something quite different”, before moving on to the question “whether there are objective grounds for rejecting the ethic by which Nietzsche supports aristocracy”. He says that
He imagines Buddha and Nietzsche appearing before God and “offering advice as to the sort of world He should create”. Buddha wants to create a world without suffering, but doesn’t really say why; it just seems to go without saying that suffering is bad and that we therefore ought to try to avoid it. Nietzsche, on the other hand, has nothing against suffering, and after some more arguing about the pros and cons of their respective ideal worlds, finishes by saying to Buddha:
“You might,” Buddha replies, “because you love pain, and your love of life is a sham. But those who really love life would be happy as no one can be happy in the world as it is.” (p.772,6)
Yet again we see the conflicting visions of a safe, pleasant and boring world, and of one which is more dangerous, painful and exciting. Russell finishes the discussion (and the chapter) as follows:
As far as I’m concerned this just isn’t good enough. What Russell is really saying is that he doesn’t like Nietzsche’s ideas and that’s all there is to it! So if there’s a conflict between those who like Nietzsche’s ideas and those who don’t, how is it to be decided? Simply by force of arms? That’s exactly what was going on when Russell wrote these words, and, as I’m sure he soon found out (if he ever doubted the matter), the victory of the Allies over Germany did not by any means solve all the world’s problems. I personally believe there are good logical reasons for opposing Nietzsche’s ideas, and I hope to be able to describe them in detail before too long. If, however, the only thing we have to offer against them is “an appeal to the emotions”, then there can be no doubt about it – we’re all doomed!
Russell likes these better – and so do I.
To Bentham, determinism in psychology was important, because he wished to establish a code of laws – and, more generally, a social system – which would automatically make men virtuous. His second principle, that of the greatest happiness, became necessary at this point in order to define “virtue.” (p.774,9)
But surely that should have been the other way around? Either Bentham or Russell is putting the cart before the horse. As with almost all of philosophy, there isn’t enough emphasis on the importance of a clearly defined basic aim or starting point.
Bentham’s ideas are actually quite conservative: it is normal and acceptable that everyone pursues his own interests, but the law should be arranged to take the sharp edges off this egocentricity and to harness it for the common good:
Some time I hope to be able to show (and I don’t even think it’s going to be very difficult) that there are good rational reasons for saying that it is also to my personal interest that I should abstain from theft, certainly in so far as I am a member of the public. Anyone who feels himself to be part of the community will surely desire what’s good for the community, but Bentham seems to accept the situation that certain people do not feel themselves to be part of the community, and are of the opinion (perhaps quite rightly) that the best interests of society are not their best interests. Those who feel excluded from society tend to form a criminal class, and either an effective system of belief in retribution in the next world, or an effective criminal law in this one, is necessary to deter them.
This problem cannot be denied (but not only in democracies – in other systems it’s even worse), and is the reason why conservatism and economic liberalism tend not to be good for most of the population. Perhaps in the future it will be technologically possible to control legislators completely, and to enforce complete transparency. Anyone standing for public office would know that they were volunteering to live their lives in a goldfish bowl, with no privacy whatsoever. That would deter anyone with interests other than that of serving the community (and personal fame, I suppose) from wanting to do such work. Assuming that these legislators are the same people who take the important decisions regarding international relations and trade, such a system would only be possible with a world government, as any country using it would be at a competitive disadvantage compared to those who didn’t. As regards application of the law, i.e. the work of civil servants etc., it should be much easier, given the technology and the political will, to create completely transparent and corruption-proof systems. This might make a good subject for a science fiction novel (but it’s probably already been written!).
Throughout the middle portion of the nineteenth century, the influence of the Benthamites on British legislation and policy was astonishingly great, considering their complete absence of emotional appeal. (p.776,9)
I think Russell is being a bit unfair to the Utilitarians here. Surely politics should be governed by reason, and men’s opinions should be determined by the weight of evidence? And why should a philosophy have to have ’emotional appeal’ anyway?
