Bertrand Russell : A History of Western Philosophy

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:

Many histories of philosophy exist, and it has not been my purpose merely to add one to their number. My purpose is to exhibit philosophy as an integral part of social and political life: not as the isolated speculations of remarkable individuals, but as both an effect and a cause of the character of the various communities in which different systems flourished.

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!

(details below)

This is a particularly long post, so I’ve broken it up into sections:

followed by my comments on:



General comments

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:

A few words of apology and explanation are called for if this book is to escape even more severe censure than it doubtless deserves.

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:

Dewey’s divergence from what has hitherto been regarded as common sense is due to his refusal to admit “facts” into his metaphysic, in the sense in which “facts” are stubborn and cannot be manipulated. In this it may be that common sense is changing, and that his view will not seem contrary to what common sense is becoming. (p.825,9)

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:

It is noteworthy that modern Platonists, with few exceptions, are ignorant of mathematics, in spite of the immense importance that Plato attached to arithmetic and geometry, and the immense influence that they had on his philosophy. This is an example of the evils of specialization: a man must not write on Plato unless he has spent so much of his youth on Greek as to have had no time for the things that Plato thought important. (p.132,1)
Philosophers are usually men with a certain breadth of mind, who can largely discount the accidents of their private lives; but even they cannot rise above the larger good or evil of their time. In bad times they invent consolations; in good times their interests are more purely intellectual. (p.261,9)

…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!

The lives of learned men have at many times been perforce nomadic. At the beginning of Greek philosophy, many of the philosophers were refugees from the Persians; at the end of it, in the time of Justinian, they became refugees to the Persians. In the fifth century, as we have just seen, men of learning fled from Gaul to the Western Isles to escape the Germans; in the ninth century, they fled back from England and Ireland to escape the Scandinavians. In our own day, German philosophers have to fly even further West to escape their compatriots. I wonder whether it will be equally long before a return flight takes place. (p.402,1)

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:

The conceptions of life and the world which we call “philosophical” are a product of two factors: one, inherited religious and ethical conceptions; the other, the sort of investigation which may be called “scientific,” using this word in its broadest sense. […]
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)
Ever since men became capable of free speculation, their actions, in innumerable important respects, have depended upon their theories as to the world and human life, as to what is good and what is evil. This is as true in the present day as at any former time. To understand an age or a nation, we must understand its philosophy, and to understand its philosophy we must ourselves be in some degree philosophers. There is here a reciprocal causation: the circumstances of men’s lives do much to determine their philosophy, but, conversely, their philosophy does much to determine their circumstances. (introduction, p.xiv,3)
Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it. (introduction, p.xiv,6)

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:

What had happened in the great age of Greece happened again in Renaissance Italy: traditional moral restraints disappeared, because they were seen to be associated with superstition; the liberation from fetters made individuals energetic and creative, producing a rare florescence of genius; but the anarchy and treachery which inevitably resulted from the decay of morals made Italians collectively impotent, and they fell, like the Greeks, under the domination of nations less civilized than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion. (introduction, p.xix,6)

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:

Throughout this long development, from 600 B.C. to the present day, philosophers have been divided into those who wished to tighten social bonds and those who wished to relax them. With this difference others have been associated. The disciplinarians have advocated some system of dogma, either old or new, and have therefore been compelled to be, in a greater or less degree, hostile to science, since their dogmas could not be proved empirically. They have almost invariably taught that happiness is not the good, but that “nobility” or “heroism” is to be preferred. They have had a sympathy with the irrational parts of human nature, since they have felt reason to be inimical to social cohesion. The libertarians, on the other hand, with the exception of the extreme anarchists, have tended to be scientific, utilitarian, rationalistic, hostile to violent passion, and enemies of all the more profound forms of religion. This conflict existed in Greece before the rise of what we recognize as philosophy, and is already quite explicit in the earliest Greek thought. In changing forms, it has persisted down to the present day, and no doubt will persist for many ages to come.
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 success of Bacchus in Greece is not surprising. Like all communities that have been civilized quickly, the Greeks, or at least a certain proportion of them, developed a love of the primitive, and a hankering after a more instinctive and passionate way of life than that sanctioned by current morals. To the man or woman who, by compulsion, is more civilized in behaviour than in feeling, rationality is irksome and virtue is felt as a burden and a slavery. This leads to a reaction in thought, in feeling, and in conduct. (p.15,1)
The civilized man is distinguished from the savage mainly by prudence or, to use a slightly wider term, forethought. He is willing to endure present pains for the sake of future pleasures, even if the future pleasures are rather distant. This habit began to be important with the rise of agriculture; no animal and no savage would work in the spring in order to have food next winter, except for a few purely instinctive forms of action, such as bees making honey or squirrels burying nuts. In these cases, there is no forethought; there is a direct impulse to an act which, to the human spectator, is obviously going to prove useful later on. True forethought only arises when a man does something towards which no impulse urges him, because his reason tells him that he will profit by it at some future date. Hunting requires no forethought, because it is pleasurable; but tilling the soil is labour, and cannot be done from spontaneous impulse. (p.15,4)
Prudence versus passion is a conflict that runs through history. It is not a conflict in which we ought to side wholly with either party. (p.16,4)

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.

The atomists [Leucippus, Democritus], unlike Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, sought to explain the world without introducing the notion of purpose or final cause. The “final cause” of an occurrence is an event in the future for the sake of which the occurrence takes place. In human affairs, this conception is applicable. Why does the baker make bread? Because people will be hungry. Why are railways built? Because people will wish to travel. In such cases, things are explained by the purpose they serve. When we ask “why?” concerning an event, we may mean either of two things. We may mean: “What purpose did this event serve?” or we may mean: “What earlier circumstances caused this event?” The answer to the former question is a teleological explanation, or an explanation by final causes; the answer to the latter question is a mechanistic explanation. I do not see how it could have been known in advance which of these two questions science ought to ask, or whether it ought to ask both. But experience has shown that the mechanistic question leads to scientific knowledge, while the teleological question does not. The atomists asked the mechanistic question, and gave a mechanistic answer. Their successors, until the Renaissance, were more interested in the teleological question, and thus led science up a blind alley. (p.66,9)
Democritus […] is the last of the Greek philosophers to be free from a certain fault which vitiated all later ancient and medieval thought. All the philosophers we have been considering so far were engaged in a disinterested effort to understand the world. […]
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).
The pursuit of truth, when it is wholehearted, must ignore moral considerations; we cannot know in advance that the truth will turn out to be what is thought edifying in a given society. The Sophists were prepared to follow an argument wherever it might lead them. Often it led them to scepticism. […] Plato is always concerned to advocate views that will make people what he thinks virtuous; he is hardly ever intellectually honest, because he allows himself to judge doctrines by their social consequences. Even about this, he is not honest; he pretends to follow the argument and to be judging by purely theoretical standards, when in fact he is twisting the discussion so as to lead to a virtuous result. He introduced this vice into philosophy, where it has persisted ever since. […] One of the defects of all philosophers since Plato is that their inquiries into ethics proceed on the assumption that they already know the conclusions to be reached. (p.78,8)

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:

The myth [of Sparta], fully developed, is to be found in Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus; the ideals that it favours have had a great part in framing the doctrines of Rousseau, Nietzsche, and National Socialism. [and, added in a note:] Not to mention Dr. Thomas Arnold and the English public schools. (p.94,4)

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:

Lycurgus [the mythical author of the Spartan constitution], […] like all who aim chiefly at military power, […] was anxious to keep up the birth rate. […] He goes on to explain that a man was not thought ill of if, being old and having a young wife, he allowed a younger man to have children by her. “It was lawful also for an honest man that loved another man’s wife … to intreat her husband to suffer him to lie with her, and that he might also plough in that lusty ground, and cast abroad the seed of well-favoured children.” There was to be no foolish jealousy, for “Lycurgus did not like that children should be private to any men, but that they should be common to the common weal: by which reason he would also, that such as should become citizens should not be begotten of every man, but of the most honest men only.” He goes on to explain that this is the principle that farmers apply to their live-stock. (p.102,4)
[quoting Plutarch] Their discipline and order of life continued still, after they were full grown men. For it was not lawful for any man to live as he listed, but they were within their city, as if they had been in a camp, where every man knoweth what allowance he hath to live withal, and what business he hath else to do in his calling. To be short, they were all of this mind, that they were not born to serve themselves, but to serve their country. (p.103,6)
Spartans were not allowed to travel, nor were foreigners admitted to Sparta, except on business; for it was feared that alien customs would corrupt Lacedaemonian virtue. (p.104,1)

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:

Even at the present day, all Catholic teachers of philosophy and many others still obstinately reject the discoveries of modern logic, and adhere with a strange tenacity to a system which is as definitely antiquated as Ptolemaic astronomy. (p.195,6)

