Friday, June 15, 2012

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, a Review.

At long last I have finished reading Bertrand Russell's monumental work, A History of Western Philosophy (1945). It was a gratifying experience and I gained a superlative overview of the history of European-influenced ideas. I retained, however, not much, or at least not much detail. In fact, when I first embarked on this over a year ago, I was amazed to find my own marginal comments up to about midway through the book, revealing that I had been this way once before without any memory of it. Let me say right away that my lack of retention is not the fault of the author for I doubt there could be a much more lucid presentation of the information without losing most of the careful summation and meticulous critique. The fault is that, like Peter Wimsey in his interview with the Warden of Harriet Vane's college in Gaudy Night: "I have not the philosophic mind." I would like to learn but whatever I learn that doesn't reenforce what I already think dissolves and returns to sand. I do make paths through the sand, however. In what follows I will not attempt to summarize the philosophical issues for obvious reasons, then, but will instead concentrate on describing Russell's methods and his inimitable style to some extent.

The sober and complex philosophical and historical proceedings are occasionally leavened with candid and often ironic comments. For instance, summarizing "what we are to think" of Socrates as portrayed by Plato, Russell remarks that despite apparent merits such as indifference to worldly success, fearlessness, and a calm humor, Socrates has "some very grave defects." Among the defects, Russell finds that Socrates "uses intellect to prove conclusions that are to him agreeable, rather than in a disinterested search for knowledge." The final verdict? "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."

Dealing with Plato's "cosmogony" in the Timaeus, Russell remarks drily that "this had more influence than anything else in Plato, which is curious, as it certainly contains more that is simply silly than is to be found in his other writings." Among these "silly-gisms" (the "silly" pun is mine) is the theory that every soul has a star (or vice versa) and if a soul overcomes its "sensations, love, fear, and anger," it lives righteously and goes to its star to live happily ever after, but if not, "he will, in the next life, be a woman." Russell's occasional lapses from reverence never, however, cause him to stint on careful and respectful summaries of philosophers and philosophical issues, nor to be cavalier in his critical analyses and responses. His dry quips and clever turns serve only as salt and savor to the reading.

The structure of the work is helpful; it is logically, and chronologically, straightforward. The segments lead into each other, with comments that relate each stage of development, and the Index is unusually complete. There are three "Books": Ancient Philosophy, Catholic Philosophy and Modern Philosophy. Each Book is set out in several sections, generally historical; for example, the subsidiary parts of Modern Philosophy are "From the Renaissance to Hume" and "From Rousseau to the Present Day." Moreover Russell is concerned throughout to provide a geopolitical history of each era, providing a context for the philosophies, without subscribing to any specific theories of cause and effect, but certainly providing the material that a reader may use to good purpose in understanding how ideas evolve with sociopolitical and technological changes. It is also salutary to have reference occasionally to "the rest" of the world, as Russell is careful to remind the reader sometimes that this history is of "Western Philosophy" only.

         Our use of the phrase the 'Dark Ages" to cover the period from 600 to
         1000 marks our undue concentration on Western Europe. In China this
         period includes the time of the Tang dynasty, the greatest age of Chinese
         poetry, and in many other ways a most remarkable epoch. From India
         to Spain, the brilliant civiliation of Islam flourished. What was lost to
         Christendom at this time was not lost to civilization, but quite the   
                                                                           (p 399, Clarion PB, 1945)

To this remark which is remarkably enlightened for a European writing in 1945, he adds: "To us, it seems that West-European civilization is civilization, but this is a narrow view."

Book One on Ancient Philosophy is tripartite: a kind of before, during, and after. Pre-Socratics, then Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and finally the ancients After Aristotle. Russell spends ten chapters and 81 pages dealing with all the Pre-Socratics, including the historical and geographical material underlying the culture of Greece. Then he spends fourteen chapters and 137 pages on just the three Big Names. His method is the same throughout: first prefatory material, then detailed summation, and then critique. Russell clearly lays out the Platonic belief that it is not our perceptions that lead us to knowledge, but our concepts, for instance, and that a "true" concept has an existence that is purely non-material. That is to say, if we know what a table is, it is because an ideal table, or a pure table idea, exists. Thus I was at last enabled to grasp philosophical Idealism. Only after careful explication does Russell then offer his objections or approval.

Russell is more respectful toward Aristotle than to Socrates and Plato, and he characterizes Aristotelian philosophy as "Plato diluted by common sense." Despite Aristotle's merits with regard to his predecessors, Russell suggests that his successors made his heritage of equal demerit. It was nearly two thousand years before the west produced a philosopher of such stature as Aristotle, but, on the other hand, excessive posthumous fame became a serious obstacle to progress, and "since the beginning of the seventeenth century, almost every serious intellectual advance has had to begin with an attack on some Aristotelian doctrine." Stephen Jay Gould often draws the same conclusion; in fact, his book The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox traces the antagonism between the sciences and humanities back to the polemics of the scientific method proponents starting with, for example, Frances Bacon who deplored the fact that knowledge seemed enshrined in "the classics."

