The History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand
What it says on the cover. Quite a long book - it took me around two years
to get through it.
Russell looks at philosophers and philosophical ideas of from about 600BC
to the 1940s. The thing that gives the book its special character is that
Russell is concerned to put things in historical context. So there's a lot of
background information about the social conditions through the ages as they
affect or relate to the philosophical ideas articulated by the various people
he discusses. As he says:
"When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us
obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true, but
we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true. This
exercise of historical and psychological imagination at once enlarges the
scope of our thinking, and helps us to realize how foolish many of our own
cherished prejudices will seem to an age which has a different temper of mind"
Russel criticises, as well as describes, the various ideas that he talks
about. Here is an edited selection (seems like I marked a lot of stuff at the
start, and at the end, but not much in the middle, which had a lot of stuff
about the catholic church) of things I marked as I was reading it:
- Homer - there is a widely held opinion that he was a series of
poets rather than an individual
- Thales - thought that water is the original substance, out of which
others are formed
- Anaximander - there should be a certain proportion of fire, of
earth, and of water in the world, but each element ... is perpetually
attempting to enlarge its empire. But there is a kind of necessity or natural
law which perpetually redresses the balance ... This conception of justice -
of not overstepping eternally fixed bounds - was one of the most profound of
- Anaximenes - The fundamental substance ... is air. The soul is air; fire is rarefied
air; when condensed, air becomes first water, then, if further condensed,
earth, and finally stone. This theory has the merit of making all the
different substances quantitative, depending entirely upon the degree of condensation.
- Pythagorus - said that "all things are numbers" ... hoped to make
arithmetic the fundamental study in physics as in aesthetics ... Rationalistic
as opposed to apocalyptic religion has been, ever since Pythagorus ...
completely dominated by mathematics and mathematical method.
- Heraclitus - Plato and Aristotle agree that Heraclitus taught that
"nothing ever is, everything is becoming" (Plato) and that "nothing
steadfastly is" (Aristotle).
- Paremenides - Heraclitus maintained that everything changes;
Parmenides retorted that nothing changes..
When you think, you
think of something; when you use a name, it must be the name of
something. Therefore both thought and language require objects outside
themselves. And since you can think of a thing or speak of it one time as
well as another, whatever can be thought of or spoken of must exist at all
times. Consequently, there can be no change, since change consists in things
coming into being or ceasing to be....This is the first example in philosophy
of an argument from thought and language to the world at large.
- Empedocles -established earth, air, fire, and water as the four
elements...Each of these was everlasting, but they could be mixed in different
proportions and thus produce the changing complex substances we find in the
- Anaxagoras - differed from his predecessors in regarding mind
(nous) as a substance which enters into the composition of living things, and
distinguishes them from dead matter.
- Leucippus and Democritus - founders of atomism...believed that
everything is composed of atoms, which are physically, but not geometrically,
indivisible; that between the atoms there is empty space; that atoms are
indestructible; that they always have been and always will be, in motion; that
there are an infinite number of atoms, and even kinds of atoms, the
differences being as regards shape and size.
- Protagoras - chief of the Sophists. The word 'Sophist' had
originally no bad connotation; it meant, as nearly as may be, what we mean by
'professor'...chiefly noted for his doctrine that "Man is the measure of all
things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that
they are not" This is interpreted as meaning that each man is the
measure of all things, and that, when men differ, there is no objective truth
in virtue of which one is right and the other wrong.
- Socrates - maintains that no man sins wittingly, and therefore only
knowledge is needed to make all men perfectly virtuous
- Century after century, young men read [the Republic], and were fired with
the ambition to become Lycurguses or philosopher-kings. The resulting union
of idealism and love or power has led men astray over and over again, and is
still doing so in the present day.....
When we ask: what will Plato's Republic
achieve? the answer is rather humdrum. It will achieve success in wars
against roughly equal populations, and will secure a livelihood for a certain
small number of people. It will almost certainly produce no art or science,
because of its rigidity; in this respect, as in others, it will be like
Sparta. In spite of all the fine talk, skill in war and enough to eat is all
that will be achieved. Plato lived through famine and defeat in Athens;
perhaps, subconsciously, he thought the avoidance of these evils the best that
statesmanship could accomplish.
