A Post-Liberal Future (part 2)

What is special about the human form of intelligence? An algorithm is a means of processing information in order to generate knowledge, and we now understand the brain to be simply an organic algorithm. In that respect, it is little different to the computer algorithms which form artificial intelligence. Every year that passes undermines the belief that there are aspects of human intelligence that can never be replicated more effectively by A.I. Machine learning means that even some computer algorithms themselves are evolved by A.I to the extent that humans no longer understand them. It is true that there is no near-term prospect of creating artificial consciousness, but capitalism places no value on consciousness. How will Humanism survive if human beings become economically useless? The same point applies to war, as the mass armies of the 20th Century are replaced by non-human combatants in the 21st Century. Nor is art safe. Music critics have praised music for its soulfulness and emotional resonance, before finding out to their horror that it was created by an algorithm.

Know Thyself

In the future, computer algorithms may be able to understand our desires better than we understand them ourselves. This will not be too difficult, given how limited our understanding is of our own minds. If this happens, there will be an argument that A.I should make our decisions for us, because they are better able to satisfy our desires than we are. This could partially be facilitated by the amount of data we give away about ourselves, from our Google searches, our Facebook Likes and the various biometric data gathered from wearable tech. In the future, when we watch a film or read an eBook, algorithms may be able to understand and remember our emotional reactions better than we can, by tracking our heart rate and dopamine levels and monitoring muscle movements in our face. Nor does A.I feel societal pressure to pretend to like ‘Citizen Kane’ even if you found it boring. If algorithms know us better than we know ourselves, and do not have the faults of the ‘narrating self’ mentioned in my previous post, wouldn’t we be better served at the next election if Google voted for us? On the day that algorithms know us better than we know ourselves, authority may transfer permanently from humans to machines.

Humanists believe that every human life has intrinsic value. What happens to Humanism if the governing elite are able to use technology to upgrade themselves so that they are no longer ‘human’? Historically, the benefits of technology eventually cascaded down to everyone, but that may not be the case in the future. To use Yuval Noah Harari’s example, 20th Century medicine was an egalitarian project aimed at healing the sick. In the 21st century it is also becoming an elitist project aimed at upgrading the healthy. Why would elites divert resources to cure the masses who are economically, military and artistically useless? What happens when the experiences of humans and superhumans diverge, such that they can no longer relate to each other?


The threat to Humanism comes when humans are no longer able to compete with artificial intelligence. One way to counter this threat is to try and upgrade the human mind. This might lead to a new branch of Humanism called ‘Techno-Humanism’. However, this comes with substantial risks. Scientists already have the ability to alter the human mind without having much understanding of it, and therefore with little understanding of the side effects these alterations could cause. Further, what happens if changes to human minds are driven by economic objectives? As a result of the agricultural revolution domesticated animals generally became more docile, because docile animals are easier to manage. Will we become more like efficient data processors, and will that really be an upgrade?

The greater problem is that Techno-Humanism does not resolve the fundamental conflict between technology and Humanism. Humanism says that we should follow our hearts and stay true to ourselves. Technology seeks control, so that it can solve problems by ‘fixing’ or upgrading us. From that perspective, our inner voices are conflicting, random and inefficient. Trying to follow only one of them is not the best way to achieve happiness. If that is true, technology should therefore try to manipulate and suppress our inner voices. Techno-Humanism still rests on the assumption that our desires give meaning to our lives, but how can that belief be sustained as it becomes clearer that we are not in control of our desires, and our desires can be so easily manipulated by technology?

Dataism – The New Religion?

Another path is to abandon Humanism altogether and replace it with a new religion called Dataism. This religion says that the universe consists of data flows, and that the value of anything is determined by its ability to generate and process data. This is a religion because it makes ethical statements of value: the ultimate good is to maximise the flow of data. For true believers, there is no meaning in something if nobody knows about it. Human history, when understood from a Dataist perspective, is simply the history of improving the efficiency of data-processing. Humanity is a data-processing system and we, as individuals, are its chips. Human history has consisted of increasing the number of chips and their connectivity, in order to process more data and allow it to flow more freely. The aim of Dataists is to create a global data-processing system (an ‘Internet of Things’) which is all-knowing and all-powerful. Connecting to the data flow is the source of meaning in life, rather than human experiences. Dataism is not against human experiences, it just doesn’t think they are intrinsically valuable. Humans were valuable as the world’s most effective data-processors, but that is no longer the case. What about human emotions such as love? They are just biochemical processes, evolved on the African savannah to help pass on genes.

Dataism can help us to understand recent phenomena. Viewed from this perspective, Capitalism and a Managed Economy are simply two different data processing systems. Capitalism won the Cold War because distributed data processing systems are more effective. Dataists believe that A.I is superior to humans in its ability to process very large amounts of data, so believe that knowledge generated by A.I is superior to human knowledge. This is not just theory: how many people would ask a friend how to get somewhere rather than trust Google Maps? The stock exchange is the fastest and most efficient data-processing system ever created, and it is now too complicated to be managed by human beings. The vast majority of investment decisions are either made by A.I or based on A.I recommendations.

Power to the Machines

Democracy is another decentralised data-processing system which has outperformed more centralised models in recent times. What happens when democracy can’t keep up? This is already happening with the Internet and Social Media. These things evolve so quickly that any democratic debate is superseded before it reaches a decision. One wonders what governments think about TikTok. This does not mean a victory for Totalitarianism, which is an even less efficient data-processing system. Government has increasingly felt powerless in recent years: they manage but do not lead. This might be because they simply can’t keep up with modern life in the Information Age. It is unlikely that this power vacuum will persist forever. In the past we followed God (through His human representatives), and in the modern age we choose our own representatives to follow (whether explicitly by electing leaders or implicitly by accepting Dictators). In the future we may follow algorithms.

Dataism may turn out to be based on incorrect knowledge (e.g. organic minds might consist of more than algorithms), but that may not prevent it taking over the world. Even if you believe in one of the theistic religions (those that include a God or gods) that still means all of the others are wrong, and yet many have been very popular. Harari argues that aspects of Dataism have already become established within the scientific community. The increased tendencies of young people to share their data may also be a sign of things to come. What happens if Dataism takes over the world? The Humanist pursuits of human health and happiness may seem far less important. If power shifts from humans to algorithms, we may find our desires are manipulated to support the new priorities without realising it. In trying to eradicate illness and live forever, we may find that we ourselves become nothing but electronic data; a part of the Internet of Things.

The potential replacement of Humanism with Dataism is clearly not the most urgent problem facing humanity, and neither is it a certainty. Harari is always keen to remind us that he does not claim to know the future: his book Homo Deus is a work of possibilities not prophecies. Nevertheless, the transfer of control from human beings to A.I has already started. The challenge of how we make these new technologies work for the benefit of human beings in the long term is one that we need to all start thinking about. It is too important to be left to the multi-billionaires of Silicon Valley.

A Post-Liberal Future (part 1)

In previous posts I said that since the beginning of the modern era we have been living through the age of Humanism, with Liberalism being its most prevalent form in the Western World. I also proposed a new form of Liberalism based on far greater devolution of power, in order to better tackle the problems in society today. However, what if advances in technology in the 21st Century undermine the premise of Humanism itself? If that happens, we could see a change in political philosophy on a scale not seen since Humanism replaced Absolutism during the centuries of the late medieval and early modern periods. This is the idea put forward in Yuval Noah Harari’s book ‘Homo Deus’, and it is the idea I would like to explore in the next two posts.

Power to the People

Humanism rests on the belief that our own thoughts and feelings are the highest source of meaning and authority, matched only by the thoughts and feelings of another human being. This authority comes from the belief that humans are able to make ethical judgements by listening to their inner selves. Before Humanism, the highest source of authority was God (or the gods), and only God knew right from wrong. Rather than ruling directly over human beings, God invested absolute power in certain individuals who ruled in his name, such as Kings, Emperors and Popes. In political terms, the Humanist revolution represented the transfer of sovereign power from the ruler to the people. This applies in the Totalitarian as well as Communist and Liberal versions of Humanism. This is why Totalitarian leaders require propaganda: it matters what the people think. A medieval king in contrast had no need to concern himself with what the people thought, because to challenge the king was to challenge God Himself. In the modern age, human beings are now considered capable of making ethical decisions about right and wrong for themselves by consulting their own inner feelings, without going to a Priest or consulting a holy book. For example, if two people want to marry, they no longer need to consider whether a divine third party will be happy with the match. They need only consider whether it feels right.

This raises an interesting question that underpins modern society: why are human beings considered the highest source of authority? Why are we superior to any other creature in the animal kingdom? Most early humanists derived a Christian justification for this superior role. In the Bible God, made humankind in His image and made us stewards of the kingdom of earth. Others who do not believe in God might justify our authority based on our superior intelligence. However, it is far from clear that intelligence correlates well to good ethical decision making. Many animals, if they were able to communicate with us, might argue that our stewardship of the earth has not been entirely successful.

Yuval Noah Harari refers to Humanism as a religion because it is a belief system that enables ethical judgements to be made. He argues that any successful religion must provide relevant answers to the technological problems of the day. Christian or Islamic religion (which underpinned Absolutism) had little to say about the ethical challenges of a modern state, such as those associated with the Industrial Revolution, and so withered away as a political force. How many of the great new ideas or discoveries of the 20th century are attributable to Christianity or Islam? The question is, will Humanism remain relevant in the age of the Infotech and Biotech revolutions that are already underway?

