A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 3, Part 2, Chapters 21–22 : Modern Philosophy (From Rousseau to the Present Day) | Summary

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Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 21: Currents of Thought in the Nineteenth Century

"The intellectual life of the nineteenth century was more complex than that of any previous age," says Bertrand Russell. First, the known world had become larger, with other countries making contributions to culture. Second, science moved forward quickly with new discoveries. Third, technology radically altered the social structure and "gave men a new conception of their powers in relation to the physical environment." Fourth, political and philosophical revolt against traditional systems of thought "gave rise to attacks upon many beliefs and institutions that had hitherto been regarded as unassailable."

The revolt against tradition takes two forms—one Romantic and the other rationalistic, to use these words in their broadest sense: "The romantic revolt passes from Byron, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche to Mussolini and Hitler." The rationalistic revolt starts with the philosophers of the French Revolution and softens when it gets to England. Karl Marx is the deepest expression of this revolt, which passes to what will become Soviet Russia. A new factor in European thought is the "intellectual predominance of Germany," beginning with Immanuel Kant, who gives rise to the idealistic philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Both men are heirs to the rationalist tradition.

Two French philosophers who combine "rationalism and enthusiasm" [i.e., Romanticism] are Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715–71) and Nicolas de Condorcet (1743–94). Helvétius followed John Locke's theory that the mind is a tabula rasa (blank slate) at birth and that differences among individuals are due to education. Condorcet held similar opinions, although he is more influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He believed in the rights of man and equal rights for women. In England the ideas of French revolutionary philosophers gave rise to Jeremy Bentham, a utilitarian philosopher who adopted the idea that "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" should be the guiding principle of society. The philosophers who followed Bentham were more focused on economics, and they were less radical than the Socialists who congealed around the philosophy of Karl Marx. The Romantic rebellion emphasized the will "at the expense of the intellect" and aligns itself with nationalism.

With regard to science, Charles Darwin (1809–82) was the key figure. While the idea that life evolves gradually from a common source was not new, Darwin supplied a great deal of scientific evidence. His idea of "survival of the fittest"—that evolution favors those who adapt and survive—was new. Darwin contended that survival of the fittest can account for "the whole long development [of life] from the protozoa to homo sapiens." His theory had the effect of emphasizing biological differences among people and thus undercutting the liberal idea that people are equal at birth. Nonetheless, evolution supports the liberal belief in progress. In politics Darwinism led to an emphasis on community, and "survival of the fittest" was applied to both individuals and nations.

Technology's effect on thinking was to give intellectuals a greater sense of human power. This has been a continual movement of history from the earliest days of civilization. But Russell notes that nowadays "an inconvenient mountain can be abolished and a convenient waterfall can be created." The desert can bloom, and the fertile plains can be turned into deserts. Now state authority replaced Church authority and could transform the mentality of a population in a generation through universal education. "To frame a philosophy capable of coping with men intoxicated with the prospect of almost unlimited power and also with the apathy of the powerless is the most pressing task of our time," says Russell.

Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 22: Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's ideas grew out of a movement in German philosophy that began with Kant. Hegel's influence was wide in the 19th century, both in the United States and Great Britain, and his philosophy of history "profoundly affected political theory." Karl Marx borrows ideas from Hegel's philosophy, for example. Nonetheless, Bertrand Russell asserts that "almost all Hegel's doctrines are false."

In Hegel's philosophy the rational is real and the real is rational, although he doesn't mean "real" in the same way an empiricist would use the term. For Hegel the empiricist's "facts" are irrational until they are transformed into aspects of the whole. Such a view, according to Bertrand Russell, leads to the notion that "whatever is, is right." In Hegel's metaphysical view the whole is called the Absolute and is spiritual. But he differs from other metaphysical philosophers in his emphasis on logic, which he believes is the same as metaphysics (a view to which Russell strongly objects).

