Literature Study GuidesA History Of Western PhilosophyBook 3 Part 2 Chapters 28 30 Summary

A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 3, Part 2, Chapters 28–30 : Modern Philosophy (From Rousseau to the Present Day) | Summary



Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 28: Bergson

Henri Bergson (1859–1941) was a leading philosopher of the early the 20th century who influenced French philosophy, as well as the American philosopher Henry James and English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. Bergson's "irrationalism made a wide appeal quite unconnected with politics," explains Russell. He finds Bergson's philosophy difficult to classify and ends up classifying him with the pragmatists. Although Russell devotes several pages to Bergson, he has such a strong bias and antipathy toward him that the reader is doubtful whether he is fairly representing Bergson's views.

One central idea in Bergson's philosophy is the distinction between intuition and intellect. Intuition is "instinct at its best," which is "disinterested, self-conscious, capable of reflecting upon its object and of enlarging it indefinitely." Intelligence or intellect "can only form a clear idea of the discontinuous and immobile." Bergson connects solid bodies and intellect, seeming to say the mind creates them on purpose "to apply intellect to them." Because intellect separates things, it is "a kind of dream; it is not active ... but purely contemplative."

"The two foundations of Bergson's philosophy ... are his doctrines of space and time," says Russell. He says Bergson condemns the intellect based on the doctrine of space. If his central doctrines are false, says Russell, then nothing remains in his philosophy that is credible. Russell then sets out to prove Bergson's theories are specious. He bases his criticisms primarily on what Bergson says about numbers and on how he uses minor errors and confusions in intellectual thought to support his anti-intellectual philosophy.

Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 29: William James

William James is primarily a psychologist but also important as a philosopher for inventing "radical empiricism" and for being an exponent of pragmatism, also called instrumentalism. James's first foray into radical empiricism is in an essay titled "Does Consciousness Exist?" whose main purpose is to "deny that the subject-object relation is fundamental." The dualism in philosophy, of subject-object and mind and matter, needs to be reconsidered, in James's view. James calls consciousness a "nonentity" with no rights among "first principles." Russell explains that James is denying consciousness is a "thing" and rather thinks it is "primal stuff" out of which the world is made: "This stuff he calls 'pure experience.'" Knowing is the relationship between two parts of pure experience, and "the subject-object relation is derivative." James's view can be called "neutral monism."

Pragmatism was published in 1907 and continued James's thinking along the same lines. In James's view the "function of philosophy is to find out what difference it makes to you or me if this or that world-formula is true." Ideas are true as much as they help people to get into "satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience." An idea is true if it is good for people's lives. With regard to religion, James says that if a person has a hypothesis about God that works for them, then it is true. Moreover, based on the proofs of religious experience, it may well be that higher powers are at work in the world. Russell disputes James's view that a belief is true simply because the effect is good, and he exposes the logical problems in what seems like a simple proposition. James is attempting to "build a superstructure of belief upon a foundation of skepticism, and like all such attempts it is dependent on fallacies," Russell says.

Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 30: John Dewey

John Dewey was the leading living philosopher in the United States, according to Bertrand Russell, writing in 1943. Russell says Dewey had a profound influence on philosophy as well as education, aesthetics, and political theory. While Russell agrees with Dewey on many things, he feels "compelled to dissent from his most distinctive philosophical doctrine," in which he substitutes "inquiry" for "truth" as "the fundamental concept of logic and theory of knowledge."

Russell begins by saying something about his own idea of truth. He gives a few examples and concludes there is objectivity in truth and falsehood: "what is true (or false) is a state of the organism [person], but it is true (or false), in general, in virtue of occurrences outside the organism." What this means is that what a person considers to be true can be verified by external objective occurrences. Dewey, on the other hand, does not judge absolute truth or falsehood but prefers to carry on a process of inquiry to reach "mutual adjustment between an organism and its environment." In Dewey's philosophy truth is defined according to inquiry, not vice versa, and truth is the "the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate." The problem with this theory is that it "severs" the relationship between a belief and fact(s) that would be called on to verify it.