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 Posterior Analytics is a work largely concerned with a question which must trouble any deductive theory, namely: How are first premisses obtained? Since deduction must start from somewhere, we must begin with something unproved, which must be known otherwise than by demonstration. I shall not give Aristotle’s theory in detail, since it depends upon the notion of essence. A definition, he says, is a statement of a thing’s essential nature. The notion of essence is an intimate part of every philosophy subsequent to Aristotle, until we come to modern times. It is, in my opinion, a hopelessly muddle-headed notion, but its historical importance requires us to say something about it. The “essence” of a thing appears to have meant “those of its properties which it cannot change without losing its identity.” Socrates may be sometimes happy, sometimes sad; sometimes well, sometimes ill. Since he can change these properties without ceasing to be Socrates, they are no part of his essence. But it is supposed to be of the essence of Socrates that he is a man […] In fact, the question of “essence” is one as to the use of words. We apply the same name, on different occasions, to somewhat different occurrences, which we regard as manifestations of a single “thing” or “person.” In fact, however, this is only a verbal convenience. The “essence” of Socrates thus consists of those properties in the absence of which we should not use the name “Socrates.” The question is purely linguistic: a word may have an essence, but a thing cannot.
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:

[…] spent the rest of the afternoon reading ‘A History of Western Philosophy’. At the moment I’m working my way through Aristotle’s metaphysics, ethics and politics: all sort of interesting, mainly because it explains so much about what came later, but it still feels like hard work. I mean, what a load of rubbish! (just like Plato!). At least Bertrand Russell treats them with the disrespect they deserve…

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:

Plato is perpetually getting into trouble through not understanding relative terms. He thinks that if A is greater than B and less than C, then A is at once great and small, which seems to him a contradiction. Such troubles are among the infantile diseases of philosophy. (p.129,1)
[In Plato’s Theaetetus] We are told that, since 6 is greater than 4 but less than 12, 6 is both great and small, which is a contradiction. Again, Socrates is now taller than Theaetetus, who is a youth not yet full grown; but in a few years Socrates will be shorter than Theaetetus. Therefore Socrates is both tall and short. The idea of a relational proposition seems to have puzzled Plato, as it did most of the great philosophers down to Hegel (inclusive). (p.150,4)

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:

Panaetius had said, as most Stoics did, that the soul perishes with the body. Posidonius, on the contrary, says that it continues to live in the air, where, in most cases, it remains unchanged until the next world-conflagration. There is no hell, but the wicked, after death, are not so fortunate as the good, for sin makes the vapours of the soul muddy, and prevents it from rising as far as the good soul rises. The very wicked stay near the earth and are reincarnated; the truly virtuous rise to the stellar sphere and spend their time watching the stars go round. They can help other souls; this explains (he thinks) the truth of astrology. (p.259,4)
Life in harmony with the universe is what is good; and harmony with the universe is the same thing as obedience to the will of God. (p.265,6)
[Marcus Aurelius said, in his Meditations:] “Whatever may happen to thee, it was prepared for thee from all eternity; and the implication of causes was from eternity spinning the thread of thy being.” (p265,9)




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:

The metaphysics of Plotinus begins with a Holy Trinity: The One, Spirit and Soul. These three are not equal, like the Persons of the Christian Trinity; the One is supreme, Spirit comes next, and Soul last. (p.288,5)

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…

Plotinus, however, is not only historically important. He represents, better than any other philosopher, an important type of theory. A philosophical system may be judged important for various different kinds of reasons. The first and most obvious is that we think it may be true. Not many students of philosophy at the present time would feel this about Plotinus […] But truth is not the only merit that a metaphysic can possess. It may have beauty, and this is certainly to be found in Plotinus; there are passages that remind one of the later cantos of Dante’s Paradise, and of almost nothing else in literature. […]
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:

Plotinus […] turned aside from the spectacle of ruin and misery in the actual world, to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty. In this he was in harmony with all the most serious men of his age. To all of them, Christians and pagans alike, the world of practical affairs seemed to offer no hope, and only the Other World seemed worthy of allegiance. To the Christian, the Other World was the Kingdom of Heaven, to be enjoyed after death; to the Platonist, it was the eternal world of ideas, the real world as opposed to that of illusory appearance. Christian theologians combined these points of view, and embodied much of the philosophy of Plotinus. (p.284,7)

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:

[following severe persecution of the Jews by Antiochus IV in the 2nd. century BC] It was at this time that the doctrine of immortality came to be widely believed among the Jews. It had been thought that virtue would be rewarded here on earth; but persecution, which fell upon the most virtuous, made it evident that this was not the case. In order to safeguard divine justice, therefore, it was necessary to believe in rewards and punishments hereafter. This doctrine was not universally accepted among the Jews; in the time of Christ, the Sadducees still rejected it. But by that time they were a small party, and in later times all Jews believed in immortality. (p.315,6)

It’s also interesting to read in 2014 that:

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Mohammedans were more civilized and more humane than the Christians. Christians persecuted Jews, especially at times of religious excitement; the Crusades were associated with appalling pogroms. In Mohammedan countries, on the contrary, Jews were not in any way ill treated. (p.323,2)



St. Augustine:

St. Augustine, at most times, does not occupy himself with pure philosophy, but when he does he shows very great ability. He is the first of a long line whose purely speculative views are influenced by the necessity of agreeing with Scripture. (p.352,9)

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:

Why was the world not created sooner? Because there was no “sooner.” Time was created when the world was created. God is eternal, in the sense of being timeless; in God there is no before and after, but only an eternal present. God’s eternity is exempt from the relation of time; all time is present to Him at once. He did not precede His own creation of time, for that would imply that He was in time, whereas He stands eternally outside the stream of time. This leads St. Augustine to a very admirable relativistic theory of time.
“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:

The Stoic conception of Fate (which was connected with astrology) is mistaken, since angels and men have free will. It is true that God has foreknowledge of our sins, but we do not sin because of His foreknowledge. (p.357,8)

Quite a bit of intelligent philosophy is mixed with a whole lot of totally moronic theology, such as the following:

Angels may be good or bad, but demons are always bad. (p.358,7)
Origen errs in thinking that souls were given bodies as a punishment. If this were so, bad souls would have bad bodies; but devils, even the worst of them, have airy bodies, which are better than ours.
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 must be admitted that sexual intercourse in marriage is not sinful, provided the intention is to beget offspring. Yet even in marriage a virtuous man will wish that he could manage without lust. Even in marriage, as the desire for privacy shows, people are ashamed of sexual intercourse, because “this lawful act of nature is (from our first parents) accompanied with our penal shame.” […] What is shameful about lust is its independence of the will. Adam and Eve, before the fall, could have had sexual intercourse without lust, though in fact they did not. Handicraftsmen, in the pursuit of their trade, move their hands without lust; similarly Adam, if only he had kept away from the apple-tree, could have performed the business of sex without the emotions that it now demands. The sexual members, like the rest of the body, would have obeyed the will. The need of lust in sexual intercourse is a punishment for Adam’s sin, but for which sex might have been divorced from pleasure.
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:

Pelagius […] believed in free will, questioned the doctrine of original sin, and thought that, when men act virtuously, it is by reason of their own moral effort. If they act rightly, and are orthodox, they go to heaven as a reward of their virtues.
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:

It is strange that the last men of intellectual eminence before the dark ages were concerned, not with saving civilization or expelling the barbarians or reforming the abuses of the administration, but with preaching the merit of virginity and the damnation of unbaptized infants. Seeing that these were the preoccupations that the Church handed on to the converted barbarians, it is no wonder that the succeeding age surpassed almost all other fully historical periods in cruelty and superstition. (p.366,1)



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:

The question at issue was the relation of Christ’s divinity to His humanity. Were there two Persons, one human and one divine? This was the view held by Nestorius. If not, was there only one nature, or were there two natures in one person, a human nature and a divine nature? These questions roused, in the fifth century, an almost incredible degree of passion and fury. (p.367,8)

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:

The Hegira, with which the Mohammedan era begins, took place in A.D. 622; Mohammed died ten years later. Immediately after his death the Arab conquests began, and they proceeded with extraordinary rapidity. […]
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)
Arabia was largely desert, and was growing less and less capable of supporting its population. The first conquests of the Arabs began as mere raids for plunder, and only turned into permanent occupation after experience had shown the weakness of the enemy. Suddenly, in the course of some twenty years, men accustomed to all the hardships of a meagre existence on the fringe of the desert found themselves masters of some of the richest regions of the world, able to enjoy every luxury and to acquire all the refinements of an ancient civilization. They withstood the temptations of this transformation better than most of the Northern barbarians had done. As they had acquired their empire without much severe fighting, there had been little destruction, and the civil administration was kept on almost unchanged. Both in Persia and in the Byzantine Empire, the civil government had been highly organized. The Arab tribesmen, at first, understood nothing of its complications, and perforce accepted the services of the trained men whom they found in charge. These men, for the most part, showed no reluctance to serve under their new masters. Indeed, the change made their work easier, since taxation was lightened very considerably. The populations, moreover, in order to escape the tribute, very largely abandoned Christianity for Islam.
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 set reason above faith, and cared nothing for the authority of ecclesiastics; […] (p.400,9)
[…] he maintained the equal, or even superior, authority of a philosophy independent of revelation. He contended that reason and revelation are both sources of truth, and therefore cannot conflict; but if they ever seem to conflict, reason is to be preferred. True religion, he said, is true philosophy; but, conversely, true philosophy is true religion. His work was condemned by two councils, in 855 and 859; the first of these described it as “Scots porridge.”
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:

He then passes on to sin, predestination, and election, on which his view is broadly that of Augustine. By mortal sin a man forfeits his last end to all eternity, and therefore eternal punishment is his due. No man can be freed from sin except by grace, and yet the sinner is to be blamed if he is not converted. Man needs grace to persevere in good, but no one can merit divine assistance. God is not the cause of sinning, but some He leaves in sin, while others He delivers from it. As regards predestination, St. Thomas seems to hold, with St. Augustine, that no reason can be given why some are elected and go to heaven, while others are left reprobate and go to hell. (p.460,3)

Having devoted a whole chapter to Thomas Aquinas, Russell concludes:

There is little of the true philosophic spirit in Aquinas. He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading. I cannot, therefore, feel that he deserves to be put on a level with the best philosophers either of Greece or of modern times. (p.463,0)

I think that just about sums up the ‘philosophy’ of the Middle Ages, and Catholic ‘philosophy’ in general!



