Literature Study GuidesA History Of Western PhilosophyBook 3 Part 1 Chapters 12 15 Summary

A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 3, Part 1, Chapters 12–15 : Modern Philosophy (From the Renaissance to Hume) | Summary



Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 12: Philosophical Liberalism

In discussing the rise of liberalism, Bertrand Russell first notes two common errors made by historians. The first is to overestimate the influence of philosophers on history or politics, and the second is to view ideas as "the froth on the surface of deep currents" of history. For Russell, the truth lies between these two extremes. He then traces the development of liberalism from the 17th century until the early 1940s.

Early liberalism developed in the freer atmosphere of England and Holland. Generally it was religiously tolerant, Protestant, and middle class, valuing commerce and respecting the rights of property. Early liberals rejected the divine right of kings and implicitly assumed (a) all men are born equal (they were not much concerned with women) and (b) inequality arose from unequal circumstances. Naturally, they were somewhat biased against the government, run by the kings or aristocracies. Liberalism was also individualistic, and the roots of individualism can be traced back to the Greek philosophers after the golden age of Greece—for example, the Cynics and the Stoics.

Early liberalism dominated the English 18th century and was a founding principle of the American nation; it can also be heard in the more moderate voices of the French Revolution. The antithesis of liberalism began with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and was strengthened by the Romantic and nationalist movements, in which the "anarchic aspects of individualism are made explicit." The cult of the hero developed, with a nostalgia for the Middle Ages and a hatred of modernity. Such philosophy eventually led to "the despotic government of the most successful 'hero.'"

John Locke made the first comprehensive statement of liberal philosophy, and he was the most influential (although not the profoundest) of modern philosophers. Locke's philosophy was shaped by his times, the last period of civil strife in England, in which the king and Parliament collided over their rights and the rights of people were established.

Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 13: Locke's Theory of Knowledge

Bertrand Russell calls John Locke the "apostle of the Revolution of 1688," in which James II was driven out of office and the rights of Parliament established. Locke's most important work was An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Russell considers Locke to be the "founder of philosophical liberalism as much as of empiricism in theory of knowledge."

While Locke's philosophy was logical, he was willing to sacrifice logic "rather than become paradoxical." He considered love of truth to be essential, as opposed to love of doctrine. He noted that when "enthusiasm" pushed out reason at the expense of "revelation," it destroyed both reason and revelation, replacing them with individual "fancies." For Locke reason was more like common sense. He says: "God has not been so sparing to men to make them barely two-legged creatures, and left it to Aristotle to make them rational."

Locke says knowledge is derived from experience, making him the first empiricist. Ideas are derived from sensation and "internal sense," or the perception of thinking. Perception is "the first step and degree towards knowledge, and the inlet of all the materials of it," Locke says. He argues that metaphysicians' knowledge of the world is "purely verbal," taking up an emphatically nominalist view of "universals." Everything exists as a particular, although humans give names to general ideas. Locke calls the Scholastic notion of essence a verbal construct.

Good and evil are defined according to whether they deliver pleasure or pain. People act in their own self-interest, and their need to pursue happiness "is the foundation of all liberty." Since they value present pleasure more than future pleasure, they do not maximize pleasure. Moreover, self-interest and society's interests line up only over the long term, so people must exercise prudence in ensuring their long-term interests. Prudence is an essential lynchpin of both liberalism and capitalism, Russell notes. He objects to Locke's ethics on the grounds that the only virtue Locke names is prudence. Further, Russell disagrees that men desire only pleasure.

Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 14: Locke's Political Philosophy

John Locke rejected the heredity principle as the basis of political power. In his second Treatise on Government he begins by discussing natural law. Man left behind the state of nature when he entered into a social contract that created civil government. Locke contradicts himself in representing "the state of nature as one where every one is virtuous, and at other times discussing what may rightly be done in a state of nature to resist the aggressions of wicked men." In Locke's view natural man has the right to punish attacks not only on himself and his family but also on his property, even with death—he does not make a distinction for different types of thievery. Natural law aligns with the moral rules found in the Bible, according to Locke. This natural law determines right and wrong, and laws made by society ought to be guided by natural law.

Governments have "a right to exact obedience" from the populace by virtue of their agreeing to the social contract. People surrender the right to punish transgressors, and they put retribution in the hands of civil law. "The power of the government by contract, we are told, never extends beyond the common good," but Russell notes that Locke doesn't say who will judge the common good. The most important end in forming a commonwealth is to protect private property, and Locke favors a system in which a man may own as much land as he can cultivate. The idea that the value of a product should be calculated according to the labor expended in making it (the labor theory of value) comes from Locke's philosophy, although it was taken up by Karl Marx and other Communists and Socialists. Russell points out flaws in this theory as well.