Russell provides this example: a general makes preparations for a battle based on the intelligence reports he gets about what his enemy is doing on his side to prepare. The intelligence the general has received would be true if, indeed, these are the moves the enemy makes. Those facts would continue to be true even if the general ends up losing the battle. Dewey, however, would not know what to think about the intelligence reports until after the battle had taken place. The main difference between Dewey and Russell, then, is that Dewey "judges a belief by its effects, whereas [Russell judges] it by its causes where a past occurrence is concerned." Russell says Dewey's perspective is "in harmony with the age of industrialism and collective enterprise." This presumption is based on his idea that philosophers, like everyone else, are connected to and affected by their social environment, and Dewey lives in a country at the forefront of industrial and technological progress. In the end Russell is most concerned with the growing "cosmic impiety" of the modern age, in which truth is no longer dependent on facts largely outside of human control (which breeds humility in the philosopher). Now scientists can alter the environment and create new facts with technology, and Russell fears intoxication with power has invaded philosophy. Man's hubris [extreme pride] generally is the greatest danger of the current historical era.


Russell concludes his summary of Bergson with an attempt to entirely discredit him. He sarcastically throws down a gauntlet to those who might take the philosopher seriously: "Those to whom activity without purpose seems a sufficient good will find in Bergson's books a pleasing picture of the universe," he says. However, those who believe action has value and must be inspired by a vision or hope of a world "less painful, less unjust" will find nothing of value in Bergson's philosophy. Russell appears to misunderstand key ideas in Bergson's philosophy, perhaps not entirely accidentally. He particularly disagrees with what Bergson says about numbers, and he objects to his characterizing intuition as a more effective tool than intellect for apprehending multiplicity.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Bergson's influence waned considerably after World War II, but his work has lately awakened the interest of some philosophers who believe his concept of multiplicity, which attempts to unify heterogeneity (diversity) and continuity (unbroken existence or operation), is "revolutionary." Bergson sees the immediate data of consciousness as temporary and calls it the duration. In the duration events are not juxtaposed or put next to each other, side by side. Rather, in the duration there is qualitative multiplicity, which Bergson illustrates by referring to the experience of sympathy. Sympathy is a moral feeling, but it is inspired by a cluster of contradictory emotions, all occurring together and interpenetrating one another. Thus, sympathy is heterogeneous and continuous. Bergson connects duration with "mobility" and mobility with freedom. Duration exhibits itself in memory, and Russell disagrees with Bergson's definition of memory. For that reason he believes that what follows from Bergson's conception of memory (i.e., the duration) is also false.

Bergson argues that intuition, which occurs in the duration, is superior to intellect, an idea Russell cannot abide. Bergson sees intuition as a nonconceptual faculty focused on truth, which in science manifests as an original insight that gets covered over by concepts formulated after insight. Russell perhaps disingenuously reads this as a type of mysticism, since it violates his logical principles. In fact Russell's harsh criticism of Bergson solidifies the divide between analytic (mostly British and American) and continental (mostly French and German) philosophy. The phenomenologist philosophers who begin with Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger (not covered in Russell's survey) are in the continental camp, while the analytic philosophers who follow Bergson are in the analytic camp. The phenomenologists study the structures of consciousness from a first-person viewpoint. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object." Analytic philosophy, on the other hand, is grounded in logic and the use of language, so it is easy to see why Russell would dislike Bergson's point of view, which anticipates the phenomenologists.

Russell incorrectly lumps Bergson with the pragmatists, and he doesn't care for them much either. At first blush the pragmatists' radical empiricism, particularly as articulated by William James, would seem to be compatible with Russell's view. But Russell exposes the rather tenuous idea held by James that a belief is true if its effect is good—easily exposing the logical problems of such a view. John Dewey comes in for more serious criticism, no doubt because Russell takes Dewey more seriously as a philosopher. But Dewey shares with James the belief that truth should be judged by its effects rather than by any objective criteria. The empiricism of the pragmatists goes only so far. Dewey believes neither the universals of the rationalists nor the sense data of the empiricists are objects of knowledge. Rather, they are instruments of knowledge, and the function of knowledge is to solve problems. This is why Dewey replaces "truth" with "inquiry." Inquiry, which Dewey equates with scientific technique, must be applied to the development of values. Values are facts found in experience, and he does not separate values from empirical data derived from the senses. Dewey's concept of provisional truth goes against Russell's logic as well as his humanistic values. He fears, and rightly so, that a philosophy in which truth is no longer dependent on facts is akin to opening up a Pandora's box of abuses for power brokers who can easily misuse the tools of science and technology.

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