A History of Western Philosophy - Bertrand Russell

I finished reading this maybe a month ago, towards the tail end of my last treatment, and took copious notes along the way, but only just finished the write-up now, having taken some time to recover from both the treatment, and reading this book!

Russell's History of Western Philosphy is quite the doorstop, at over 750 pages. I should have noticed that before ordering it, but I didn't, and here we are, and I'm not going to be defeated by it. :)

I bought it on a whim when Ian Dunt's How to be a Liberal mentioned how it had a short chapter rather critical of Rousseau. While looking back at my review of another book by Russell on philosophy, I apparently found it a little disappointing. However, Russell does take a structured and no-nonsense approach to philosophical questions that I find useful, so I bought this book.

My cheesy summary is that it's insightful and provocative, although rarely at the same time! There's a lot of decent analysis, but he gets less convincing when he pushes things. I enjoy the scientific tinge to his work - he tries to understand the philosophies honestly, understanding them in the context that they came from, but then evaluates them within the framework of our modern understanding. Some of the biggest messes of historical philosophy come from confusing things together, often in the form of word games leading to nonsensical conclusions. Russell has none of that, picking things apart with scalpel-like efficiency.

I skipped ahead to Rousseau, and Dunt was right, it's great. Russell's dry wit and liberal bias play out wonderfully with understated contempt. Returning to the rest of the book, it's split into three sections which I'll discuss in turn - Ancient Philosophy, Catholic Philosophy and Modern Philosophy.

Ancient Philosophy is broken down into the pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and post-Aristotle. In terms of what "philosophy" is, and where it sits in relation to other subjects, it straddles the divide of science and religion. Philosophy is a subject that relies heavily on historical context (unlike, say, maths or physics, where you can understand an equation without knowing its history), which means that there is a fair chunk of history in the book. As an educated man of the early 20th century, Russell assumes at least basic Classical knowledge in the reader, but not so much that a modern ignoramus such as myself gets lost.

Reading about ancient Greek philosophy is enough to push you towards the strong end of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis! Many of the ideas and concepts feel quite alien. My first instinct is to go "Well, that's obviously wrong", and... yeah, I think many of their ideas are obviously wrong, but it also makes me question how many things I think are clear are also obviously wrong, except when blinkered by my mindset.

One of the most impactful ideas is that of pure rational thought. I think this comes in from a couple of angles. Philosophers were generally the well-to-do, who didn't need to work, and could thus spend their time in discussion and deep thought. Actually Doing Anything was not the done thing. From another angle, it was clear to philosphers that the senses could be deceived, and what they took away from this was that philosophy should thus come from pure rational thought (happily ignoring that their reasoning could be defective, and by being on the "inside" of their reasoning, this would be just as fatal as their senses being deceived, only with even less chance of spotting the problem). This lead to the ancient Greeks being crap at science. Why test anything when you could work out how the world works from first principles, and that's totally going to be flawless. *sigh*.

This is, of course, a huge oversimplification - with so many different philosophical schools evolving there's no uniform view, and much of their philosophy deals with subjects where science doesn't help, anyway.

The core of this section, as one might expect, is Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Socrates comes across as a remarkably sensible person whose bad luck is that they've had their work filtered through the reporting of Plato. Plato turns out to be arse. My lack of classical education means I didn't realise the topic of The Republic was "I'm a great big fascist Sparta fanboy". Oh well. Russell suggests Plato's effective arguing of bad ideas cast a long, long shadow over the centuries. Aristotle then falls back onto the relatively sensible side, tidying up a bunch of loose ends (this is not how you're supposed to write an essay on the history of philosophy).

Post-Aristotle, Russell is surprisingly kind to the Epicureans (Epicurus was a fan of simple pleasures, and his suggestion that nice stuff is nice is in contrast to the physical pain he suffered for much of his life), and surprisingly harsh on the Stoics. On the latter, he points out that if virtue is the greatest good, then the actual good effects are meaningless. There's no underlying kindness, and a despotic leader crushing a population isn't that bad, it's just one person failing to be virtuous. Oh, and that crushed population gets a chance to be virtuous in oppression. Russell argues it so much better than me, but it's a great insight into metrics and goals!