Russell devotes a lengthy passage to the concepts of pleasure, happiness and desirability, and the way the Utilitarians understand them, and I’m not sure I always agree with him. For instance he claims that:
Can John Stuart Mill have made such an obvious mistake? If he’s using the word “desirable” in the same way that Bertrand Russell is, then he obviously did. But I’m not altogether convinced that he wasn’t using the word in a much more literal sense, as ‘that which is desired’. The word has two meanings in English: as a synonym of advantageous, advisable and wise (which is how Russell uses it), and as a synonym of attractive, appealing and irresistible, which may be how John Stuart Mill was using it. That use may lead to what Russell calls a truism:
But if what is meant is that, when I desire anything, I desire it because of the pleasure that it will give me, that is usually untrue. When I am hungry I desire food, and so long as my hunger persists food will give me pleasure. But the hunger, which is a desire, comes first; the pleasure is a consequence of the desire. I do not deny that there are occasions when there is a direct desire for pleasure. If you have decided to devote a free evening to the theatre, you will choose the theatre that you think will give you the most pleasure. But the actions thus determined by the direct desire for pleasure are exceptional and unimportant. Everybody’s main activities are determined by desires which are anterior to the calculation of pleasures and pains.
Anything whatever may be an object of desire; a masochist may desire his own pain. The masochist, no doubt, derives pleasure from the pain that he has desired, but the pleasure is because of the desire, not vice versa. A man may desire something that does not affect him personally except because of his desire – for instance, the victory of one side in a war in which his country is neutral. He may desire an increase of general happiness, or a mitigation of general suffering. Or he may, like Carlyle, desire the exact opposite. As his desires vary, so do his pleasures. (p.778,9)
I think Russell is playing with words a bit here, and using the word ‘pleasure’ in much too narrow a sense. For a start, the Utilitarians didn’t only talk about the desire for pleasure, but also about the desire to avoid or end pain:
There is nothing new in this doctrine, which came to be called “Utilitarianism.” (p.775,1)
In Russell’s example about hunger, the fact that a hungry person wants to eat is perhaps better explained by the idea that he wants to end the ‘pain’ of hunger than that he desires the ‘pleasure’ of a full stomach. But there again, anyone who has already been hungry and then eaten will remember the wonderful feeling of no longer being hungry, and experience desire for that state. And someone who isn’t all that hungry may well be prompted to eat by the memory of the pleasure previously experienced after eating something particularly tasty! But I don’t think it’s necessary to go to such lengths as Russell does in order to understand the Utilitarians: I think what they meant was that everyone desires that which will make him feel better. That covers basic desires such as that for food, but also the desire of a masochist for pain, the desire of an idealist to improve the world, the desire of a Catholic for everyone to be Catholic, or indeed the desire of a philosopher to develop a new theory. This may be a ‘truism’ to Russell, but I think it’s a valid starting point for a theory of ethics, and perhaps even the basis of an objective theory of ethics, i.e. one on which everyone can agree. Such a theory would have to sort desires on a scale ranging from the most basic and universal, such as the desire not to be hungry and the desire not to be killed, to the most complex, personal and subjective, such as the desire of a masochist for pain, and give priority to the satisfaction of the most universal desires: the most important thing is a world where everyone can feel secure and has enough to eat – the desire for such things as excitement, culture, honour and religious experience can come later.
I think Russell is giving up too easily. See Nietzsche, and the question: why should an elite prosper at the expense of everyone else?
I found this one a particularly interesting chapter. Russell states from the outset that:
I would have thought that somewhat conflicted with the general aims of the book as set out in the preface, but there we are.
I was surprised to learn that Marx’s views on the relation of subjective consciousness to the ‘objective’ outside world, as expressed in his theory of dialectical materialism, come much closer to mine, to those of Kant and to the insights of modern physics, than I’d ever have expected:
I think we may interpret Marx as meaning that the process which philosophers have called the pursuit of knowledge is not, as has been thought, one in which the object is constant while all the adaptation is on the part of the knower. On the contrary, both subject and object, both the knower and the thing known, are in a continual process of mutual adaptation. He calls the process “dialectical” because it is never fully completed. (p.783,8)
Moving nearer to Marx’s views on politics and economics, we arrive at his philosophy of history:
The politics, religion, philosophy, and art of any epoch in human history are, according to Marx, an outcome of its methods of production, and, to a lesser extent, of distribution. (p.784,8)
Following an interesting look at how Marx’s philosophy of history can be applied to the history of philosophy, we move on to its application to politics in general and socialism in particular:
Russell says that Marx showed “a readiness to believe in progress as a universal law”, and goes on to say:
In actual fact Marx, by positing this ‘deterministic movement of history’ over and above anything humans might attempt or might want, was doing exactly what religious people, and anyone else who believes in any system superior to human experience and rationality, are doing, i.e. abdicating human responsibility for human affairs. As long as there’s a God or a ‘deterministic movement of history’ controlling our lives then we don’t have to take full responsibility for them: we just have to try to follow ‘God’s will’ (as written down in a book and/or revealed to the initiated), or try to cooperate with the ‘dialectic’, to move in the direction in which history will inevitably move anyway. In 1932 Bertrand Russell wrote in his essay ‘In Praise of Idleness’:
I now understand slightly better how this situation came about, and am more convinced than ever that Marxism contains more than a little of something very similar to religion!