Hegel believes "the nature of Reality can be deduced from the sole consideration that it must be not self-contradictory." Any description of reality is self-contradictory, because as soon as a person says something specific about reality, they leave out an infinite number of things related to that description, which makes it incomplete. For example, if the philosopher says John is an uncle, he has not said that Bob is John's nephew, nor that John has a sister, nor that he and his sister have parents, and so on and so forth. "Since everything, except the Whole, has relations to outside things, it follows that nothing quite true can be said about separate things, and that in fact only the Whole is real," explains Russell.

Another important aspect of understanding reality is the dialectic, which can be seen in the following: First, he presents the thesis that "the Absolute is Pure Being," but an absolute without qualities is nothing. This requires an antithesis that "the Absolute is Nothing." These two are then synthesized in the union of being and nonbeing, which is "becoming." Thus the synthesis is "the Absolute is Becoming." This dialectic is used to reach greater and greater truth in Hegel's system, in which self-consciousness is the highest form of knowledge. For the Absolute, which possesses the highest knowledge, "there is nothing outside itself for it to know."

Hegel applies his dialectic to history, with the idea that history is advancing from less to more perfect, both ethically and logically. For example, a society might encompass a small number of free citizens and a large number of slaves (thesis and antithesis), and in the next iteration of history, those opposites are synthesized in a society that is feudalistic. Slavery per se is abolished, and a greater number of people have partial freedom. In the next iteration feudalism will face an antithesis to create a new synthesis. This movement of history is continuous.

Russell's strong objections to Hegelian philosophy are based in Hegel's ultimate glorification of an essentially totalitarian state. For Hegel the essence of spirit is freedom. He then traces the development of spirit through three historical phases of "the Orientals, the Greeks and Romans, and the Germans," saying the Germans are "the spirit of the new world." The aim of this new world is "the realization of absolute Truth as the unlimited self-determination of freedom—that freedom which has its own absolute from itself as its purport." Freedom for Hegel is the freedom to obey the law, in a state "which has its own absolute from itself." Hegel glorifies the German state, beginning with the Reformation, and gives it "a sacred character." He claims the state "is the actually existing realized moral life," and that any spiritual reality a person possesses comes through the state. Truth is the unity of universal and individual will, says Hegel, and the universal will is found "in the State, in its laws, its universal and rational arrangements." He goes as far as saying "the State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth" and "the embodiment of rational freedom."

Such a doctrine in Russell's view "justifies every internal tyranny and every external aggression that can possibly be imagined." Moreover Hegel violates his own metaphysics and so-called logic. This is because he sees more excellence in wholes than parts, which leads Hegel to prefer a state over "an anarchic collection of individuals." But when it comes to states, he doesn't prefer a world state, but rather "an anarchic collection of States." He strongly argues against the idea of a world government and provides a moral justification for war, claiming it preserves "the moral health of peoples ... in their indifference towards the stabilizing of finite determinations"—that is, they'd rather kill and die than be subject to a "finite" stabilizing world authority.

Russell ends his discussion of Hegel by demolishing the logic behind these assertions: (1) the whole is always better than its parts and (2) it is possible to infer all properties of a thing by knowing enough about it to distinguish it from other things. Russell ends by sarcastically noting, "The worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise."

Analysis

Bertrand Russell speaks about two 19th-century revolts in the history of ideas: the Romantic revolt, which he has already discussed at length in Book 3, Part 2, Chapters 18 and 19, and the rationalist revolt. Russell is not using the term rationalist in the usual sense for philosophers—as when they compare rationalist and empiricist thinkers. When Russell talks about rationalistic philosophers, he means to say either that the philosopher is scientific, practical, or reasonable or he ascribes some form of liberal philosophy to them.

Russell traces a line from Byron to Hitler in discussing the first revolt (Romantic), and a line from the French Enlightenment philosophers to the Soviet Union, with Karl Marx in between, to discuss the second revolt (rationalistic). This is somewhat contradictory to what he has said previously about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, since he puts him in the Romantic camp in a previous chapter. Yet Rousseau is generally classified as an Enlightenment philosopher.