Franciscan Schoolmen:

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.

For Occam, logic is an instrument for the philosophy of nature, which can be independent of metaphysics. (p.473,0)
By insisting on the possibility of studying logic and human knowledge without reference to metaphysics and theology, Occam’s work encouraged scientific research. The Augustinians, he said, erred in first supposing things unintelligible and men unintelligent, and then adding a light from Infinity by which knowledge became possible. (p.475,2)

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:

His most famous work, The Prince, was written in 1513, and dedicated to Lorenzo the Second, since he hoped (vainly, as it proved) to win the favour of the Medici. Its tone is perhaps partly due to this practical purpose; his longer work, the Discourses which he was writing at the same time, is markedly more republican and more liberal. He says at the beginning of The Prince that he will not speak of republics in this book, since he has dealt with them elsewhere. Those who do not read also the Discourses are likely to get a very one-sided view of his doctrine. (p.505,1)
There are certain political goods, of which three are specially important: national independence, security, and a well-ordered constitution. The best constitution is one which apportions legal rights among prince, nobles, and people in proportion to their real power, for under such a constitution successful revolutions are difficult and therefore stability is possible; but for considerations of stability, it would be wise to give more power to the people. So far as regards ends.
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:

Protestant clergy were at least as bigoted as Catholic ecclesiastics; nevertheless there soon came to be much more liberty of speculation in Protestant than in Catholic countries, because in Protestant countries the clergy had less power. The important aspect of Protestantism was schism, not heresy, for schism led to national Churches, and national Churches were not strong enough to control the lay government. This was wholly a gain, for the Churches, everywhere, opposed as long as they could practically every innovation that made for an increase of happiness or knowledge here on earth. (p.528,9)



Hobbes’s Leviathan:

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.

Hobbes, as might be expected, is an out-and-out nominalist. There is, he says, nothing universal but names, and without words we could not conceive any general ideas. Without language, there would be no truth or falsehood, for “true” and “false” are attributes of speech. (p.549,4)
We call a thing “good” when it is an object of desire, and “bad” when it is an object of aversion. (It will be observed that these definitions give no objectivity to “good” and “bad”; if men differ in their desires, there is no theoretical method of adjusting their differences.) […] Fear of invisible power, if publicly allowed, is religion; if not allowed, superstition. Thus the decision as to what is religion and what superstition rests with the legislator. (p.550,1)

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:

In a state of nature, before there is any government, every man desires to preserve his own liberty, but to acquire dominion over others; both these desires are dictated by the impulse to self-preservation. From their conflict arises a war of all against all, which makes life “nasty, brutish, and short.” In a state of nature, there is no property, no justice or injustice; there is only war, and “force and fraud are, in war, the two cardinal virtues.”
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:

Another point in which Hobbes’s doctrine is unduly limited is in regard to the relations between different States. There is not a word in Leviathan to suggest any relation between them except war and conquest, with occasional interludes. This follows, on his principles, from the absence of an international government, for the relations of States are still in a state of nature, which is that of a war of all against all. So long as there is international anarchy, it is by no means clear that increase of efficiency in the separate States is in the interest of mankind, since it increases the ferocity and destructiveness of war. Every argument that he adduces in favour of government, in so far as it is valid at all, is valid in favour of international government. So long as national States exist and fight each other, only inefficiency can preserve the human race. To improve the fighting quality of separate States without having any means of preventing war is the road to universal destruction. (p.557,2)




Descartes is justly famous for his principle of Cogito ergo sum :

Descartes begins by explaining the method of “Cartesian doubt,” as it has come to be called. In order to have a firm basis for his philosophy, he resolves to make himself doubt everything that he can manage to doubt. (p.563,3)
Having now secured a firm foundation, Descartes sets to work to rebuild the edifice of knowledge. (p.564,9)

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:

When God’s existence has been proved, the rest proceeds easily. Since God is good, He will not act like the deceitful demon whom Descartes has imagined as a ground for doubt. Now God has given me such a strong inclination to believe in bodies that He would be deceitful if there were none; therefore bodies exist. He must, moreover, have given me the faculty of correcting errors. I use this faculty when I employ the principle that what is clear and distinct is true. This enables me to know mathematics, and physics also, if I remember that I must know the truth about bodies by the mind alone, not by mind and body jointly.
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:

Spinoza says that God is not affected by any emotion of pleasure or pain (p.575,5)

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.

There is only one substance, “God or Nature”; nothing finite is self-subsistent. […] Individual souls and separate pieces of matter are, for Spinoza, adjectival; they are not things, but merely aspects of the divine Being. There can be no such personal immortality as Christians believe in, but only that impersonal sort that consists in becoming more and more one with God. (p.571,1)

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:

Spinoza, like Socrates and Plato, believes that all wrong action is due to intellectual error: the man who adequately understands his own circumstances will act wisely, and will even be happy in the face of what to another would be misfortune. He makes no appeal to unselfishness; he holds that self-seeking, in some sense, and more particularly self-preservation, govern all human behaviour. “No virtue can be conceived as prior to this endeavour to preserve one’s own being.” But his conception of what a wise man will choose as the goal of his self-seeking is different from that of the ordinary egoist: “The mind’s highest good is the knowledge of God, and the mind’s highest virtue is to know God.” (p.573,3)

He has a very limited view of right and wrong, but at least he sees that these are man-made concepts:

Spinoza […] holds that in a state of nature there is no right or wrong, for wrong consists in disobeying the law. He holds that the sovereign can do no wrong […] (p.570,2)

Spinoza believes firmly in determinism:

Everything, according to Spinoza, is ruled by an absolute logical necessity. There is no such thing as free will in the mental sphere or chance in the physical world. Everything that happens is a manifestation of God’s inscrutable nature, and it is logically impossible that events should be other than they are. (p.571,6)

However, when he comes to talk about ethics he seems to contradict himself:

We are in bondage in proportion as what happens to us is determined by outside causes, and we are free in proportion as we are self-determined. (p.573,2)

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:

The wise man, so far as human finitude allows, endeavours to see the world as God sees it, sub specie aternitatis, under the aspect of eternity. (p.574,0)

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:

Leibniz […] did work on mathematical logic which would have been enormously important if he had published it; he would, in that case, have been the founder of mathematical logic, which would have become known a century and a half sooner than it did in fact. He abstained from publishing, because he kept on finding evidence that Aristotle’s doctrine of the syllogism was wrong on some points; respect for Aristotle made it impossible for him to believe this, so he mistakenly supposed that the errors must be his own. (p.591,8)

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

There is a “pre-established harmony” between the changes in one monad and those in another, which produces the semblance of interaction.” (p.583,9)

Not only that, but…

Monads form a hierarchy, in which some are superior to others in the clearness and distinctness with which they mirror the universe. In all there is some degree of confusion in perception, but the amount of confusion varies according to the dignity of the monad concerned. A human body is entirely composed of monads, each of which is a soul, and each of which is immortal, but there is one dominant monad which is what is called the soul of the man of whose body it forms part. (p.584,2)

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:

One of the most characteristic features of [the philosophy of Leibniz] is the doctrine of many possible worlds. A world is “possible” if it does not contradict the laws of logic. There are an infinite number of possible worlds, all of which God contemplated before creating the actual world. Being good, God decided to create the best of the possible worlds, and He considered that one to be the best which had the greatest excess of good over evil. He could have created a world containing no evil, but it would not have been so good as the actual world. That is because some great goods are logically bound up with certain evils. To take a trivial illustration, a drink of cold water when you are very thirsty on a hot day may give you such great pleasure that you think the previous thirst, though painful, was worth enduring, because without it the subsequent enjoyment could not have been so great. For theology, it is not such illustrations that are important, but the connection of sin with free will. Free will is a great good, but it was logically impossible for God to bestow free will and at the same time decree that there should be no sin. God therefore decided to make man free, although he foresaw that Adam would eat the apple, and although sin inevitably brought punishment. The world that resulted, although it contains evil, has a greater surplus of good over evil than any other possible world; it is therefore the best of all possible worlds, and the evil that it contains affords no argument against the goodness of God.
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:

