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.

Empirical Scepticism (part 1) – Berkeley

Rationalists vs. Empiricists

By the 19th century, western philosophy had fallen into two camps, whose opposing views centre on the question of how we can gain knowledge. The first were the ‘Rationalists’, who believe that some knowledge is knowable by intuition only (independent of sense perception), and that further knowledge can be deduced from this initial knowledge by logical argument, i.e. reasoning. Rationalists also believe there is knowledge that we know innately. This is most clearly seen in nature, where animals appear to know how to do some things instinctively. Rationalists tend to believe that there is some knowledge that can’t be gained through experience, and that knowledge gained through reason is superior to knowledge gained through experience (e.g. more certain). The most extreme Rationalists believe that all knowledge comes from reason. Empiricists on the other hand, believe that all knowledge comes originally from sense experience. This is the basis for modern scientific method, where conclusions are drawn from a mass of observations and data. Empiricists are more inclined to be sceptical. They generally accept that some knowledge cannot be gained by experience, but conclude therefore that there are some things which we cannot know. Russell makes the point that Rationalists are inclined to generate large edifices of knowledge from a single starting point, forming an upturned pyramid. Such edifices are inherently unstable, as they are wholly reliant on the validity of the starting point and the initial reasoning. Empiricists start with a large and therefore stable base of experiences, but like a pyramid taper away to relatively little new knowledge at the top. Empiricists generally find experiences that are contradictory, so tend to reach more limited and general conclusions. The Rationalists at this point have included the likes of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz (and broadly speaking all philosophers before them). Empiricism, introduced by Locke, would be taken up by Berkeley and Hume, and taken in a more sceptical direction.

Subjective Reality

George Berkeley is most famous for his belief that matter only exists when it is perceived. Russell felt that Berkeley put forward sound arguments not for the fact that all reality is in the mind (as Berkeley intended to argue), but for the fact that we perceive qualities of things rather than things themselves, and that these qualities are relative to the percipient. Consider sight as an example. We can see the colour of an object, but what contacts our eyes is light, rather than the object itself that caused the light to be of a certain colour. The appearance of an object can also change depending on circumstances. For example, a sea might appear a beautiful deep blue from a distance, but have a different colour when swimming in it. An object could also have completely different colours when observed under a microscope compared to when it is observed normally. This raises the question, how do we know that other people perceive colours in the same way that we do? Maybe the world looks completely different to other people.

Similar points can be made about other senses, such as feeling hot or cold. If I have one hand in cold water and another in hot and I put both in medium water, the same water will feel both hot and cold at the same time. The sensations of hot and cold cause discomfort or even pain, which is in the mind, and our sensations are influenced by our minds as well as the object. Feelings of pain (caused by the perception of hot and cold) are the result of the temperature of an object, but are not part of the object itself. We cannot objectively feel the temperature of an object (e.g. in degrees Celsius). That might require, for example, feeling the amount of vibration of each particle so that we could determine the amount of heat energy, but our ability to feel objects does not work like that. There are some things Berkeley says that we can learn about objects. If we see a very small car we might reasonably deduce from our experience that the car is further away from us, but we cannot determine distance purely from seeing. If a person were suddenly able to see for the first time they would not at first be able to determine distance. Berkeley’s ideas are disorientating – how do we know objectively what anything looks, feels, sounds, or smells like? Berkeley believed that we cannot know anything about the world around us, and that all we have are ideas in our minds of what things might be like.

Constructing Objects in the Mind

Russell accepts the argument that we perceive ‘qualities’ and not material things directly as valid. He does however challenge the idea that the qualities we perceive are ‘mental’, i.e. they only exist in the mind. Russell argued that there are things that exist which no one has perceived or conceived (i.e. seen or thought of). For example, mathematical logic tells us that there are infinite amounts of numbers which exist, and it is impossible for all numbers to have been thought of. In addition, we use words to refer to groups of objects without having conceived of each object that the word could apply to. For example, the concept of a ‘pebble’ can apply to lots of objects all of which are unique. If we look across a pebble beach it is clear that not all of the pebbles have been perceived or conceived, yet they still exist.

