A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 1, Part 2, Chapters 19–23 : Ancient Philosophy (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) | Summary



Book 1, Part 2, Chapter 19: Aristotle's Metaphysics

In Russell's view it took 2,000 years after Aristotle's death to produce a philosopher who could be regarded as his approximate equal. However, because of his authority, his philosophy also became an obstacle to progress. Aristotle was born in Thrace and studied at Plato's Academy for some 20 years. Aristotle was the tutor of the teenaged Alexander (later a world conqueror) for a few years. Then he returned to Athens and founded his school.

Russell characterizes Aristotle as more systematic and professorial than his predecessors and less influenced by the Orphic elements of Greek philosophy, meaning he is not passionate or deeply religious. He criticizes Plato's theory of ideas (ideal forms), saying that if man resembles an ideal man, for example, then there must be a still more ideal man that the ideal man represents, since the ideal man must be based on something. Thus he disproves the theory because it necessitates an infinite regression. Aristotle replaces Plato's ideal forms with his own theory of universals or one-of-a-kind things.

Aristotle distinguishes substance (a this) from universal (a such). Substances are proper nouns (used in a broad sense), one-of-a-kind persons or things like France, Napoleon, and the sun. Universals are common nouns, such as nation, ruler, star, or adjectives such as white and round, that can be applied to any number of subjects.

He introduces the term essence (a thing's essential nature). A thing is made of matter but relies for its essence on form. For example, the matter in a marble statue is the marble, while the shape created by the sculptor is the form. The way in which the statue has been rendered (its form) determines its essence. Aristotle equates form with both essence and "primary substance."

Book 1, Part 2, Chapter 20: Aristotle's Ethics

Aristotle begins the Nicomachean Ethics by defining the good as happiness, "an activity of the soul." Aristotle's "golden mean" asserts that every virtue has two extremes, which become vices: for example, courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness. But Russell notes this rule of thumb doesn't work for all virtues—for example, truthfulness. The best (most moral) individuals have "proper pride" and do not underestimate themselves. The virtues of a "magnanimous" man are possible only for a man in a high social position. The best happiness is contemplation, which shares in divine life. Not surprisingly, philosophers are the happiest and most godlike of people.

Russell finds Aristotle's book on ethics to be for the most part "self-consistent" and consistent with his metaphysics, which express an "ethical optimism." Aristotle's metaphysics reflect the "scientific importance of final causes" and "the belief that purpose governs the course of development in the universe." However, Aristotle's acceptance of inequality among people is "repugnant" to a modern sensibility. No trace of social benevolence can be found in Aristotle. Russell also accuses him of "emotional poverty" and a tepidness not found in other Greek philosophers, and he ultimately judges the Ethics "in spite of its fame" as lacking in "intrinsic importance."

Book 1, Part 2, Chapter 21: Aristotle's Politics

Russell calls Politics interesting and important, as a source of principles that remain in force until the end of the Middle Ages. For Aristotle the state is of the utmost importance because it is the highest kind of community, aimed at the highest good. The foundation of the state is the family. Several families make a village, and several villages a state, which he equates with "human society, fully developed." The greatest benefactors are the founders of states, since human beings without law become the worst of the animals and law cannot exist without the state. When Aristotle turns to assess types of government, he ends up offering a "qualified defence" of democracy, since he believes most actual governments are bad and among them "democracies tend to be the best."

Book 1, Part 2, Chapter 22: Aristotle's Logic

Aristotle's influence is greatest in the field of logic, says Russell. He retains his authority throughout the Middle Ages as a logician; in the 13th century Christian philosophers also "accorded him supremacy in the field of metaphysics." While his influence in metaphysics waned after the Renaissance, his influence on logic did not. Russell says he could admire Aristotle's remarkable achievements in logic more if they have not had such a stultifying effect on the field of logic, creating 2,000 years of stagnation.

"Aristotle's most important work in logic is the doctrine of the syllogism," a three-part argument with a major and minor premise and a conclusion. The most familiar is: All men are mortal (major); Socrates is a man (minor); therefore, Socrates is mortal (conclusion). A variant of this is: All men are mortal; all Greeks are men; therefore, All Greeks are mortal. Russell provides additional types of syllogisms and then lays out his criticism of Aristotle's logic by (1) pointing out the formal defects in the system; (2) explaining how the syllogism is overestimated in its usefulness as a form of deductive argument; and (3) explaining that deduction itself is overestimated as a form of argument.

With regard to the first criticism, he explains how formal errors in the logic created subsequent errors in metaphysics and the theory of knowledge. For example, enough knowledge exists to know that Socrates was mortal (at some point someone saw him dead), but the same cannot be said for the proposition that all men are mortal. This statement is believed according to inductive reasoning, because no one has seen a man live past a certain number of years. In subsequent syllogisms Aristotle blurs distinctions between names and predicates—or particulars (Socrates) and universals (men; Greeks). This resulted in the idea that a class with only one member is the same as that one member, which "made it impossible to have a correct theory of the number one, and led to endless bad metaphysics about unity." Russell's second criticism is that "the attempt to give pre-eminence to the syllogism in deduction misled philosophers as to the nature of mathematical reasoning." The third criticism is that, although Aristotle admits the importance of induction, he gives too much prominence to deduction in his theory of knowledge.