‘A Time Bomb in the Lab’

Humanism requires the belief that we have free will, otherwise that inner voice is not really ours. However, modern science is in the process of demonstrating that we do not have free will. Humans do not appear to have a soul. Our ‘mind’ consists of genes, hormones and neurons, and it follows the same physical and chemical laws that govern the rest of reality. Our thoughts and actions are caused by electrochemical brain processes. These processes themselves either have their own physical or chemical causes or are entirely random, but we are not in control of them, so are not free to think or do whatever we want. Our behavioural characteristics are also influenced by our genes, but we cannot control our genes; they are handed down to us from our ancestors. Acting according to our desires does not make us free, because we are not free to determine our desires. This is not just speculation. Brain scanners have been used to predict people’s desires and decisions before they are aware of them. There is also the frightening prospect of being able to control other people’s desires. Experiments have been done on rats with implanted electrodes who are given the desire to carry out certain tasks by remote control. Experiments have also been done on humans to suppress certain areas of the brain, for example those linked to the feeling of depression.

Humanism, and Liberalism in particular, also requires the belief that we have a single and indivisible self. In order to make a decision we must search our feelings to find the single authentic voice of our inner self. This voice in each person is the ultimate source of authority in the world. In reality, we now know that our minds consist not of one voice but of many, and they all have different ideas. We should think of the mind as a large committee rather than a single entity. Further, we know that different parts of the brain control different things, such as voice, logical reasoning, spatial awareness, as well as the left and right sides of the body. There is no single part of the brain in overall control. The phrase ‘the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing’ has some basis in truth. We also have both an ‘experiencing self’ which is our moment-to-moment consciousness, and a ‘narrating self’ which is responsible for retrieving memories and making decisions. Unfortunately, the two do not talk to each other very well. The narrating self only remembers the peaks and ends of experiences, and ignores most of what the experiencing self has to say. Therefore, a bad experience that lasted a long time but ended well is remembered more favourably than a much briefer bad experience without the positive ending. These deficiencies can prevent us from acting in our own self-interest.

Humans have a great capacity for clinging to existing ideas even when new discoveries disprove them. However, these discoveries will not stay in the lab, but will have real consequences for how we manage society. If we have neither free will or a single inner voice, why should human experiences and feelings be the ultimate source of authority and meaning?

A Liberal Revolution

Many people feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with western politics and society today, which goes beyond this or that policy. However, there is reason for hope, because the problems of our society do not require anything as dramatic as overturning Liberalism or Capitalism, only their contemporary guises – Neoliberalism and Free Market Capitalism. We have been through many versions of Liberalism and Capitalism in the modern era. The present versions have been in existence since the Thatcher-Reagan revolution of the 1980s, but the turmoil of the last ten years or so, which has in part been driven by a populist backlash against Neoliberalism and Free Market Capitalism, can be seen as part of the process of transitioning to something new. The question is, what are we transitioning to?

No Stake in Society

There are two underlying concerns that a majority of people have in relation to western society today. The first is that it is fundamentally unfair, and the second is that they are powerless to do anything about it. This combines to make people feel that they have no stake in society, and it explains the attraction of populist leaders (both right and left wing) who appeal directly to ‘the people’ and rail against ‘the establishment’. It also explains the appeal of the simple but powerful slogan ‘take back control’. Populists thrive on blaming vaguely defined groups for society’s problems, such as the establishment, the media, experts, foreigners and so on. They are not and will not be successful because they misdiagnose the problem.

The reason why so many people feel they have no stake in society is because of the effects of Neoliberalism and Free Market Capitalism. Liberalism has always prioritised liberty over equality, but Neoliberalism takes the principle of freedom of the individual to an extreme. According to this doctrine, people should be as free as possible to pursue their own interests. They should not be constrained by obligations to their fellow citizens, or by government interference. Indeed, Reagan said that government is the cause of our problems not its solution. Neoliberals believe that government should be as small as possible, and therefore advocate for deregulation and privatisation. As the power of governments receded, large global corporations formed in many sectors, taking on virtual monopolistic powers. Some corporations, such as the Tech Giants, now have more power than many national governments. The problem is that these corporations, consistent with Neoliberal thinking, do not act in the interest of society in general. Company directors are required to maximise shareholder return even at the expense of other stakeholders, including employees. In previous times, people were able to exercise power through elected governments who would defend their interests, but this is often no longer the case. This system has given those with power and wealth the unbridled freedom to accrue more power and wealth at the expense of others. This is demonstrated starkly by the fact that, in both the U.S. and U.K. the bottom half of the population in terms of wealth has seen no significant real term wage rise since the late 1970s. At the same time, they have had to watch the other half leave them behind. This largely explains why approximately half of the population of the U.S. and U.K voted for Donald Trump and Brexit respectively in 2016.

The Dark Side of Meritocracy

Neoliberalism has also gone hand in hand with the rise of meritocracy. This is the idea that the success of an individual depends on their merit. At first glance this sounds good, and it has been championed by left wing politicians in the Neoliberal era including Tony Blair and Barak Obama. However, as philosopher Michael Sandel explains in his book ‘The Tyranny of Merit’, meritocracy has a dark side. The justification for meritocracy rests on the assumption that those with merit deserve their success, but this is not necessarily the case. Firstly, wealth in western society is closely correlated to education. It is no coincidence that approximately half of the adult populations of the U.S. and U.K have a university degree. Do natural talents guarantee a place at university? Not necessarily – wealthy parents have access to the best schools and can afford benefits including additional professional tuition. Secondly, none of us have achieved our merits on our own. We have all had help to get where we are, from friends, family and other environmental factors. Many of us have genetic gifts that we cannot claim to have ‘earnt’. The fact is that most of us will never be able to break the 100m Olympic sprint record, no matter how hard we train. Secondly, why are some merits given higher reward than others? Why is the greatest footballer given greater financial reward than the greatest nurse? The answer is that questions of ethical value are currently determined by the free market. However, it is far from clear that the free market is able to make good ethical decisions regarding value. Is it right that the world’s greatest footballer, whose merits come partly through accidents of nature and nurture, is rewarded so well, compared to the world’s greatest nurse?

What about those who, also through accidents of nature and nurture, are not lucky enough to have merits highly valued by the free market? Meritocracy says that if you work hard you can earn success in life. What does this say to the bottom half of society who have not achieved a real term wage rise under Neoliberalism? It says that their lack of success is their own fault – you had a chance at success and did not take it. This understandably leads to a sense of resentment towards those who have succeeded (the ‘elite’), which has been harnessed by populist politicians. Leaving aside the fact that this resentment is corroding our society, the real injustice is that the premise behind the resentment is wrong. If Sandel is right in saying that those who succeed do not earn their success, that also means those who fail are also not responsible for their failure. Responsibility lies with the Neoliberal status quo, which makes immoral value judgements and allows the wealthy to exploit the rest. Meritocracy is an attractive solution to left-wing politicians who have given up on the challenging pursuit of equality. It allows the pretence that everyone can make it if they try hard enough, but this is not the case. Everyone needs help in life.

The Post War Consensus

If the current political system needs to change, an obvious solution is to revert to what was in place before. The political system before Neoliberalism has been referred to under various names, including ‘Welfare State Liberalism’ and the ‘Post War Consensus’. Regardless of left or right wing, it was characterised by powerful, centralised government and public ownership of industry. It took a paternalistic approach to government, which was there to take care of people. However, it suffered to a lesser degree from the problems faced by Totalitarian government. Government was done to people, not with people. Further, the complexity of the modern state means that countries cannot be effectively run by a single central administration, remote from the people it is trying to govern.

If both the current and previous political systems are to be rejected, what is the alternative? It is perhaps best to start the answer with an analogy based on models for ownership of business. Neoliberalism can be compared to a model where a business is owned by a small number of wealthy and powerful shareholders. Welfare State Liberalism can be compared to a business which is publicly owned by the government but whose employees have little say in how the business is run. The third option is a business which is owned by its employees, and whose directors are primarily responsible for meeting the needs of its employees. What would a society based on that model look like?

A New Liberalism

I started by saying that the problem is that people feel they have no stake in society. The solution is to give people real political power. This can be done by devolving power as locally as possible, from regional parliaments and administrations with real sovereign political power, down to local community leaders with small grants of public money as well as support and training from local government. This can be augmented by regular Citizen’s Assemblies at the local, regional and national levels, to bring people into the decision-making process in an informed way. It is not enough for a centralised government to ‘listen’ to local people. It is not enough for local governments to be given grants from central government. Westminster is a middleman which in most areas of politics needs to be cut out of the loop, so that local and regional areas can decide how to solve their own problems. Freedom of the individual is at the core of Neoliberalism. The objective of this new way of thinking is to create a society of engaged citizens, each with the political responsibility to help ensure the success of their community.