He always argues that God created as much as possible; this is one of his reasons for rejecting a vacuum. There is a general belief (which I have never understood) that it is better to exist than not to exist; on this ground children are exhorted to be grateful to their parents. Leibniz evidently held this view, and thought it part of God’s goodness to create as full a universe as possible. (p.594,9)

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:

Nevertheless, Leibniz remains a great man, and his greatness is more apparent now than it was at any earlier time. Apart from his eminence as a mathematician and as the inventor of the infinitesimal calculus, he was a pioneer in mathematical logic, of which he perceived the importance when no one else did so. And his philosophical hypotheses, though fantastic, are very clear, and capable of precise expression. Even his monads can still be useful as suggesting possible ways of viewing perception, though they cannot be regarded as windowless. What I, for my part, think best in his theory of monads is his two kinds of space, one subjective, in the perceptions of each monad, and one objective, consisting of the assemblage of points of view of the various monads. This, I believe, is still useful in relating perception to physics. (p.595,9)

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:

Love of truth, which Locke considers essential, is a very different thing from love of some particular doctrine which is proclaimed as the truth. One unerring mark of love of truth, he says, is “not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant”. Forwardness to dictate, he says, shows failure of love of truth. (p.607,5)

I, personally, would say that this philosophy would preclude a belief in God, but according to Russell:

He allows the validity of metaphysical arguments for the existence of God, but he does not dwell on them, and seems somewhat uncomfortable about them. (p.609,7)

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:

Our ideas are derived from two sources, (a) sensation, and (b) perception of the operation of our own mind, which may be called “internal sense.” Since we can only think by means of ideas, and since all ideas come from experience, it is evident that none of our knowledge can antedate 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)
Distinct species are not a fact of nature, but of language; they are “distinct complex ideas with distinct names annexed to them.” There are, it is true, differing things in nature, but the differences proceed by continuous gradations: “the boundaries of the species, whereby men sort them, are made by men.” (p.611,2)

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:

Empiricism and idealism alike are faced with a problem to which, so far, philosophy has found no satisfactory solution. This is the problem of showing how we have knowledge of other things than ourself and the operations of our own mind. (p.611,5)

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:

No one has yet succeeded in inventing a philosophy at once credible and self-consistent. Locke aimed at credibility, and achieved it at the expense of consistency. Most of the great philosophers have done the opposite. A philosophy which is not selfconsistent cannot be wholly true, but a philosophy which is selfconsistent can very well be wholly false. The most fruitful philosophies have contained glaring inconsistencies, but for that very reason have been partially true. There is no reason to suppose that a self-consistent system contains more truth than one which, like Locke’s, is obviously more or less wrong. (p.613,1)

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:

“Things are good or evil only in relation to pleasure or pain. That we call ‘good’ which is apt to cause or increase pleasure, or diminish pain, in us.” (p.613,6)

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:

The hereditary principle has almost vanished from politics. During my lifetime, the emperors of Brazil, China, Russia, Germany, and Austria have disappeared, to be replaced by dictators who do not aim at the foundation of a hereditary dynasty. Aristocracy has lost its privileges throughout Europe, except in England, where they have become little more than a historical form. (p.621,9)

He then goes on to make the following very good point:

It is curious that the rejection of the hereditary principle in politics has had almost no effect in the economic sphere in democratic countries. (In totalitarian states, economic power has been absorbed by political power.) We still think it natural that a man should leave his property to his children; that is to say, we accept the hereditary principle as regards economic power while rejecting it as regards political power. Political dynasties have disappeared, but economic dynasties survive. I am not at the moment arguing either for or against this different treatment of the two forms of power; I am merely pointing out that it exists, and that most men are unconscious of it. When you consider how natural it seems to us that the power over the lives of others resulting from great wealth should be hereditary, you will understand better how men like Sir Robert Filmer could take the same view as regards the power of kings, and how important was the innovation represented by men who thought as Locke did.
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:

The nearest thing to a definition of the state of nature to be found in Locke is the following:
“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:

[quoting Locke] “But though this [the state of nature] be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state has an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions (for we are all God’s property). (p.625,8)

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:

The single separate citizen has no longer the power and independence that he had in Locke’s speculations. Our age is one of organization, and its conflicts are between organizations, not between separate individuals. The state of nature, as Locke says, still exists as between States. A new international Social Contract is necessary before we can enjoy the promised benefits of government. When once an international government has been created, much of Locke’s political philosophy will again become applicable, though not the part of it that deals with private property. (p.640,5)

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:

Some parts of Locke’s natural law are surprising. For example, he says that captives in a just war are slaves by the law of nature. He says also that by nature every man has a right to punish attacks on himself or his property, even by death. He makes no qualification, so that if I catch a person engaged in petty pilfering I have, apparently, by the law of nature, a right to shoot him. (p.626,9)

Unsurprisingly, for Locke the main purpose of government is the preservation of property:

Property is very prominent in Locke’s political philosophy, and is, according to him, the chief reason for the institution of civil government:
“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:

Government, we are told, is a remedy for the inconveniences that arise, in the state of nature, from the fact that, in that state, every man is the judge in his own cause. But where the monarch is a party to the dispute, this is no remedy, since the monarch is both judge and plaintiff. These considerations lead to the view that governments should not be absolute, and that the judiciary should be independent of the executive. […]
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:

Locke’s doctrine is, in essence, more or less democratic, but the democratic element is limited by the view (implied rather than expressed) that those who have no property are not to be reckoned as citizens. (p.630,4)

At about this point Russell offers some interesting comments on the difference between the ‘Continental’ and ‘British’ schools of philosophy:

Leaving politics on one side, let us examine the differences between the two schools of philosophy, which may be broadly distinguished as the Continental and the British respectively.
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:

The great political defect of Locke and his disciples, from a modern point of view, was their worship of property. But those who criticized them on this account often did so in the interest of classes that were more harmful than the capitalists, such as monarchs, aristocrats, and militarists. The aristocratic landowner, whose income comes to him without effort and in accordance with immemorial custom, does not think of himself as a money grubber, and is not so thought of by men who do not look below the picturesque surface. The business man, on the contrary, is engaged in the conscious pursuit of wealth, and while his activities were more or less novel they roused a resentment not felt towards the gentlemanly exactions of the landowner. (p.646,2)

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 ?!



David Hume:

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’:

Hume banished the conception of substance from psychology, as Berkeley had banished it from physics. There is, he says, no impression of self, and therefore no idea of self. […] “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.” There may, he ironically concedes, be some philosophers who can perceive their selves; “but setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” (p.662,2).

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):

“necessity is something that exists in the mind, not in objects.” (p.666,2).

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:

“The supposition, that the future resembles the past, is not founded on arguments of any kind, but is derived entirely from habit.” The conclusion is one of complete scepticism:
“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!)

There is no reason for studying philosophy – so Hume maintains – except that, to certain temperaments, this is an agreeable way of passing the time. (p.672,1)
Hume’s philosophy, whether true or false, represents the bankruptcy of eighteenth-century reasonableness. (p.672,4)

Hume extends his scepticism to the senses, and the only way out of the problem for him is basically to just forget about it:

“This sceptical doubt, both with respect to reason and the senses, is a malady, which can never be radically cured, but must return upon us every moment, however we may chase it away, and sometimes may seem entirely free from it. … Carelessness and inattention alone can afford us any remedy. For this reason I rely entirely upon them; and take it for granted, whatever may be the reader’s opinion at this present moment, that an hour hence he will be persuaded there is both an external and internal world.”

