- Bertrand Russell was a British philosopher of the 19th and 20th centuries with a strongly analytical viewpoint.
- In his book The History of Western Philosophy, he both explains and offers stinging rebukes of many famous thinkers.
- While it is fascinating to see who a great thinker disliked and why, some of his reasoning has been held as suspect.
Bertrand Russell was a British philosopher working in the 19th and 20th centuries. A towering academic who wrote on nearly every subject in philosophy, he was also an accomplished mathematician. During a difficult period in his life, when he feared for his long-term ability to buy food, he wrote The History of Western Philosophy for a popular audience. It sold well enough to ensure his financial security in the latter decades of his life, and while it received mixed reviews, it counted Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger among its fans.
Critiques of the book often have focused on Russell’s inability to decide if he is writing a pure history or evaluating every philosopher and school he considers. While this may limit the book’s value as a history, it does provide a unique look at how one brilliant philosopher viewed the philosophers he didn’t like.
Socrates is often considered the father of Western philosophy. He developed the Socratic method of questioning and applied it daily to all manner of philosophic problems. Unfortunately, he annoyed the wrong people and was put to death for corrupting the youth and worshiping strange gods.
In his book, Russell praises Socrates for much of his work, agreeing with others that the Athenian philosopher set an excellent ethical example and that his death was a tragedy. Russell also recounts Socrates’ life and the problems of fully determining which parts of his biography are accurate. However, questionable historicity is not Russel’s critique. He saves that for Socrates’ thinking:
“Socrates has, however, some very grave defects. He is dishonest and sophistical in argument, and in his private thinking he uses intellect to prove conclusions that are to him agreeable, rather than in a disinterested search for knowledge. Unlike some of his predecessors, he was not scientific in his thinking, but was determined to prove the universe agreeable to his ethical standards. This is treachery to truth, and the worst of philosophic sins. As a man, we may believe him admitted to the communion of saints; but as a philosopher he needs a long residence in a scientific purgatory.”
Of course, Russell still gives Socrates a fair amount of credit as a founding figure in philosophy. He later suggests that he is shown as at least trying to follow where arguments might lead, unlike the next person on the list.
St. Thomas Aquinas
An Italian monk working in the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas was the leading Catholic philosopher of the Middle Ages. He spent much of his time attempting to show how philosophy could be used to find the same truths expressed by Catholicism.
Russell commended Aquinas for his grasp of Aristotle, saying, “Unlike his predecessors, [he] had a really competent knowledge of Aristotle.” He also praised Aquinas’ Summa contra Gentiles as an “imposing intellectual edifice” that would retain value “even if every one of his doctrines were mistaken.” Despite this, he ends his chapter on Aquinas by letting the poor guy have it:
“There is little of the true philosophic spirit in Aquinas. He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading. I cannot, therefore, feel that he deserves to be put on a level with the best philosophers either of Greece or of modern times.”
Somehow, these aren’t the boldest claims on the list. Russel saves those for the next philosopher.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a German philosopher of the early 19th century of considerable stature. His influence on modern philosophy is difficult to overstate, and his grand philosophical system is as complex as it is intriguing. His approach to understanding, often described as the “Hegelian dialectic,” is also quite famous — although he did not use the terms thesis, antithesis, and synthesis for it as is popularly supposed.
Russell, however, was not a fan of Hegel. In The History of Western Philosophy, he directly attacks Hegel’s view on the march of history:
“I cannot see any justification, on the basis of his own metaphysic, for the view that world history repeats the transitions of the dialectic, yet that is the thesis which he developed in his Philosophy of History. It was an interesting thesis, giving unity and meaning to the revolutions of human affairs. Like other historical theories, it required, if it was to be made plausible, some distortion of facts and considerable ignorance. Hegel, like Marx and Spengler after him, possessed both of these qualifications. It is odd that a process which is represented as cosmic should have taken place on our planet, and most of it near the Mediterranean. Nor is there any reason, if reality is timeless, why the later parts of the process should embody higher categories than the earlier parts — unless one were to adapt the blasphemous supposition that the universe was gradually learning Hegel’s philosophy.”