Earlier I spoke about the dark side of the meritocratic mindset, but what is the alternative? The answer is provided by Michael Sandel. We must stop using the free market as the means of determining value, including how much a person should be paid (i.e. how much their job is worth). It is obvious that a financial speculator or hedge fund manager is not worth hundreds or thousands of times more to society than a nurse or teacher. We must instead go back to assigning value based on the ‘common good’. In my post reflecting on western philosophy, I concluded that ethics is about how we should live in order to be happy. The ultimate aim of politics, therefore, is to manage society in a way that best ensures our collective happiness. This is what is meant by the common good (things that are generally good for everyone, not merely a niche section of society), and it is the extent of contribution to the common good that should guide how much value we assign to the work that people do.

I also said in a previous post that there is no certain knowledge in the field of ethics, only opinions and beliefs. We need to recognise that everyone has talents, and that there is no certain logical way to determine that one type of talent is ethically more valuable than another. Therefore, we should not be too proud of our own talents, or too dismissive of others. Those with a University degree have no reason to presume that they are superior to those with a vocational qualification or experience. Further, we need to recognise that our success in life is determined largely by accidents of nature and nurture, rather than being earnt (even our inclination to ‘work hard’ is heavily influenced by our upbringing). If we find ourselves with the good fortune of being relatively successful in life, we have a responsibility to help those who have not been as fortunate.

Reviving Society

Subjects like devolution can easily appear unimportant compared to all of the urgent problems we face in the world today, but it gets to the core of the strength of our democracy. We have hard choices ahead, such as in relation to the environment, inequality and disruptive technologies, and we need everyone to participate in coming up with the solutions. Environmental policy will not work if it is done to people; it must be done with people. Democracy is the vehicle that allows us to get things done, and at the moment our democracy is a rust bucket running on fumes.

How do we heal a society, half of which has been left behind by Neoliberalism and the Free Market? It does not require the overturning of Liberalism, which values the freedom (agency) of each of us. Neither does it require the overturning of Capitalism, which says that wealth can be owned privately and should be invested in society to increase growth and prosperity. We must give everyone real power to influence what happens in their lives and their communities. We must challenge our own assumptions as to whether certain jobs and types of education are superior to others and stop looking down on those who we consider to be inferior. Finally, we must stop focusing on our differences, and work together towards enhancing the common good of society. I do not have a name for this new form of Liberal political philosophy, but these must be its aims.

Big Picture Politics

In this post I would like to reflect on the big picture of politics, within which any political system and accompanying set of policies must sit. It is reasonable to ask why political systems matter: surely individual policies are what affect our lives? My answer is that the political system defines the space in which policies can exist, and therefore define which policies can gain popular support. For example, the complete nationalisation of all industry will never have majority support within the western world because it is outside of our current political system, which is free market neo-liberalism. A politician wishing to enact such a policy would first have to achieve a political upheaval to replace neo-liberalism with something else.

The Branches of Humanism

In his 1989 essay entitled ‘The End of History’, Francis Fukuyama posited that there would be no entirely new political philosophies, and that Liberalism will become more and more prevalent in the future. The other two options to my mind are Communism and Nationalist Totalitarianism. Yuval Noah Harari makes a compelling case in his book ‘Homo Deus’ that a new political philosophy will arise in the future, but that discussion is for a later post. These three options can each be considered as branches of Humanism, which began during the Renaissance. Humanism was predominantly a literary movement, but in political terms it introduced a new source of legitimate political power. For any political entity to be stable, its members must consider its rulers to be legitimate. Before Humanism, rulers could only claim legitimate power through God, or simply through superior strength. Humanists sanctify humanity, and believe that people rather than God are the only legitimate source of political power. They may still believe in God, but they don’t think God determines who should be in charge.

The notion that people are the source of power leaves plenty of scope for debate, hence the three political branches. Humanism says that human happiness is the most important objective of politics, so it is useful to think of the three branches in that context. The challenge of course is that everyone is different, so how do you make everyone happy? Nationalists believe different groups of humans are in competition with each other, and that their group is superior to others. If some people are superior to others then the best and most capable person is best able to determine how to make everyone happy, and that only the happiness of their group is important. When taken to the extremes of Fascism and Nazism, it becomes a belief that the strong have a duty to destroy the weak so as to improve humanity as a race, like a warped version of evolutionary theory. Communism sanctifies human beings as a collective rather than individually, and says that equality is the best way to achieve the happiness of the collective. Therefore everyone should have equal political power. Finally, Liberalism sanctifies humans as individuals, and says that the best route to happiness is to give people the freedom to seek happiness for themselves. Freedom of the individual is therefore a cornerstone of Liberalism. The only source of legitimate power is the opinion of each individual; therefore democracy is inseparable from Liberalism. It’s worth noting that the common definition of happiness as ‘subjective well-being’ is liberal. It means that happiness is a feeling whose causes are unique to each individual; therefore it cannot be determined objectively. A scientist might argue that happiness is determined by brain and nervous system activity and the presence of biochemical substances such as dopamine. This is just one example where new scientific understanding appears to conflict with our liberal way of thinking.

There is, as far as I’m aware, no universally accepted definition of the term Communism, so I will briefly explain what I understand it to be. It is sometimes misunderstood to mean a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (which incidentally Marx did not intend to mean a totalitarian dictatorship, but rather a democratic model where voting rights are restricted to the working class, who would be the majority). This however is not Communism, but a system Marx invented as a step towards Communism. A real Communist society is a collection of small and self-sufficient communities. Marx hoped that a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat would dissolve the State in order to bring about a Communist society, but this has never happened, and the reality has always been Nationalist Totalitarianism. There are many examples where Communism has existed, but only at the level of a town or village, and only for a few years. I have so far not used the term Socialism, only because to my understanding it is too broad to be usefully applied to a political system. In the broadest sense, Socialism is a desire to act in the interests of society as a whole, and this sentiment is not incompatible with any of the three branches of Humanism (although it is most compatible with Communism).

Political Power & The State

To make this a little more visual, I have shown the three political systems in order of extent of central government control. Communism is at one end because there is no central government control, and no state. Nationalist Totalitarianism concentrates all power in the State, which is controlled by an individual or small group. Liberalism sits in-between, with a State which has significant power but which is ultimately chosen by the people. Before choosing a political system it is worth considering what characteristics they have in regards to other aspects of politics, such as the basis for authority (how do you choose who is in charge?) and their economic systems. Liberalism sanctifies the opinion of every individual, so the question of who should be in charge can only be answered by asking everyone through a democratic process. The Nationalist Totalitarianism system says that the strongest and most capable leaders will naturally rise to the top, so favour oligarchic systems. If you believe that greatness is at least to some extent passed on genetically, then hereditary systems also make sense. Communism is compatible with all of these systems, but Marx intended Communist societies to be democratic. Indeed, democracy is easier in small societies from a logistical perspective, and options such as direct democracy become more practical compared to a state with tens of millions of people. 

Economic Systems

Liberalism is closely tied to Capitalism, which requires the state to step back from direct management of the economy and leave it to private individuals, including investors and entrepreneurs. The natural inclination in a Totalitarian state is for the state to run everything, including the economy. The obvious historical example of a managed economy was the Soviet Union. The problem with this approach is that as society became more complex and the pace of change accelerated through the 20th century, economies became impossible for a single central committee to manage effectively. This is somewhat analogous to a set of Christmas tree lights wired in series or in parallel. In a parallel system one failure means one light fails, but in a series system they all fail. Likewise, a free market capitalist economy has countless failures, which means people lose their jobs and investors lose money on a daily basis, but the failures are small enough that they don’t undermine the system as a whole. When a managed economy fails, it can and has led to the starvation and death of millions at a time. The Cold War in this context was really a victory for an economic rather than political system. Capitalism has reigned supreme since 1989 but Liberalism has not, as can be seen from the example of China.

The problem for Communism is that modern standards of living require mass cooperation, in order to create and maintain the very complex goods and services that we have become used to, and to achieve the productivity levels required to produce enough food despite so few of us working in agriculture. For that reason a true Communist society would, in my opinion, be an agrarian society. In a Communist society all goods are owned in common and not by individuals, and the managed economy is the system for distributing goods for individual usage. The problems associated with complexity in a Totalitarian state-managed economy are addressed by the relative simplicity and small scale of a Communist society. It can be further addressed in a democratic Communist society because everyone can have a say in how the economy is managed, making it a less centralised system. If you can forego the amenities of modern life then Communism has much to commend it.

Reflections on Western Philosophy

Having written about Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, I would like to record some of my reflections on Western Philosophy, by focusing on two key themes that run through the book. First though, is a quick reflection on what I have learnt from reading about philosophy in general. A person who reads philosophy expecting to find definitive answers to the great questions of life will be disappointed. This should not be a surprise; had the meaning of life been discovered by a past philosopher then it would have been more widely publicised. Philosophy tackles questions for which there is no certain right or wrong answer. It is not finding the truth that matters most. The process of being exposed to big ideas is mind-expanding, and helps one to be open to new ideas. This is particularly important in our modern social media world of bubbles and echo-chambers, where algorithms direct us towards people who comfort us with similar points of view. It is easier to have an open minded discussion about Brexit if you have already considered the idea that all of reality itself may be subjective.