According to Russell, Hume’s scepticism had serious consequences:

It was inevitable that such a self-refutation of rationality should be followed by a great outburst of irrational faith. […] Subsequent British empiricists rejected his scepticism without refuting it; Rousseau and his followers agreed with Hume that no belief is based on reason, but thought the heart superior to reason, and allowed it to lead them to convictions very different from those that Hume retained in practice. German philosophers, from Kant to Hegel, had not assimilated Hume’s arguments. I say this deliberately, in spite of the belief which many philosophers share with Kant, that his Critique of Pure Reason answered Hume. In fact, these philosophers – at least Kant and Hegel – represent a pre-Humian type of rationalism, and can be refuted by Humian arguments. The philosophers who cannot be refuted in this way are those who do not pretend to be rational, such as Rousseau, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. The growth of unreason throughout the nineteenth century and what has passed of the twentieth is a natural sequel to Hume’s destruction of empiricism. (p.673,0)

According to Russell, the logical consequence of “Hume’s destruction of empiricism” was that:

there is no intellectual difference between sanity and insanity. The lunatic who believes that he is a poached egg is to be condemned solely on the ground that he is in a minority, or rather – since we must not assume democracy – on the ground that the government does not agree with him. This is a desperate point of view, and it must be hoped that there is some way of escaping from it. (p.673,6)

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:

Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans. . . . If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn’t we really be talking about plural realities? And if there are plural realities, are some more true (more real) than others? What about the world of a schizophrenic? Maybe it’s as real as our world. Maybe we cannot say that we are in touch with reality and he is not, but should instead say, His reality is so different from ours that he can’t explain his to us, and we can’t explain ours to him. The problem, then, is that if subjective worlds are experienced too differently, there occurs a breakdown in communication … and there is the real illness. (from “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”, 1978)

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’s scepticism rests entirely upon his rejection of the principle of induction. The principle of induction, as applied to causation, says that, if A has been found very often accompanied or followed by B, and no instance is known of A not being accompanied or followed by B, then it is probable that on the next occasion on which A is observed it will be accompanied or followed by B. (p.673,8)

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:

To this extent, Hume has proved that pure empiricism is not a sufficient basis for science. But if this one principle [induction] is admitted, everything else can proceed in accordance with the theory that all our knowledge is based on experience. It must be granted that this is a serious departure from pure empiricism, and that those who are not empiricists may ask why, if one departure is allowed, others are to be forbidden. These, however, are questions not directly raised by Hume’s arguments. What these arguments prove – and I do not think the proof can be controverted – is that induction is an independent logical principle, incapable of being inferred either from experience or from other logical principles, and that without this principle science is impossible. (p.674,2)

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:

This outlook [romanticism] makes an appeal for which the reasons lie very deep in human nature and human circumstances. By self-interest Man has become gregarious, but in instinct he has remained to a great extent solitary; hence the need of religion and morality to reinforce self-interest. But the habit of foregoing present satisfactions for the sake of future advantages is irksome, and when passions are roused the prudent restraints of social behaviour become difficult to endure. Those who, at such times, throw them off, acquire a new energy and sense of power from the cessation of inner conflict, and, though they may come to disaster in the end, enjoy meanwhile a sense of godlike exaltation which, though known to the great mystics, can never be experienced by a merely pedestrian virtue. The solitary part of their nature reasserts itself, but if the intellect survives the reassertion must clothe itself in myth. The mystic becomes one with God, and in the contemplation of the Infinite feels himself absolved from duty to his neighbour. The anarchic rebel does even better: he feels himself not one with God, but God. Truth and duty, which represent our subjection to matter and to our neighbours, exist no longer for the man who has become God; for others, truth is what he posits, duty what he commands. If we could all live solitary and without labour, we could all enjoy this ecstasy of independence; since we cannot, its delights are only available to madmen and dictators. (p.681,5).

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:

The origin of civil society and of the consequent social inequalities is to be found in private property. “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, bethought himself of saying ‘this is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.” (p.688,3)

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:

He was very emphatic in his theism. On one occasion he threatened to leave a dinner party because Saint Lambert (one of the guests) expressed a doubt as to the existence of God. “Moi, Monsieur,” Rousseau exclaimed angrily, “Je croi en Dieu!” Robespierre, in all things his faithful disciple, followed him in this respect also. The “Fête de l’Être Suprême” would have had Rousseau’s whole-hearted approval. (p.692,3)

Rousseau shows a strong anti-intellectualism, and finds ‘nature’ and ‘conscience’ a better moral guide than ‘philosophy’:

[In The Confession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar, an interlude in the fourth book of Emile] After satisfying himself that there is a God, the Vicar goes on to consider rules of conduct. “I do not deduce these rules,” he says, “from the principles of a high philosophy, but I find them in the depths of my heart, written by Nature in ineffaceable characters.” From this he goes on to develop the view that conscience is in all circumstances an infallible guide to right action. “Thanks be to Heaven,” he concludes this part of his argument, “we are thus freed from all this terrifying apparatus of philosophy; we can be men without being learned; dispensed from wasting our life in the study of morals, we have at less cost a more assured guide in this immense labyrinth of human opinions.” Our natural feelings, he contends, lead us to serve the common interest, while our reason urges selfishness. We have therefore only to follow feeling rather than reason in order to be virtuous. (p.692,8)

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:

The rejection of reason in favour of the heart was not, to my mind, an advance. In fact, no one thought of this device so long as reason appeared to be on the side of religious belief. In Rousseau’s environment, reason, as represented by Voltaire, was opposed to religion, therefore away with reason! Moreover reason was abstruse and difficult; the savage, even when he has dined, cannot understand the ontological argument, and yet the savage is the repository of all necessary wisdom. Rousseau’s savage – who was not the savage known to anthropologists – was a good husband and a kind father; he was destitute of greed, and had a religion of natural kindliness. He was a convenient person, but if he could follow the good Vicar’s reasons for believing in God he must have had more philosophy than his innocent naïveté would lead one to expect.
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:

There is a vehement rejection of utilitarian ethics in favour of systems which are held to be demonstrated by abstract philosophical arguments.
The whole of German idealism has affinities with the romantic movement. These are obvious in Fichte, and still more so in Schelling; they are least so in Hegel. (p.703,8)

And talking about Kant in particular:

His philosophy […] allowed an appeal to the heart against the cold dictates of theoretical reason. (p.705,2)

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):

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is generally considered the greatest of modern philosophers. I cannot myself agree with this estimate, but it would be foolish not to recognize his great importance. […] Hume, by his criticism of the concept of causality, awakened him from his dogmatic slumbers – so at least he says, but the awakening was only temporary, and he soon invented a soporific which enabled him to sleep again. (p.704,6)

On the other hand,

Although he had been brought up as a pietist, he was a Liberal both in politics and in theology; he sympathized with the French Revolution until the Reign of Terror, and was a believer in democracy. […] His principle that every man is to be regarded as an end in himself is a form of the doctrine of the Rights of Man; and his love of freedom is shown in his saying (about children as well as adults) that “there can be nothing more dreadful than that the actions of a man should be subject to the will of another.” (p.705,1)

First of all, Kant’s metaphysics, with which I have few problems:

Kant’s most important book is The Critique of Pure Reason (first edition, 1781; second edition, 1787). The purpose of this work is to prove that, although none of our knowledge can transcend experience, it is, nevertheless, in part a priori and not inferred inductively from experience. The part of our knowledge which is a priori embraces, according to him, not only logic, but much that cannot be included in logic or deduced from it. He separates two distinctions which, in Leibniz, are confounded. On the one hand there is the distinction between “analytic” and “synthetic” propositions; on the other hand, the distinction between “a priori” and “empirical” propositions. […]
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:

According to Kant, the outer world causes only the matter of sensation, but our own mental apparatus orders this matter in space and time, and supplies the concepts by means of which we understand experience. Things in themselves, which are the causes of our sensations, are unknowable; they are not in space or time, they are not substances, nor can they be described by any of those other general concepts which Kant calls “categories”. Space and time are subjective, they are part of our apparatus of perception. But just because of this, we can be sure that whatever we experience will exhibit the characteristics dealt with by geometry and the science of time. If you always wore blue spectacles, you could be sure of seeing everything blue (this is not Kant’s illustration). Similarly, since you always wear spatial spectacles in your mind, you are sure of always seeing everything in space. Thus geometry is 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.
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:

A large part of The Critique of Pure Reason is occupied in showing the fallacies that arise from applying space and time or the categories to things that are not experienced. When this is done, so Kant maintains, we find ourselves troubled by “antinomies” that is to say, by mutually contradictory propositions each of which can apparently be proved. Kant gives four such antinomies, each consisting of thesis and antithesis.
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:

[Kant’s] argument is that the moral law demands justice, i.e. happiness proportional to virtue. Only Providence can insure this, and has evidently not insured it in this life. Therefore there is a God and a future life; and there must be freedom, since otherwise there would be no such thing as virtue. (p.710,1)

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.

