A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 3, Part 1, Chapters 7–8 : Modern Philosophy (From the Renaissance to Hume) | Summary



Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 7: Francis Bacon

According to Bertrand Russell, Francis Bacon was the founder of the modern inductive method and a pioneer in systematizing the scientific method. Following his father, Bacon chose a career in politics and became Lord Chancellor to Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1618. His political enemies engineered his downfall, however, and two years later he was driven out of office after being accused of taking bribes. The purpose of philosophy in Bacon's view is to "give mankind mastery over the forces of nature by means of scientific discoveries and inventions." Philosophy, which depends on reason, and theology, which rests on revelation, should be maintained as separate disciplines. He advocated for the maintenance of a "double truth," accepting orthodox religion himself. How sincere Bacon was about religion is not known, but he did think reason could be used to establish the existence of God.

Bacon is known for naming the "idols" or bad habits of mind that lead people astray intellectually. For example, the "idols of the cave" are one's personal prejudices, and "idols of the theater" are received systems of thought that people take for granted and follow without thinking. Bacon is most important for being the first philosopher of science to emphasize "the importance of induction as opposed to deduction." He attempted to establish a method of induction that goes beyond enumeration (keeping track of instances that point to a generality) but was unable to do so. Today's scientists acknowledge the importance of both inductive and deductive logic in the work they do.

Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 8: Hobbes's Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher and early empiricist best known for his work of political philosophy, Leviathan. Hobbes was an extreme royalist (someone supporting rule by monarchy). He lived through an era of political turmoil in which the English "Long Parliament" ended up executing King Charles I. Hobbes fled to France and remained there 11 years, associating with royalist refugees. He eventually returned to London and submitted himself to Oliver Cromwell, England's ruler from 1653 to 1658.

Leviathan is Hobbes's argument for the necessity of the populace to submit to an absolute ruler. The commonwealth, called "Leviathan," is an artificial (created) man, and sovereignty is an artificial soul. The first part of this treatise discusses the nature of man, who desires self-preservation while wishing to dominate others. Human nature results in a constant state of war and makes life "nasty, brutish, and short." In war force and fraud are the important virtues. To escape the evil of war, people form communities ruled by a central authority. People submit to authority in the interests of self-preservation. Men's agreement with one another in a covenant is to obey the ruling power the majority has chosen. With that choice they relinquish all power and have no right to rebel, since the ruler is not bound by a contract to them. While Hobbes prefers a monarchy, Russell points out that Hobbes's arguments can apply to any form of government "in which there is one supreme authority not limited by the legal rights of other bodies." After summarizing other parts of Leviathan, Russell turns to the question of what to make of it.

Every community faces two opposing dangers—anarchy and despotism. Hobbes was terrified by anarchy and "liberal philosophers who arose after the Restoration ... realized both dangers." This led to John Locke's ideas about the separation of powers. In countries with checks and balances, there is the constant tendency for power to accumulate in one sector: "In Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan, the government has even more power than Hobbes thought desirable." In Russell's view the world has moved, after a long period of liberalism, in Hobbes's direction. While Russell admits that an absolute state can prevent anarchy, it can also become so bad that anarchy is preferable. The tendency of governments to become tyrannies can be checked only by fear of rebellion. Otherwise, in the political sphere, leaders will hold onto power for too long; in the economic sphere they will enrich themselves at the expense of the public, and in the intellectual sphere they will suppress knowledge that threatens their power.

Hobbes is clear and logical in his analysis, says Russell, and is the first "really modern writer on political theory." His ideas deserve to be pondered and refuted. Two important charges may be brought against him: (1) He does not consider that different groups of citizens have different interests—for example, different class interests. Thus the interests of the ruler are not identical with all his subjects. (2) Hobbes's doctrine does not take into consideration relations between and among different states. If there is anarchy internationally, more control and efficiency on the state (nation) level will not necessarily make people safer, but rather, increase the ferocity of war. States will continue to fight each other, improving their weapons, for example. This will leave humanity without the means of preventing war and can lead to planetary destruction.


Francis Bacon is considered by some to be the first philosopher of modern science. He embodied the Renaissance spirit as a statesman, politician, and essayist. Bacon was somewhat exceptional in his objections to the worship of Aristotle, and he criticized the Scholastic philosophers for their wholesale adoption of Greek views. Bacon was the first to champion the inductive method, and he stressed the importance of the "mechanical arts," the precursor of technology. What Bacon also did is provide the philosophical and theological underpinning for the attitude that nature is merely man's instrument, provided by God. In his view man is the highest being in creation, and human beings have a God-given right to bend nature to their will. Science historian Carolyn Merchant argues that the objectification of nature became solidified following the Scientific Revolution and is responsible for attitudes that have allowed for the wholesale destruction of parts of the natural environment, which continues today and threatens species survival. Russell is also concerned with the dangers of unbridled technology, specifically with regard to war, although he doesn't mention that Bacon early on set the tone for scientific overconfidence.

While René Descartes was founding rationalist philosophy, Thomas Hobbes was at work (also in France) attempting to forestall democracy with philosophy. Russell doesn't fully explain how the English parliament became an instrument of revolutionary change in the 17th century. England was the first country in Europe to move toward democratic governance, beginning in 1215, when the document Magna Carta established some rights for the nobility and a proto-Parliament. More than 400 years later, King Charles I waged war with Scotland and later Ireland and was forced to convene the "Long Parliament" in 1640, which ended up sitting for 20 years. As Russell notes, Hobbes fled to France in that year because Parliament executed two of the king's men, and perhaps he saw the writing on the wall. Parliament crossed swords with the king over who will control the army, and war broke out between the king and the Parliamentarians in 1642. The king eventually was tried and executed in 1649. A republic was established as the Commonwealth of England (including Wales, Ireland, and Scotland), under the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. The English monarchy was restored under Charles's son, Charles II, in 1660, and he rewarded his former tutor Hobbes with a pension. Charles II shared power with Parliament until he dissolved it in 1681. England became a constitutional monarchy in 1688, after the Glorious Revolution, a bloodless deposition of King James II, who was replaced by his daughter Mary and her husband William.

Hobbes was well aware of Descartes's work, and he rejected his dualism in favor of a monistic materialism in which the only reality that exists is bodies in motion. In Hobbes's pessimistic view all organisms fight for their survival, so all actions are rooted in self-interest and a desire for power. Naturally his preference for an absolutist state that will keep people in check grew out of this belief. Leviathan is the English translation of a Hebrew word from the Bible, which refers to a sea monster or "tortuous serpent." Hobbes took up the term to name the manmade monster of the absolute state, which though monstrous is better than the "state of nature," in which primitive man is at the mercy of want and fear. Clearly Hobbes preferred security over freedom, and the majority of the human race seems to be in agreement with him, judging from the number of totalitarian states that have existed and still exist and the fact that democratic states are always in danger of falling into chaos or absolutism.

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