A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Context


Ancient Philosophy and Geography

In reading the first part of Bertrand Russell's philosophy covering the early Greeks (Book 1), he often mentions places where philosophers were born, lived, or worked. Russell's history begins roughly in 585 BCE (Russell uses the designation BC), with the philosopher Thales. Greece is located in southern Europe, mostly on the Balkan Peninsula, although Greece is not a Balkan state from a political perspective. Mainland Greece is located below modern Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria, on the bottom on the peninsula. Greece has some 2,000 islands. The country is bordered by the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Ionian seas. Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, the place where Minoan culture originated and then spread to the mainland. Russell speaks about the spread of Greek culture to Sicily and southern Italy (current-day Sicily is part of Italy), and some Greek philosophers lived in or originated from Sicily and southern Italy. Sicily is about 500 miles across the Ionian Sea from mainland Greece.

Russell mentions that in the 6th century BCE, when the epics of Greek poet Homer were being fixed, similar cultural events were going on in other parts of the world. In fact this period of history is referred to as the "Axial Age," in which intellectual and religious thought blossomed in many parts of the inhabited world, from 800 to 200 BCE. Some of the great figures of this period are Chinese philosophers Confucius and Lao Tzu, Nepali sage Siddhartha Gautama (later called the Buddha), the sages who wrote the Indian Upanishads, and Iranian prophet Zarathustra. Russell also mentions Egypt, where many Greek philosophers traveled to study. Egypt, a country in northern Africa, was a major center of learning in the ancient world. Thales was a native of Asia Minor, which refers to the peninsula in Asia that is part of the country of Turkey. Aristotle was born in Thrace, which is mostly part of modern Bulgaria and the European part of Turkey. Alexander the Great was a Macedonian king, born in Pella, which is now in Greece. He conquered the Persian Empire, centered in modern Iran. The Greeks borrowed the Phoenician alphabet, and Greek philosopher Zeno is from Phoenicia, which corresponds to Lebanon in the Middle East and parts of Syria and Israel. Other important civilizations in the ancient world mentioned by Russell are the Babylonians (Iraq; specifically the river valley culture between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) and Mesopotamians (Iraq or ancient Babylonia plus Kuwait, the eastern parts of Syria, and southeastern Turkey).

Catholic Philosophy

Bertrand Russell devotes Book 2 to Catholic philosophy. To better understand the historical context in the founding and development of Catholic philosophy, it helps to have more information than Russell provides on both Christianity and the Roman Empire. He assumes a lot of prior knowledge on the part of his readers.

The Birth of Christianity

When Russell uses the term Catholic, he is mostly referring to Roman Catholicism, which was the form of Christianity that spread in the Western Roman Empire. Christianity came into existence as a religion after the death of its founding figure, Jesus Christ, a Jewish rabbi and sage born in Bethlehem in modern Palestine on the West Bank, a territory occupied by modern Israel. One of the early proponents of the teachings of Jesus was Paul (originally Saul) of Tarsus, in modern-day Turkey. The early missionaries of the Jesus movement spread their interpretations of the teachings, which was at first a Jewish movement. As the message spread to the Gentiles (non-Jews), the Jesus movement became its own religion.

The first usage of the term Christian can be found in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible. The Christian Bible includes both the New Testament and the Old Testament, which is somewhat equivalent to the Hebrew Bible, the scripture of the Jews. The books included in the Old Testament differ slightly from those included in the Hebrew Bible. Christianity spread through Asia Minor (Turkey) and the Greek cities in the East and to Rome in the West. Christians believed that Jesus was the incarnation of God, also called the second person of God (although Arian Christians did not believe that Jesus was coequal with God the father). Russell doesn't refer to Arian Christians as Christians but simply as Arians.

By the time the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 CE, Christianity had already spread throughout the empire, and by 500 CE, most of the people in the Roman Empire were Christian.

The Eastern and Western Roman Empire

The Roman Empire was established in 27 BCE under Augustus (Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus) and ended in 476 CE, when the Germanic tribes under Odoacer (whom Russell calls "barbarians") overthrew the last emperor.

At its height the Roman Empire extended as far east as Mesopotamia and Armenia, bordering the Caspian Sea, west to Spain, north to Gaul (modern-day France), and south through North Africa. Third-century civil war fragmented the empire, which was reunited under Emperor Diocletian in the beginning of the 4th century. To rule effectively, however, he was forced to divide this large territory into eastern and western parts. After his death in 311 CE Constantine the Great wrested power from his rivals and reunited the empire, establishing his capital at Byzantium (renamed Constantinople), the site of current-day Istanbul in Turkey. After Emperor Constantine's death his sons fought over the empire. The empire split again after the death of Emperor Jovian in 364 CE. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine (Eastern) Empire continued until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in the middle of the 15th century.

The Two Schisms

Bertrand mentions the first schism in the Christian Church only once in passing, although he refers to the second schism as the "Great Schism." The first schism further separated the religious philosophies of the Eastern and Western churches. Roman or Latin Christianity came to be exclusively identified with the designation of Catholicism (also called Roman Catholicism) after the first schism in 1054 (also called the East-West Schism).