Catholic Philosophy covers roughly the "dark ages". I've read the occasional pop history claiming those centuries weren't really that bad, but Russell makes a good claim that this was a pretty weak period for philosophy - at least for Western philosophy, as Russell makes the point that this was a good period for the Muslims and Chinese.

During this time, philosophy plays second fiddle to theology, as the Church had a strong sway and dictated the acceptable conversation. Despite theoretically being a book on the history of philosophy, much of this section is a history of the Church, and not just its theology at that. There's a lot of discussion of the power struggles between civil power (represented by the Emperor) and the Church (the Pope). Indeed, there's also the struggle between the Popes and bishops over how much power is centralised.

Theology is also discussed, often in the context of orthodoxy and heresy (and how the line between them moves over time!). It's very strange to me how the pat answers of my childhood as to "What is Christianity?" were the results of very real and contentious power struggles, with many varied answers over time.

As befits a "The dark ages were dark" narrative, most of the action happens around the edges of the period - during the fall of Rome, and during the approach of the Renaissance. In the former section, we have Christianity absorbing Jewish background and Plato. St. Augustine looms large over this period. He was an excellent philospher, capturing the essence of Descarte's cogito centuries before Descarte, and having a decent theory of time.

On the other hand, Augustine's weight means that some of his ideas (e.g. around original sin and an arbitary "elect" who are saved) have cast a long and difficult shadow. Furthermore, the emphasis of a church/state split led to the brightest being pulled to the church, and the secular state suffering for poor leadership.

These were difficult times, with the decline of Rome, and the promise of a brighter life after death made Christianity very attractive. There's a fascinating, if somewhat cheeky, table comparing the "the oppressed will be saved" ideologies of Christianity and Marxism.

Moving on a little bit, Russell is a fan of Boethius, and dislikes St. Cyrus. Cyrus was viciously anti-Semitic and won arguments about heresy by literally shutting out those who disagreed before making decisions. As I said a little earlier, the way today's orthodoxy was constructed surprised me! In the end, though, it maintained the unity of the Church, even if the individual decisions now seem unexpectedly arbitrary. Russell demonstrates a pretty dry distaste for these supersitious and fanatical times.

I'm eliding an awful lot, and skipping a lot of characters, but the book zips through 600-1000AD, taking a brief pause to praise John the Scot from the 9th century, who comes across as a light in dark times. Finally we're on to the lead-up to the Renaissance - the end of the 11th century and the start of the Scholastics.

The section on the Scholastics takes a fair amount of time to get going, with a lot of background to be laid, and a fair amount of evolution happening before they really get going. The Scholastics lie within the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church, and they're pedantic, but also dialectic - they're willing to push the boundaries a bit, and as soon as they're accused of heresy they recant. They found a safe way to explore different ideas. In comparison with the mysticism of St. Bernard, they were driven by reason. They also started to build on Aristotle, rather than Plato. To my mind this is a good thing. Russell sees Platoism as a better natural fit for Christianity, but I think he sees the move to Aristotle as helping the evolution of thought away from an abstract ideal world to something with the possibility of science.

St. Thomas Aquinas really gets the Scholastic period going, arguing primarily by logic, and only then by revelation. He uses the argument that to convince a non-believer of Christianity, logic is needed, rather than revelation, and tries to work out which bits of Christianity can be reached by intellect, and which parts need scripture. This logic neatly sidesteps the idea that philosophy is bad and we should only follow scripture. As mentioned above, he follows Aristotle over Plato. His is a very God-focused philosphy, which makes me hanker for the breadth of Classical Greek philosophy, where topics would range over virtue and politics and the nature of matter.

Thomas Aquinas sounds like a big step forward for Catholic philosophy, but Russell makes the point that it's quite insincere - rather than starting with ideas and seeing where they take us, Thomas starts with the assumption that Christian orthodoxy is correct, and and attempts to use logic to argue towrads it.

Next up, Roger Bacon was a Franciscan monk (unlike Francis Bacon, who was not!) who was surprisingly rebellious. He was willing to learn things from the writings of those non-Christian Arabs, gently pushing the boundaries once more. He was empirical and semi-scientific, but doesn't really impress Russell.