Epistemology – The Quest for Knowledge

Given that philosophy is ultimately the search for knowledge, the question of how we can find knowledge and where it comes from is of central importance. The ancient Greeks thought that inspiration is achieved through deep contemplation. There were strong elements of mysticism in Greek philosophy. Many of the great thinkers believed that such inspiration comes from God (or some sort of Supreme Being), and that the process of contemplation allows one to be closer to God. Pythagoras took this a stage further and believed that he was divine. There was also a view, articulated by Plato, that our senses can be deceiving, and that knowledge gained by observing the world around us is imperfect at best. Ideas were therefore considered a far superior source of knowledge than observation (exemplified by Plato’s Theory of Ideas), and deduction was used to establish new knowledge from existing ideas. In the modern period this way of thinking would be known as ‘Idealism’. In the Medieval period the mystical element was strengthened to the point that all knowledge was believed to come from God. This substantially constrained the quest for knowledge. People came to believe that knowledge could only be found by studying Holy Scriptures, and that to search for knowledge elsewhere was an offence to God. Many Medieval philosophers, including Thomas Aquinas, believed that some knowledge could not be known by mere mortals and had to be taken on faith.

This attitude changed in the modern era. The scientific revolution of the 17th century convinced many that the scriptures were not the only, or even the most important, source of knowledge. Driven by the modern scientific method, observation became a key source of knowledge. This was developed by Locke into the doctrine of Empiricism. Doubts over observation remained and were developed by the likes of Berkeley and Hume. They were empiricists in that they believed all knowledge originates from observation, but the flaws they identified with observation led them to sceptical positions. In other words, they believed that there is much that we cannot know.

Idealism remained strong in the modern era, starting with Descartes and then the German Idealists of the 19th century. However, I find myself agreeing with Russell’s anti-idealist position. The problem is that ‘large edifices of knowledge’ are created from often questionable starting points. It leads to the creation of grand metaphysical theories to explain all of reality, and a temptation to selectively choose arguments in support of the overall theory. Hegel is a prime example. I would not deny that Hegel is worth studying, but I think that one should look to find inspiration rather than knowledge in his work. I am a fan of Russell’s logical realism, whereby philosophical enquiry is less ambitious and grounded in sound logic and scientific understanding.

Ethics – The Pursuit of Happiness

I have found little consensus within philosophy as to the meaning or purpose of life. I have, however, found a high degree of consensus as to what above all else we should try to achieve in life. The answer is happiness. The study of ethics can be seen as the study of how we should behave in order to be happy, both as individuals and as a society. At this point the consensus breaks down, as every thinker has a different idea as to how to achieve happiness. The Ancient Greeks generally believed that happiness is best achieved through knowledge. While I wouldn’t say that this is the complete answer, I do have some sympathy with it. A lot of unhappiness is rooted in fear, and fear is generally caused by the unknown, i.e. by absence of knowledge. Further, the old phrase ‘knowledge is power’ has some merit, and the word ‘power’ can reasonable be substituted for ‘agency’. Knowledge gives us a better chance of being in control of what happens to us, rather than being at the mercy of events. Another branch of Ancient Greek philosophy, the Hellenistic schools, argued that unhappiness is caused by our desires, which can never be sated. Therefore, the only route to happiness is to train ourselves not to want anything, and to live simple, ascetic lives. I suspect this is not entirely achievable for most people, but questioning our own desires from time to time is probably a good thing.

In the Medieval period the emphasis on knowledge morphed into the idea that happiness is achieved through knowledge of God. This meant that we could gain happiness by bringing ourselves closer in understanding to the wonder of God and his designs. In another sense, it meant that even if we couldn’t find happiness in this life, if we followed God’s teachings we could be sure of eternal happiness in heaven. While I accept that faith gives happiness to billions of people, I have not myself been able to find faith in God. Some philosophers in the Medieval and early modern period grappled with the question of why God allows unhappiness in the world. I think there is some merit in Leibniz’s view that we need some unhappiness in order to be happy. Human beings have an extraordinary ability to get used to things. This means that no matter how good things are, we get acclimatised and want more. We need rainy days to enjoy the sunshine. We need death in order to get the most out of life.

In the modern era, Immanuel Kant attempted to use logic to determine how we should live ethically. He arrived at his ‘categorical imperative’, which said an action is right if it meets two criteria. Firstly, it is possible for everyone to do it (which might suggest that debt and borrowing, and therefore capitalism itself, is unethical – we can’t all be in debt as there would be no one to lend). Secondly, an action is right if we would be happy for it to do done to us. At the risk of making an enormous over-simplification, this sounds to me like the Christian doctrine as treating others as you would like to be treated. Russell showed that certain examples can be found which expose holes in Kant’s logic, but as a piece of general guidance on how we should behave I think it has much going for it. The Utilitarians believed we should all act so as to maximise net human happiness. This poses a number of challenges – what happens when happiness conflicts with freedom, how do we compare different levels or qualities of happiness, how do we trade present for future happiness? Like most doctrines, as long as we are conscious of its limitations and do not pursue it to the extreme, Utilitarianism is a useful guide for life.

I would like to end by reiterating a point from a previous post. Like Bertrand Russell, it is my view that there is no way of achieving ‘true’ answers to questions of ethics. The appropriate response, if this is true, is a sense of humility in one’s own ethical position, and a sincere respect for the beliefs of others.

The Philosophy of Logical Analysis

In this last post covering Bertrand Russell’s history of western philosophy I come to the school of philosophical thought to which Russell identifies himself as a member. Russell’s foremost contribution to philosophy was in the field of logic, and this is apparent in the methodical and relatively dispassionate approach he takes in his book to analysing the ideas of other thinkers through the ages. There is no doubt that he strongly opposes idealism and metaphysical thinking, and it is not clear to me whether this is entirely due to logical falicies, or whether there is an element of natural bias – a vice that we are all susceptible to.

Logic & Science

According to Russell, the great mathematicians of the 17th century were optimistic and anxious for quick results, and sometimes left the foundations of their work logically insecure. For example, it was apparently only at the end of the 19th century that a satisfactory definition of the word ‘number’ was provided. Kant had said that mathematical propositions were ‘synthetic’, and therefore their truth is a matter of belief rather than certainty. In his work ‘Principia Mathematica’, Russell aimed to show how pure mathematics can be deduced from logic, and therefore can be considered objectively true.

Modern advances in other fields, such as physics and psychology, have also affected received wisdom within philosophy. One example is the understanding of mind and matter. Common sense had always led us to think of the world as composed of ‘things’, which exist at various points in space and time. Advances in physics led us to think of things as being made up ultimately of atoms, which exist permanently. Einstein’s work led us to think that the world should be described in terms of ‘events’ rather than matter, with each event being related to other events in terms of space and time. ‘Matter’ then is perhaps just a convenient idea for collecting events into bundles, in order to help us make sense of the world. Quantum Theory undermined the orthodox belief in continuity of motion and showed that physical phenomena are discontinuous. At this point I am well beyond my understanding of physics, but I think the point is to show how advances in science have undermined conventional philosophical beliefs. Modern physics has also helped philosophers understand the nature of perception. What we perceive (e.g. see, hear or feel) in relation to an object must to some extent resemble the object if it is to be considered knowledge. This is only the case if there is a causal link between object and perception, which is not overly distorted by anything else. In regards to sight, we know that light waves link us to the object being perceived, but that they can change somewhat between the object and our eyes – light can be affected by gravity, or refracted. There are also potential physiological effects between our eyes and our brains. This suggests we can gain useful knowledge of the world through observation, but not complete knowledge.

Analytical Empiricism

Russell is describing an approach to philosophy that he calls ‘analytical empiricism’. It is characterised by disciplined logic and is consistent with the latest scientific understanding. It aims to solve specific problems, rather than create metaphysical systems. Russell believed that this is the only way of thinking that allows philosophy to actually solve problems and create new knowledge. However, he cautions that science cannot help us in understanding ethical questions within philosophy. One of the great errors throughout philosophy has been the failure to separate two questions: how does the world work, and what is the best way of living. The approach to the first question must be a disinterested search for truth, which examines all preconceptions. Even the greatest philosophers, starting with Plato, have allowed their view of how the world should be to affect their understanding of how the world is. This leads to error and confusion, and is a kind of self-censorship. This is most obvious within medieval Catholic philosophy, but is common throughout history. Philosophers like Russell believe that there is no way of achieving ‘true’ answers to questions of ethics. The appropriate response if this is true is a sense of humility in one’s own ethical position, and a sincere respect for the beliefs of others.

The American Philosophers

This post covers two American philosophers, William James and John Dewey, who were prominent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and both born in New England. Both were successful in multiple fields including science, politics and education, but from a purely philosophical perspective what they have in common is the theory of ‘instrumentalism’.

William James

Before coming to instrumentalism a look at James’ doctrine of ‘radical empiricism’, in which he rejected the orthodox view that the process of gaining knowledge of something can be described in terms of a subject-object relationship. In this traditional relationship the subject, which is regarded as a mind, becomes aware of the object, which can be another mind or something material. James’ ideas undermined a number of existing notions, including the clear distinction between mind and matter. ‘Mind’ or ‘soul’ should not be considered as a thing separate to matter. Consciousness should be considered only as a state of being, not evidence of a separate thing called mind or soul. There is only material, out of which all things are composed, and some things are in a state of consciousness. James calls this material ‘pure experience’, but according to Russell does not really explain what is meant by this. Nevertheless, on the basic point that mind does not exist as a separate thing, James and Russell are in agreement.

