A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Summary

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Preface and Introduction

Bertrand Russell announces his purpose, which is to show philosophy is part of the fabric of social and political life. Philosophical speculation cannot be isolated from its historical context, so he plans to take the reader through Western philosophy by examining his philosophical exposition against a historical context. In the Introduction Russell defines philosophy as a liminal space between theology and science. He will cover three periods of Western philosophy, beginning with the ancient Greeks. He also explains that civilization is equally threatened by too much "reverence for tradition" and too much individualism and hostility toward cooperation. In his survey of philosophy he will show how these opposing trends play themselves out in philosophical thinking. This is a perennial theme in the history of the Western world.

Book 1: Ancient Philosophy

Western philosophy's beginning is marked as 585 BCE, the year in which the philosopher Thales predicted an eclipse. Russell divides ancient philosophy into the Pre-Socratics (Part 1); Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (Part 2); and Ancient Philosophy after Aristotle (Part 3). In Part 1 Russell provides another introduction—this one on Greek civilization—and explains how two streams of thought became prominent in philosophy. The first stream involves mysticism and originates in the Dionysian and Orphic religious cults, alternative religions in Greece. The religion of mysticism involves inducing altered states of consciousness and positing a complex, immaterial world beyond the senses. The second stream is empirical and scientific, based on commonsense observation of the external world. The first philosophers belong to the Milesian School, including Thales, Anaximenes, and Anaximander. These philosophers are concerned with the nature of substances. They are followed by Pythagoras, among the most important of philosophers because of his contributions to mathematics, and Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Empedocles.

The golden age of Athens begins at the end of the 5th century BCE, when Athens defeats the Persians and becomes a prosperous state under Pericles. The important philosophers of the early 6th century include Anaxagoras, Democritus, and Leucippus (the most important atomists), and Protagoras, an important philosopher in the Skeptical school of sophism. The Sophists teach young Greek aristocrats how to argue.

Socrates is the teacher of Plato and Plato the teacher of Aristotle. Most of what is known about Socrates comes through the dialogues written by Plato, primarily, and secondarily from the writings of Xenophon, another of his pupils. Russell notes it is difficult to tease out the thinking of the historical Socrates from Plato's own thinking. Russell identifies Socrates with the mystical trend in Greek philosophy, which carries over into Plato's philosophy. Russell provides a chapter on Sparta. The culture of Sparta influences the thinking of Plato and is idealized by the Roman historian Plutarch. Plutarch in turn influences writers and philosophers of the European Romantic period. Russell also devotes a chapter to the sources of Plato's opinions and notes Christian philosophy until the 13th century is more Platonic than Aristotelian. Plato's Republic is his most important work, in which he imagines the ideal commonwealth, which is far from a democracy. Plato's theory of ideas is a key concept in Western philosophy, in which he posits a world of ideal forms—of which the physical world is a mere copy. Plato distinguishes between knowledge and perception and asserts true knowledge cannot be derived from the senses. Aristotle replaces this theory with a theory of universals, or one-of-a-kind things, distinguishing form from matter and providing four causes for all things. Russell spends time refuting Aristotle's antiquated logic that though remarkable is also faulty.

After a long discussion of Aristotle over several chapters, Russell devotes a chapter to Greek mathematics and astronomy. He provides a prefatory chapter on the Hellenistic world under Alexander the Great before turning to the Cynics and Skeptics. These philosophers are affected by the loss of democracy and "the eclipse of the City State" after Alexander conquers the known world. In turn the thinking of these philosophers, which turns inward, has an effect on the "other-worldliness" of the Christian era. Diogenes is the founder of the Cynics, and Pyrrho is the founder of the Skeptics. Epicurus founds a kind of cult in which people must adhere to a strict and dogmatic creed that is the opposite of hedonism. Zeno founds the philosophy of Stoicism, which advises cultivating nonattachment to the world. The Stoic philosophy is later taken up by Romans like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. The author ends Book 1 with a summary of the rise of the Roman Empire and how the Roman appropriation of Greek culture affected both history and philosophy. The new religion of Christianity also absorbs Greek culture, particularly in the form of Neoplatonism, whose chief proponent is Plotinus.

Book 2: Catholic Philosophy

Catholic philosophy dominates Europe for 10 centuries, and Russell roughly dates this period from 400 to 1400 CE. The first part of the period is colored by the philosophy of Saint Augustine and the Platonists, successors of the Greek philosopher Plato, while the second period is colored by the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas, to which has been added Aristotelian influence. Russell devotes a chapter to religious development of the Jews since Judaism is the seedbed of Christianity. Beginning with Constantine, the religion becomes more and more formalized and dogmatic, and Church leaders determine what will constitute orthodox belief. Russell names four Doctors of the Western church—saints Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. Of these Saint Augustine is the philosopher, whose most important works are The Confessions and City of God. Augustine establishes a) the idea that the state must give way to the Church in religious matters, b) the doctrine of predestination, and c) role of Christianity as a champion of the downtrodden.