Russell also throws into the mix the German idealists, beginning with Kant, who reflect a new ascendancy of German philosophers. Throughout his history Russell is trying to make sense of the rise of Hitler's fascist state in Germany, and now he is thinking about why the German philosophers developed as they did. Russell opines that German idealism after Kant is "profoundly influenced by German history; much of what seems strange in German philosophical speculation reflects the state of mind of a vigorous nation deprived, by historical accidents, of its natural share of power."

This chapter is somewhat disorganized. After Russell gets sidetracked with two philosophers who appear to be hybrids of the Romantic and rationalistic impulses, he jumps to the English utilitarians and then to Darwin. Probably the most important idea to take away from this chapter is his assertion that the Romantic rebellion emphasizes the will and aligns itself with nationalism, a thread he picks up again in his discussion of Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche.

In his discussion of Charles Darwin Russell mentions how his theory of evolution and survival of the fittest emphasize biological differences among people, thus undercutting ideas of equality at birth. But he never mentions how Darwin's idea of survival of the fittest jumped disciplines and became Social Darwinism, primarily through the writings of Herbert Spencer, a 19th-century English philosopher and sociologist. Spencer applied Darwin's idea for the purpose of showing that societies evolved in the same way as species do. Spencer's ideas were hijacked to justify classism and laissez-faire capitalism, which advocates for a freewheeling capitalism that operates without any checks and balances. Granted Spencer is not a major philosopher, but the idea of Social Darwinism affected history and philosophy as least as much as the ideas spouted by Lord Byron, who gets his own chapter in Russell's book. Spencer also subscribed to Lamarckism, the idea first introduced by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, that acquired characteristics in a species can be inherited by subsequent generations. This is another important idea that affected philosophy, but Russell doesn't give it even a sentence.

When Russell gets to Hegel in Chapter 22, he can't say enough bad things about his philosophy. Russell includes Hegel in his survey because his influence throughout the 19th century is profound. While he mentions that Hegel often criticizes Immanuel Kant yet couldn't have existed without him, he does not explain that the post-Kantian philosophers are troubled by Kant's definition of reality as noumena, or things in themselves, which are inaccessible to human thought, although the mind perceives them through Kant's categories. But the German idealists who follow Kant are not satisfied with this idea—that ultimately noumena cannot be known. While Russell has already consigned Hegel more or less to the dustbin of philosophical history in 1943, in fact Hegel is called a "philosophical giant" and "modern Aristotle" by American philosopher Tom Rockmore. Russell discusses the political philosophy found in Hegel's fourth book of philosophy, called Philosophy of Right (1821), which Rockmore admits was highly controversial. "Some ... see it as a sober and realistic analysis. Others, particularly Marxists, consider its author a reactionary pillar of the Prussian state of his time"—an idea Russell agrees with.

Once again Russell pulls out his Occam's razor along with the scalpel of logicism to deconstruct what he dislikes. Russell begins with the infamous quote attributed to Hegel that "whatever is, is right." However, philosopher and translator Walter Kaufmann has pointed out that a mistranslation ended up boiling Hegel's view down to this sound bite. In fact, what Hegel said, according to Kaufmann, is "it is the way of God in the world, that there should be a state," which is a lot less inflammatory. Russell next summarizes a bit of Hegel's metaphysics, which includes a concept of Absolute pure being, toward which the world and all self-conscious beings are moving. The movement of history, or the movement of the spirit through historical phases, must end in unlimited freedom. But in Hegel's view there can be no freedom without law, which is why an Absolute state is needed.

Russell understandably objects to such a view, but he could have pointed out that Hegel too was influenced by history—in this case by the French Revolution. Russell could have pointed out how Hegel was shaped by these turbulent times, so perhaps the chaos of that period accounted for the notion that a perfect state could sort out "an anarchic collection of individuals." It is understandable to see why Russell distrusts Hegel's philosophy, which easily can be used to justify all manner of abuses by the state. But it may have been fairer to Hegel to have included more aspects of his philosophy rather than just the political philosophy found in one book.

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