Berkeley’s point only stands if we say that words only apply to objects that are observed. For example, if we say the word pebble can only apply to pebbles which have been observed. The argument for doing so is that any ‘object’ or ‘thing’ is really a collection of properties that we can perceive. To refer to something as an individual object is merely a useful simplification. It then follows that if no one is perceiving the properties of an object then it does not exist as a single object. It is as if the mind processes various perceived properties and generates ideas of the world around us, and each mind generates slightly different ideas of the world. Without the mind the world is a collection of sights, sounds, smells etc, but not discrete objects, until the mind collates properties together. This is my interpretation of what Berkeley is saying, and it could be countered that this overstates the extent to which the mind unites individual properties. The reason that we all largely agree on how properties should be grouped together as objects (we all agree that a plate is a different object to a table) is that their properties are easily distinguishable.

Locke (part 2) – Philosophical Liberalism

Liberalism is foremost about liberty (i.e. freedom) of the individual, and it has been the dominant political philosophy in the western world through the modern era. Central to early liberalism was religious freedom, as well as the freedom of individuals to pursue happiness in whatever way they saw fit. This meant (in theory at least) that people should have the same opportunity for happiness, but if some people used these opportunities more effectively than others, no one has the right to interfere in someone’s happiness even in order to level the field. In reality, happiness was closely associated with wealth and security from the beginning, so liberalism values commerce and the ownership and protection of property. In political terms it means people are free to choose who governs them (although to begin with they had to be the right sort of person, i.e. property owners). Prior to liberalism political authority had been derived from God. To begin with liberalism entailed a bias against governments, because they were generally in the hands of divinely ordained kings, and because governments generally curtail the freedom of the individual.

The Hereditary Principle

Russell divides Locke’s thoughts on liberalism into five sections, starting with the hereditary principle. The reasoning for the hereditary transfer of political authority was that the monarch is analogous to the father (who was understood in Locke’s time to have absolute authority over the family), and that God bestowed authority on Adam who then handed it down to his heirs, who became the various monarchs of the modern period. These arguments may sound absurd to us. Nevertheless, the hereditary principle and the divine right to rule was the status quo in 17th century Europe. Locke had no difficulty attacking these principles, highlighting the injustice of primogeniture, the substantial difference in the power of the father compared to the power of a political sovereign, and the general absurdity in claiming decendancy from Adam and Eve. The multiplicity of Christian religions in Europe at this time helped – how could all monarchs claim divine right to rule if they followed different religions? Russell points out that, given our feelings on inherited political power, it is curious that no-one challenges the hereditary principle in economics, such as the custom of children inheriting the wealth of their parents. This helps to explain why Locke’s views were seen as revolutionary. His contemporaries saw a kingdom as simply a larger version of an estate, which was owned by the king. Expecting a king to hand his kingdom over to parliament to choose a successor when they die was somewhat analogous to expecting parents to hand their property over to the state in their wills.

The Purpose of Government

I discussed Locke’s understanding of the state of nature (what life would be like without the political state) in a previous post, but it is worth giving Russell’s perspective. Locke’s state of nature is a community of “virtuous anarchists”, who need no police or law courts as they obey a common ‘reason’ or natural law, which is derived from God via the Bible. Religion then is a key part of this society. People are completely free as long as they respect the laws of nature, and there is complete political equality – no one has more political power than another, except for the leader. Private property exists. Indeed, the protection of private property is the chief reason for instituting government. Locke clearly has a much rosier conception of the state of nature than Hobbes. The key difference is that while Hobbes believed in God, he did not think that belief in God would be enough to control people’s behaviour and prevent them acting violently.

