Prior to this point I have published 30 blog posts, which have covered the history of (western) political ideas, with a few of my own thoughts thrown in. This seemed a good place to stop. Then I was given a copy of Bertrand Russell’s ‘History of Western Philosophy’ and I couldn’t resist giving it the same treatment. This blog will now be re-christened ‘A Brief History of Politics & Philosophy’.
At the time of writing this seems an intimidating prospect. Russell’s book is around 750 pages (absolutely no pictures) of challenging concepts, but I hope to compress it into about 30 bite sized posts. It is an impressive book, covering the beginnings of western philosophy in the 6th century right through to the 20th century. Critics have called it one of the most valuable books of our time, with ‘enough ideas on each page to broaden the mind to bursting point’.
Before diving into any specific philosophical ideas I will complete this post by describing Russell’s definition of the word ‘philosophy’. For him, it is something in between science and theology. It consists of speculation on questions which science (so far) cannot answer, but it appeals to reason rather than dogma and belief. Unlike science and theology, philosophy does not try to give certain answers, and admits to dealing in the realm of unanswerable questions. What might wonder what point there is in studying questions that cannot be answered? The first is historical; Russell tells us that to truly understand a period in history we must understand its philosophy, and to do that we must at least to some extent be philosophers. The second is that philosophy helps us to remember how little we really know about the world. Too much time spent in either science or theology breeds an over-confidence in human understanding. Science focuses on what can be known and ignores the rest. Theology tries to convince us we have knowledge where in fact we are ignorant. Philosophy helps us to be both humble and curious. It is in that spirit that I have read and written about Russell’s work.