James believed that the purpose of philosophy, when examining whether a given theory or idea is true, is to determine what practical difference it makes to us if the theory is true. Theories then become more like instruments than answers to problems, hence the term ‘instrumentalism’. According to James, an idea is ‘true’ if it is believed to have a positive effect on our lives. This means that the status of true or false is not static – ideas can, for example, be made true by events. This belief is influenced by James’ preoccupation with religion and ethics. He is more interested in how we can lead good and virtuous lives, rather than finding objective truth. As a Christian, it is useful for him to be able to say that God exists because this belief has a positive effect on people. Russell, however, identifies some issues with the theory that ideas are true if their effects are good. How do we determine whether the effects of something are good, particularly when discussing questions other than ethics? To use Russell’s example, how would we establish when Columbus discovered the new world? Is it better for him to have done so in 1492 or 1493? Also, if the reasons for us believing something true are to be true themselves, then they must also have good effects, and so on ad infinitum. Like many philosophers, James is a natural sceptic looking for a way to establish what is true. He cannot be certain that God exists, so settles with belief in God, and claims that this is the same thing. This only seems valid if you think that objective truth is not important, and that it is the effect of what we believe to be true that matters. The Pope condemned this defence of religion – it did matter to him that God exists.

John Dewey

Russell is full of praise for John Dewey as a person and as a philosopher, and regrets that he cannot agree with everything that Dewey says, even though he would like to. Dewey was another of the protagonists for the theory of instrumentalism. Like James, Dewey criticised the traditional notion of ‘truth’ as something that is perfect, static and final. According to this notion mathematics is given high regard – two plus two will always equal four. In religious terms, truth is traditionally identified with the knowledge of God, i.e. having an appreciation of what God’s thoughts are through increased understanding of the nature of God. Dewey’s perspective is biological, and he considers thought to be an evolutionary process. Truth is defined in terms of inquiry, i.e. truth is what we would believe to be correct, given sufficient inquiry. This leads us needing to define what inquiry is. According to Russell’s interpretation, inquiry is the process of mutual adjustment between an organism (e.g. person) and its environment such that the relationship between the two is satisfactory to the organism, as long as the adjustment is mainly on the part of the organism. To give Russell’s analogy, during a battle a General seeks to alter their environment, i.e. the enemy, so this is not inquiry. Before the battle, the General carries out reconnaissance of the enemy and their battle preparations, and makes counter preparations. This process is more about adapting one’s own plans rather than the environment so can be considered as inquiry. 

For Dewey, there is no such thing as absolute truth or falsehood; rather, there are degrees of truth. Therefore, we can only say that we believe things to be true or false, with different degrees of certainty. So far this is not very controversial. The controversy comes from Dewey’s refusal to accept the concept of objective facts which are always true. He does not classify beliefs as being true or false, but rather good or bad, and this is dependent on whether they have good or bad effects. This idea has several consequences for our conception of truth. It means that things are ever changing as their effects change – something which was bad in the past could be good in the future, and vice versa. Truth also becomes subjective – what is good for one person may be bad for another. It also means that we cannot determine whether something is true until we’ve understood whether its consequences are good or bad for us. Russell highlights the potential for absurdity using a typically practical and specific example: how should we answer if asked whether we had coffee with our breakfast?

Instrumentalism is an idea full of confidence and optimism, and no doubt influenced by contemporary social circumstances, conceived as it was while America was on the rise. If you do not like that something is true or false, most people would say that there is nothing humans can do to make it otherwise. Instrumentalism says that we should not despair, and that with sufficient thought and power one can change the world, through inquiry, such that our relationship to the world is satisfactory. Russell ends with a note of caution. Throughout most of history humans have thought that the concept of ‘truth’ is dependent on facts that are outside of human control and this has retained an element of humility within philosophy. Starting in the 19th century along came philosophies centred on power and action. In Russell’s words, “man, formally too humble, begins to think of himself as almost a God”.


With Henri Bergson we reach the 20th century in this history of western philosophy. Russell categorises Bergson’s philosophy as a practical one, inspired by a love of action, where knowledge is merely the instrument of successful activity. This is in contrast to philosophies of feeling, inspired by a love of happiness, and theoretical philosophies, inspired by a love of knowledge. Bergson has a dynamic conception of reality, and praises those who act on instinct. Intellectual thought is condemned as slow and constraining, and inconsistent with the nature of life.

The Struggle of Life

Bergson divides the world into life and matter. These two are in perpetual conflict and travelling in opposite directions – life climbs upwards, whereas matter falls downward. Life is a great force which is constantly fighting its way past the inert matter in its path. It is always struggling to get through, sometimes divided by obstacles into divergent streams, sometimes held and pushed backwards by matter, but always looking for ways to climb upwards, and always looking for ways to manipulate and organise matter in order to get through. Through this struggle life changes and evolves.

Historically there had been two ways to explain why things happen. One is teleological – things have a natural tendency to develop to their potential, or to fulfil their natural purpose. For example, it is the natural purpose of an acorn to grow into an oak tree. The other is mechanistic – things happen due to past causes. Bergson rejected both explanations, believing that life has an impulse to action to achieve undefined wants, and this drives events. Traditional evolutionary theory would say that chance mutations, such as those leading to the ability to see, are passed on because they make an animal better adapted to survive. Bergson believed that sightless animals would have had a vague desire to be more aware of the objects they came into contact with, and this desire led to efforts which resulted in the creation of eyes. However, eyes could not have been imagined until they came into being, which shows that the evolutionary outcome of life’s desires is unpredictable. This is disconcerting to anyone who wants to think that we consciously determine a goal and act in order to achieve that outcome. Rather, we are blindly driven by instinct, like objects floating on the sea, drifting according to invisible currents.

Against Intellect

At one point in evolution, instinct and intellect appeared. According to Bergson, instinct is good and intellect is bad. Intellect thinks in the context of space, and is only capable of understanding the world as discrete and static objects. As shown earlier, this is not how the world really is – things are in constant movement, upwards in the case of life and downwards in the case of matter. The mind artificially creates discrete objects to try and make sense of the world. The exceptions are the realms of logic and geometry, but otherwise a reliance on reasoning is likely to lead to misunderstandings. Instinct, on the other hand, thinks in the context of time, which is the essential characteristic of an ever changing world. What we would commonly conceive of time, as the sequence of multiple events, is really just a type of space. Real time is referred to by Bergson as duration. Russell admits to not fully understanding what Bergson means by duration, but I have done my best to provide an explanation. Duration is the form that our conscience takes when we stop artificially separating our present state from our past states, and combine them into a single organic whole. When we think in terms of duration we can experience reality as it really is – as perpetual change, where nothing is static.

We best experience this through memory, where the past can survive in the present. The ability to recite something by heart, e.g. a poem, is not really memory. Memory is the ability to recall past events, such as a past occasion of reading said poem. Memory is evidence of the soul, and is entirely independent of matter. Opposite to memory is perception. Empirical idealists, such as Berkeley, said that mind played an important role in perception – we cannot objectively perceive the world around us, so the mind generates our own subjective vision as to what the world is like. Bergson on the other hand, takes an ‘ultra-realist view’ in almost entirely dismissing the role of mind from the process of perception. When we perceive something, we step outside of our minds and experience an object first hand. We would perceive everything around us, were it not for the brain, which determines what we perceive and what we don’t. In this sense, the brain limits our life (mentally at least) to what is practically useful.

Bergson generally does not give reasons for his opinions, but according to Russell, he is helped by an attractive literary style. Russell declares that he can find no reason for accepting Bergson’s view of the universe. Bergson’s anti-intellectual philosophy, we are told, ‘thrives upon the errors and confusion of the intellect’. Every past intellectual error of humankind, and every problem not solved by rational argument, is used as evidence for the bankruptcy of intellect and the primacy of intuition. In mathematics for example, Russell claims that Bergson deliberately focuses on traditional errors and ignores more modern advances in understanding. Russell is also unimpressed by Bergson’s conception of time. Bergson appears to have believed that the past does not exist, because existence is defined by action, and action only exists in the present. When we recollect things they exist in the present, according to Bergson. He rejects the conception of time as separate events and for that reason rejects the idea of considering past and present as separate things. Life is continuous change, and whatever is not around us exists in the present through recollections that we have in the present. However, if action only exists in the present, where did our recollections come from? Why consider the present moment as being more special than what has come before?  

Karl Marx & Philosophy

In this post I am returning to Karl Marx, to give Russell’s more philosophically focused account of his beliefs. Marx does not fit neatly into one category, be it philosopher, economist or political scientist. Even as a philosopher he is hard to classify. He is in part a successor to the English rationalist philosophers such as the Utilitarians and Locke, including the scientific bias and a dislike of romanticism. In another sense he is a successor to Hegel and the German Idealists – ‘the last great system builder’, to quote Russell.

Dialectical Materialism

Marx was a materialist, which means he believed that reality consists primarily of matter. Ideas are secondary and the result of material processes (e.g. the result of electrons firing in the brain). This is in opposition to the idealists, who believe that reality is best understood through ideas. Marx developed what he called dialectical materialism, and used it to create an alternative to Hegel’s conception of history. Traditional materialism said that in the act of observing something, the object (observer) is active while the subject is passive. But knowledge should not be considered as a sense of passive contemplation. For Marx, both subject and object are changed in the process of gaining knowledge about a subject. Both subject and object are therefore in a constant state of change, and the process is dialectic because it is never fully completed. Like Hegel, Marx believed that the world develops according to a dialectic formula, but believed that the cause of change is our relationship with matter. The most important part of this relationship is the mode of production. Through this thought, what was an abstract metaphysical idea becomes a practical economic theory.