Having recognised all this, Russell goes on to show that there are plenty of good practical reasons for desiring a socialist system which owe nothing to such ‘super-human’ considerations:
Perhaps the philosophic dress that Marx gave to his Socialism had really not much to do with the basis of his opinions. It is easy to restate the most important part of what he had to say without any reference to the dialectic. He was impressed by the appalling cruelty of the industrial system as it existed in England a hundred years ago, which he came to know thoroughly through Engels and the reports of Royal Commissions. He saw that the system was likely to develop from free competition towards monopoly, and that its injustice must produce a movement of revolt in the proletariat. He held that, in a thoroughly industrialized community, the only alternative to private capitalism is State ownership of land and capital. None of these propositions are matters for philosophy, and I shall therefore not consider their truth or falsehood. The point is that, if true, they suffice to establish what is practically important in his system. The Hegelian trappings might therefore be dropped with advantage. (p.789,0)
Russell finishes the chapter with a more general look at the state of the world:
The third section of modern opinion, represented politically by Nazis and Fascists, differs philosophically from the other two far more profoundly than they differ from each other. It is antirational and anti-scientific. Its philosophical progenitors are Rousseau, Fichte, and Nietzsche. It emphasizes will, especially will to power; this it believes to be mainly concentrated in certain races and individuals, who therefore have a right to rule. (p.789,9)
I would perhaps question the extent to which Marxism is “scientific and empirical” (see above), but what I find most interesting here is the way Russell sees the Nazis as “antirational and anti-scientific”, the products of Romanticism and Idealism, whereas so many people today associate them with ‘cold’ rationality and scientific efficiency. In other words, people tend to accuse the Nazis of too much rationality and a lack of emotion, while their real problem was perhaps exactly the opposite.
I would agree wholeheartedly that “a rationalistic reconquest of men’s minds” is urgently needed, but I find the first part of the statement a slight oversimplification. Every age has had its dominant streams of thought, sometimes as a natural result of political and scientific developments, but often imposed on philosophers from above. A good example of this would be the way the political dominance of the Catholic church during the Middle Ages imposed a Christian world view – anyone who admitted to not believing in God would be in deep trouble. The 20th-century philosophical conflict Russell is talking about really comes down to that between rationalists on the one hand and those who prefer to believe on the other, and I’m sure that this conflict was always going on, under the surface at least, even long before Rousseau.
I must admit that before reading this book I’d never heard of Bergson, even though he was apparently very influential. According to Wikipedia he “was a major French philosopher, influential especially in the first half of the 20th century [and] convinced many thinkers that the processes of immediate experience and intuition are more significant than abstract rationalism and science for understanding reality.” Just like Hegel, he is a philosopher of whom Russell doesn’t have a high opinion, and if this book gives an even moderately honest overview of Bergson’s philosophy then I’d have to agree with him. Most of Bergson’s ideas are pure speculation, and are so vague as to be nearer to poetry than to philosophy anyway. Some are so ridiculous that I’m amazed that so many people apparently took him so seriously. He fits in with a long line of philosophers who reacted against rationalism and/or civilisation, e.g. Rousseau and the Romantics. For him ‘intuition’ is everything, and ‘intellect’ is an aberration. In the space of just a few pages Russell manages to analyse the essential points of Bergson’s philosophy and point out the serious errors it contains, basically wiping the floor with it and showing it up unmercifully as the rubbish it is.