The long evolution by which Platonic and Aristotelian ideas were transmitted, transmuted, and translated during the Roman period, medieval Neoplatonism incorporated in Catholic theory, and then the reintroduction of Aristotle by the Scholastics (Abelard, Duns Scotus, Thomas Aquinas) until the European Renaissance rediscovered the Greek and Roman sources is an intricate story of the dispersion of Alexander's "Greek" influence after the conqueror's death, the interest in Greek philosophy shown by Arab scholars and translators and a few early Christian thinkers, but especially by the Islamic philosopher Averroes.

Book Two: Catholic Philosophy, although it occupies less than 200 pages (of 836), demanded the most time and effort for me because I had not thought about the period between "the Greeks" and the Renaissance since I took a one-semester World History class in college long ago. In Chapter I, The Religious Development of the Jews, Russell sharply emphasizes the then-unique evolution at about the time of Jeremiah and Ezekiel of a harsh insistence on One and Only One, Jealous, God-THE-Father, a concept that will make religion in the intervening years as active a participant in wars and persecution as any merely worldly doctrine or human ambition. It is clear from Russell's historical tracing that a primary target of the strictures about "other gods" was the multiple cluster of female divinities, Astarte, for instance. Russell quotes Jeremiah's fulminations that women "knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven [Ishtar]." Jeremiah tells the Jewish refugees in Egypt that "Yahweh will destroy them all because their wives have burnt incense to other gods." Ezekiel expresses horror at a vision of "women at the north gates of the temple weeping for Tammuz (a Babylonian deity)."

In this way, the post-Jacob story becomes more clearly a strengthening of patriarchy and the forerunner of the work of Paul, who did so much to introduce patriarchal aspects into the Christ message. Some time in the last year I read The Red Tent and the new insight Russell provided into the Jeremiads' emphasis made me reflect that I had not sufficiently appreciated the author's historicity in this respect. Although I was entertained by the imagining of Biblical women's lives from their own viewpoint I was not sufficiently aware that the conversion of Jacob to fanatic patriarchy and monotheism represented in fact such historical significance.

Russell's survey of the development of Christianity in ensuing chapters examines a number of "The Fathers of the Church" in close textual detail: Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Benedict, and Gregory the Great. I was taken back by the deep and cynical misogyny, amounting to a kind of cultural psychosis about women, sexual congress, and even children, childbirth and menstruation. Jerome, for instance, "St. Jerome" as we are to call him in the Catholic Church, was almost obscenely obsessive about female chastity, and Augustine's long polemic about the disgusting sinfulness, greed and lewdness of infants made me for a moment wonder if this were a parody, it seemed so ridiculous. Augustine, of course, dallied excessively with women, threw off one mistress with whom he had children because the relationship was so sinful, and yet immediately took up with another woman. Such hypocrisy of a man blaming his own appetite on that which he lusted for, sadly, was not an isolated phenomenon. I think of the very recent NYPD bulletin that women were to blame for rape because they often "dressed provocatively," a type of blaming the victim mentality that feminist organizing and influence had pushed back for so long in the seventies, eighties, and nineties.

The whole parade of venery and intolerance in the birth of Christianity provoked me to serious reflection on the long pedigree of ideas that still plague us with intolerance and persecution. Thus the reading—although not the writing—was strongly emotional, and I could usually take in only a few pages each week, with copious notes and reflections. I wish all Christians would make this tour of the origins of the faith. Russell of course includes Islam in a similar historical examination of both the ideologies and the geopolitical history.

Most of the second half of A History of Western Philosophy (pp 491-836) entails Book Three: Modern Philosophy. This history was mostly of periods and developments more familiar to me, although Russell taught me a great deal about Philosophical Liberalism, especially the influence of John Locke. I also had to readjust my ideas about Jean-Jacques Rousseau who early in life I identified as one of my philosophical heroes, but for reasons which are now thrown into doubt. In fact the whole Romantic Movement was placed in a new, and more scathing, light.

What I knew of Romanticism was its reaction against industrialism, and its English poetry contingent: Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron. Thus I linked it to Mary Wollstonecraft and A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and to the French revolution's rebellion against monarchy and oppression, and the revolutionary motto of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. The reign of terror was scanted in my study of history, and I clearly did not fathom the linkage between Romantic philosophy and directions taken in German Idealism which lead to, and culminate in, the philosophy of Nietzsche--if indeed, we should call the pitiful neurotic conjurations of a pusillanimous invalid a "philosophy."

