A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Quotes


This mystical element entered into Greek philosophy with Pythagoras, who was a reformer of Orphism.

Bertrand Russell, Book 1, Part 1, Chapter 1

Russell has already explained that the Orphics belonged to an ascetic religious sect, and Pythagoras is a reformer of Orphism. Pythagoras held religious ideas, such as a belief in the transmigration of the soul from life to life. He believed the contemplative life (philosophy) can release a person from the wheel of birth and death. Plato was influenced by Pythagoras, says the narrator, and religious elements in Greek philosophy were handed down from Pythagoras to Plato to his followers.


All particular sensible objects ... are ... intermediate between being and not-being, and are [not] suitable as objects ... of knowledge.

Bertrand Russell, Book 1, Part 2, Chapter 15

Plato claims that any thing "partakes" of attributes that are the opposite of its major attributes—for example, if something is beautiful it has ugly aspects. Therefore, things cannot be the source of infallible knowledge. For this reason he says sensible objects are intermediary between being and not being and are suitable objects for opinion, not for knowledge.


The supreme happiness is in the exercise of reason, for reason, more than anything else, is man.

Bertrand Russell, Book 1, Part 2, Chapter 20

This statement occurs in Aristotle's book on ethics, in his discussion of happiness. For him the highest form of happiness is had by the philosopher. Happiness is derived from virtuous activity, and the best of all activities is contemplation, or the exercise of reason. This best and highest activity is closest to God.


Aristotle is the last Greek philosopher who faces the world cheerfully.

Bertrand Russell, Book 1, Part 3, Chapter 26

In Russell's view Aristotle has an optimistic outlook on life, as did the philosophers before him. But after Aristotle philosophy goes into "retreat," Russell says. Philosophers teach the world is "bad" and people must detach themselves from it. This statement precedes his discussion of the Cynics and Skeptics.


If Judaism as a religion had perished under Antiochus, the seed-bed of Christianity would have been lacking.

Bertrand Russell, Book 2, Part 1, Chapter 1

Russell makes this statement within the context of relating how the Jews fought against the persecution of Antiochus IV, holding to the tenets of their religion and religious practice. At that time the Jews who had already left their homeland were becoming more assimilated. Therefore, if Antiochus had succeeded in Hellenizing the Jews of Judea, Christianity would not have arisen.


The State could ... be part of the City of God by [submission to] the Church in ... religious matters.

Bertrand Russell, Book 2, Part 1, Chapter 4

Russell is discussing one of Saint Augustine's most important works, The City of God, a theological and philosophical treatise. Augustine lays down a principle for separation of Church and state, giving the state a subordinate role in matters of religion. This is the position the Catholic Church has maintained ever since.


Aristotle's views on most questions of logic and philosophy ... have since been proved to be largely erroneous.

Bertrand Russell, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 13

The author's main areas of expertise in philosophy are mathematics and logic. In his earlier account of Aristotle he faults Aristotle for his mistaken logic and notes how some people "with a strange tenacity [adhere] to a system which is as definitely antiquated as Ptolemaic astronomy." In his discussion of Saint Thomas Aquinas the narrator now states categorically that Aristotle's logic is faulty. Aquinas is noted for marrying Aristotelian philosophy to Catholic theology.


Although most ... men of science were models of piety ... their work was disturbing to orthodoxy.

Bertrand Russell, Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 6

Russell makes this statement in the context of his discussion of the rise of science in Europe in the 17th century. Men of science are not atheists but sincere believers: for example, Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics, says God hurled the planets into space. Nonetheless, the ideas that people like Newton and others raise disturb Catholic orthodoxy since they challenged the Bible's view of creation and prove man is not at the center of the physical cosmos.


The Cartesian system presents two ... independent worlds ... mind ... and matter, each of which can be studied [separately].

Bertrand Russell, Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 9

In his discussion of René Descartes Russell explains how the philosopher posited three types of substances: mind, matter, and God. Mind is incorporeal and separate from matter, and Descartes imagines them uniting in a human being in the pineal gland. Descartes further separated body and mind and spirit and matter in his dualistic system.


Locke [is] the founder of empiricism, which is the doctrine that ... knowledge ... is derived from experience.

Bertrand Russell, Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 13

In his discussion of Locke's theory of knowledge Russell asserts that some regard Locke as the first empiricist. Locke was contemptuous of metaphysics, says Russell, and asserted that the concept of substance is vague. Locke was not interested in metaphysical arguments about God and thought in concrete detail about what he could see, hear, touch, smell, and taste.


All our reasonings concerning causes and effects are derived from nothing but custom.

Bertrand Russell, Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 17

Russell here quotes David Hume directly, who is explaining that there is no scientific basis for inductive reasoning. Specifically, just because one ball hitting another causes the second ball to move 100 times, there is no evidence to prove that the second ball will move on the 101st try.


To frame a philosophy [to cope] with men intoxicated with ... unlimited power ... is the most pressing task of our time.

Bertrand Russell, Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 21

The author makes this statement at the end of his discussion about 19th-century thought. He believes that certain 19th-century ideas laid the groundwork for the glorification of the autocratic state. He is writing in 1943, when the Allies are fighting to avoid possible world domination by fascists, and he believes men drunk on power are the worst dangers to civilization.


I dislike Nietzsche because ...he most admires ... conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing men to die.

Bertrand Russell, Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 25

Russell provides a somewhat biased account of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, a 19th-century philosopher who admires conquerors like Napoleon Bonaparte. Nietzsche is one of the German philosophers the narrator dislikes for helping lay the groundwork for fascism in Germany.


I feel a grave danger, the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety.

Bertrand Russell, Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 30

Russell has deconstructed the pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey, which put "inquiry" in place of "truth." In the narrator's view Dewey's embrace of the idea that the truth can be arrived at through "mutual adjustment" is based in an overenthusiastic faith in American technological know-how. In the author's view the "revived ... sense of the collective power of human communities" in the modern age needs to be checked by humility. The intoxication of power is a madness that can lead to "social disaster."


They refuse to believe there is some "higher" way of knowing ... hidden from science and the intellect.

Bertrand Russell, Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 31

In the last chapter of his treatise Russell introduces analytic philosophers like himself who believe there are some questions important to human beings that can be answered neither by science nor philosophy. Nonetheless, the analytic philosopher will not stoop to believing there is some metaphysical secret or key to higher knowledge that can satisfactorily answer these questions.

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