Shayne Wissler
“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” – Greek proverb

Bertrand Russell’s “The History of Western Philosophy”: A Humanist Masterpiece

30 August 2014

“A precious book … a work that is in the highest degree pedagogical which stands above the conflicts of parties and opinions.” – Albert Einstein, on Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy

If it were my prerogative, I would specify Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy as required reading at the university level: those entering the humanities would read this book before the end of their second year; those going into the sciences, by the end of their first degree.

There are several reasons why the book is that important. It very truly encourages critical thinking, and in the best way possible: through example after masterful example. It gives the reader an idea of their own relation to the rest of history, and a way of finding how their own ideas relate to all that has come before. Russell is skilled, entertaining, witty, humorous, and has moral standards far superior to the culture in general. You will not only enjoy reading it, but can only be a better person after reading this book.

Russell is squarely in the Enlightenment tradition of classical liberalism; he is pro-reason, pro-science, and pro-humanity. He has carried out the Enlightenment program to the extent that he is most definitely anti-religion. To irrationalists of all kinds, whether religionists or haters of reason, science, or humanity in general, this approach will seem “biased”, particularly because Russell very wisely makes no apologies about his rational orientation. He doesn’t obscure his writing with the arrogant pretense of having some other-worldly sort of “objectivity”, that dons a scholarly manner with the same effect on authentic objectivity as when a priest dons a cassock or a judge mounts a wig. Russell doesn’t pretend to transcend human life; he is firmly human, in the best sense of the word.

In being human, Russell isn’t omniscient. The scope he tackles is the largest possible – virtually all Western philosophical thought up to his time. Careful study and analysis of even one important philosopher can define a career; Russell not only takes on all important philosophers (and he must decide what should be considered as “important”), but also selects and interweaves important facets of history as well. So like all complex works, this work has flaws. Even I, who am not expert in any particular philosopher, can recognize certain defects in his interpretation of philosophers such as Aristotle, Berkeley, Locke, and Hume. His book should not be taken as a dogma (nor would he want it to be). As a partial antidote to Russell’s weaknesses and as an extremely valuable work in its own right, I very highly recommend Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy[1]. Contrast Durant’s treatment of Francis Bacon and Arthur Schopenhauer with Russell’s, and one will be sufficiently informed of Russell’s tendencies.

The flaws do not significantly detract from the value of the book, but in order to maximize the value of reading it, it is important to be aware that they are there. Since Russell’s style is unrepentantly forthright, his errors are not insidious, they are right there to see. Indeed, in having such clear-cut flaws here and there, Russell does a kind of service: he makes us aware of the limitations involved when one is condensing and interpreting what another thinker has said, directly implying the value of going to the source. By not shrouding his own humanity, he makes you more aware of your own.

A particularly egregious example of Russell’s errors is in his chapter on David Hume, where he completely disregarded Hume’s own very explicit statement of what should be considered as his philosophical views:

Most of the principles, and reasonings, contained in this volume, were published in a work in three volumes, called A Treatise of Human Nature: a work which the Author had projected before he left College, and which he wrote and published not long after. But not finding it successful, he was sensible of his error in going to the press too early, and he cast the whole anew in the following pieces, where some negligences in his former reasoning and more in the expression, are, he hopes, corrected. Yet several writers who have honoured the Author’s Philosophy with answers, have taken care to direct all their batteries against that juvenile work, which the author never acknowledged, and have affected to triumph in any advantages, which, they imagined, they had obtained over it: A practice very contrary to all rules of candour and fair-dealing, and a strong instance of those polemical artifices which a bigotted zeal thinks itself authorized to employ. Henceforth, the Author desires, that the following Pieces may alone be regarded as containing his philosophical sentiments and principles. – David Hume, Author’s introduction to An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Considering Hume’s words, it is quite unfair and misleading not only that Russell blithely proceeds to analyze A Treatise of Human Nature as if it were Hume’s true position, but fails to mention what Hume thought about those who do this! Here is all that Russell says concerning this issue in HWP:

He shortened the Treatise by leaving out the best parts and most of the reasons for his conclusions; the result was Inquiry into Human Understanding

I have read both works myself, and with Hume, consider his later work to be far superior. Speaking of leaving out reasons – Russell never gives reasons for why he thought Hume left out the best parts. He states the preceding as a bald unsubstantiated fact.

But even in this Russell has done a service. Russell is widely and justly regarded as one of the best philosophical minds of the 20th century, and if he has transgressed regarding Hume, then very easily, so can anyone else. And indeed, I think most modern philosophers do misinterpret Hume, and often it is because they focus on Hume’s immature work and ignore his more considered views (I give an alternative way of interpreting Hume in my own book, REASON and LIBERTY).

The last chapter of HWP discusses an area that includes Russell’s own contributions to the history of Western thought: logical analysis. This chapter is, disappointingly but perhaps not surprisingly, the least critical.

Here and there in HWP, Russell laments that he cannot see a way to resolve the fact vs. value (aka “is” vs. “ought”) problem, i.e. that he cannot see a way to bring logic to bear on the problem of human values, but only sees values as a matter of feelings. This dilemma is brought into sharp relief in the chapter on Nietzsche, where we learn that Russell absolutely despises Nietzsche’s values, but admits that he has no logical argument to offer against them. But throughout the book, Russell never dogmatically asserts that the fact vs. value problem is in principle unsolvable, but only that he does not himself see any way out – until he reaches the final chapter:

I have no doubt that, in so far as philosophical knowledge is possible, it is by [methods such as logical analysis incorporates] that it must be sought; I have also no doubt that, by these methods, many ancient problems are completely soluble.