Having attacked the hereditary principle, Locke explains that the legitimate basis for political authority is in fact a social contract between ruler and the ruled. This is similar to Hobbes’ contract, but Hobbes believed the contract was between the ruled only, who having selected a ruler hand over all power to the ruler, and cannot thereafter hold them to account. Locke’s contract includes the ruler, and so they can be held to account if they do not uphold their side of the bargain. Clearly every citizen will have a different view as to what they expect from the government, so the contract can only work on the basis of majority opinion. Part of Government is a neutral authority to settle disputes between ruler and ruled, which is an independent judiciary. Locke appears to have believed in the institution of government by a social contract to be a historical event, which is evidence of pre-evolutionary thinking. Since Darwin, we are more inclined to imagine that things evolve into existence gradually, rather than suddenly appearing.

It is possible to find in Locke views which appear to support everything on the political scale from socialism to right wing libertarianism. His preference for liberty over equality and his obsession with property appears right wing. On the other hand, he advocates the labour theory of value, which many would assume to be attributable to Marx. This is the theory that the value of a product is proportional to the amount of labour required to create it, and that only people who laboured on something should be paid for it. Locke did not propound this theory in the way that Marx did as a revolutionary attack on the status quo. Locke lived before the Industrial Revolution and Capitalism, in a world where the economy was based on agriculture and craftsmanship. Locke intended this theory as simply a sensible way of valuing goods.

Separation of Powers

Central to liberalism is the idea that the executive and legislative should be separate, and that the legislative must be supreme, and must be removable by citizens (in practice meaning there must be regular elections). Locke also believed that when the executive and legislative are in conflict it is not always possible to decide right and wrong, and so the inevitable outcome is civil war. In this sense the modern U.K. is arguably more similar to Hobbes than Locke, as we consider the legislative (parliament) to be sovereign over the executive (the government). However, the picture is made somewhat more complicated because the executive is part of the legislative. In addition, when the government has a solid majority legislation is almost always passed at the will of the executive. This is entirely contrary to Locke’s principles, who would much prefer the current U.S. constitution (except perhaps for the politicisation of the judiciary). Liberalism enjoyed the confidence of youth until the French Revolution, which gave absolutists ammunition to argue that the common people cannot be trusted with power. The emphasis on liberty over equality would also have to be compromised in response to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of socialist thinking, but Liberalism retained Locke’s lack of dogma and proved itself able to adapt in order to survive.

Locke (part 1) – Theory of Knowledge

The ‘Glorious’ Revolution of 1688 in England is described by Bertrand Russell as the most moderate and successful of all revolutions. It aimed to replace an absolutist monarchy with a constitutional monarchy, where power comes ultimately from the people rather than from God. It achieved these aims quickly and with minimal violence or even disruption to society. Comparisons are often made to the French Revolution, which started with the same objective. John Locke was, according to Russell, the apostle of the Glorious Revolution and faithfully embodied its spirit. He was fortunate in that he completed his philosophical work just at the moment when the government fell into the hands of people who shared his political opinions. He can be thought of as the founder of philosophical liberalism, as well as Empiricism in theory of knowledge. This post is concerned with the latter of those two remarkable accolades. A key characteristic of Locke is a lack of dogmatism. He accepts some certainties from his predecessors, such as the existence of God and the truth of mathematics, but most things are to be treated with a sensible dose of scepticism. Principles are never perfect, so valid reasoning can always lead to conclusions which seem absurd. While many thinkers have followed lines of reasoning wherever it took them, Locke had a more pragmatic temperament. Very few things we can say are certainly true, for everything else we can only determine probabilities of truth.


Empiricism is the doctrine that all our knowledge (excluding logic and mathematics) is derived from experience. This requires refuting such thinkers as Plato, Descartes and the Scholastics, who believed that there are innate ideas which exist that we can discover through deductive reasoning or revelation, or that we are born knowing. How then do we know that intangible things exist that we can’t experience or observe? Locke goes on to compromise from his starting point – we can perceive the existence of particular things by sensation, but some things we can know intuitively (such as our own existence), and some things we can know by reason, but reason comes from thinking about ideas that we have experienced. Locke believed that sensations, which are really things that happen in the mind, have their own causes which are separate to the sensation itself. But how do we know that based on empiricism? By definition we can only sense sensations and not their causes, and Locke does not give an answer for this. Russell believes that no philosophy has ever been completely consistent and completely credible. Most of the great philosophers aimed at consistency, such Plato and his theory of ideas, but Locke is unusual in aiming at credibility over consistency. A philosophy that is inconsistent cannot be wholly correct, but a consistent philosophy can be wholly wrong.  

