Before we embark, well I had best make a confession, in that I have, on nearly 10 separate occasions, read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy from front to back – I think I might have even read it back to front once or twice. And now because of this I am struggling to, in any systematic way, form a satisfactory analysis of this curious artefact.
Nevertheless I must bite the proverbial bullet, and the simplest way to begin this exploration as to the purpose and significants of his work, is to paraphrase Russell himself: The aim of this history as opposed to many others nominally like it, is to show philosophy, not as the isolated speculations of remarkable individuals. But as both an effect and a cause of the character of the communities in-which their various systems flourished. (Russell,1967)
It seems necessary to me, that before we embark on this analysis of Russell’s work, we should define the term ‘philosophy’. As I have found that in common parlance the phrase has lost much of its original meaning.
Philosophy can be summarised as that field of thought which attempts to address and to force into the various categories, concepts and ideas that cannot be satisfactorily addressed by any one category. As such, it might be more plainly stated as a process of unfettered enquiry, and subsequently likened to the scientific outlook. Yet in truth, philosophy remains broad enough a field, so as to contain in equal part science and theology, as well as the various categories of thought which lay between and beyond those two extremes.
Nevertheless, in forming our conception of philosophy it is not necessary that we deal with any particular category of thought separately. Because there exists a common point, at which any man or woman might seek to understand, rather than to rationalise, in doing so they will find themselves stepping out into a wilderness of metaphysics and ethics. Deep within that wilderness there exists a cave, and those who dare to enter will find that in that cave strange monsters sleep, and through their dreaming a war of ideas rages in shadows across the cave walls, and as those visitors attempt to interpret that artful shadow play, both dreams and nightmares are made manifest in the world at hand.
It is, I feel, a worthwhile exercise to consider Russell’s work in the social context in which it was created. But this is a topic we cannot approach without first discussing Russell’s technique. The way in-which he, in contrast to many of his cohorts, utilised deft precision and fluid style in the vivisection of those strange monsters. Thankfully, as was his habit, Russell explicitly states for us his approach to discussing objectively, views and ides which may be contrary to his own:
‘In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to have believed in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which he has hitherto held.’ (Russell,1967)
Now for the purpose of providing a figure with whom to contrast Russell and his work, I offer Karl Popper who wrote his seminal work, The Open Society and its Enemies (Popper, 2011), during the same period in which Russell laboured on his History of Western Philosophy. As such, both works were contemporaneous with the conflict and tumult of the The Second World War.
Popper’s contribution was a book of war. A battle axe forged by him and swung mercilessly in a struggle against ideologies which he believed to be tearing the world apart. Popper, a young Austrian intellectual recently extradited from his friends and family, shocked many as he rained down titanic fire on the front lines of an intellectual war to the knife.
Popper is an exemplar of both the times, and the means at hand to such cerebral partisans to conflict. Yet Russell was an avowed pacifist on all fronts, and his history is largely unaffected by the current affairs of his day. Though he does mirror Popper in acknowledging the contributions of Plato, Aristotle, Hegel and Marx to the thoughts and ideals manifesting themselves in the conflicts of his own time. But the man who is to Russell his clear adversary in terms of a direct clash of ethics, is Nietzsche, and it is in the conclusion to his discussion of Nietzsche that Russell expresses his own views in apposition to those of Nietzsche, in such a way as to express more than he dare say without resorting to open criticism:
‘For my part I agree with Buddha as I have imagined him. but I do not know how to prove that he is right by any argument such as can be used in a mathematical or scientific question. I dislike Nietzsche because he likes the contemplation of pain, because he erects conceit into a duty, because the men whom he most admires are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing men to die. But I think the ultimate argument against his philosophy, as against any unpleasant but internally self-consistent ethic, lies not in an appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions. Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world. His followers have had their innings, but we may hope that it is coming rapidly to an end (my italics).’ (Russell,1967)
My own views, I must admit lay somewhere between those of Nietzsche and Russell. At any rate, I don’t know what would be gained by me throwing my own line in to that grim fish-less sea along side Russell and Nietzsche – doubtlessly very little. Nevertheless, to me this conflict between that sycophant of aristocracy Nietzsche and the aristocrat Russell is surely the most interesting and telling sections of this history.
With that said, lets delve somewhat deeper into the work itself, starting with Russell’s exposition regarding the Greek philosophers, who you will note, we have already been advised against treating with either reverence or scorn.
The Greeks are treated in great detail and it is obvious that Russell enjoys discussing these men and their times. As such there is an ease and fluidity to this section of his history, which is thankfully a feature of the work as a whole. But note-worthy here, in that it is quit a feat to have turned a history of ancient Greek philosophy into such a page-turner.
Leading on from the Greeks, the dark ages of inquiry are detailed through a brief overview of the Christian and Mohammedan influence and the development of the Papal state.
What follows is described as a period of stagnant orthodoxy. It was as if a blanket had been thrown over the flames of enquiry. A fire that would not be rekindled until centuries later, with the speculations of Descartes, the apostasy of Spinoza and the seeds of innovation sewn by Leibniz – not to mention those virulent ideas as to state craft and personal freedom spread by the followers of Locke.
But as we are shown, this happy period of relative progress was radically shaken by a shift of popular thought, away from scientific reason and towards irrationalism. This shift was in part a reaction to David Hume’s complete destruction of Empiricism. Hume that boogie-man lurking in the closet, under the bed and in the back of the mind of every sure scientist, every lover of truth and pretender to knowledge.
It is worth noting here that Russell treats Hume with the respect owed to him, by not shying away from Hume’s dramatic conclusions nor their implications, where other commentators would surely have cut the gordian knot, to save from inadvertently hanging from it.
The reaction to Hume is then found manifest in the dry scholasticism of Kant and tangled dialectical movements of Hegel.
Russell’s history then moves on to address the purely ethical philosophers. Men like Lord Byron, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Bergson. Men who’s ethic and conception of the world was drawn from their personal feelings, which were inherently irrational and therefore immune to Hume’s scepticism.
The work culminates in the communion of both Bergsonian irrationalism and scientific reason, as represented by the Pragmatists. A movement comprised of men such as William James and to some extent Russell himself.
The history concludes with a summary of the Modernist movement, of which Russell was the foremost practitioner of the time. An epithet which Russell would, in his later years, pass on to Popper, as the next most eminent practitioner of enquiry, another in a long list of remarkable individuals, who have come to fill the ranks of the history of western philosophy.
This book is a remarkable work and a valuable cultural artefact, not just because of Russell’s excellent style, nor the extreme clarity of his thoughts, not even because of the shear volume of knowledge and understanding that it conveys. The true value of this work as it exists today, forgotten and overlooked as it might be, is in it’s accessibility and integrity. For all of these reasons and more, I believe this book is important, it has the power to incite people into the pursuit of understanding and art of enquiry.
Yet if I am realistic, I note that we live in a time where even a seemingly intelligent adult cannot sit down for more than five minutes without looking at their phone. What hope do we have that they might sit and strain to read and aspire to understand first hand, the abstract thoughts of long dead philosopher, to wonder through that wilderness, only to stand at the mouth of that cave and risk losing themselves in that place, that den of dreams, where strange monsters lay?