Knowing and Unknowing: Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy

“Have you ever watched a crab on the shore crawling backward in search of the Atlantic Ocean, and missing? That’s the way the mind of man operates.”—H.L. Mencken

For all of history, mankind has been grappling with the great questions that life poses.  Some are answerable, some unanswerable.  Through the millennia many seemingly insoluble problems have been dealt with, thanks, for example, to science.  Other puzzles, like the best means to organize society, seem hopelessly complicated.  But philosophers continue boldly to tackle the conundrums of human existence, betting on impossible idealism rather than settling for meaningless materialism.

Bertrand Russell’s summary of these human endeavors is a priceless tool in understanding the history, the meaning, and the possibilities of philosophy.  He was himself a philosopher, though I suspect he would never have presumed to take on that title himself.  Intrepid and yet humble, Russell knows what he knows and what he doesn’t know, as well as what can be known and by what means it can be known.  This is the mark of both intellect and maturity, not to mention that grayest of English vices: common sense.  You will not find any reductio ad absurdum in his work.

The writer makes no secret about what he thinks of any given school of thought, but he treats all arguments fairly, even those of the Medievals, with whom, one imagines, he would have the greatest differences.  He saves his delicious scorn and mockery for those who truly deserve it. Punctuated by his dry wit, all 800 pages of this book come to life, and one gets the feeling that philosophy is not mummified, that it really does matter.  This impression is helped along by Russell’s thorough treatment of world events alongside the philosophies that developed contemporaneously with them.  Sentiment, as Richard Weaver said, is anterior to logic, and sentiment often comes from circumstances.

One wonders if this book didn’t at least partially inspire Monty Python’s movie The Meaning of Life.  A Leibnizian moment occurs in the introduction, for instance, when God picks up a global earth and a cubic one, hefting one in each hand, trying to decide which one is best.  God chose the best of all possible worlds, Leibniz tells us, “and everything is a necessary evil,” one commentator added.  In the movie, the best world is the cubic one, of course, Cleese and Chapman, et al., being the delightful imps that they are, who bring us Panglossian delight.

Russell’s treatment of the philosophers is chronological, systematic, concise, and lucid—unlike this sentence.  It seems probable that all ideas were thought of by the pre-Socratic thinkers, and we have simply been arguing about them ever since.  In this company are atomists, relativists, socialists, and even a guy named Anaxagoras who theorized about a heliocentric solar system eons before Copernicus.  The major innovations of modernity have been scientific.  Our ability to create technology and understand nature has led to unprecedented health and wealth in our time.  The one purely abstract novelty in modern philosophy might belong to John Locke, who’s idea of tolerance was the basis of liberalism, though everyone these days, including liberals, seems to be faltering on this point.

After the empiricists and rationalists, I’ve found, much philosophy can be dense and downright indiscernible for the amateur reader like myself.  With these writers Russell does a marvelous job of crystallizing their work into a recognizable language.  With him even Hegel is not insurmountable.

I already mentioned the author’s common sense.  Good taste in thought often puts one at odds with the mobocracy, and I do think that pretty much anyone could find a reason to dislike Bertrand Russell.  This is why I like him, even though I also have some quibbles to add, all of which may well spring from my own shortcomings rather than the author’s.

Most crucially, Russell trusts too much in mathematical analogies to make points in which math has no business.  Arguments about infinite regress cannot be solved by pointing out that certain series of numbers have a beginning point.  It’s simply irrelevant.  I find, however, that most scientists are more satisfied by hard scientific facts than I am.  This is a mental disorder I’ve had all my life.  Ask my parents.  I was the brat who always asked why.  I was a walking infinite regress.  So be it.

Russell is very skeptical of private property rights, which might be why he can hail John Dewey almost without reservation.  God knows there have been monsters on this earth who have used their property rights to commit all kinds of unspeakable acts, but has anyone come up with a better way? It seems to me that we either have property rights, or a gang leader who beats anyone who doesn’t get in line.  All political philosophies, it seems to me, have a tendency to one way or the other, though one could argue that both succumb to the dark side of human nature.  We’re left to ask, I suppose, which approach succumbs the fastest.

A further thought about Russell’s views on private property rights:  John Locke developed the homesteading theory, which says that a man makes, for instance, an undeveloped plot of land his own property by mixing his labor with it, by fixing it up.  Russell says that this theory is no longer useful in modern society.  I disagree. I rather see the modern methods of trade and wage-earning as extensions rather than contradictions of the homesteading theory.  This is important: If we perceive the intimate relation of man’s work to his person, his rights to his acquisitions become more concrete. The homesteading theory helps us to envision this, and it is in any case true even if it isn’t useful.

Of all the figures considered in this tome, Nietzsche may well be treated the worst.  This is understandable, as Russell was writing in 1943 while the world was wrestling with the ghastly consequences of this philosophy.  But Russell, being something of a social democrat, goes too far, in my opinion.  No lie gains a foothold without some truth in it, and there is an element of truth in Nietzsche’s anti-egalitarian stance.  There is, as Jefferson said, a natural aristocracy in humanity, and our refusal to recognize this, while it has not been as disastrous as other ideas, has been detrimental to our societal health.  The practical effect of egalitarianism in many places is that excellence is banned.  Saying this will get you branded an elitist these days, but that’s just sentiment driving logic—along with the assumption that elitism, as such, is necessarily bad.  All this is a small point in the vast landscape of the Nietzschean scorched earth, but I think it’s one worth mentioning.  Qui distinguit, bene docet.

I also think there’s more to Henri Bergson than Russell seems to believe.  We are running into the limits of logic. Just consider the developments in particle physics that have left everyone baffled.  The age of the syllogism is over, and Bergson’s picturesque language may offer a way out of this jam.  Bergon’s work seems to rely heavily on Hegel’s Absolute Idea.  He is a monist; he insists that all matter is one, that pieces are really a part of the whole, and that we use our intellect to cut them down into pieces.  Reality is like a chicken, and matter is like little bits of chicken that we cut with the knife of the intellect. (Do we then cook the bits in little pots? Sorry. Monty Python gets the best of me sometimes.) I think I have this right.  Corrections are welcome.

My sympathy for Bergson may be related to his language about time, which is put more in psychological than mathematical terms. (No wonder Russell, the mathematician, disliked him.)  “This reminds me of the music of Olivier Messiaen,” I thought to myself as I read up on this.  Sure enough, a subsequent Google searched yielded up discussion of Bergson’s theory of time as it relates to Messiaen.  Bergson’s ideas would do a lot of good for our contemporary tick-tock, watch the clock society.

Bertrand Russell’s anti-war sentiments are made clear throughout the book.  Maybe it is his belief in the power of reason that drives this conviction. Those who think often feel less compelled to succumb to the barbaric urge to destroy one’s neighbor rather than to figure him out and negotiate with him.  There are still plenty of seemingly insoluble problems in our world, and the temptation to succeed by force is great when one is faced with a Gordian knot.  But if the history of philosophy is any indication, many of these issues can be solved peacefully if man can learn to think with his brain instead of his testicles.  Whether or not society can produce people capable of reading books like this one may decide the ultimate destiny of man.

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2 Responses

  1. Great post on a great book. I should just note that it was Randolph Bourne who said that ” war is the health of the state..”

  2. Ah, yes! Thank you for that correction. That makes much more sense, now that I think about it.

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