According to Marx’s materialist conception of history, any period of human history is best understood as an outcome of its methods of production. Russell goes on to consider to what extent this conception can be considered valid. It can certainly be argued that philosophers throughout history have been influenced by the world around them. Hellenistic philosophy generally reflects a world of chaos and suffering, and early Christian philosophy contains the fatalism of a world approaching the end times. Early modern enlightenment philosophy reflects predominantly the interests of the commercial middle class, and Marx’s ideas are relevant to an industrial society. However, the influences on philosophers have been as much political and cultural as they have been economic. In addition, it is hard to argue that all ideas reflect the society of the day, particularly when very different ideas have been conceived at similar time periods through history. Russell concludes that there are questions in philosophy that are scientific or logical, and which are less influenced by society and more likely to produce general consensus. There are also questions which pure reason cannot fully answer, which require extra-rational decisions to be made. It is these questions to which Marx’s conception of history is more applicable.

From Feudalism to Socialism

There is only really one triad (thesis, antithesis and synthesis) that concerns Marx in his materialist dialectic. It could be said that feudalism is the thesis, capitalism the antithesis and socialism the synthesis. Marx did not believe socialism would happen due to ethical considerations, but believed that it is the predetermined destination for human society, as shown by logical dialectic argument. Russell does not go into the merits of socialism over capitalism, believing it to be a more political than philosophical debate. Despite Marx’s desire to appear scientific in approach, the influence of Hegel on Marx is unscientific. The dialectic method assumes that progress is a constant, but there is nothing scientific to prove that there will always be progress. Without this assumption, there is no reason to think that socialism will happen, even if it is rationally better than capitalism. Despite believing in socialism on rational grounds himself, Marx (at least for most of his life) did not believe that socialism would come about as a result of rational debate. Instead he believed that only the working classes could be persuaded to follow socialism, so hung his hopes on class war. According to Russell, there are influences here of the emotion and violence of romanticism, and the power politics of Nietzsche.


Nietzsche is the most controversial philosopher of the modern era. Despite frequent criticism aimed at the romantics, he shares the same outlook, which can be summarised as aristocratic anarchism. Nietzsche attempts to combine a love of ruthlessness, war and aristocratic pride on the one hand, with a love of philosophy and the arts on the other. He also shares a fundamental similarity with Machiavelli, which is an ethic based on achieving power.

Hero Worship

Nietzsche actively opposes the idea of equality – the majority are only a means by which the aristocratic minority achieve excellence, and have no independent right to happiness or well-being. Value is found in the work of great men (he was contemptuous of women). The terrors of the French Revolution are justified simply in making the rise of Napoleon possible. He believed that great men had a responsibility to resist the democratic tendencies of the age, in order to ensure that mediocre people do not join together to take control. Compassion is a weakness to be combated. Nietzsche admires strength of will above all else, and this is best demonstrated in the ability to endure as well as inflict pain and suffering. He claims to want more pain and suffering in the world, in order that those with strength of will can more readily rise to the top. Unlike Hegel he is not a worshipper of the State, or even a nationalist. Like the romantics he is a passionate individualist, and a believer in the ‘hero’. The misery of a whole nation is of little importance compared to the sufferings of a great hero. He wants an international ruling aristocratic ruling elite, but there is no indication that this ruling elite should be German.

Compassion vs. Contempt

Nietzsche was contemptuous of Christianity. Enlightenment thinkers had criticised the Church on the grounds that its dogma is untrue, and on the grounds that it was used by tyrants and despots to claim legitimate power, and deny the liberty and democratic rights of the people. Nietzsche had the opposite view, that socialism and Christianity were essentially the same in spirit – they both said that everyone should be treated equally, which for Nietzsche is the greatest wrong. Submission is right but not to God. Rather, people should submit to the hero elite. Christianity has had a degenerative effect on humankind, and nobody of note ever resembled the Christian ideal. Nietzsche is nauseated by repentance and redemption, believing that the strong are worn down and eventually perish through excessive self-contempt and self-immolation. Nietzsche’s perfect person is not the Christian saint, but what he calls the ‘noble man’, who is a governing aristocrat. He is capable of cruelty, and only recognises the rights of his equals. He will be ready to use violence and war to exert power, and to sacrifice ordinary people as required. According to Russell, Nietzsche condemns Christian love because he thinks it is an outcome of fear: I am afraid that others will injure me, so I pretend to love them. If I were stronger and bolder I would openly display the contempt for them that I really feel. It does not appear to have occurred to Nietzsche that a person could genuinely feel universal love for others. Neither does it occur to Nietzsche that a desire for power is often caused by fear. It is generally the case that those who feel fearful and defensive tyrannise others, whereas those who feel safe and confident share power with others.

Russell goes on to ask how far Nietzsche’s doctrines are true, and whether they are at all useful. Is the aristocratic ethic correct, whereby only the happiness of the aristocratic elite matters, or does the happiness of everyone matter equally? Nietzsche would argue that the aristocratic elite is descended from a conquering race, and are therefore a superior race. It is in everyone’s interests that they should hold all the power, as they will be more effective at wielding it. Before assuming that a democratic society is better than an aristocratic one, we should remember that almost all societies up to the modern era have been aristocratic, so it can be said to have had a long and successful history. One might say that the aristocratic ethic increases the suffering of the majority. Nietzsche would counter that trivial people suffer trivially and great people suffer greatly, and the suffering of great people is an opportunity for them to demonstrate their strength of will, which is to be admired and celebrated. Nietzsche might also say that it is impossible in practice to eliminate suffering, and any attempt to make society equal would destroy greatness and make life dull. Ultimately, Nietzsche’s beliefs are based more on emotion than reason (and where they rely on reason are self-consistent), so cannot be decisively defeated by reason. It is up to us as individuals to decide whether we think universal love should be celebrated or despised.


Schopenhauer is not typical of contemporary German philosophers of the 19th century. He is a pessimist, is not particularly academic, dislikes Christianity, and has no nationalist sentiments. In Russell’s words, his appeal is less to professional philosophers, but to artistic or literary people in search of a philosophy that they could believe. If true, it is interesting to wonder what this says about ‘artistic or literary people’, given Schopenhauer’s view of the world.

The Wicked Cosmic Will

Like Kant, Schopenhauer believed that objects themselves are unknowable, that all we can know are the sensations that objects cause, and that these sensations are processed in the mind so are therefore subjective. However, Schopenhauer said that what appears to sense-perception as our bodies is really our will. By this I think he meant that our actions, including bodily movements, are determined by our will. Reminiscent of Hegel, he also believed that separateness is an illusion, and that our will is better understood as a part of the overall will of the universe. The idea of a single cosmic ‘will’ sounds a little like Spinoza’s conception of God, but Schopenhauer’s pessimism takes him down a very different path. The cosmic will is wicked, and is the source of all our suffering. Suffering is essential to all life, and is increased by every increase in knowledge. Our attempts at finding happiness are ultimately futile. To give Schopenhauer’s analogy, it is like blowing out a soap bubble as long and as large as possible, knowing perfectly well that soon it will burst. Fulfilment of our desires causes only temporary satiety, and unfulfilled desires cause unhappiness.

A life of near non-existence

There is an escape from this unhappiness, which can be found in the teachings of Buddhism. The cause of suffering is intensity of will, therefore the less we exercise our will, the less we will suffer. To break down our will we must shun our desires and live the ascetic life, which includes chastity, poverty and fasting. The right sort of knowledge can help, if it allows us to understand the universal will rather than merely our own. Through understanding the pain and suffering of others we can forget our own individual desires. It must be said that Schopenhauer’s ideal person is not one who uses this newfound understanding to help others – this would be futile. It is someone who turns away from the world and lives a life of near non-existence. If this is truly the best life, then that is a sad thought.

Russell complains that Schopenhauer’s own life had very little in common with his philosophy. He lived and ate well, enjoyed trivial love affairs, and was habitually selfish and quarrelsome. Apparently, his only virtue was an exceptional kindness towards animals. Nevertheless, Russell believes that Schopenhauer is historically important for two reasons. Firstly, Schopenhauer is one of the few true pessimists in philosophy, and so he arrived at ideas which would not occur to an optimist, and made philosophy more accessible to people of a pessimistic temperament. Secondly, and more importantly, he placed ‘will’ at the centre of his doctrine and made it more important than knowledge. This was a development of Rousseau’s conception of the ‘general will’ as the basis for political authority, and a development in the sceptical view of knowledge running through Berkeley, Hume, Kant and Hegel. The importance of will would become central to the next great western philosopher, Nietzsche.

Hegelian Philosophy

With Hegel I have arrived at the 19th century in Bertrand Russell’s history of western philosophy. He was considered one of the foremost thinkers during the 19th and early 20th centuries, so had a significant influence on modern philosophy. In Politics he was a mouthpiece of the rising Prussian state and gave it intellectual authority, as well as having a profound influence on Karl Marx.