There remains, however, a vast field, traditionally included in philosophy, where scientific methods are inadequate. This field includes ultimate questions of value; science alone, for example, cannot prove that it is bad to enjoy the infliction of cruelty. Whatever can be known, can be known by means of science; but things which are legitimately matters of feeling lie outside its province.

In other words, according to Russell, a purely rational philosophy would be as comfortable admitting humanitarian doctors trying to cure cancer as it would admitting mass-murdering psychopaths, so long as those psychopaths were “logical”, or in other words, logical analysis consists in ignoring the problem of human values, and moving on in spite of its profound significance. There’s a certain juvenile irresponsibility in this dogmatic attitude, or perhaps even an infantile “if I ignore the problem, maybe it will go away.”

His newfound hypocrisy on this point is surprising. He is usually very keen about doubting things, yet on this problem, one which many including him have struggled with, one that above most other philosophical problems deserves to be struggled with, he’s contented and free of doubt (but only in the last chapter). This might be less bewildering when we consider that his dogma on this point is shared by the status quo, but for the fact that Russell was quite fond of upsetting the status quo.

There are other inconsistencies in this chapter. Russell at one point remarks “Morally, a philosopher who uses his professional competence for anything except a disinterested search for truth is guilty of a kind of treachery” (my italics), and then two paragraphs later writes “[with logical analysis important questions] can be answered with precision, and by objective methods which introduce nothing of the philosopher’s temperament except the desire to understand” (my italics). We could ask Russell: Which do you really propose, a “disinterested search for truth” or a “desire to understand”? And we could indeed inquire how a passion for truth is not a requirement of being a good philosopher.

To get more to the root of the problem with logical analysis:

Philosophy, throughout its history, has consisted of two parts inharmoniously blended: on the one hand a theory as to the nature of the world, on the other an ethical or political doctrine as to the best way of living.

Yet the solution logical analysis gives for this inharmonious blending is not the remedy of harmonious blending, but rather the dissection of philosophy into two parts, leaving the part concerning the nature of the world on logical life support, and the part concerning ethics and politics dead on the operating room floor. In Russell himself, this operation was – thankfully – incomplete and inconsistent, but I think it left him with trauma. I take the following as a poignant sample of this trauma (quoted from his New York Times obituary written by Alden Whitman, 3 February 1970):

In October he sat down to write “The Principles of Mathematics,” putting down 200,000 words in three months. With its publication in 1902, he plunged into an eight-year task of elucidating the logical deduction of mathematics that became “Principia Mathematica.” Reducing abstractions to paper was a grueling intellectual task. “Every morning I would sit down before a blank sheet of paper,” he said. “Throughout the day, with a brief interval for lunch, I would stare at the blank sheet. Often when evening came it was still blank.”

As time went on and the agony of effort increased, Russell “often wondered whether I should ever come out of the other end of the tunnel in which I seemed to be.” Several times he contemplated suicide, but he persevered. However, he said, “my intellect never quite recovered from the strain.”

“I have been ever since definitely less capable of dealing with difficult abstractions than I was before,” he said.

Of his aims, he elsewhere writes:

What I most desired, was to find some reason for supposing mathematics true.

For all his efforts, with respect to this aim, Principia Mathematica it is widely regarded as a failure. In the end, the sophistical professors who in his youth had taught him that calculus was nothing but “a tissue of fallacies” had won the war. What’s more, in permitting sophists to set the terms of a proper answer to why mathematics is valid, Russell himself added ammunition to their cause. What he created was so arcane, complex, and one might easily argue, useless, that it stands as a seemingly insurmountable intellectual edifice of its own. It was an implicit concession to the notion that mathematics consists of mysterious profundities that will never truly yield to the human mind’s attempt to understand them, or even if they do just barely yield, such would have to be taken as an article of faith by the vast bulk of humanity who could never hope to understand why, making it more akin to the dogmas of the Catholic Church than to a reasonably comprehensible scientific system.

If anything should be dissected, it is logical analysis itself.

Russell foreshadows what I take to be the motives of this school in an earlier chapter:

And so long as the main object of philosophers is to show that nothing can be learned by patience and detailed thinking, but that we ought rather to worship the prejudices of the ignorant under the title of “reason” if we are Hegelians, or of “intuition” if we are Bergsonians, so long philosophers will take care to remain ignorant of what mathematicians have done to remove the errors by which Hegel profited.

This is a good motive; in philosophy, we should always be strictly logical, and as detailed as is truly necessary. However, since logical analysis does not bring logical, detailed thinking to the realm of human values, what is there of value that it can hope to achieve? It is indeed tragically ironic that Russell thinks he broke himself during the unnatural effort of writing Principia Mathematica (which can only eke out a proof that 1+1=2 by page 379). Now clearly, Russell did not break himself, but only that part of himself that was devoted to meaningless logical exercises. This is literally true – his lifelong passion for mathematics came to an end with this book. In this regard, there is a personal value to Russell in logical analysis: by practicing it diligently, he got much of it out of his system, and was then able to write his magnificent History of Western Philosophy.

I would propose that Russell’s early experience with religious dogma, which perhaps helps explain what almost drove him to suicide as a youth, led him to an irrational fear of self-evident meaning (i.e. rational axioms), which led him to write Principia Mathematica, which was tantamount to a religious exercise that yet again nearly drove him to suicide. Russell hated irrationality. He was very right in this. But I also think he feared it, and his abandonment of rational axioms to the irrational is the sign that, on the deepest possible level, he submitted to this fear, and allowed fanaticism drive him to a different kind of fanaticism.

It is very fortunate for us that for the most part, Russell is inconsistent in this. He is, sincerely and axiomatically: a rational humanist.

  1. I recommend finding a used 1953 Simon and Schuster edition in hardback; these are inexpensive and of good quality.