A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Main Ideas


Relationship between History and Philosophy

The understanding of both philosophy and history requires the teasing out of how they mutually influence each other. In the introduction to this treatise Bertrand Russell says philosophy is something like an "intermediate between theology and science." The business of philosophy is to study the questions science cannot easily answer, such as, "Is there a way of living that is noble and another that is base, or are all ways of living merely futile?" If it is difficult—if not impossible—to answer such questions, then why do human beings continue to study them? The answer lies in history. The circumstances of human life help determine their philosophy, and at the same time philosophy influences those specifics or circumstances. Thus, history and philosophy are reciprocal, and that symbiotic relationship is the main topic of Russell's survey of Western thought.

In his examination of Western philosophy Russell shows how "social cohesion and individual liberty, like religion and science, are in a state of conflict or uneasy compromise throughout the period." Principles of governmental organization come from the city-state in Greece, for example, which limited the freedom of individuals under democracy. Plato imagines what, in his view, is a more perfect state in the Republic. While Aristotle finds all governments bad, he offers a qualified defense of democracy. After Alexander the Great conquers Greece, philosophers turn from the social to the individual ethic. For example, the Stoics see a virtuous life as an individual affair and concentrate on how a person can be good in a wicked world. Such ideas are carried over to Christianity, which popularizes the belief that man's duty to God comes before his duty to the state. This idea shapes Catholic philosophy and explains the push-pull power relations between Church and state once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. These are examples of how Russell provides a historical lens through which the reader can understand and contextualize the ideas of philosophers. The author consistently shows how history shapes philosophy and vice versa, examining the ideas of Western philosophy in light of their contexts.

Rationalism versus Empiricism

While Bertrand Russell rarely uses the term rationalism (and sometimes uses the term subjectivism instead), he shows throughout his treatise the tug-of-war between what is often called rationalist philosophy and empiricist philosophy. (Russell uses the term empiricism quite often.) Rationalists say knowledge is gained partially or entirely through the mind, independent of the senses, while empiricists say knowledge comes entirely through sensory experience.

Russell locates this dichotomy as far back as the Greeks, who have a commonsense empirical side and a religious and mystical side. By the 17th century René Descartes formalized this dichotomy by splitting the human being into two substances, mind and matter, and putting subjective man at the center of philosophy, "from which the external world is to be inferred." The rationalist philosophers who followed Descartes were themselves followed by the empirical philosophers. David Hume, the last and most important, went to the other extreme, overturning the very idea that there is a scientific basis for inductive reasoning and claiming man can know for sure very little indeed—and only what is fed to him by his paltry senses. Hume was followed by other philosophers who attempted to correct him, and Western philosophers are not finished with this argument.

Autocracy versus Democracy

Russell sees the movement of history as one in which human beings form social organizations that can sufficiently control individuals, even while individuals struggle to assert their freedom. This state of affairs is inevitable, given that human beings desire freedom and at the same time are often a danger to themselves and others. The human dilemma of freedom versus control, along with people's innate desire to live in community, is naturally the subject of philosophy. Moreover, the growth of science and technology has affected both people's ability to exercise more freedom as well as the state's ability to exercise more control. Scientific advancement has affected the way people live in community, which in turn has affected philosophy. At the same time, philosophers living in various time periods are affected by the social organizations in which they are embedded, which in turn affect the way they see the world and the philosophies they produce. Russell includes a long section on John Locke for this reason. While Locke was far from a stellar philosopher (his thinking is often contradictory and piecemeal), his influence was profound. Russell calls him the first of the empiricist philosophers. Locke also invented liberalism, which is the way modern societies find a happy medium of sorts between social control (autocracy) and individual freedom (democracy).

Romantic Roots of Totalitarian States

Bertrand Russell makes a case that 19th-century Romantic thinking is the seedbed for ideas that result in the rise of totalitarian states. He is a philosopher and political activist writing in 1943, and his treatise is colored by concerns about World War II being fought between republican governments (the Allies), particularly the United States and Great Britain, and fascist governments (the Axis), particularly Germany and Italy. This war is a fight against a world takeover by Adolf Hitler's fascism, which is a very real threat in the first part of the conflict. In addition to imposing a harsh, absolutist government, Germany is killing millions of people in concentration camps and singling out entire ethnicities for extermination—the Jews and Gypsies of Europe.

Russell is a dedicated pacifist, but he decides in 1940 that fighting Hitler is the lesser of two evils (the first being world fascism). He sees the glorification of an absolutist German state as naturally growing out of the ideas of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche. Moreover, he sees Nietzsche's ideas as part of the Romantic movement, which began in Great Britain. Russell includes George Gordon Byron in his survey, not because he is a philosopher but rather because he exemplifies the Romantic attitude. Romantics revolt against tradition, but they are aristocratic rebels, not sympathetic supporters of the working class. Byron and other Romantics glorified conquerors like Napoleon Bonaparte, who subjects much of Europe in the early 19th century before he is finally stopped (at Waterloo in 1815). Such people have a lot in common with Lucifer in John Milton's Paradise Lost; they would rather rule in hell than subject themselves to a benevolent God (or less metaphorically, to a government in which power is shared). In Russell's view "the romantic revolt passes from Byron, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche to Mussolini and Hitler."
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