Kant will have nothing to do with utilitarianism, or with any doctrine which gives to morality a purpose outside itself. He wants, he says, “a completely isolated metaphysic of morals, which is not mixed with any theology or physics or hyperphysics.” All moral concepts, he continues, have their seat and origin wholly a priori in the reason. (p.710,4)

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:

The essence of morality is to be derived from the concept of law; for, though everything in nature acts according to laws, only a rational being has the power of acting according to the idea of a law, i.e. by Will. The idea of an objective principle, in so far as it is compelling to the will, is called a command of the reason, and the formula of the command is called an imperative.
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:

Kant gives as an illustration of the working of the categorical imperative that it is wrong to borrow money, because if we all tried to do so there would be no money left to borrow. (p.711,2)

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:

Even if (as I myself believe) almost all Hegel’s doctrines are false, he still retains an importance which is not merely historical, as the best representative of a certain kind of philosophy which, in others, is less coherent and less comprehensive. (p.730,5)

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:

In the historical development of Spirit there have been three main phases: The Orientals, the Greeks and Romans, and the Germans. “The history of the world is the discipline of the uncontrolled natural will, bringing it into obedience to a universal principle and conferring subjective freedom. The East knew, and to the present day knows, only that One is free; the Greek and Roman world, that some are free; the German world knows that All are free.” One might have supposed that democracy would be the appropriate form of government where all are free, but not so. Democracy and aristocracy alike belong to the stage where some are free, despotism to that where one is free, and monarchy to that in which all are free. This is connected with the very odd sense in which Hegel uses the word “freedom.” For him (and so far we may agree) there is no freedom without law; but he tends to convert this, and to argue that wherever there is law there is freedom. Thus “freedom” for him, means little more than the right to obey the law.
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)
[…] Hegel’s doctrine of the state […], if accepted, justifies every internal tyranny and every external aggression that can possibly be imagined. The strength of his bias appears in the fact that his theory is largely inconsistent with his own metaphysic, and that the inconsistencies are all such as tend to the justification of cruelty and international brigandage. A man may be pardoned if logic compels him regretfully to reach conclusions which he deplores, but not for departing from logic in order to be free to advocate crimes. (p.742,1)

He finishes the chapter by pointing out Hegel’s big mistake. He shows that Hegel’s ethics are dependent on his metaphysics, and continues:

We are thus brought back from the ethical to the metaphysical question. The metaphysical question itself, we shall find, is really a question of logic.
[…] 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:

Historically, two things are important about Schopenhauer: his pessimism, and his doctrine that will is superior to knowledge. His pessimism made it possible for men to take to philosophy without having to persuade themselves that all evil can be explained away, and in this way, as an antidote, it was useful. From a scientific point of view, optimism and pessimism are alike objectionable: optimism assumes, or attempts to prove, that the universe exists to please us, and pessimism that it exists to displease us. Scientifically, there is no evidence that it is concerned with us either one way or the other. The belief in either pessimism or optimism is a matter of temperament, not of reason, but the optimistic temperament has been much commoner among Western philosophers. A representative of the opposite party is therefore likely to be useful in bringing forward considerations which would otherwise be overlooked.
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:

[…] there is a great deal in him that must be dismissed as merely megalomaniac. Speaking of Spinoza he says: “How much of personal timidity and vulnerability does this masquerade of a sickly recluse betray!” Exactly the same may be said of him, with the less reluctance since he has not hesitated to say it of Spinoza. It is obvious that in his day-dreams he is a warrior, not a professor; all the men he admires were military. His opinion of women, like every man’s, is an objectification of his own emotion towards them, which is obviously one of fear. “Forget not thy whip” – but nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks. (p.767,1)
The whole of his abuse of women is offered as self-evident truth; it is not backed up by evidence from history or from his own experience, which, so far as women were concerned, was almost confined to his sister. (p.764,9)
He had a passionate admiration for Wagner, but quarrelled with him, nominally over Parsifal, which he thought too Christian and too full of renunciation. After the quarrel he criticised Wagner savagely, and even went so far as to accuse him of being a Jew. His general outlook, however, remained very similar to that of Wagner in the Ring; Nietzsche’s superman is very like Siegfried, except that he knows Greek. This may seem odd, but that is not my fault. (p.760,8)

Nietzsche seems to have been quite a snob:

He cannot forgive Socrates for his humble origin; he calls him a “roturier,” and accuses him of corrupting the noble Athenian youth with a democratic moral bias. Plato, especially, is condemned on account of his taste for edification. Nietzsche, however, obviously does not quite like condemning him, and suggests, to excuse him, that perhaps he was insincere, and only preached virtue as a means of keeping the lower classes in order. (p.761,1)

His elitist philosophy is actually very similar to that of a certain right-wing, libertarian Irish friend of mine:

Nietzsche […] admires certain qualities which he believes (perhaps rightly) to be only possible for an aristocratic minority; the majority, in his opinion, should be only means to the excellence of the few, and should not be regarded as having any independent claim to happiness or well-being. He alludes habitually to ordinary human beings as the “bungled and botched,” and sees no objection to their suffering if it is necessary for the production of a great man. (p.762,1)
True virtue, as opposed to the conventional sort, is not for all, but should remain the characteristic of an aristocratic minority. It is not profitable or prudent; it isolates its possessor from other men; it is hostile to order, and does harm to inferiors. It is necessary for higher men to make war upon the masses, and resist the democratic tendencies of the age, for in all directions mediocre people are joining hands to make themselves masters. (p.763,0)
Nietzsche’s ethic is not one of self-indulgence in any ordinary sense; he believes in Spartan discipline and the capacity to endure as well as inflict pain for important ends. He admires strength of will above all things. “I test the power of a will,” he says, “according to the amount of resistance it can offer and the amount of pain and torture it can endure and know how to turn to its own advantage; I do not point to the evil and pain of existence with the finger of reproach, but rather entertain the hope that life may one day become more evil and more full of suffering than it has ever been.” He regards compassion as a weakness to be combated. “The object is to attain that enormous energy of greatness which can model the man of the future by means of discipline and also by means of the annihilation of millions of the bungled and botched, and which can yet avoid going to ruin at the sight of the suffering created thereby, the like of which has never been seen before.” He prophesied with a certain glee an era of great wars; one wonders whether he would have been happy if he had lived to see the fulfilment of his prophecy. (p.763,4)

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:

Nietzsche is not a nationalist, and shows no excessive admiration for Germany. He wants an international ruling race, who are to be the lords of the earth: “a new vast aristocracy based upon the most severe self-discipline, in which the will of philosophical men of power and artist-tyrants will be stamped upon thousands of years.”
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:

We can now state Nietzsche’s ethic. I think what follows is a fair analysis of it:
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:

What are we to think of Nietzsche’s doctrines? How far are they true? Are they in any degree useful? Is there in them anything objective, or are they the mere power-phantasies of an invalid?
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:

Suppose we wish – as I certainly do – to find arguments against Nietzsche’s ethics and politics, what arguments can we find? (p.770,7)

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

The ethical, as opposed to the political, question is one as to sympathy. Sympathy, in the sense of being made unhappy by the suffering of others, is to some extent natural to human beings; young children are troubled when they hear other children crying. But the development of this feeling is very different in different people. Some find pleasure in the infliction of torture; others, like Buddha, feel that they cannot be completely happy so long as any living thing is suffering. Most people divide mankind emotionally into friends and enemies, feeling sympathy for the former, but not for the latter. An ethic such as that of Christianity or Buddhism has its emotional basis in universal sympathy; Nietzsche’s, in a complete absence of sympathy. (He frequently preaches against sympathy, and in this respect one feels that he has no difficulty in obeying his own precepts.) The question is: If Buddha and Nietzsche were confronted, could either produce any argument that ought to appeal to the impartial listener? (p.771,2)

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:

“your world would be insipid. […] if the Lord should decide for your world, I fear we should all die of boredom.”
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:

For my part, I agree with Buddha as I have imagined him. But I do not know how to prove that he is right by any arguments such as can be used in a mathematical or a scientific question. I dislike Nietzsche because he likes the contemplation of pain, because he erects conceit into a duty, because the men whom he most admires are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing men to die. But I think the ultimate argument against his philosophy, as against any unpleasant but internally self-consistent ethic, lies not in an appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions. Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world. His followers have had their innings, but we may hope that it is coming rapidly to an end.

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!



The Utilitarians:

Russell likes these better – and so do I.

[Bentham] bases his whole philosophy on two principles, the “association principle,” and the “greatest-happiness principle.” […]
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:

Bentham held not only that the good is happiness in general, but also that each individual always pursues what he believes to be his own happiness. The business of the legislator, therefore, is to produce harmony between public and private interests. It is to the interest of the public that I should abstain from theft, but it is not to my interest except where there is an effective criminal law. Thus the criminal law is a method of making the interests of the individual coincide with those of the community; that is its justification. (p.775,5)

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.

There is an obvious lacuna in Bentham’s system. If every man always pursues his own pleasure, how are we to secure that the legislator shall pursue the pleasure of mankind in general? Bentham’s own instinctive benevolence (which his psychological theories prevented him from noticing) concealed the problem from him. If he had been employed to draw up a code of laws for some country, he would have framed his proposals in what he conceived to be the public interest, not so as to further his own interests or (consciously) the interests of his class. But if he had recognized this fact, he would have had to modify his psychological doctrines. He seems to have thought that, by means of democracy combined with adequate supervision, legislators could be so controlled that they could only further their private interests by being useful to the general public. There was in his day not much material for forming a judgment as to the working of democratic institutions, and his optimism was therefore perhaps excusable, but in our more disillusioned age it seems somewhat naive. (p.777,9)

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!).