In the 5th and 6th centuries barbarians from the north overran the Roman Empire and became the new rulers. Eventually the "Holy Roman Empire" is established, first under Charlemagne in 800 CE. Saint Benedict established a monastic tradition in the West in the 6th century, and Pope Gregory the Great informally increased the influence of the papal office while acting as a force against anarchy. During the Dark Ages (roughly 600 to 1000 CE) the pope and the emperor worked out an uneasy interdependence. The most important philosopher of this period is John the Scot, a pantheist who "refuses substantial reality to creatures," believing only in the principle of the One.

Islamic (which Russell calls "Mohammedan") culture and philosophy significantly affected Christian philosophy because Muslims took over parts of Europe and introduced new cultural elements. They brought with them the works of Aristotle in Arabic. These works were then translated for a Western audience, and Aristotle's philosophy thus made its way into Christian philosophy. Saint Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the Catholic Scholastic philosophers, introduced Aristotle to Christians in the 13th century. In Russell's view Aquinas does a good job of adapting Aristotle to Christian dogma. Aquinas also has "sharpness and clarity" in distinguishing arguments derived from reason and revelation. Other important philosophers of this period were Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, and William of Occam. In the last chapter of Part 2, Russell sums up the Catholic synthesis and its later disintegration in the 15th century.

Book 3: Modern Philosophy

Modern philosophy begins with the diminishment of Church authority and the increase in scientific authority. The Church also lost power as a controller of culture because of democratic revolutions in the United States and France and the increasing democratization of other European countries. Finally, the Italian Renaissance ushered in secular culture, which substituted Church authority with the authority of "the ancients." The hegemony of the Catholic Church is shattered for good by the Reformation, which Russell calls a revolt against "the authority of the Pope" as well as a "rebellion of less civilized nations against the intellectual domination of Italy." The Counter-Reformation that followed was a revolt against the secular humanism and immorality of the Italian Renaissance and a movement to end corruption within the Church.

Russell devotes a chapter to the rise of science and the most important men in the field from the 15th through the 17th centuries. In philosophy Francis Bacon straddled the 15th and 16th century and stressed the importance of the inductive method of reasoning for science. Thomas Hobbes was an early empiricist who wrote a book of political philosophy (Leviathan) justifying the need for an absolute ruler. René Descartes, the first of the modern philosophers, sought to reconstruct the edifice of philosophy and introduces rationalism and dualism (the body-mind split) to philosophy. He says matter is knowable only through inference and true knowledge is in the mind, not the senses. Additional rationalists—Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz—followed. Their ideas were challenged by the next group of philosophers, the empiricists, beginning with John Locke, the founder of liberalism. Liberalism seeks to find a compromise between the desire for individual liberty and the need for government control. George Berkeley sought to correct Locke. While Berkeley was an empiricist he nevertheless denied the existence of matter. He was followed by David Hume, who radically overturned rationalist notions and created a dead end in philosophy by credibly proving there is no such thing as a self and induction is a logical principle that cannot be inferred from experience.

Following a discussion of the empiricists, Russell provides background on the Romantic movement, followed by a discussion of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose "appeal to the heart" had a profound effect on philosophy. David Hume's philosophy is challenged by Immanuel Kant, who seeks to inject back into the discussion a place for reason and prove that knowledge is partially a priori, or prior to experience. Kant is the first of the German idealist philosophers, followed by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Two other important German philosophers are Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. Russell faults Romanticism and German idealism for laying the groundwork for the rise of the German autocratic state. In Russell's view the ideas of Rousseau and Lord Byron (a Romantic writer) passed to philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and fascist leaders Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.

Philosophers picking up the liberal tradition were utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham, who argued for the government producing "harmony between public and private interests." In the field of science Charles Darwin's theory of evolution had an effect on philosophy. Early socialist ideas preceded philosopher and economic theorist Karl Marx, who also was influenced by Hegel's notion of the dialectic.

A leading philosopher of the first part of the 20th century was Henri Bergson, whose philosophy Russell entirely discounts. The American pragmatists William James and John Dewey are in the same time period, and Russell faults Dewey especially for attempting to replace "truth" with "inquiry." The last chapter of Russell's treatise covers the analytic philosophers, who are mathematicians and logicians. Russell is among their number. The author ends by saying analytic philosophers acknowledge that philosophy cannot satisfactorily answer questions about how to live, but they do not believe in a "higher" knowledge that is not a product of the intellect. Yet they can still "suggest and inspire a way of life."

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