A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Introduction | Summary



Philosophy "is something intermediate between theology and science," says Bertrand Russell. Like theology it speculates about matters for which there is no analytic knowledge, but like science it appeals to human reason. Some might ask why people spend time studying unanswerable philosophical questions. Russell's reply is that if one wants to understand an age or a nation, it is necessary to understand its philosophy. History and philosophy have a reciprocal relationship, and their interaction is the topic of his text. A more personal answer to the same question is that studying philosophy teaches "how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation."

Russell enumerates three periods of philosophy, beginning with the Greeks in the 6th century BCE. The second period occurs when philosophy is "submerged by theology as Christianity," in the form of Roman Catholicism; this period ends with the Protestant Reformation. The third period, from the 17th century until modern times, is dominated by science. "Social cohesion and individual liberty, like religion and science, are in a state of conflict or uneasy compromise throughout the whole period," Russell says. After the socially cohesive city-state of the Greeks is overrun by other peoples, their philosophy moves toward the individual ethic, which paves the way for the Christian idea that man's duty to God supersedes his duty to the state. This idea eventually creates a conflict between the Catholic Church and the king, which lasted until the 14th century.

The Great Schism (in which two or more popes vied for power), the Conciliar Movement (an effort to reign in the power of the pope), the Protestant Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution all contributed to putting an end to the old order, and both the pope and emperor became less important in the 15th century. From the 16th century and into the modern period, "European thought is dominated by the Reformation." The effects of the Protestant rejection of truth as determined by a central authority (the leaders of the Catholic Church) leads to both anarchism in politics and mysticism in religion.

Modern philosophy began with Descartes, who put the subjective man at the center of philosophy, "from which the external world is to be inferred." This trend continued until today—both in sympathy with and in reaction to this view. In secular culture "the cult of the hero" blossomed in the Romantic movement. A response to extreme subjectivism was the doctrine of liberalism, which began with John Locke. The tension between a desire to tighten and relax social bonds is a perennial theme of civilization and philosophy. Disciplinarians advocate some form of dogma, while libertarians advocate scientific or utilitarian philosophies and tend to be the enemies of religion. Today civilization continues to be exposed to these two opposite dangers—too much discipline and reverence for tradition and too much individualism and hostility toward cooperation. Liberalism attempts to find a happy medium between these two that will maintain the social order.


Bertrand Russell says that whether a person is "a historian, or ... an individual facing the terror of cosmic loneliness," they will wish to pursue the questions of philosophy to help them live with dignity in the face of finitude and uncertainty. In this introduction he lays out additional themes that run through his work.

The first is the conflict between social cohesion and individual liberty. People have a need to live in community, both because they crave the company of others and because community establishes boundaries and rules of behavior that all people must abide by. The work of philosophers from the start has entailed examining the limits of individual freedom in a regulated society or state.

While the first part of Russell's treatise focuses on Greek philosophy, the second covers a 1,000-year period in which Christianity created a monolithic culture across Europe and parts of Asia, and the Catholic Church gained ascendency even over the kings of Europe. The Church began to lose its footing partly because of the Great Schism, Russell says. This schism occurred when rival popes in France and Rome fought for domination, following the period in which papacy was moved to Avignon, France, roughly in 1305. The papacy moved back to Rome in 1377, and at that point rival popes in France and Italy claimed to be the head of the Church. The schism ends after the Conciliar Movement intervenes and chooses a new pope. Conciliarism is a theory within the Catholic community that a general council of Catholics has more authority than the pope. This theory is first put into practice with the Council of Constance (1414–18) when the battling popes are deposed and replaced by Pope Martin V. The Church condemns Conciliarism in 1870 at the first Vatican Council, which also institutionalizes the doctrine of papal infallibility in matters of faith.

Russell also mentions the Protestant Reformation as an important factor in putting an end to the unbridled power of the Catholic Church. The Reformation is a rebellion that begins in Germany in 1517, when Martin Luther, a Catholic priest, calls the Church into account for certain questionable practices used to extort money from the faithful. Martin Luther was the first among many Protestant reformers who created their own brands of Christianity. Russell also mentions the Scientific Revolution as an important contributing factor in putting an end to Church domination.

The third part of Russell's treatise is on the modern period, when the split between subjectivism (or rationalist philosophy) and empiricism widens. Rationalists believe knowledge is gained partially or entirely through the mind, while empiricists say knowledge comes entirely through sensory experience. This theme of rationalism versus empiricism, mind versus matter, and world versus spirit threads through Russell's treatise, as well as through Western philosophy.

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