Russell starts by making a few general points about Hegel’s beliefs by way of introduction.  Hegel believed that the world should not be thought of as a collection of individual things – the apparent self-sufficient existence of individual things is an illusion, and not entirely real. Only ‘the whole’ is entirely real, which he conceives as a complex system (rather than a single substance, like Parmenides or Spinoza), which is like an organism. Things can only truly be understood when viewed as part of the whole, much like an eye cannot fully be understood except in terms of how it functions as part of the human body. For Hegel, no statement can be entirely true unless it is about reality as a whole. I cannot describe myself fully without describing my family relations, the people I spend time with, the places I go to etc, but then all of those things need to be fully described. By that logic, I cannot be fully known until all of reality is known. My existence is not just me physically, but the effect I have had on the world around me.

The Dialectic System

Another thing to understand about Hegel is his emphasis on logic & metaphysics, to the extent that he believed the nature of reality can be deduced purely from the starting point that nothing in reality is self-contradictory. The method for this is the dialectic system for logical argument, which consists of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The thesis and antithesis are two opposing logical propositions; the synthesis puts the two together to say what can be true given both statements. However, any synthesis will be imperfect and can be treated as a new thesis with its own antithesis. In this way dialectic argument forms a chain of ever improving logical propositions, becoming ever more general, until they become a statement about reality as a whole, and can therefore be said to be wholly true. Hegel believed it is impossible to reach a statement of truth without using this method. However, he also said that reaching the end point is theoretical, as no human being can achieve complete truth – we must use the dialectic method to get as close as we can. Only the ‘Absolute Idea’ (which is similar to Aristotle’s conception of God) can achieve complete truth.

Hegel considers perfection to be in a closely knit whole, united into an organism whose interdependent parts all work together towards a single end. This is the ultimate ‘good’, and there is no more to Hegel’s ethics than that. His ‘Philosophy of History’ is the idea that the universe has developed through time like a dialectic, starting with simple and independent things, gradually moving towards perfect unity. The nearest thing to perfection in Hegel’s time in political terms is the Prussian state. In typical style, Russell remarks that this idea requires some distortion of facts and considerable ignorance. History, according to Hegel, has been the process of conferring discipline to people’s individual desires and uniting them under a general will, such that all are free. Here Hegel adopts Rousseau’s idea of the general will and his definition of freedom: when the state enforces the general will, it is forcing us to act as we would if we were free. The Prussian monarch embodies the general will of all, whereas parliamentary democracy represents only the will of the majority. The Prussian State is really a single whole, and any distinction between monarch and people is illusory. Therefore, if the monarch imprisons a dissenting subject, this is simply the general will of the state freely expressing itself.

The Glory of the State

Hegel’s belief that value is only to be found in a unified whole partly explains his glorification of the State. As individuals we are worthless; it is only as part of the State that we have value. Further, the State is essential in driving the dialect of human progress forwards towards complete truth. This importance means that States are not subject to the same moral laws that individuals are, and Hegel uses Hobbes’ state of nature to describe the relations between States. He goes further than Hobbes – war between States is not just inevitable, it is desirable. War is a key driver of human progress, and ensures that subjects remain devoted to the State, rather than be distracted by the desire for individual luxuries and pleasures. Russell notes that Hegel’s obsession with the State contradicts his desire for unity. Hegel’s logic led him to prefer a State to an anarchic collection of individuals, but should also have led him to prefer a World State to an anarchic collection of States. Hegel’s logic should also have led him to value individual subjects more highly. People are ‘a whole’ in themselves so have some value, but become more valuable when part of a greater whole. Hegel, however, appears to have believed that individuals have no value except as part of the State.  

Hegel’s philosophy raises the question as to whether the State has intrinsic value, or whether it is a means to an end. Hegel believed the former, but a liberal would believe the latter. Russell uses an analogy to explain the question. An eye by itself has no intrinsic value, but is valuable as part of the body as a means to see. Sight is valuable as a means to see food or threats, but has intrinsic value when we see things of beauty. Russell believes that Hegel ascribes intrinsic value to the State because the State is in a sense alive, and has a Spirit. This relates to Hegel’s metaphysical views, which Russell goes on to attack. Hegel’s philosophy rests on the view that to have true knowledge of anything, you must have knowledge of everything in the universe, because everything is to some extent connected. However, since it is impossible to know everything, this would suggest that we have no useful knowledge, and no way of knowing anything. Hegel believed that if we know enough about something to distinguish it from everything else, we can infer all its properties (and by extension all knowledge) by logic. Russell counters by categorising properties of things as being either qualities or relations. Qualities relate to the thing in itself, and relations to the relationship between two or more things. We can have useful knowledge of a thing’s qualities by observation, but it is impossible to infer relational properties from a thing’s qualities.

Kant & The Critique of Pure Reason

Immanuel Kant lived in the 18th century and was the founder of German Idealism. He is considered by many to be the greatest modern philosopher. Idealism itself is an old thought going back at least as far as Plato, and can in essence be described as the thought that reality is made up of ideas. Subjective Idealists (such as the Empiricists Berkeley & Hume) say that everyone perceives their own unique and subjective reality. Objective Idealists (such as Plato and Leibniz) say that reality is objective but transcends our perceptions, meaning that humans are incapable of perceiving true reality. Both positions, when taken to extremes, become increasingly implausible. Kant’s version of Idealism was partly an attempt to rebuke both (as well as Romanticism), and provide a definitive version of Idealism. German Idealists such as Hegel, Fichte and Schopenhauer would go on to dominate the 19th century. Today however, Idealism in general has not recovered from the attacks sustained by Russell, among others, in the 20th century.

The Four Categories of Logical Proposition

In order to construct his new Idealism Kant relies on two distinctions, one between ‘analytic’ and ‘synthetic’ propositions, and the other between ‘a priori’ and ‘empirical’ propositions. An analytic proposition is one where the predicate is a part of the subject. For example, ‘a triangle [subject] has three sides [predicate]’. Having three sides is part of the definition of a triangle. All other propositions are synthetic, such as ‘Napoleon [subject] was a great general [predicate]’. It is not inherently part of the definition of ‘Napoleon’ that he was a great general – that is a point of view. An empirical proposition is one that we can only know to be true based on observation (sense-perception). A priori propositions can be known by means other than observation, e.g. by reason. Combining the two distinctions, it can be shown that analytic propositions are always known a priori (this allowed him to disprove the hard-line empiricist position that nothing can be known a priori). As long as you fully understand the concept of a triangle, you will automatically understand that a triangle has three sides, without need for further observation. If analytic propositions are always known a priori, is the opposite true – can synthetic propositions ever be known a priori? For example, can any proposition regarding space and time be known purely by reason and not by experience? The answer to this question forms the basis for Kant’s work ‘The Critique of Pure Reason’.

The Subjectivity of Space & Time

Kant agrees with the Subjective Idealists in saying that objects themselves are unknowable. All we can know are the sensations that objects cause, and these sensations are processed in the mind so are therefore subjective. He also says that the relationship of objects to space and time are subjective.  Space and time are part of our apparatus of perception. Just like wearing blue glasses would cause everything to appear blue, so we experience the world wearing space and time glasses which cause us to experience things in the context of space and time. Because it is our minds that order things in space and time, we each do this a bit differently, such that the experience of space and time is subjective. Kant argues that attempts to understand space and time objectively through logical analysis leads to contradictory propositions which can all apparently be proven. For example, it can be argued that the Universe has a starting point in time and has a certain size, and it can be argued that it is infinite in both space and time. The fact that both contradictory positions can be argued through pure reason means that space and time cannot be understood this way, but rather through subjective experience; hence the critique of pure reason.

Kant argues that our understanding of space and time are known to us a priori (by reason and independent of experience). Starting with the belief that things do not themselves have properties of space and time, Kant argues that the mind must arrange things in space and time, and to do that the mind must understand space and time without need for observation. However, Kant does not explain why the mind positions things in the way it does, and why everyone’s mind appears to position things in the same way. To give Russell’s example, why do we all position eyes above the mouth, and experience thunder after lightning? Russell argues that while it is reasonable to argue that we subjectively perceive qualities of things (through seeing, hearing, feeling etc) but not objective things themselves, and our perceptions may be different to the things themselves, we should say that the two correlate. For example, we see colours rather than the wavelengths that cause the colours, but there is a correlation between them. In that sense space is no different. There is the subjective space which is part of what we perceive, and the objective space which we can only infer. If we subjectively perceive something to be located to the left of something else, that cannot be random, but must correlate in some way to the objective position of those two things. Russell argues that time is different, in that there cannot be subjective time. If we experienced the sequence of events in time subjectively, then even something as simple as having a conversation with someone would be extremely difficult.