He further expresses his distaste for Hegel’s system of logic with this witty ending to the chapter:
“Hegel thought that, if enough was known about a thing to distinguish it from all other things, then all its properties could be inferred by logic. This was a mistake, and from this mistake arose the whole edifice of his system. This illustrates an important truth, namely, that the worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences.”
In a later book, Philosophy and Politics, Russell even posits that Hegel’s writing was purposefully difficult to obscure his absurdity:
“Hegel’s philosophy is so odd that one would not have expected him to be able to get sane men to accept it, but he did. He set it out with so much obscurity that people thought it must be profound. It can quite easily be expounded lucidly in words of one syllable, but then its absurdity becomes obvious.”
Russell’s take on Hegel may be his most controversial. Professor Stephen Houlgate has gone so far as to suggest that Russell was “ignorant” in arguing that Hegel’s view of the state is inherently tyrannical. While Russell cannot be faulted for pointing out how confusing Hegel’s writing is, he may still be missing the point of some of the writing he critiqued.
The same issue is often raised with Russell’s take on the next philosopher.
Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher of the 19th century. He is famous for his radical views on morality, the concept of the death of God, and how to address the problem of nihilism. If there is one philosopher that Russell leaves no doubts as to his opinion, it is Nietzsche.
Russell might be at his most amusing when he analyzes his subject:
“Speaking of Spinoza he [Nietzsche] says: ‘How much of personal timidity and vulnerability does this masquerade of a sickly recluse betray!’ Exactly the same may be said of him, with the less reluctance since he has not hesitated to say it of Spinoza. It is obvious that in his day-dreams he is a warrior, not a professor; all the men he admires were military. His opinion of women, like every man’s, is an objectification of his own emotion towards them, which is obviously one of fear. ‘Thou goest to woman? Forget not thy whip’ — but nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks.”
He later concludes:
“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… His followers have had their innings, but we may hope that it is coming rapidly to an end.”
That last statement was in reference to the then-ongoing Second World War. Russell pinned intellectual responsibility for fascism on Nietzsche alongside a host of other philosophical thinkers in the German tradition.
It has been observed that Russell’s arguments here aren’t the strongest, and he spends a great deal of time on Nietzsche’s personality (as he saw it) rather than directly focusing on what he said. Moreover, in this and other writings, he appears to misunderstand Nietzsche. However, despite these issues, Russell does provide an interesting, if overly personal, critique.
Karl Marx was a German philosopher, sociologist, and economist. He is well-known for being the father of modern communism and advancing Hegel’s philosophy in a bold new direction. His ideas, commonly called Marxism or Scientific Socialism, have enjoyed high levels of support at different points in history. He is perhaps the most influential philosopher of modern times.
Russell does point out that a great deal of what Marx had to say, particularly about the conditions facing the working class at the time, are important observations. However, he thinks they might work better without “Hegelian trappings.” He further granted that, despite how obviously Marx supported socialism, he could keep his personal stances in the background of his philosophical writing.
There the compliments end. Russell, ever dedicated to applying scientific precision to philosophy, criticizes Marx for not also doing so:
“Considered purely as a philosopher, Marx has grave shortcomings. He is 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. Since Copernicus, it has been evident that Man has not the cosmic importance which he formerly arrogated to himself. No man who has failed to assimilate this fact has a right to call his philosophy scientific.”
Like the rest of his harsher takes, Russell’s views on Marx have been criticized. For example, Marxist philosopher Thomas Riggins argues that Russell often misunderstood or misrepresented Marx. For his part, Russell was a moderate socialist and wrote favorably about several other left-wing thinkers. His trouble was with Marx’s philosophy — as he understood it — rather than his politics.