After giving a brief outline of Bergson’s ideas, he continues:
But a cool critic, who feels himself a mere spectator, perhaps an unsympathetic spectator, of the charge in which man is mounted upon animality, may be inclined to think that calm and careful thought is hardly compatible with this form of exercise. When he is told that thought is a mere means of action, the mere impulse to avoid obstacles in the field, he may feel that such a view is becoming in a cavalry officer, but not in a philosopher, whose business, after all, is with thought: he may feel that in the passion and noise of violent motion there is no room for the fainter music of reason, no leisure for the disinterested contemplation in which greatness is sought, not by turbulence, but by the greatness of the universe which is mirrored. In that case, he may he tempted to ask whether there are any reasons for accepting such a restless view of the world. And if he asks this question, he will find, if I am not mistaken, that there is no reason whatever for accepting this view, either in the universe or in the writings of M. Bergson. (p.799,6)
Russell’s criticism concentrates on his own speciality, mathematics. For instance Bergson uses Zeno’s paradox of The Arrow as an illustration of his ideas, and Russell uses a mathematical view of the same paradox to refute them:
Bergson’s position is illustrated – and what is to be said in criticism may also be aptly illustrated – by Zeno’s argument of the arrow. Zeno argues that, since the arrow at each moment simply is where it is, therefore the arrow in its flight is always at rest. At first sight, this argument may not appear a very powerful one. Of course, it will be said, the arrow is where it is at one moment, but at another moment it is somewhere else, and this is just what constitutes motion. Certain difficulties, it is true, arise out of the continuity of motion, if we insist upon assuming that motion is also discontinuous. These difficulties, thus obtained, have long been part of the stock-in-trade of philosophers. But if, with the mathematicians, we avoid the assumption that motion is also discontinuous, we shall not fall into the philosopher’s difficulties. A cinematograph in which there are an infinite number of pictures, and in which there is never a next picture because an infinite number come between any two, will perfectly represent a continuous motion. Wherein, then, lies the force of Zeno’s argument?
Zeno belonged to the Eleatic school, whose object was to prove that there could be no such thing as change. The natural view to take of the world is that there are things which change; for example, there is an arrow which is now here, now there. By bisection of this view, philosophers have developed two paradoxes. The Eleatics said that there were things but no changes; Heraclitus and Bergson said there were changes but no things. The Eleatics said there was an arrow, but no flight; Heraclitus and Bergson said there was a flight, but no arrow. Each party conducted its argument by refutation of the other party. How ridiculous to say there is no arrow! say the “static” party. How ridiculous to say there is no flight! say the “dynamic” party. The unfortunate man who stands in the middle and maintains that there is both the arrow and its flight is assumed by the disputants to deny both; he is therefore pierced, like St. Sebastian, by the arrow from one side and by its flight from the other. But we have still not discovered wherein lies the force of Zeno’s argument.
Zeno assumes, tacitly, the essence of the Bergsonian theory of change. That is to say, he assumes that when a thing is in a process of continuous change, even if it is only change of position, there must be in the thing some internal state of change. The thing must, at each instant, be intrinsically different from what it would be if it were not changing. He then points out that at each instant the arrow simply is where it is, just as it would be if it were at rest. Hence he concludes that there can be no such thing as a state of motion, and therefore, adhering to the view that a state of motion is essential to motion, he infers that there can be no motion and that the arrow is always at rest.