James Mill, like Bentham, considered pleasure the only good and pain the only evil. But like Epicurus he valued moderate pleasure most. He thought intellectual enjoyments the best, and temperance the chief virtue. “The intense was with him a byeword of scornful disapprobation,” says his son, who adds that he objected to the modern stress laid upon feeling. Like the whole utilitarian school, he was utterly opposed to every form of romanticism. He thought politics could be governed by reason, and expected men’s opinions to be determined by the weight of evidence. […] His outlook was limited by the poverty of his emotional nature, but within his limitations he had the merits of industry, disinterestedness, and rationality. […]
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:

John Stuart Mill, in his Utilitarianism, offers an argument which is so fallacious that it is hard to understand how he can have thought it valid. He says: Pleasure is the only thing desired; therefore pleasure is the only thing desirable. He argues that the only things visible are things seen, the only things audible are things heard, and similarly the only things desirable are things desired. He does not notice that a thing is “visible” if it can be seen, but “desirable” if it ought to be desired. Thus “desirable” is a word presupposing an ethical theory; we cannot infer what is desirable from what is desired. (p.778,4)

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:

When it is said that each man desires his own happiness, the statement is capable of two meanings, of which one is a truism and the other is false. Whatever I may happen to desire, I shall get some pleasure from achieving my wish; in this sense, whatever I desire is a pleasure, and it may be said, though somewhat loosely, that pleasures are what I desire. This is the sense of the doctrine which is 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:

Bentham maintained that what is good is pleasure or happiness – he used these words as synonyms – and what is bad is pain. Therefore one state of affairs is better than another if it involves a greater balance of pleasure over pain, or a smaller balance of pain over pleasure. Of all possible states of affairs, that one is best which involves the greatest balance of pleasure over 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.

The ethical part of the utilitarian doctrine […] says: Those desires and those actions are good which in fact promote the general happiness. […] Is there any valid theoretical argument either for or against this doctrine? We found ourselves faced with a similar question in relation to Nietzsche. His ethic differs from that of the utilitarians, since it holds that only a minority of the human race have ethical importance – the happiness or unhappiness of the remainder should be ignored. I do not myself believe that this disagreement can be dealt with by theoretical arguments such as might be used in a scientific question. Obviously those who are excluded from the Nietzschean aristocracy will object, and thus the issue becomes political rather than theoretical. The utilitarian ethic is democratic and anti-romantic. Democrats are likely to accept it, but those who like a more Byronic view of the world can, in my opinion, be refuted only practically, not by considerations which appeal only to facts as opposed to desires. (p.779,9)

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:

It does not come within the scope of the present work to consider his economics, or his politics except in certain general aspects; it is only as a philosopher, and an influence on the philosophy of others, that I propose to deal with him. (p.782,5)

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:

He called himself a materialist, but not of the eighteenth century sort. His sort, which, under Hegelian influence, he called “dialectical,” differed in an important way from traditional materialism, and was more akin to what is now called instrumentalism. The older materialism, he said, mistakenly regarded sensation as passive, and thus attributed activity primarily to the object. In Marx’s view, all sensation or perception is an interaction between subject and object; the bare object, apart from the activity of the percipient, is a mere raw material, which is transformed in the process of becoming known. Knowledge in the old sense of passive contemplation is an unreal abstraction; the process that really takes place is one of handling things. […]
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:

Marx’s philosophy of history is a blend of Hegel and British economics. Like Hegel, he thinks that the world develops according to a dialectical formula, but he totally disagrees with Hegel as to the motive force of this development. Hegel believed in a mystical entity called “Spirit,” which causes human history to develop according to the stages of the dialectic as set forth in Hegel’s Logic. […] Marx’s dialectic has none of this quality except a certain inevitableness. For Marx, matter, not spirit, is the driving force. But it is matter in the peculiar sense that we have been considering, not the wholly dehumanized matter of the atomists. This means that, for Marx, the driving force is really man’s relation to matter, of which the most important part is his mode of production. In this way Marx’s materialism, in practice, becomes economics.
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:

Marx fitted his philosophy of history into a mould suggested by Hegelian dialectic, but in fact there was only one triad that concerned him: feudalism, represented by the landowner; capitalism, represented by the industrial employer; and Socialism, represented by the wage-earner. Hegel thought of nations as the vehicles of dialectic movement; Marx substituted classes. He disclaimed always all ethical or humanitarian reasons for preferring Socialism or taking the side of the wage-earner; he maintained, not that this side was ethically better, but that it was the side taken by the dialectic in its wholly deterministic movement. He might have said that he did not advocate Socialism, but only prophesied it. This, however, would not have been wholly true. He undoubtedly believed every dialectical movement to be, in some impersonal sense, a progress, and he certainly held that Socialism, once established, would minister to human happiness more than either feudalism or capitalism have done. These beliefs, though they must have controlled his life, remained largely in the background so far as his writings are concerned. Occasionally, however, he abandons calm prophecy for vigorous exhortation to rebellion, and the emotional basis of his ostensibly scientific prognostications is implicit in all he wrote. (p.788,0)

Russell says that Marx showed “a readiness to believe in progress as a universal law”, and goes on to say:

This readiness characterized the nineteenth century, and existed in Marx as much as in his contemporaries. It is only because of the belief in the inevitability of progress that Marx thought it possible to dispense with ethical considerations. If Socialism was coming, it must be an improvement. He would have readily admitted that it would not seem to be an improvement to landowners or capitalists, but that only showed that they were out of harmony with the dialectic movement of the time. Marx professed himself an atheist, but retained a cosmic optimism which only theism could justify. (p.788,8)

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’:

In the new creed which controls the government of Russia, while there is much that is very different from the traditional teaching of the West, there are some things that are quite unchanged. […] authority still represents the will of the Ruler of the Universe, Who, however, is now called by a new name, Dialectical Materialism.

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:

Broadly speaking, all the elements in Marx’s philosophy which are derived from Hegel are unscientific, in the sense that there is no reason whatever to suppose them true.
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:

Modern Europe and America have thus been divided, politically and ideologically, into three camps. There are Liberals, who still, as far as may be, follow Locke or Bentham, but with varying degrees of adaptation to the needs of industrial organization. There are Marxists, who control the Government in Russia, and are likely to become increasingly influential in various other countries. These two sections of opinion are philosophically not very widely separated, both are rationalistic, and both, in intention, are scientific and empirical. But from the point of view of practical politics the division is sharp. […]
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.

He concludes:

Until Rousseau, the philosophical world had a certain unity. This has disappeared for the time being, but perhaps not for long. It can be recovered by a rationalistic reconquest of men’s minds, but not in any other way, since claims to mastery can only breed strife. (p.790,8)

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:

In the above outline, I have in the main endeavoured merely to state Bergson’s views, without giving the reasons adduced by him in favour of their truth. This is easier than it would be with most philosophers, since as a rule he does not give reasons for his opinions, but relies on their inherent attractiveness, and on the charm of an excellent style. Like advertisers, he relies upon picturesque and varied statement, and on apparent explanation of many obscure facts. Analogies and similes, especially, form a very large part of the whole process by which he recommends his views to the reader. The number of similes for life to be found in his works exceeds the number in any poet known to me. Life, he says, is like a shell bursting into fragments which are again shells. It is like a sheaf. Initially, it was “a tendency to accumulate in a reservoir, as do especially the green parts of vegetables. But the reservoir is to be filled with boiling water from which steam is issuing; “jets must be gushing out unceasingly, of which each, falling back, is a world.” Again “life appears in its entirety as an immense wave which, starting from a centre, spreads outwards, and which on almost the whole of its circumference is stopped and converted into oscillation: at one single point the obstacle has been forced, the impulsion has passed freely.” Then there is the great climax in which life is compared to a cavalry charge. “All organized beings, from the humblest to the highest, from the first origins of life to the time in which we are, and in all places as in all times, do but evidence a single impulsion, the inverse of the movement of matter, and in itself indivisible. All the living hold together, and all yield to the same tremendous push. The animal takes its stand on the plant, man bestrides animality, and the whole of humanity, in space and in time, is one immense army galloping beside and before and behind each of us in an overwhelming charge able to beat down every resistance and to clear many obstacles, perhaps even death.”
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:

Apart from the question of number, which we have already considered, the chief point at which Bergson touches mathematics is his rejection of what he calls the “cinematographic” representation of the world. Mathematics conceives change, even continuous change, as constituted by a series of states; Bergson, on the contrary, contends that no series of states can represent what is continuous, and that in change a thing is never in any state at all. The view that change is constituted by a series of changing states he calls cinematographic; this view, he says, is natural to the intellect, but is radically vicious. True change can only be explained by true duration; it involves an interpenetration of past and present, not a mathematical succession of static states. This is what is called a “dynamic” instead of a “static” view of the world. The question is important, and in spite of its difficulty we cannot pass it by.
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:

Of course a large part of Bergson’s philosophy, probably the part to which most of its popularity is due, does not depend upon argument, and cannot be upset by argument. His imaginative picture of the world, regarded as a poetic effort, is in the main not capable of either proof or disproof. Shakespeare says life’s but a walking shadow, Shelley says it is like a dome of many-coloured glass, Bergson says it is a shell which bursts into parts that are again shells. If you like Bergson’s image better, it is just as legitimate.
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:

