Portrait of a Philosopher as a Historian

December 26, 2012 § 6 Comments


HistWestPhilHistory of Western Philosophy (Russell, Bertrand)

In studying a philosopher,” Bertrand Russell tells us in this book, “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 believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude…”
Fine, then. It is with sympathy that we will begin. Let us try to understand what it means for a philosopher to be writing, not an articulation of his own philosophy, but a general history of philosophy.
Should the definitive history of a nation’s literature be a subject left to its novelists and poets? Would the military history of the world, if written by a decorated general, ipso facto, be better than one written by a professional historian? I’m thinking: probably not. The skills required to write a poem and win a war are different from those required to formulate a cogent explanation of how people in other times wrote other poems, or won other wars. A good poet does not need to have read Milton, understood Eliot or even been able to identify a Shakespearean sonnet in a police line-up, and a victorious general may be blithely ignorant of the strategies employed by the armies in the battle of Karbala. This isn’t merely because knowledge in these subjects is not accretive in nature. A competent mathematician of today would be able to account for every mathematical fact between Pythagoras and Andrew Wiles, if not beyond; but even she would require months of additional study before being able to explain the processes by which the facts were accumulated, which is what history is about. What she would have ended up writing would be a math textbook. So of what value can a philosopher’s History of Western Philosophy be other than that of novelty? As it turns out, while I’m not sure Russell’s book is the best historical account of Western philosophy, I can confirm that it is a lively and absorbing discussion of Russell’s own opinions, and of his own philosophy. You will also find it wickedly funny in part, if bone-dry irony is what gives you the giggles:

Legend has much to say about Empedocles. He was supposed to have worked miracles…finally, it is said, he died by leaping into the crater of Etna to prove that he was a god. In the word of the poet: ‘Great Empedocles, that ardent soul/Leapt into Etna, and was roasted whole’.
Matthew Arnold wrote a poem on this subject, but, although one of his worst, it does not contain the above couplet…

Philosophy or bust...Sokrates, Antisthenes, Chrysippos, and Epikouros, courtesy Wikimedia

Philosophy or bust…Sokrates, Antisthenes, Chrysippos, and Epikouros, courtesy Wikimedia

Russell doesn’t discuss his own philosophy explicitly, except in the last chapter of the book. But we learn a huge amount about it throughout, from his criticism of other philosophers, of which there is a lot, and which, I think, falls in three categories.

In the first category, many of Russell’s refutations of fallacious arguments – memorably those of Hume, Berkeley, John Stuart Mill, Bergson and Dewey –are reasonable and philosophically valid. (Hume: “Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous: those in philosophy only ridiculous.” Russell: “He has no right to say this. ‘Dangerous’ is a causal word and a sceptic as to causation cannot know that anything is dangerous”. Me: Zing!) His demolition of the utilitarian pleasure principle is masterly, and his treatment of the Greeks and of the Scholastic philosophers is nuanced and tempered with an understanding of the larger historical context in which they wrote. There’s even a bit of humour thrown in:

[Roger Bacon believed that] in supporting an opinion, it is a mistake to argue from the wisdom of our ancestors or from customs, or from common belief. In support of his view he quotes Seneca, Cicero, Avicenna, Averroes, Adelard of Bath, St Jerome and St Chrysostom. These authorities, he seems to think, suffice to prove that one should not respect authority.

In the second category, there are a few critical notes that are blatantly argumenta ad hominem, and there are more of these than one expects from a master of logic. Plato, we hear, was a bit of a snobbish toff. The young Augustine was a rake. Leibniz was somewhat mean about money. Also, he pretended he didn’t know Spinoza, when the latter needed his support. Rousseau led a generally dissolute life. Byron was a spoilt, rich brat. Schopenhauer lived in comfort, pushed an old woman down the stairs, and made a Latin joke when she died a few years later, all the while advocating Upanishadic austerity; therefore he was shallow and dishonest in his philosophy. Marx was “too practical, too much wrapped up in the problems of his time, his purview is confined to this planet, and within this planet, to Man,” which were, apparently, grave shortcomings in a philosopher.

Finally – and this is probably Russell’s own gravest shortcoming – there is a third category of philosophical arguments that Russell disagrees with but struggles to repudiate. Aristotle, he tells us, approved of slavery and warfare, and thought the aim of the state was “to produce cultured gentlemen”. St. Augustine believed that God chose some people to send strong delusion to, because of which they are led to sin, and are then condemned. Augustine thought their seduction “is by the secret judgment of God; justly secret and secretly just”. Locke’s law of nature gives every man the right to punish attacks on his property, even by shooting petty thieves. He also thought that advances in arts and science were “largely dependent upon the benefactions of the very rich”. Nietzsche despises universal love. All of these shock Russell to the core, especially Nietzsche. “The ultimate argument against [Nietzsche’s] philosophy,” confesses Russell, at last, “as against any unpleasant but internally self-consistent ethic, lies not in an appeal to facts but an appeal to the emotions.” This, from an articulate logician like Russell, is nothing short of an admission of defeat. Russell’s book, in some ways, is an argument with Nietzsche’s ghost – which the ghost proceeds to win.

Much of western philosophy – as opposed to eastern mystical traditions, for example – was written with a high degree of awareness of, and in intellectual reaction to earlier philosophical works. In this, it is not as exact, but as accretive a field as mathematics. Thus, I concluded, it is a perfectly natural pastime for a western philosopher to write a history of philosophy – even if it is inadequate as a history. But is it adequate as a philosophy?