On to William of Occam. Well known for his Razor, he did much more. He was quite political, with his views influencing Luther much later. He protected the Emperor with words as the Emperor protected him physically, at the expense of the Pope. He separated logic from science, meta-physics and religion, making it a separate abstract analysis, and does a decent analysis of the subject. Breaking out religion and logic and science, he sets the tone for those following him in providing a path to more secular philosopy. His view (nominalism?) is that universlas are simply a naming mechanism. While I think this is a little simplistic, it's a whole lot better than Plato's universals. You will not be surprised to hear that he's another one who prefers Aristotle.

Finally in this section, I was interested to see Wycliffe mentioned, whom my school was named after. Our school didn't talk about him much, except as this guy who translated the bible (see also Tyndale, who was a local lad). Getting a bit more background on him was interesting. But now we approach the Renaissance!

Modern Philosophy, the third section, is a bit of a gear change as the philosphy starts to become recognisable and a bit less like history. It's split into "Renaissance to Hume" and "Rousseau to the Present Day".

Renaissance Italian city states feel rather like Ankh-Morpork, especially the bits with the Medicis (unlikely to be just a coincidence, I guess!). The Renaissance had people going back to the classics, rediscovering Plato, forcing people to think and choose between the different philosophies.

Machiavelli is rather less shocking than people make him out to be - pretty much my opinion when I read The Prince long, long ago. It was just early realpolitik, described honestly. He separates ends and means, but the ends aren't unreasonable in themselves. He talks about the appearance of honesty and doing what the population will accept. I think this approach is no longer tenable, since it builds up a cynical and pessimistic population, destroying the foundations of liberal democracy. Russell points to Germany and Russia before WW2 as following the path of Machiavelli.

Russell deems the Reformation and Counter-Reformation philosophically barren, since they came with their own orthodoxies. On the other hand, they built space for philosohpical creativity by providing alternatives, rather than a single pathway. From there, we reach the 17th century, with the start of science and the modern world. For some reason, school history seemed to elide over this - we studied the Renaissance before, and the Industrial Revolution afterwards, but for us the 17th was the Black Death, the Great Fire of London and beheading the King. Reading about Galileo, he comes across as a Newtonian polymath, with so many accomplishments beyond his famous ones.

At this point in the book, I'm starting to appreciate the integration of theology and science into this "history of philoosphy", even though it seemed odd initially. Much of it is really about a history of modes of thought about the nature of the world. We start to see a more scientific philosophical outlook.

Francis Bacon started to favour induction over deduction (hurrah). My preconception of Hobbes is "nasty, brutish and short", Leviathan and royalism. Russell introduces him instead as an empricist with an anachronistic respect for mathemtics, far ahead of his contemporaries. Descartes is the founder of modern philosophy, a philosphy not tied to history.

Spinoza is dealt with kindly. He's a pantheist, and while his philosphy doesn't seem right to me, it's the first one that gives me a glimpse of a coherent world view that makes some sense and is interesting, even if the construction is pedantic. On the other hand, Russell gives Leibniz a lot of stick for failing to publish his most interesting philosophical ideas as they looked controversial. I reckon Russell is just bitter over the priority dispute with Newton, but I know he'd deny it.

Russell then talks about the origins of liberalism, perhaps to introduce Locke. He makes much of how the philosphy being written at the time both reflects and influences the zeitgeist. He also identifies Locke as being extremely pragmatic. Given the choice between taking a philosophical idea to its ludicrous conclusion and keeping to the obviously plausible, he'll stick with the obviously plausible, even if there's the occasional mild contradiction.

From a logician's point of view, this is horrible. In practice, this is more like science, where we have a bunch of ideas overlapping unevenly. It's hard to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics, but that's ok as that's where we are now. I find this insight fascinating. A pure, crystalline philosphy is extremely attractive, but it's better to be approximately right than precisely wrong.

While Spinoza creates a philosophy I can relate to, Locke is the first for which parts seem believable. Perhaps it's Russell's sales pitch. He devotes 37 pages to Locke, and the rest of the book feels like "post-Locke philosophy". Russell views Locke as the founder of liberalism, which perhaps explains the emphasis.

