A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 3, Part 2, Chapters 26–27 : Modern Philosophy (From Rousseau to the Present Day) | Summary



Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 26: The Utilitarians

The British philosophers of the 19th century were not much influenced by the Germans. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the utilitarian movement, based his philosophy on the "association principle" and the "greatest happiness" principle. Bentham followed British philosopher David Hartley (1705–57) in recognizing association as a basic principle of psychology: ideas are associated with language, and ideas with ideas. The doctrine is similar to the behavioral theory of conditioning, in which A and B are associated in the mind and B produces a reaction C, but because of the association of A and B, A can produce C by itself. Thus, Bentham "aims at a deterministic account of mental occurrences." He is interested in establishing a social system that will "automatically make men virtuous," which is why he is interested in conditioned responses.

The second principle (greatest happiness) defines virtue: what is good is happiness or pleasure (he makes no distinction between these two terms), and what is bad is pain. Each person pursues what they believe will bring them happiness. In the best of all possible worlds, pleasure outweighs pain. While the utilitarian doctrine is not new, Bentham applies it to some practical problems.

Based on utilitarianism, the government should "produce harmony between public and private interests." Criminal law aligns the interests of the individual with those of the community. Punishment under the law is to prevent future crime, not to penalize the criminal. "Civil law ... should have four aims: subsistence, abundance, security, and equality." Bentham is less concerned with liberty than security. Bentham did believe in equality, however, which in later years led him to support complete democracy and women's right to vote. Based on his uncompromising rationality, he rejected both God and religion. The weakness in Bentham's system is that if every person pursues his or her own pleasure (happiness), how can the governing body "pursue the pleasure of mankind in general"? Russell opines that Bentham's blind spot is that he simply assumed others shared his "instinctive benevolence."

Russell finishes the chapter by briefly discussing Darwinism (the theory of evolution) and socialism, which preceded Karl Marx and was "a direct outcome of orthodox economics." David Ricardo (1772–1823) was a political economist who argued all value comes from labor. Based on this premise, Robert Owen (1771–1858) and his followers expanded this idea, arguing that all reward should be given to labor and what the landowner and capitalist receive off the backs of the laborers is "mere extortion."

Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 27: Karl Marx

Bertrand Russell confines his discussion of Karl Marx to his philosophy (not his politics or economics) and his influence on the philosophy of others. Marx called himself a dialectical materialist (he was influenced by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's idea of the dialectic). For Marx sensation or perception involved an interaction between subject and object. The raw material of the object "is transformed in the process of becoming known." In the pursuit of knowledge "both the knower and the thing known ... are in a continual process of mutual adaptation," which Marx calls the dialectical because it is never completed. The driving force of the world is matter, not spirit, in Marx's philosophy—or rather, "man's relation to matter, of which the most important part is his mode of production." Thus, Marx's materialism becomes economics in practice, Russell says. Moreover, "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." This doctrine is called "the materialist conception of history."

Russell admits he has been influenced by Marx in his views on the historical development of philosophy, although he does not accept Marx's thesis wholesale. Nonetheless, it has "important elements of truth." At the same time he points out that certain questions of philosophy—for example, the problem of universals—are influenced by biases that are perennial but have no direct connection to the social system. Further, certain aspects of philosophy are matters of fact (science) or logic, eventually resolved through general agreement. Other types of philosophical questions are of "passionate interest to large numbers of people" and are only partially determined by social and economic causes.

Marx "fitted his philosophy of history into a mold suggested by Hegelian dialectic" but was concerned with only three things: "feudalism, represented by the landowner; capitalism, represented by the industrial employer; and Socialism, represented by the wage-earner." As a philosopher he has "grave shortcomings," being "too practical, too much wrapped up in the problems of his time." Marx has had a large influence on history. In his own country his ideas inspired the Social Democrats prior to the rise of fascism. In Russia Marxists were running the government. Finally, many intellectuals in Great Britain and the United States have been influenced by his ideas.


When utilitarians say that "man desires his own happiness," it is both a truism and a false statement, according to Russell. It is true because when a person desires something they get pleasure in achieving their wish. Thus, whatever they desire becomes a pleasure, and it can be loosely said that "pleasures are what I desire." However, this idea is false in that a person does not generally desire something because of the pleasure it will bring. For example, people desire food when they are hungry. Hunger is the desire; the pleasure is secondary. Most ordinary desires are prior to any "calculation of pleasures and pains." Moreover, people may desire anything, even pain, but in such cases "the pleasure is because of the desire, and not vice versa."

In correcting the utilitarian statements about whether man desires happiness, Russell is again applying his logic to tease out the linguistic errors that do not accurately represent reality. But a more interesting question to consider might be whether happiness and pleasure are equivalent, and whether people truly desire pleasure or something else. Or do they desire pleasure sometimes and something else they think is pleasure at other times? Russell also uses the example of people desiring something that does not affect them personally—for example, "general happiness, or a mitigation of general suffering"—as examples of how people do not always pursue personal pleasure. But he seems to be leaving out the genuine pleasure people experience from helping others in the form of satisfaction. Russell also provides the example of people who want everyone to belong to their religion—calling it a "non-egoistic desire." However, the desire to have other people belong to one's religion is an egotistical desire. A psychologist will argue people want other people to believe what they believe so that they can feel secure in their worldview and sustain the illusion that they have somehow gotten hold of "the truth." Therefore, it serves the individual to convert others to their belief system. To do so is also the exercise of their will to power.

Russell does not provide much on Karl Marx, since the main part of his doctrine is economic rather than philosophical. Nonetheless, it is important to include him because of his wide-ranging influence. Russell admits he believes Marx's basic theory: methods of production and distribution (essentially economic systems) profoundly affect political and cultural systems and determine the trajectory of history. Moreover, this view has affected his views of the historical development of philosophy, but he nonetheless points out some discrepancies in the Marxist explanation of why things happen as they happen.

Considering how scrupulously Russell monitors the language of other philosophers and points out syntactical errors, it is surprising that he would say that in Russia Marxists are running the country. In fact in 1943, Russia is not even under a Marxist-Leninist regime, as it was when the Communist state in Russia first came into existence. Rather, Russia is under Stalinism, which is quite a horse of another color. Also interesting is that Russell treats Marx gently, merely saying his philosophy has "grave shortcomings." He doesn't blame Marx for the excesses of the Russian totalitarian state the way he blames Nietzsche for German fascism. In 1943, when Russell is writing his text, the West perhaps did not know about the mass murders carried out by Stalin beginning in 1933. In fact, Stalin killed more people than Hitler did. Still Russell must have had some idea that Stalin was a psychopath, and certainly he knew a lot of people had died in the Russian Revolutions. His response to Marx as the originator of a philosophy that was (and still is) used for ill purposes is contradictory when compared to his treatment of Nietzsche and other German philosophers.

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