The doctrine of checks and balances in the government is characteristic of liberalism, says Russell, which first arose in England to resist the Stuart dynasty. For Locke the king represented the executive and the Parliament the legislative branch, and he believed the latter should be supreme, although subject to removal by the people. Locke's principle of the division of powers "found its fullest application [in] the United States," says Russell, where the three branches of government are independent of one another. Russell deems Locke's philosophy adequate until the Industrial Revolution. Since then, "the power of property, as embodied in vast corporations, [has grown] beyond anything imagined by Locke." The functions of the state have grown enormously as well, and nationalism has created large power centers, both political and economic. Russell believes what is now needed is an international government and a more far-reaching social contract.

Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 15: Locke's Influence

The heirs of John Locke were the British empiricist philosophers George Berkeley and David Hume; the French philosophes not of the school of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Jeremy Bentham and the philosophical Radicals (the utilitarians); and Karl Marx. In the United States Locke's ideas underwent little transformation when applied to American constitutional government. The French Enlightenment philosophers saw England as the "home of freedom" and favored Locke's theories. His chief disciple in France was Voltaire. Locke was "tentative in his beliefs, not at all authoritarian, and willing to leave every question to be decided by free discussion." The result was that those who followed him believe in gradual reform. Locke's opponents enjoyed the heroism of war, while for the most part utilitarians and capitalists who followed Locke disliked war. While the enlightened self-interest preached by Locke may not be the noblest of philosophies, those who railed against it often substituted something much worse.


Bertrand Russell prefaces his summary of Locke with some background on the development of liberalism. He begins by reiterating his own major theme—that human life as it is lived determines philosophy, and at the same time philosophy influences the specific circumstances of human life. But now he adds a cautionary note against putting too much emphasis either on the influence of philosophers on history or discounting how much history may be influenced by ideas. This prefatory statement is apropos because in Russell's view, John Locke's influence on history is not at all proportionate with his mediocre talents as a philosopher. Moreover, he may be giving Locke too much credit for changing the course of history. In some sense Locke has imbibed just the right views to become the right man in the right place at the right time—to say the things that people were already thinking. Locke is the inventor of philosophical liberalism, which has its roots in (1) the pluralism following the Protestant Reformation and (2) the rise of the middle class throughout Europe, as prosperous city-states pave the way for the earliest form of capitalism (mercantilism). Both of these currents created more individual freedom.

John Locke, whom Russell calls an apostle of the Glorious Revolution, conceived a philosophy that paved the way for the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment. Also called the Age of Reason, this intellectual movement primarily based in England and France advocated for individual freedom, as well as freedom from superstition and the autocratic power of the state.

England's civil wars began in 1642, when the Stuart king Charles I fought the Parliamentarians and ended up getting executed. England was then ruled by the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell until the monarchy was restored under Charles II. After he died, the Catholic king James II ascended the throne and was deposed without a war (the Glorious Revolution) in 1688. This last uprising resulted in the first constitutional monarchy of Europe. William and Mary became the rulers of England after they accepted a Declaration of Rights. The "bloodless revolution" permanently established Parliament, which represented the people, as an important part of the government. It makes sense that England was the first European country to establish a provisional democracy since there is a democratic trend in England that goes back to the signing of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta is the first document to ensure some rights of the king's subjects—albeit at that point only the aristocracy. So naturally England leads the way in moving from divine kingship to constitutional rule.

In addition to being the first liberal, Locke is also the first empiricist because he says quite plainly that knowledge derives from experience. He is famously known for the idea that people are born as a "blank slate" upon which experience writes. He rejected hereditary rule and opted for a social contract, in which people enter into an agreement with the state in which they give up some of their rights in exchange for protection. For example, under the social contract, a person gives up their right to exact vengeance on someone who takes life or property. This becomes the job of the state. This idea of entering into a contract with the state is very different from Thomas Hobbes's idea, in which people give up all their rights to the state, in perpetuity, in exchange for protection. Rather, for Locke the power of the state is limited by a system of checks and balances in which the people retain more power than the state.

Russell points out some of the contradictions in Locke's philosophy, of which there are many, and notes that the most important purpose for forming a commonwealth is the protection of private property. Thus Russell again emphasizes the connection between individual rights and the growth of capitalism; the capitalist system cannot work without individual rights and liberty. At the same time when capitalist power becomes too vast, it becomes monopoly capitalism, something Russell is concerned about as a committed Socialist. Then capitalism is in danger of becoming fascism, or authoritarian nationalism, in which a small number of individuals control all commerce and curtail individual rights.

Russell sees the value in Locke's philosophy but dislikes his ethics, in which the highest virtue is prudence and people's only desire is for pleasure. Nonetheless, "On the whole, the school which owed its origin to Locke, and which preached enlightened self-interest, did more to increase human happiness, and less to increase human misery, than was done by the schools which despised it in the name of heroism and self-sacrifice," Russell says.

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