Of the theory of ideas, Russell says "the reader may disagree (as I do)
with what is said, but cannot help being moved by it... [it] contains a number
of obvious errors. But in spite of these it marks a very important advance in
philosophy, since it is the first theory to emphasize the problem of
universals, which, in varying forms, has persisted to the present day"
- his opinion's on moral questions are always such as were conventional in his
day. On some points they differ from those of our time, chiefly where some
form of aristocracy comes in. We think that human beings, at least in ethical
theory, all have equal rights, and that justice involves equality; Aritotle
thinks that justice involves, not equality, but right porportion, which is
only sometimes equality.
Russell says "I do not agree with Plato, but if anything coule make me do
so, it would be Aristotle's arguments against him". On Aristotle's logic: "I
conclude that [it is] wholly false, with the exception of the formal theory
of syllogism, which is unimportant."
- Aristarchus of Samos
- lived around 250BC, "advanced the complete Copernican hypothess, that all
the planets, including the earth, revolve around circles round the sun, and
that the earth, rotates on its axis once in twenty-four hours"
- decided to live like a dog, and was therefore called a 'cynic', which means
'canine'... popular cynicism did not teach abstinence from the good things of
this world, but only a certain indifference to them.
- suffered all his life fro bad health, but learnt to endure it with great
fortitude. It was he, not a Stoic, who first maintained that a man could be
happy on the rack... Epicurus, it seems, would wish, if possible, to be always
in the state of having eaten moderately, never in that of voracious desire to
eat. He is thus led, in practice, to regarding the absence of pain, rather
than presence of pleasure, as the wise man's goal.
- John the Scot
- contended that reason and revelation are both sources of truth, but if they
ever seem to conflict, reason is to be preferred. True religion, he said, is
true philosophy; but, conversely, true philosophy is true religion. His work
was condemned by two councils, in 855 and 859; the first of these described it
as "Scots porridge".
- when we acquire a vsion of the world which is analagous to God's, we see
everything as part of the whole, and as necessary to the goodness of the
whole. Therefore 'the knowledge of evil is an inadequate knowledge'. God has
no knowledge of evil, because there is no evil to be known; the appearance of
evil only arises through regarding parts of the universe as if they were
- his best thought was not such as to win him popularity, and he left his
records of it unpublished in his desk. What he published was designed to win
the approbation of princes and princesses.
In Locke's theory of government, there is little that is original. In
this Locke resembles most of the men who have won fame for their ideas. As a
rule, the man who first thinks of a new idea is so much ahead of his time that
everyone thinks him silly, so that he remains obscure and is soon forgotten.
Then, gradually, the world becomes ready for the idea, and the man who
proclaims it at the fortunate moment gets all the credit.
- before him, every philosopher from Plato onwards, if
he believed in God, offered intellectual arguments in favour of his
belief... Modern Protestants who urge us to believe in God, for the most part,
despise the old 'proofs', and base their faith upon some aspect of human
nature - emotions of awe or mystery, the sense of right and wrong, the feeling
of aspiration, and so on. This way of defending religious belief was invented
Says "I believe in God as strongly as a believe any other truth, because
believing and not believing are the last things in the world that depend on
me." This form of argument has the drawback of being private; the fact that
Rousseau cannot help believing something affords no ground for another person
to believe the same thing.
- Two things are important about Schopenhauer: his pessimism and his doctrine
that will is superior to knowledge. His pessimism made it possible for men to
take to philosophy without having to persuade themselves that all evil can be
explained away, and in this way, as an antidote, ir as useful.
- It never occurred to Nietzsche that the lust for power, with which he endows
his superman, is itself an outcome of fear. Those who do not fear ther
neighbours see no necessity to tyrannize over them...I do not deny that,
partly as a result of his teaching, the real world has become very like his
nightmare, but that does not make it any the less horrible.
- advocated abolition of the death penalty for all but the worst offences, and
before he died the criminal law had been mitigated in this respect.
- John Stuart Mill
- offers an argument that is so fallacious that it is hard to understand how
he can have thought it valid. He says: Pleasure is the only thing desired;
therefore pleasure is the only thing desireable. He argues that the only
things visible are things seen, the only things audible are things heard, and
similarly the only things desirable are things desired. He does not notice
that a thing is "visible" if it can be seen, but "desirable" if it
ought to be desired. This "desirable" is a word presupposing an
ethical theory; we cannot infer what is desirable from what is desired.
Not sure if I'll read it all again, but there is some useful reference
material in here, and it was quite readable.
Completed : 03-Feb-2007