My argument against Nietzsche existed prior to this reading, but certainly Russell's insights, and his deconstructions, strengthened my dislike. Not only is Nietzsche's nihilism and machismo cynical and destructive, but the Nietzschean emphasis on Will, as in willfulness perhaps,by which word he designates a refusal of social bonds much more radical than Macchiavelli's realpolitik, and its feverish idolatry of a "Superman" directly fostered the climate in which Fascism and Hitler could root themselves. Not coincidentally, Triumph of the Will is the title of an insinuatingly celebratory Leni Riefenstahl film glorifying the Fuehrer and the Reich. Viewing this film is profoundly enlightening, and depressing.

Russell misrepresents Darwin to some extent, I think (from my reading of Stephen Jay Gould), gives serious consideration to Marx's political philosophy, but curiously omits any reference at all to Freud whose hypotheses about human psychology has perhaps been more culturally significant than even Hegel's theory of historical progress toward the Ideal.

Hegel is nominated as probably the most influential of modern philsophers but I admit, sadly, to being completely unable to grasp Hegelian theory. I was sorry to see Russell rush to conclusion without what I think would have been an adequate look at "Modernism" as a category in philosophy, although he treats of Bergson, William James, John Dewey and his own loose school of "Logical Analysis" perhaps best represented by his glance at Rudolf Carnap. His own book Principia Mathematica, which  Russell wrote with Alfred North Whitehead, might be the best reference for these latter ideas.

Russell was writing A History in 1943, however, before the conclusion of World War II and the success of Gandhi and India's resistance to Britain, both of which dates may be taken as markers for the gradual ending of Modernism and Colonialism, respectively, and the birth-labors of Post-Modernism/ Post-Colonialism generally. I suggest that Michael Ondaatje's brilliant novel The English Patient can be read as an illuminative emblem for this period of world flux. The violent ideological crisis for the character Kip, as a Commonwealth soldier from India trying to grasp how the nuclear holocaust could have been visited on the Japanese, is a brilliant image of that collision of realities throughout the Colonial and Imperial world. Russell at the moment of writing his history was inevitably unable to summarize the coincidence of Modernism and Colonialism as succinctly as he traces the interrelationship of Philosophical Liberalism and Capitalism, or Romanticism as a reaction against Capitalism in its Industrialist Stages, for the reactions of and toward his own era had not yet matured.

Bertrand Russell first entered my awareness back when I was reading Aldous Huxley in the late sixties and learning a little about the activist history that preceded my own generation of anti-war activists. Russell had long opposed imperialism, nuclear weapons, war, Hitler's German dogmas, and was in fact opposed to U.S. aggression in Vietnam before I was properly aware of it. Of course it might be claimed that his book and his philosophy is colored by his opposition to war and exploitation, and his insights into the dangers of idealism, but I would claim, to the contrary, that it is his philosophical insights and piercing intelligence that colored his lifelong pacifism and opposition to superstition, dogma, and fanaticism.

Morton White in The Age of Analysis (1955) pays Russell a handsome tribute: "he has been one of the most prolific and distinguished writers of English prose in this century. . . he has used his immense talent in the cause of rational and humane liberalism for over a half century. . . .His unconventional life and his hatred of political and social tyranny is reminiscent of Mill; so is his honesty and his desire to get to the (preferably clear) bottom of things. . . . No philosopher has had a more salutary influence on the intellectual life of the twentieth century."

I recommend this book highly for Russell's acute insights into the interconnections of material, economic, and technological changes with political, religious, and philosophical developments. Perhaps you will only find it useful as a kind of inside-track encyclopedia. But if you decide to read it through, be prepared to spend adequate time. There are 836 pages in the Clarion paperback I have, which is now housed in an envelope like a few of my other thoroughly-read treasures like John Howard Lawson's Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Marge Piercy's To Be of Use, because--to respectfully trivialize the title of Chinua Achebe's important book--Things Fall Apart.

Russell concludes the book with remarks on the tentative nature of "truth" in the scientific method, which he believes essential to philosophy: using it, he suggests, "we can make successive approximations to the truth, in which each new stage results from an improvement, not a rejection, of what has gone before:"

         In the welter of conflicting fanaticisms, one of the few unifying forces is
         scientific truthfulness, by which I mean the habit of basing our beliefs
         upon observations and inferences as impersonal, and as much divested
         of local and temperamental bias, as is possible for human beings. . .
         The habit of careful veracity acquired in the practice of this philosophy,
         can be extended to the whole sphere of human activity, producing
         wherever it exists, a lessening of fanaticism with an increasing capacity
         of sympathy and mutual understanding. In abandoning a part of its
         dogmatic pretensions,philosophy does not cease to suggest and inspire
         a way of life.                 (Russell, p 836.)