Russell also criticizes Aristotle's famous short work called The Categories, in which he names 10 (substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, action, and affection). There is no clear idea of what categories are, however, or any principle on which they have been compiled. Aristotle also introduces into philosophy the notion of essence: a thing's "properties which ... cannot change without [that thing] losing its identity." But essence, like substance, is "a transference to metaphysics of what is only a linguistic convenience." Russell categorically asserts Aristotle's doctrines concerning logic are "wholly false, with the exception of the formal theory of the syllogism, which is unimportant."

Book 1, Part 2, Chapter 23: Aristotle's Physics

Russell covers Aristotle's Physics and On the Heavens in this chapter, since both are influential in the history of philosophy and science. Physics is the science of nature, which has to do with growth—for example, it is the nature of an acorn to grow into an oak tree. "The 'nature' of a thing, Aristotle says, is its end," or the goal for its existence. Thus, the word implies teleology—or the end purpose of a thing rather than its cause. While some things exist by nature, others have causes. "Those things are 'natural' which 'by a continuous movement originated from an internal principle, arrive at some completion.'" While such ideas may suit biology, Russell argues they are an obstacle to scientific progress and "a source of much that was bad in ethics."

On the Heavens puts forth the theory that everything "below the moon [is] subject to generation and decay," while everything from the moon upward is indestructible. Aristotle's geocentric cosmos below the moon (sublunary) is composed of the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire). There is also a fifth element of which the stars and planets are composed. Later Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei have to combat both Aristotle and the Bible in establishing the view of the heliocentric view of the solar system.


While Russell has esteem for Aristotle, he nevertheless lays the "demerits" in his philosophy at the door of his successors. This is because Aristotle became an unquestioned authority in science and philosophy, and for this reason the faults in his science and philosophy were ignored. Beginning in the 17th century, "every serious intellectual advance ... had to begin with an attack on Aristotelian doctrine," Russell says. The problems with Aristotle's logic are an especial concern of Russell, whose main area of interest in philosophy is logic.

After Russell explains some aspects of Aristotle's metaphysics, he makes short work of it with his logic, pointing out here as he does elsewhere how distinctions made by philosophers are sometimes simply linguistic "truths"—derived from faulty syntax. Syntax refers to the grammatical structure of sentences, but for a logician like Russell, syntax can be used to paper over sloppy thinking. For example, the word France does not actually refer to a thing called "'France' over and above its various parts." France is nothing more than an idea. Like other proper nouns, it is a convenient way of "collecting events into bundles." Various events are associated over time with the notion of a country named France. If a person is referred to as Mr. Smith, to use another example, this is merely "a collective name for a number of occurrences" that have happened to one person over time. In essence Russell accuses Aristotle of transferring grammatical structures ("the structure of sentences composed of a subject and predicate") to the "world-structure." Thus it makes no sense to call France a substance.

Aristotle argues that forms are substantial (he calls them primary substance), although universals are not. If a person makes a sphere out of brass, the form already existed (the sphere), along with the matter (brass), and a person merely brings them together. The sculptor does not make the form (which is substance) in Aristotle's view. This view, in which form and matter exist independently, brings Aristotle back to Plato's theory of forms, Russell says, although Aristotle claims to have set this notion aside.

When Russell turns to Aristotle's ethics and politics, he dislikes much of what he finds because the old philosopher is an elitist and Russell is a republican. Plato and Aristotle both assume the highest virtue and greatest good is meant only for the few, but the Stoic philosophers, Christians, and democrats would disagree, says Russell. On Aristotle's page is the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose "noble man" sounds a lot like Aristotle's "magnanimous man," someone proud who does not underestimate his worth and who doesn't hesitate to despise the unworthy. The magnanimous man is a good man in Aristotle's view, but he is very different from the good man of Christianity, who is humble and tolerant of others. For Aristotle virtues are means to an end—happiness. For the Greeks virtue is solely action that produces the good. On the other hand, "Christian moralists hold that, while the consequences of virtuous actions are in general good, they are not as good as the virtuous actions themselves." While the Greek idea of the good is more in line with modern, secular sensibility, the modern reader cannot help but sympathize with Russell's distaste for many aspects of Greek ethics. For example, Aristotle accepts slavery, the subjection of women and children, and the use of the masses to promote what is good for "magnanimous men" and philosophers. Aristotle's ethics are diametrically opposed to the liberalism of philosopher John Locke and the principles of modern democracies—that all human beings are created equal and have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Russell finds the most fault with Aristotle's logic, especially because his assumptions went unchallenged for such a long period of time. For philosophers logic is the study of reasoning or the principles for making a valid inference and distinguishing good and bad arguments. Part of the study of logic involves the study of natural language (language developed naturally, for communication), and much of Russell's criticisms of logic are errors in syntax, or the structure of sentences. Language is used primarily in the acquisition of knowledge, which may seem self-evident, but what may not be transparent is that language shapes experience and the way people interpret sensory data. This is why philosophers are so careful about language. This is also why errors in the use of syntax can lead to wrong turns and dead ends when philosophers use language to delve into the meaning of life.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in the 20th century logicians and philosophers came to realize serious limitations in Aristotle's logic, and Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege were Aristotle's most formidable critics. As result, few modern scholars would argue Aristotle's logic is adequate for understanding science, mathematics, or even everyday reasoning. At the same time, trained logicians of the 21st century have rehabilitated Aristotle, not necessarily for arriving at correct results but rather for sharing certain similarities with his modern counterparts, such as an interest in "metatheory" (theory-making about theory) and an interest in the properties of systems of inference.

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