The Categorical Imperative

Pure reason can allow us to form new ideas, but cannot prove these ideas to be real. Kant illustrates this point by attacking the proofs for God’s existence, which are based on pure reason (including the ontological argument – Kant simply says that it is possible to imagine something that does not exist). For Kant, the only correct practical use of pure reason is to solve questions of morality. Indeed, reason is the only way to solve questions of morality, and the method for doing so is as follows. Kant defines an imperative as a proposition that declares a certain action to be necessary, and there are two types of imperative. A hypothetical imperative is one that says an action is necessary in order to achieve a particular objective. However, this cannot determine whether the action is right or wrong, because it depends on whether the objective is right or wrong (Utilitarianism is based on a hypothetical imperative, and was therefore rejected by Kant – how do we know that maximising human happiness is the right objective?). A categorical imperative is one that says an action is necessary as an end in itself. Kant determines that there is one overarching categorical imperative; an action is right if it is possible for everyone to do it, and if we would be happy for it to do done to us. Kant’s example is that it is logically impossible for everyone to borrow money, as there would be no money left. Actions such as theft and murder are likewise condemned by the categorical imperative. Kant thereby claimed to have created a new system or morality based purely on reason. Returning to an earlier question from this post, the categorical imperative is a type of synthetic proposition, and one that can be known a priori. In political terms Kant’s morality could be used as a defence of democracy over absolute rule. It is logically impossible for everyone to rule absolutely as there would be no one left for any of us to rule. It is possible for us each to have an equal say in how we are ruled.

Rousseau & the Romantics

Romanticism began as a cultural movement in the late 18th century, but would soon become political and philosophical, largely due to Rousseau. It started in France among cultivated people who admired sensibility, which means a proneness to emotion and sympathy for the less well off. Ideally, said emotions should be direct, violent, and uninformed by reason. The Romantics valued beauty over usefulness, and were inspired by what was grand, remote and terrifying. Romanticism was above all a revolt against contemporary ethical and aesthetic standards, and against the intellectualism of the enlightenment. The enlightenment can be seen as an attempt to replace chaos and passion with order and reason, and Romanticism an attempt to bring it back. It is clear from reading Bertrand Russell that he is not a fan.

Feelings over Reason

In political terms, Romantics believe that people are naturally solitary, and that artificial institutions such as religion are required to force us to be social. Further, they agree with Locke that we naturally pursue short term over long term gains, and that government is required to force us to be prudent. For the romantic, society is a cage from which we are all consciously or subconsciously trying to escape. Those who can break free from society feel a sense of energy and power through their freedom, and through this power feel absolved of duty to society. Combined with a belief in feeling over reason as the source of knowledge, truth becomes whatever the individual feels it to be. In the 19th Century Romantics were often nationalists, believing that the nation had in a sense a soul, longing to be set free from the artificial boundaries of the state, and free from the constraints imposed by cooperation with other states. It is easy to see the seeds of populism in this belief system.

Rousseau was the first philosopher to advance arguments for the existence of God based on emotion rather than reason, and this style of argument has since become orthodox. Rousseau would write that the sight of a beautiful sunrise inspired in him adoration for God. This type of argument is unlikely to convince someone who feels differently, but difficult to refute because it is not based on reason. God’s laws are not to be deduced from high philosophy according to Rousseau, but can be found by searching one’s own feelings. Our feelings naturally guide us towards the common good, whereas reason leads us to self-interest. We need only follow our feelings to be virtuous and can dismiss conventional morality. Humankind in a state of nature (without society) are naturally good but are made bad by institutions. Russell is not impressed, noting there is no reason that knowledge based on feelings or emotions will be true, and refers to such arguments as ‘sentimental illogicality’.

The General Will

Russell has more time for Rousseau’s political philosophy, which contains mostly reason and little sentimentality. As with Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau uses a contract as the means in which the people confer legitimate authority on the sovereign. Rousseau aims to show how people can do this without giving up their freedom. As with Hobbes, the people must give up all of their individual freedom, so that they are all equal under the sovereign. The difference is that for Rousseau the sovereign is all of society as a collective, rather than the government or monarch. This means that the sovereign will always act in the interests of the people, because it is composed of all the people. The collective interests of the people are described as the ‘general will’. This is not simply the opinion of the majority. It is expressed as an almost theoretical outcome, whereby if everyone were fully informed then the ‘average’ opinion would be the general will. Everyone’s individual interests ultimately cancel each other out, so that we are only left with common interests. To use Russell’s analogy, all particles attract one another via a tiny gravitational force (individual interest), but these forces generally cancel out. Everything also experiences in common a gravitational attraction to the centre of the earth (common interests), and this remains the prevailing gravitational force, or in Rousseau’s terms the prevailing opinion of the general will. To give another analogy, if a buyer values an item at £5 and a seller at £10, the general will considers the value to be the average, i.e. £7.50. Neither party is fully satisfied, but this represents the best compromise of individual interests for everyone involved. Rousseau believed that when governments enforce the general will they are forcing people to be free. What he means is that we naturally follow our common interests when we are truly free, but modern society causes us to have individual interests. When the state enforces the general will, it is forcing us to act as we would if we were free. Therefore, we can give up our individual freedom whilst still being effectively free. I am not convinced by this argument.

Rousseau recognises that it will in practice be difficult for the government to discern the general will, in order to ensure it is reflected in policy. This is why he prefers a small state using direct democracy, in the style of Ancient Athens. He also recognises that this is not a practical system for a modern state, mainly because most people cannot dedicate all their time to public life. When combined with the other principles of Romanticism, this difficulty leaves Rousseau’s system exposed to the rise of an individual who claims that they alone can divine the general will of the people. The first disciple of Rousseau to rise to power was Robespierre during the terror of the French Revolution, and it can be argued that the dictatorships of Germany and Russia trace their roots back to Rousseau’s teachings.

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Empirical Scepticism (part 2) – Hume

David Hume developed the empirical philosophy of Locke and Berkeley to its logical conclusion, arriving at a degree of scepticism which makes his ideas seem absurd to most. Mocking Hume is a favourite pastime of some rationalists according to Russell, but this does not mean that Hume is wrong, or that his ideas are not important.


Firstly some thoughts on one of the key questions within empiricism by way of introduction, although it does not directly relate to Hume’s ideas. Empiricism says that all knowledge starts from what we can observe. Russell explores the arguments as to whether we can infer additional knowledge from what we have observed. We could take the position that inferences from observed knowledge are impossible. It is impossible to deduce with certainty the existence of one object or event from the existence of another, because all objects are capable of existing independently of one another. In this case the known world is limited to what we have directly observed. Another position is to say that we can infer things analogous to our own experiences, such as things experienced by other people but not by ourselves, that are described to us. Another position, which Russell considers to be common sense, is to say that there are objects and events that exist and that no one observes. From a scientific perspective, unobserved objects and events can be considered to have existed from a probabilistic basis or based on causal laws. An example would be the big bang, which obviously cannot be observed, but the causal laws which demonstrate its existence are based on scientific observations.

Ideas & Impressions

Hume divided perceptions (observations) into two categories: ideas and impressions. The act of observing something leaves an impression on us, from which we can derive ideas. This is sometimes a physical impression, such as the light that travels into our eye when we see something. Simple ideas are identical to their corresponding impression, but we can form more complex ideas by combining multiple impressions. To give Russell’s example, we can imagine a winged horse without observing one, but the idea is made up of several impressions (i.e. of horses and wings) which are from observations. Hume also believed that we cannot get an impression of the individual self, and therefore cannot have knowledge of the self. We can only know ourselves as a collated bundle of perceptions, which are constantly in motion. (This would appear to undermine modern Liberalism, which says that ultimate authority comes from the inner self of every individual; how can we trust our inner self if we do not understand it?). To express this in more tangible terms, no one can observe their own brain and its workings directly, and therefore form a single simple idea of it. We can form a complex idea of our brain made up of multiple impressions (e.g. inferences from the study of other human brains). This, if true, does not prove there is no soul, but it does mean that we cannot know anything about the soul.

Rejecting Induction

Hume has a theory on uncertain knowledge, which includes everything except direct observation, logic & mathematics. Knowledge of cause and effect is placed within the realm of uncertain knowledge, which is contrary to Descartes and his followers who said that cause and effect are logical necessities, and amounts to an attack on determinism. The reason one thing causes another is not discernible from the understanding of each of the two things, so cannot be deduced. The only way to have knowledge of cause and effect is to observe one thing causing another. According to Hume, we cannot infer that an observed cause and effect will apply to similar situations, including future situations. The expectation of a future event is merely a belief based on past experience, and not a certainty. This feels reasonable, but Hume goes further by suggesting that the frequent association of two objects or events in the past gives no reason to think that they are likely to be associated in the future. This means that no belief regarding a future event can be based on reason. The two positions can be illustrated with an example. If I eat an apple, I expect to experience a certain taste. It is reasonable to say I cannot be certain of how it will taste based on previous experience, but it is also highly likely to taste similar to previous apples that I have eaten, to the extent that for all practical purposes this can be treated as a certainty. For Hume to suggest that we should have no expectation as to what an apple will taste like and to dismiss all previous experience is absurd, but difficult to definitively refute. Empiricists have generally accepted the principle of induction – that knowledge derived from observation that is only probably true can be considered valid, even though it is not certain. The principle of induction itself cannot be known through observation, so is accepted on rationalist rather than empirical grounds. This is why a consistent approach to empiricism (as held by Hume but not by Locke) rejects induction, leading to a desperately sceptical situation where almost nothing can be known except mathematics and what can be directly observed.

Subsequent philosophers either rejected Hume’s scepticism without really refuting it, or they have accepted that no belief is based on reason but said that feeling is superior to reason as a basis for knowledge. The latter group would become known as the Romantics, and they would hold convictions that were quite different to what had gone before.