The Virtue of Prudence

Locke believed that our actions are motivated solely by desire for our own happiness, and that we consider things to be good or bad depending on whether they cause us pleasure or pain. He also believed in heaven and hell, and therefore considered it rational to act in accordance with Christian morality in order to maximise one’s chances of getting into heaven. Locke recognised that people do not always act rationally in their own pursuit of happiness. This is partly because we value pleasure or pain more highly in the present than in the future, which is why people do not fear hell as much as they rationally should. Part of the purpose of the state is to guide people to act prudently, i.e. in their long-term rather than short-term interests, and state religion is a necessary part of this. The focus on prudence as the chief virtue allowed some to argue in later centuries that the rich had earned their wealth through prudent actions, and people were poor because of their imprudence, and so had only themselves to blame. Russell raises some objections to this view of ethics. The focus on prudence as the chief virtue is narrow at best and unpleasant for most people. It is also highly debatable that we desire pleasure itself; many including Russell would argue that our desires are much more varied than that, and we gain pleasure as a result of obtaining our desires. In addition, it is completely reliant on people believing in God in order to act ethically, which is a more obvious problem now than in Locke’s time.


Russell provides another colourful description of the next philosopher, referring to Leibniz as “one of the supreme intellects of all time”, but not admirable as a human being. He created two systems of philosophy: one which he thought would win him the acclaim of powerful and influential people, and another which he thought would make him unpopular, and which he did not publish. Russell believed the latter to be far superior.

Infinite Substances

Regarding his published philosophy, where Spinoza said that everything is really part of one substance, Leibniz said that every object is a separate substance and there is an infinite number of substances, called ‘monads’, and each monad has a soul. Like Descartes’ followers, he also believed that substances cannot interact with each other. He says that monads are ‘windowless’, which I think was intended to mean that they have no awareness of their surroundings. He develops the analogy of the two clocks to be an infinite number of clocks, all designed by a Creator to strike together to give the illusion of interaction.  However, there is a hierarchy of monads. A person can be considered to be a single monad (with a soul or mind) which is dominant and made up of many individual monads. The mind of a person does not directly cause individual monads in the body to behave in a certain way, but the purpose of the individual monads is to enable whatever the purpose of the mind is. Leibniz believed the hierarchy of his system allowed free will. The actions of individual monads are not the inevitable result of logical necessity, but are determined by our minds.

The Existence of God

Leibniz developed the intellectual arguments for the existence of God, which had begun with the ancient Greeks and were formalised by the scholastics. It should be noted that Rousseau and the romantics had an entirely different conception of God and argument for the existence of God which is more common among modern theologians, but that is for another time. The ontological argument, as discussed in a previous post, says that God is the most perfect being and that God would be better if he existed than if he didn’t (because he could then do good things). From those two statements it can be deduced that God exists. There is also the cosmological argument, which is a development of Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover’ theory (i.e. everything must have an initial cause and that cause is God). Leibniz said that every particular thing in the universe is ‘contingent’, i.e. it doesn’t logically have to exist, but everything that does exist has a reason to exist. These statements can be applied to the universe as a whole. God is outside of the universe and is the reason why it exists, and there can be no other rational reason why it exists. God was not compelled by logical necessity to create the universe, but freely chose to because of His goodness. This argument is strong as long as you believe that everything that exists must have a reason to exist, rather than existing randomly or by chance. Finally, the argument of ‘pre-established harmony’ relates to the theory of the clocks which are all in time without awareness of each other. This theory relies on a Being who created the system in the first place and set it in motion. Leibniz also has an answer for why evil exists even though God is omnipotent and good. God could have created many different universes and chose the best version, with the greatest excess of good over evil. Some evil is required to enable the most goodness. For example, food tastes better when we are hungry. If we were never hungry there is a limit to how good things would taste. To take a more serious example, death is a source of enormous fear and sadness. However, Leibniz would have said that it is fear of death that makes life so precious and drives us to live life to the full. If we were immortal we might find that life would be distinctly boring. This does not explain why God appears to allow the distribution of hunger and death to be so apparently unfair.