Zeno’s argument, therefore, though it does not touch the mathematical account of change, does, prima facie, refute a view of change which is not unlike Bergson’s. How, then, does Bergson meet Zeno’s argument? He meets it by denying that the arrow is ever anywhere. After stating Zeno’s argument, he replies: “Yes, if we suppose that the arrow can ever be in a point of its course. Yes, again, if the arrow, which is moving, ever coincides with a position, which is motionless. But the arrow never is in any point of its course.” This reply to Zeno, or a closely similar one concerning Achilles and the Tortoise, occurs in all his three books. Bergson’s view, plainly, is paradoxical; whether it is possible, is a question which demands a discussion of his view of duration. His only argument in its favour is the statement that the mathematical view of change “implies the absurd proposition that movement is made of immobilities.” But the apparent absurdity of this view is merely due to the verbal form in which he has stated it, and vanishes as soon as we realize that motion implies relations. A friendship, for example, is made out of people who are friends, but not out of friendships; a genealogy is made out of men, but not out of genealogies. So a motion is made out of what is moving, but not out of motions. It expresses the fact that a thing may be in different places at different times, and that the places may still be different however near together the times may be. Bergson’s argument against the mathematical view of motion, therefore, reduces itself, in the last analysis, to a mere play upon words. (p.804,5)
Russell sums up as follows:
The good which Bergson hopes to see realized in the world is action for the sake of action. All pure contemplation he calls “dreaming,” and condemns by a whole series of uncomplimentary epithets: static, Platonic, mathematical, logical, intellectual. Those who desire some prevision of the end which action is to achieve are told that an end foreseen would be nothing new, because desire, like memory, is identified with its object. Thus we are condemned, in action, to be the blind slaves of instinct: the life-force pushes us on from behind, restlessly and unceasingly. There is no room in this philosophy for the moment of contemplative insight when, rising above the animal life, we become conscious of the greater ends that redeem man from the life of the brutes. Those to whom activity without purpose seems a sufficient good will find in Bergson’s books a pleasing picture of the universe. But those to whom action, if it is to be of any value, must be inspired by some vision, by some imaginative foreshadowing of a world less painful, less unjust, less full of strife than the world of our everyday life, those, in a word, whose action is built on contemplation, will find in this philosophy nothing of what they seek, and will not regret that there is no reason to think it true. (p.810,1)
Here, as elsewhere, Russell displays an excellent ability for distinguishing poetical visions and inspired speculations from a more serious and scientific form of philosophy.
I must admit that I did find one interesting point in Bergson’s philosophy: the idea, not often come across in the writings of philosophers but familiar to anyone interested in psychedelics, that the brain acts as a filter, cutting out information which it doesn’t find useful:
With his doctrine of radical empiricism, William James abolishes the distinction between subject and object, mind and matter. Russell points out the one point where he departs from James (the way James uses the term “pure experience”), but for the rest is totally convinced by radical empiricism. In fact,
As far as I can understand James’s ideas (which isn’t that far), he seems to be going even further than Kant, who believed in ‘das Ding an sich’, and more in the direction of Berkeley, by saying that mind and matter, subject and object, are all made out of the same ‘stuff’. If there’s only one sort of ‘stuff’ in the universe, it doesn’t really matter what you call it; Berkeley would have called it mind, the materialists would have called it matter, and James calls it “pure experience”. I’m not at all sure why Russell, who isn’t convinced by the idealism of Berkeley or Kant, is so enthusiastic about radical empiricism, and in the two pages or so that he devotes to this philosophy he doesn’t offer any explanation.
Russell is a lot less enthusiastic about the other, more religious side of James’s philosophy, i.e. with his ‘pragmatism’ and his ‘will to believe’. He quickly shows the ‘will to believe’ as being completely contrary to common sense without any good reason, then moves on to ‘pragmatism’:
The principle of pragmatism, according to James, was first enunciated by C. S. Peirce, who maintained that, in order to attain clearness in our thoughts of an object, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve. James, in elucidation, says that the function of philosophy is to find out what difference it makes to you or me if this or that world-formula is true. In this way theories become instruments, not answers to enigmas.