Locke's pragmatism seems unremarkable until you see his followers - Berkeley arguing matter doesn't exist, Hume arguing causation doesn't. Flipping over to the Romantics, Rousseau gets amusingly short shrift, as an unpleasant man whose philosophy is the root cause of Russian communism and German fascism. This seems like a lot of blame for one person!

Many consider Kant the greatest modern philospher. Russell seems to disagree, and gives him 14 pages. Kant's idealism is a more subtle reaction to Locke than Rousseau. His concept of a priori knowledge is interesting to me - a mis-interpretation of what would now be formal maths. The constructions feel more complicated than what came before, harder to understand, but not really clearly better. It's more self-coherent, but not necessarily more correct. For example, Kant claims that while we can imagine empty space, we can't imagine no space. Russell and I disagree - Russell cannot imagine empty space, while I feel I can imagine no space!

Hegel is more difficult, but seems clearer in some ways than Kant. Everything is one, or, more usefully, things cannot be considered in isolation. Also, he came up with thesis-antithesis-synthesis, which I find to be a useful idea taken to unhelpful overuse (especially when combined with "the one"). The idea of "the one" seems to tie in with nationalism, while thesis-antithesis-synthesis produces some kind of historical inevitability, so the pair can be used to drive aggressive nationalism.

I can't tell if it's Hegel or Russell, or just the zeitgeist Hegel was operating in, but it feels like Kant's relatively neutral ideas get twisted in a destructive direction around here. While it's never really made explicit, Russell is setting out his agenda, albeit more subtly than when he gives Rousseau a kicking.

Independent of the link between idealism and German nationalism, to modern, scientifically-biased eyes, these complex holistic systems seem deeply suspicious. Much of the metaphysics are theories of how we think, superseded by neuroscience. "A priori knowledge" is really the thing we can build into formal logics. Hegel's obsession with oneness misses the fact that models that approximate reality are useful and powerful.

Russell has a great deal of contempt for Nietzsche, which is convenient as it saves me from having to generate my own.

He then moves on to the Utilitarians, who he treats very mildly, almost as a simple history without real criticism. This is very interesting, since Bentham built a very opinionated edifice (unlike Locke, not unwilling to restrict himself to the obviously reasonable), quite distinct from the status quo, and applied it to the world. Such bold approaches are going to have mistakes and flaws, yet mostly Bentham's schemes worked and improved society. Where he was wrong, he was safely wrong?

I'd not learnt much about Marx before - his historical inevitability stuff (directly derived from Hegel!) put me off as very obviously wrong. His materialist conception of history is interesting, and makes a reasonable criticism of historical philosophers.

As we approach the time of writing, the selection and analysis of philosophers becomes a bit more haphazard. Bergson comes across pseudosceince in the face of neuroscience and AI making the area more empirical. James and Dewey somewhat meh, and then the book peters out with Russell's philosophy of logical analysis, a somewhat disappointing end to such a long book!

The tail end of the book, approaching the modern age, gave me that sinking feeling I associate with philosophy, that I guess distance kept me away from with the earlier material. So many proud, complex structures with much depth, but flaws that run the whole way through them. The parts that seem valuable to me are those that are invariant under a range of assumptions - the common things that get thrown up through a variety of different models. These seem to me to have a lot more truth than complex and startling insights based on shaky foundations that are, well, probably wrong.

How do I feel about this book? It's very entertaining and readable, despite its length. The length is justified, as it's very dense - this is not filler and a poor editor. The amount of scholarship involved is stunning to cover so much detail over such a long period, especially when you consider that this is only one of Russell's many and varied projects.

It's 75 years old now, but in many ways still fresh. Published in 1946, it's a product of (the horror of) World War II, of modernism and liberalism, and all those values which I feel we should have more of right now, thank you very much. (Although I won't deny there are a few dated assumptions.) It's also a shame that it stops when it does. I'd love to know what Russell thinks of Popper, of Wittgenstein, of Sartre. Of course there are other writings on them, but I'd love to see them discussed in the framework of this book.

Posted 2021-10-10.