The immediate cause of the schism was an argument between the pope in Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople (the highest church official in the East but still subordinate to the pope) about enforcing Western church customs on the Greek Catholics in southern Italy. The Eastern churches also resented the imposition of priestly celibacy, which the Western church had begun to enforce in the 11th century. Finally, there was a disagreement about whether the Holy Spirit, the third person of God, proceeds from only the Father (the first person of God) or the Father and the Son (Jesus, the second person of God). In truth the Eastern and Western churches had begun to grow apart as early as the 5th century, because, as scholars note, Eastern theology had partial roots in Greek philosophy while Western theology had partial roots in Roman law. The schism was also a result of a growing power struggle in which the Western church sought to establish its sole authority. The resulting breach was inevitable, resulting in the Orthodox churches of the East.

The second schism occurred only in the Western church and grew out of power struggles among rival popes. The Western Schism (also called the Great Schism or the Great Western Schism) refers to the papal rivalry between 1378 and 1417, when two and then three popes vied for power with their attendant cardinals (ecclesiastics or clergymen who are elevated to the highest rank beneath the pope). In 1309 Pope Clement VII, a friend of the French king Philip IV, was persuaded to move the papal court to Avignon, papal lands just outside of France. The papacy stayed in Avignon until 1377, when Pope Gregory XI moved it back to Rome. This event triggered a power struggle for the papacy. The schism ended when members of the conciliar movement forced the arguing popes to resign and saw that Martin V was elected to the office. The successful intervention in the papal dispute by the conciliar movement helped to break the political stranglehold of the Roman Church, which lost a significant amount of power in the 15th century.

Russell and Modern Philosophy

As a neutral monist, Bertrand Russell is not strictly a materialist philosopher: his position is that the world consists of one type of substance, neither exclusively mental nor physical. However, his work on logic and mathematics and his role as a founder of analytic philosophy places him in the camp of philosophical empiricists. Empiricists claim the only knowledge human beings can acquire is based on data that comes in through the senses. Analytical philosophy begins with the idea that language often does not accurately represent reality. Therefore, the analytic philosopher emphasizes clarity and precision in language and the use of formal logic and conceptual analysis in understanding and representing the world. Although Russell has respect for certain types of metaphysical or religious thinking, he does not think there is any truth in such viewpoints. Thus, he rejects views of such philosophers as French philosopher René Descartes, who believes in a priori knowledge that exists in the mind prior to experience. He also rejects Immanuel Kant's idea of a priori analytic knowledge, which is knowledge acquired when certain categories that exist in the mind are used to process data arriving through the senses.

Russell believes it is unfortunate that early on in Greek philosophy, beginning with Pythagoras, mathematics was tainted with mystical ideas. He strongly disagrees with Plato's view that true knowledge cannot be known through the senses and decries the long influence of Plato on Western philosophy. Aristotle also comes in for serious criticism, particularly for his misunderstandings in logic and for the fact that his faulty logic still widely influences thinking in many disciplines. In reading Russell's critiques and analysis of various philosophers, it is helpful to keep in mind his own philosophical stance and biases.

Also important in understanding Russell's history and critique of Western philosophers is to remain aware of his political biases as well as the time period in which he wrote. Russell was a committed Socialist, which means he believed that wealth should primarily be owned by the community of people and individuals should not be able to amass vast amounts of capital primarily to benefit themselves. He was also a committed pacifist, although after 1940 he supported the war against Nazi Germany as the lesser of two evils. In addition, he believed that only a world government could solve the problem of continual war. Finally, he blamed the German philosophers, particularly Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Hegel, for the rise of Nazism, and he saw the Romantic movement as the precursor to the glorification of the nation-state, which allowed for the rise of absolutist totalitarian regimes in both Germany and the Soviet Union. The Romantic movement, beginning in the late 18th century and continuing through the mid-19th century, rejected the rational and democratic world order advocated by the Enlightenment philosophers in favor of the subjective, irrational, and disordered worlds of individuals. Romanticism is related to the nation-state through the glorification of individualist world conquerors, such as Napoleon Bonaparte.

All of Russell's assumptions and biases need to be kept in mind when reading his history of philosophy. Finally, the reader must remember that Russell was living through one of the darkest periods of human history. Although A History of Western Philosophy was published in 1945, Russell wrote it between 1940 and 1943, during the somber days of World War II (1939–45). By then the Allies (Great Britain, the United States, France, and the Soviet Union) were fairly certain they would ultimately win against the axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan), but people like Russell were assessing the extent of the horrific, mechanized killing that had been and was still going on—on both the battlefield and in concentration camps (where millions of noncombatants, including Europe's Jews and Roma, targeted for extermination, were being killed by the German state). In some instances Russell seems to see both behind and ahead as he worries about the future abuses of unlimited power in the hands of human beings and the ways in which faulty thinking can put civilization on a path to destruction.

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