Ideas, we are told by James, become true in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience: “An idea is ‘true’ so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives.” (p.816,2)
Russell has no trouble demolishing this idea as it applies to simple historical facts, such as “whether Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492”. Yet again, he shows the idea to be completely contrary to common sense, and without any good reason. I would tend to be kind to James and assume that he meant to apply his new definition of ‘truth’ mainly or exclusively to those areas in which simple direct verification is not possible, such as the existence or otherwise of God:
This appears to me to be similar to my principle that when conflicting ideas are simply different ways of seeing the world, or when there is no way, in practice, of deciding between the truth of different theoretical possibilities, then the only useful way of deciding between them is to look at their practical consequences and consider how useful they are. But Russell is having none of it:
He shows effectively why James’s ideas are just as unsatisfactory for religious believers as for anyone else:
He finishes with a general condemnation of James, which leads him to a general condemnation of ‘most modern philosophy’:
As far as James goes I can certainly agree with him (although I still don’t understand why he agrees so wholeheartedly with radical empiricism!), but is Russell going too far with his ‘down to earth’, ‘common sense’ attitude to most of his contemporaries? I’d be very interested to know what ‘most modern philosophers’ would have to say about it…
Here we have yet another philosopher whose ideas, as presented by Russell, are so ridiculous that I find myself wondering how anyone could possibly take them seriously. Dewey has some original ideas on the concept of ‘truth’, but Russell is not impressed:
I wonder what Dewey had to say about all this. Is Russell exaggerating, and offering a complete caricature of Dewey’s ideas? Surely if they had the sort of consequences which Russell attributes to them, then no one would ever have taken them seriously…
Russell says a little bit about his own views on truth, but it’s not very enlightening. Having basically written Dewey’s ideas off as absurd, he does offer an explanation for them:
The main difference between Dr. Dewey and me is that he judges a belief by its effects, whereas I judge it by its causes where a past occurrence is concerned. I consider such a belief “true,” or as nearly “true” as we can make it, if it has a certain kind of relation (sometimes very complicated) to its causes. Dr. Dewey holds that it has “warranted assertability” which he substitutes for “truth” if it has certain kinds of effects. This divergence is connected with a difference of outlook on the world. The past cannot be affected by what we do, and therefore, if truth is determined by what has happened, it is independent of present or future volitions; it represents, in logical form, the limitations on human power. But if truth, or rather “warranted assertability,” depends upon the future, then, in so far as it is in our power to alter the future, it is in our power to alter what should be asserted. This enlarges the sense of human power and freedom. […]
Throughout this book, I have sought, where possible, to connect philosophies with the social environment of the philosophers concerned. It has seemed to me that the belief in human power, and the unwillingness to admit “stubborn facts,” were connected with the hopefulness engendered by machine production and the scientific manipulation of our physical environment. (p.825,9)
Russell finishes with a warning:
In all this I feel a grave danger, the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety. The concept of “truth” as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness – the intoxication of power which invaded philosophy with Fichte, and to which modern men, whether philosophers or not, are prone. I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy which, however unintentionally, contributes to it is increasing the danger of vast social disaster. (p.827,6)
Although I’m pessimistic enough to suspect that Russell’s warning may well be justified, I also suspect there’s another way of looking at Dewey’s ideas. If he’s just trying to change the actual meaning of the concept ‘truth’ while keeping the generally accepted ‘common sense’ metaphysical world view, then his ideas do indeed seem to be absurd, and perhaps even dangerous. They do, after all, seem to resemble the attitudes of most (if not all) governments to ‘the truth’, i.e. the truth is whatever happens to be in our best interests! If, however, we look at the world from a different angle and assume that what we think of as the objective, external world is actually being created, at least to a great extent, by our consciousness, then his ideas seem much more reasonable. After all, if we’re creating the world then it’s us who decides what is and isn’t true. The concept ‘truth’ is very much related to the concept ‘reality’, true statements being those which conform to reality, and if that which is ‘real’ is defined according to what we can know, then Dewey’s ideas start to make sense. At one point we read:
…which looks very much like my definition of objectivity as being that upon which everyone can agree. If we’re considering what a brontosaurus had for breakfast on a particular morning 150 million years ago, then I find it quite reasonable to say that if we can’t possibly know, then (at the very least to all intents and purposes) that information, and therefore that event, does not exist, and nothing true can be said about it. Similarly, if there is evidence available and everyone who investigates the matter agrees on a particular breakfast menu, then (at the very least to all intents and purposes), that is the truth – and the only one – about what that brontosaurus had for breakfast. If new evidence becomes available, the ‘truth’ may well change, but I don’t really see any practical advantage in imagining a sort of ‘real truth’ beyond what we can possibly know: what the brontosaurus really had for breakfast, regardless of what we can know about it. On the other hand, the ‘common sense’ view (and, presumably, that of Bertrand Russell), is that certain facts about the past must be true or not, regardless of what anyone now claims to know about them, or whether it’s even possible to know about them. These are two conflicting views of reality, and I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that I believe one to be true and the other false. However, I do think that they’re both plausible ways of seeing the world. From where we’re standing we have no way of deciding the issue, so the best policy is therefore to use the view which is most useful to us. If, as I suspect, this is more what Dewey had in mind, then maybe I’m going some way in the direction of his pragmatism…