The function of the brain is to limit our mental life to what is practically useful. But for the brain, one gathers, everything would be perceived, but in fact we only perceive what interests us. “The body, always turned towards action, has for its essential function to limit, with a view to action, the life of the spirit.” It is, in fact, an instrument of choice. (p.797,9)



William James:

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,

I had thought otherwise until he, and those who agreed with him, persuaded me of the truth of his doctrine. (p.812,7)

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’:

Pragmatism, as it appears in James, is primarily a new definition of “truth.” […] Roughly speaking, he is prepared to advocate any doctrine which tends to make people virtuous and happy; if it does so, it is “true” in the sense in which he uses that word.
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:

“We cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it.” “If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true.” (p.817,1)

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:

Suppose I say there was such a person as Columbus, everyone will agree that what I say is true. But why is it true? Because of a certain man of flesh and blood who lived 450 years ago – in short, because of the causes of my belief, not because of its effects. With James’s definition, it might happen that “A exists” is true although in fact A does not exist. I have always found that the hypothesis of Santa Claus “works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word”; therefore “Santa Claus exists” is true, although Santa Claus does not exist. James says (I repeat): “If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true.” This simply omits as unimportant the question whether God really is in His heaven; if He is a useful hypothesis, that is enough. God the Architect of the Cosmos is forgotten; all that is remembered is belief in God, and its effects upon the creatures inhabiting our petty planet. No wonder the Pope condemned the pragmatic defence of religion. (p.817,9)

He shows effectively why James’s ideas are just as unsatisfactory for religious believers as for anyone else:

James […] wants people to be happy, and if belief in God makes them happy let them believe in Him. This, so far, is only benevolence, not philosophy; it becomes philosophy when it is said that if the belief makes them happy it is “true.” To the man who desires an object of worship this is unsatisfactory. […] when he believes in God, he believes in Him as he believes in the existence of Roosevelt or Churchill or Hitler; God, for him, is an actual Being, not merely a human idea which has good effects. It is this genuine belief that has the good effects, not James’s emasculate substitute. It is obvious that if I say “Hitler exists” I do not mean “the effects of believing that Hitler exists are good.” And to the genuine believer the same is true of God. (p.818,4)

He finishes with a general condemnation of James, which leads him to a general condemnation of ‘most modern philosophy’:

James’s doctrine is an attempt to build a superstructure of belief upon a foundation of scepticism, and like all such attempts it is dependent on fallacies. In his case the fallacies spring from an attempt to ignore all extra-human facts. Berkeleian idealism combined with scepticism causes him to substitute belief in God for God, and to pretend that this will do just as well. But this is only a form of the subjectivistic madness which is characteristic of most modern philosophy. (p.818,8)

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…



John Dewey:

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:

Dewey does not aim at judgments that shall be absolutely “true,” or condemn their contradictories as absolutely “false.” In his opinion there is a process called “inquiry,” which is one form of mutual adjustment between an organism and its environment. (p.822,6)
Dewey makes inquiry the essence of logic, not truth or knowledge. He defines inquiry as follows: “Inquiry is the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole.” He adds that “inquiry is concerned with objective transformations of objective subject-matter.” (p.823,2)
It is clear that “inquiry,” as conceived by Dewey, is part of the general process of attempting to make the world more organic. “Unified wholes” are to be the outcome of inquiries. Dewey’s love of what is organic is due partly to biology, partly to the lingering influence of Hegel. Unless on the basis of an unconscious Hegelian metaphysic, I do not see why inquiry should be expected to result in “unified wholes.” If I am given a pack of cards in disorder, and asked to inquire into their sequence, I shall, if I follow Dewey’s prescription, first arrange them in order, and then say that this was the order resulting from inquiry. There will be, it is true, an “objective transformation of objective subject-matter” while I am arranging the cards, but the definition allows for this. If, at the end, I am told: “We wanted to know the sequence of the cards when they were given to you, not after you had re-arranged them,” I shall, if I am a disciple of Dewey, reply: “Your ideas are altogether too static. I am a dynamic person, and when I inquire into any subject-matter I first alter it in such a way as to make the inquiry easy.” The notion that such a procedure is legitimate can only be justified by a Hegelian distinction of appearance and reality: the appearance may be confused and fragmentary, but the reality is always orderly and organic. Therefore when I arrange the cards I am only revealing their true eternal nature. But this part of the doctrine is never made explicit. The metaphysic of organism underlies Dewey’s theories, but I do not know how far he is aware of this fact. (p.823,6)
Generalizing, we may say that Dr. Dewey, like everyone else, divides beliefs into two classes, of which one is good and the other bad. […] Whether a belief is good or bad depends upon whether the activities which it inspires in the organism entertaining the belief have consequences which are satisfactory or unsatisfactory to it. Thus a belief about some event in the past is to be classified as “good” or “bad,” not according to whether the event really took place, but according to the future effects of the belief. The results are curious. Suppose somebody says to me: “Did you have coffee with your breakfast this morning?” If I am an ordinary person, I shall try to remember. But if I am a disciple of Dr. Dewey I shall say: “Wait a while; I must try two experiments before I can tell you.” I shall then first make myself believe that I had coffee, and observe the consequences, if any; I shall then make myself believe that I did not have coffee, and again observe the consequences, if any. I shall then compare the two sets of consequences, to see which I found the more satisfactory. If there is a balance on one side I shall decide for that answer. If there is not, I shall have to confess that I cannot answer the question. (p.825,1)

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:

Dewey’s divergence from what has hitherto been regarded as common sense is due to his refusal to admit “facts” into his metaphysic, in the sense in which “facts” are stubborn and cannot be manipulated. In this it may be that common sense is changing, and that his view will not seem contrary to what common sense is becoming.
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:

Dr. Dewey’s world, it seems to me, is one in which human beings occupy the imagination; the cosmos of astronomy, though of course acknowledged to exist, is at most times ignored. His philosophy is a power philosophy, though not, like Nietzsche’s, a philosophy of individual power; it is the power of the community that is felt to be valuable. It is this element of social power that seems to me to make the philosophy of instrumentalism attractive to those who are more impressed by our new control over natural forces than by the limitations to which that control is still subject. […]
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:

Dewey […] quotes with approval Peirce’s definition : “Truth” is “the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate.” (p.824,3)

…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:

Modern analytical empiricism, of which I have been giving an outline, differs from that of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume by its incorporation of mathematics and its development of a powerful logical technique. It is thus able, in regard to certain problems, to achieve definite answers, which have the quality of science rather than of philosophy. It has the advantage, as compared with the philosophies of the system-builders, of being able to tackle its problems one at a time, instead of having to invent at one stroke a block theory of the whole universe. Its methods, in this respect, resemble those of science. I have no doubt that, in so far as philosophical knowledge is possible, it is by such methods that it must be sought; I have also no doubt that, by these methods, many ancient problems are completely soluble. (p.834,4)

Excellent news for metaphysics, but unfortunately the news for ethics isn’t so good:

There remains, however, a vast field, traditionally included in philosophy, where scientific methods are inadequate. This field includes ultimate questions of value; science alone, for example, cannot prove that it is bad to enjoy the infliction of cruelty. Whatever can be known, can be known by means of science; but things which are legitimately matters of feeling lie outside its province. (p.834,7)

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:

Philosophy, throughout its history, has consisted of two parts inharmoniously blended: on the one hand a theory as to the nature of the world, on the other an ethical or political doctrine as to the best way of living. The failure to separate these two with sufficient clarity has been a source of much confused thinking. Philosophers, from Plato to William James, have allowed their opinions as to the constitution of the universe to be influenced by the desire for edification: knowing, as they supposed, what beliefs would make men virtuous, they have invented arguments, often very sophistical, to prove that these beliefs are true. (p.834,8)

Very true, not least of the religiously inspired philosophers! He quite rightly disapproves of this phenomenon:

For my part I reprobate this kind of bias, both on moral and on intellectual grounds. Morally, a philosopher who uses his professional competence for anything except a disinterested search for truth is guilty of a kind of treachery. And when he assumes, in advance of inquiry, that certain beliefs, whether true or false, are such as to promote good behaviour, he is so limiting the scope of philosophical speculation as to make philosophy trivial; the true philosopher is prepared to examine all preconceptions. […]
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:

All this is rejected by the philosophers who make logical analysis the main business of philosophy. They confess frankly that the human intellect is unable to find conclusive answers to many questions of profound importance to mankind, but they refuse to believe that there is some “higher” way of knowing, by which we can discover truths hidden from science and the intellect. For this renunciation they have been rewarded by the discovery that many questions, formerly obscured by the fog of metaphysics, can be answered with precision, and by objective methods which introduce nothing of the philosopher’s temperament except the desire to understand. […]
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.




author Bertrand Russell
title A History of Western Philosophy
first published 1945
language English
publisher / version read Simon & Schuster © 1972
ISBN 0-671-20158-1
read 28/07/2014 – 04/10/2014
download / read online (George Allen And Unwin Ltd London, 1947)


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