Philosophy,” says Russell, “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. The failure to separate these two with sufficient clarity has been a source of much confused thinking.” This statement is particularly true of Russell’s own philosophy, which is heavily influenced by mathematics. It starts with the purging of all paradox and unreason from human thought, and aims, in a Euclidean manner, to deduce everything else from what is left. The main questions it aims to solve concern abstract concepts like number, time, space, mind, memory and matter. His ethical doctrine, on the evidence of this book, while being unflinchingly and consistently humanist in nature, is built, not on a strong foundation of logical analysis as he would have liked, but an emotional one. The blend of the two parts, as he probably knew, is not harmonious, but it is impossible to feel anything but sympathy for them.

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§ 6 Responses to Portrait of a Philosopher as a Historian

  • Rick Searle says:

    One quick note that I learned the hard way. You have a lot of tags. I too thought that was a good thing, but the way WP happens to work the more tags you have the more it thinks you’re spam, so you’re not listed under “Topics”. Listing less tags may bring you more readers.

    Now on your excellent post. I’ve been meaning to pick up the Russell book because I’ve heard he credits Pythagoras (a interest of late) with founding Western philosophy. Although, given the mathematics it shouldn’t be surprising- any thoughts?

    The way philosophy (or the history of it at least) appears to me is that it was a practice that thought it was accretive until Nietzsche pulled the rug from out of the whole affair. Science has filled philosophy’s shoes ever since. I really despair that philosophy has lost its passion for fundamental questions and these questions seem to of necessity
    require both of the things Russell thought philosophy had “mixed-up”
    both the question what is the world? and how do we live in it?
    At least in terms of politics and ethics do you think human thought has been accretive? That is, by fits and starts we really have made moral progress in the way you laid out Robert Wright’s views in a prior post.

    In terms of other elements of the humanities not being accretive- is it not the case that all of the arts, especially literature whatever its form- deal with problems of the human condition- love, hate, revenge, death etc that really haven’t changed throughout our existence as a species? I am reading The Oresteia by Aeschylus and it is the best meditation on war and revenge I have ever seen.

    • psriblog says:

      Rick – thanks for the advice about tags. I didn’t know! I shall act promptly and de-tag my posts…
      I certainly agree that literature is not accretive, and while I havent read Aeschylus yet, I have read Sophocles’ version of the Oresteian revenge tale, and there’s nothing in it that doesnt speak to a modern reader.
      On politics and ethics, and our discussion of Wright’s views on progress: I did warn you at the time that I vacillate! But my point here is not that mainstream politics has evolved in a positive direction, but that political & ethical philosophical thought has built on previous work…in that Descartes was up to speed on everything the scholastics wrote, Kant’s Critique was essentially a rebuttal, Hegel and Schopenhauer reacted to Kant, Marx to Hegel, etc. You are right, Nietzsche stood by himself – in that sense, he was closer to eastern tradition of a lone thinker who has arrived at his revelations via independent introspection (although his conclusions are so un-Buddha!)…
      But physics and psychology have superceded philosophy in the ‘what is the world?’ realm (and this could be a good thing, because IMHO, philosophers embarrassed themselves with metaphysical mumbo-jumbo) and politics has superceded philosophy in the ‘how do we live in it’ – which is not necessarily a good thing, as our politicians have shown from time to time. One cannot crowdsource a good philosophy, unfortunately, though one does crowdsource a good president. Thoughts?
      -Sriram

      • Rick Searle says:

        Plato will roll in his grave when I say this, but I do wonder whether we can “crowd source a good philosophy” as you say. After all, the philosophers themselves were in constant dialogue with one another- and here I’m really stepping out on a limb- maybe the fact that philosophy is attached to individuals has as much to do with the idea of authorship as anything else.

        I think Plato’s revolt against Athenian democracy and Athenian tragedy- both arenas for collective practical and moral reasoning may have blinded us to this course.

  • psriblog says:

    Hmmm. Your response makes me wonder if I have been a wee bit elitist. A democratic legislature is the crowdsourcing of ethical philosophy on a grand scale, after all. And while it tends to be a philosophy of compromise and middle-grounds, such is the only true philosophy there is.
    But truth is just one attribute of a good philosophy, as Russell said. Beauty is another. And unlike the Constitution or the Federalist papers, for example, the transcript of the proceedings of the US House of Representatives on a given day can hardly be described as poetry.

    It isn’t easy to crowdsource beautiful, true, self-consistent philosophy. Maybe Plato influences me in saying this, but also the Upanishads, for instance – ancient Indian works of philosophical enquiry, each written probably by an entire group or school of philosophers writing under a single name – but so full of exquisite imagery and lyrical poetry that it couldn’t have been arrived at by a strictly democratic process. It was crowdsourcing in a sense, but not in a random way.

  • Rick Searle says:

    In a way I totally agree with you: great art, literature, music is likely most likely to emerge from an individual or group of individuals working collaboratively with a shared vision. But when I move the lens outward it seems that great art, literature, music, philosophy, science occurs in periods in which you have a great number of people learning from one another, bouncing ideas off of one another, debating one another, sometimes directly competing with one another. You get a critical enough mass and something quite wonderful happens culturally. I am not sure if that counts as “the wisdom of crowds”, but it does suggest to me that culture is as or even more important than individual brilliance, genius or insight,

    Happy New Year, Sriram!

    • psriblog says:

      And a happy new year to you too! And yes, I agree that the milieu is very important for the creative process … Peter Hall’s book (Cities in Civilization) that I recently wrote about spoke about almost nothing else.

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