The Philosophy Of Logical Analysis:
The book ends with a look at Bertrand Russell’s own school of philosophy, and some remarks on philosophy in general. He claims that the new way of thinking developed by himself and his colleagues, which he calls ‘The Philosophy Of Logical Analysis’, or sometimes ‘analytical empiricism’, is more scientific and more objective than all that has gone before, and therefore capable of providing definite once-and-for-all answers to questions which have been bothering thinkers since time immemorial:
Excellent news for metaphysics, but unfortunately the news for ethics isn’t so good:
I think Russell is making a big mistake here. As far as I’m concerned ethics in the most general sense of the word (including, for instance, economics and politics) is very much within the scope of science and philosophy – and very much in need of what science and philosophy have to offer. I would even go so far as to say that what philosophy can potentially achieve in the area of ethics is probably more useful to mankind than anything else of which it’s capable. What’s needed, first and foremost, is the recognition that ‘value’ is a human invention, along with such concepts as ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and that such matters are not aspects of the external, objective world which can be the subject of scientific investigation in the hope of discovering some objective ‘truth’. It’s certainly true that science cannot prove that it’s bad to enjoy the infliction of cruelty, if only because ‘bad’ is an entirely subjective description. What it can do, however, is to say that, given a certain aim which we’re trying to achieve, the infliction of cruelty is or isn’t useful in the attainment of that aim. I’m also convinced that science and philosophy can also say useful things about what that aim should be. If this is not true, then there’s no hope at all for the human race, because saying that such questions are “legitimately matters of feeling” doesn’t help in the slightest, and ultimately leads to their being decided, as they always have been, by the law of the strongest, i.e. by force of arms. He continues:
Very true, not least of the religiously inspired philosophers! He quite rightly disapproves of this phenomenon:
Intellectually, the effect of mistaken moral considerations upon philosophy has been to impede progress to an extraordinary extent. I do not myself believe that philosophy can either prove or disprove the truth of religious dogmas, but ever since Plato most philosophers have considered it part of their business to produce “proofs” of immortality and the existence of God. […] In order to make their proofs seem valid, they have had to falsify logic, to make mathematics mystical, and to pretend that deep-seated prejudices were heaven-sent intuitions. (p.835,0)
He finishes the book with these words:
In the welter of conflicting fanaticisms, one of the few unifying forces is scientific truthfulness, by which I mean the habit of basing our beliefs upon observations and inferences as impersonal, and as much divested of local and temperamental bias, as is possible for human beings. To have insisted upon the introduction of this virtue into philosophy, and to have invented a powerful method by which it can be rendered fruitful, are the chief merits of the philosophical school of which I am a member. The habit of careful veracity acquired in the practice of this philosophical method can be extended to the whole sphere of human activity, producing, wherever it exists, a lessening of fanaticism with an increasing capacity of sympathy and mutual understanding. In abandoning a part of its dogmatic pretensions, philosophy does not cease to suggest and inspire a way of life. (p.835,7)
I couldn’t agree more, but I think it’s important to avoid confusing two very different things. We have to recognise that, for the moment at least, “the human intellect is unable to find conclusive answers to many questions of profound importance to mankind”, which for me are such questions as “why are we here?” and “what happens after death?”. It’s equally important not to jump to conclusions and believe, unjustifiably, in some non-rational, supernatural system which provides easy answers to all these questions. All this, however, does not mean that philosophers should regard the question of “how should we live?” as being beyond the scope of their work, writing it off as a matter of “feeling” and effectively leaving it in the hands of politicians, economists, businessmen, priests and soldiers. The question has traditionally been decided (when not simply by the law of the strongest) according to how those initial “questions of profound importance to mankind” have been answered, but the fact that we’ve now recognised that such big questions cannot be answered is no reason to abandon ethics altogether. I’m convinced that philosophy has a lot to offer the world in this respect, and that it has more than enough material to work on without resorting to any beliefs or claims to knowledge beyond that which science can provide. And in his last paragraph I think that Bertrand Russell is saying something very similar.
|title||A History of Western Philosophy|
|publisher / version read||Simon & Schuster © 1972|
|read||28/07/2014 – 04/10/2014|
|download / read online||(George Allen And Unwin Ltd London, 1947)|