A Mathematical Model for All Reality

Russell considered Leibniz’s unpublished work to be a truer reflection of what he thought and far more profound, but a contemporary of Leibniz thought it to be so shocking that it would be universally rejected. Leibniz hoped to discover a generalised logic, such that the answer to any problem, including in ethics, could be calculated in the same way that a mathematical solution can be calculated. He did not achieve this, but according to Russell he invented mathematical logic a century and half before anyone else, but kept the work to himself. He assumed his work was wrong because it contradicted Aristotle’s doctrine of the syllogism. He did believe that it is possible to derive by deductive logic every aspect of a person or object that exists, including everything that is yet to happen. This relies on a belief in determinism such that if I choose to go shopping on Saturday, that event has always and will always be a part of me. God is able to understand the world in this way, and it is theoretically possible for us to do so if we had the intellectual capability. This of course contradicts the Christian doctrine of sin and free will. Leibniz believed that it is better for things to exist, and therefore God created as much as possible. The only limitation on whether something can exist is whether it logically contradicts the existence of something else. To take a simplistic example, consider three objects A, B & C. Suppose that objects A and B can exist with or are compatible with each other, but C is not compatible with A or B. It is easy to determine that if the greatest number of compatible things will exist then A & B will exist but not C. Leibniz believed that in theory a suitably gifted logician could apply this method to life in general and deduce what can and cannot exist. This appears fantastical to the modern mind, but that is partly because we generally don’t accept determinism. Russell does nevertheless applaud it as a very clear and precise attempt to provide a mathematical model to derive truths about existence purely by logical deductive means.


Spinoza is another of the great philosophers of the 17th century. Russell lavishes praise on him, calling Spinoza “the most lovable of the great philosophers” and ethically supreme. He was much disliked by theologians in his time for his beliefs, but loved by those who knew him according to Russell.

Aspects of God

Spinoza accepted the philosophical framework of Descartes, but unlike Descartes he was mainly interested in religion and virtue, and is most famous for his work ‘Ethics’. Reminiscent of Parmenides, Spinoza said there is only one substance which is God (Descartes believed there were three substances: God, mind and matter). Things should not be considered as wholly separate entities, but rather as aspects of God. Spinoza shares Descartes’ determinism – everything that happens is a logical necessity and is a result of God’s nature. It is impossible for things to be other than they are. This creates the problem of sin and evil, because if evil is inevitable and part of God’s nature does that mean God is evil? Spinoza replies that things only appear evil when considered in isolation. When everything is seen together it can be seen to be good. If we could see everything as part of a whole as God does (including the future), we would see that any act which appears evil in isolation will ultimately lead to good outcomes.

If all outcomes are determined by logic then they can be deduced. Spinoza’s Ethics is based on the deductive method in the style of Mathematics, where ‘proofs’ are reached from universally accepted principles. He believed that the human mind is capable of fully understanding the nature of God, but that we are distracted from wisdom by our passions (meaning emotions which we don’t have intellectual control over, and for which we don’t understand their place as part of the whole which is God). The desire for self-preservation ultimately governs all human behaviour, but the goal of a wise person will be knowledge of God. Passions such as love and hate arise from intellectually inadequate ideas which lead to conflict. Those who live according to reason will agree together and avoid conflict, and can be happy despite experiencing misfortunes, because they understand that those misfortunes will overall cause good outcomes. Emotions such as hope and fear are based on what happens in the future and are therefore pointless. The future is as set in stone as the past, and there is nothing we can do to alter it. Once we understand ourselves (including our emotions) and how we fit into the whole, we are closer to understanding the nature of God, and therefore understanding everything. Reality is perhaps like a big puzzle. We should not try to understand the pieces of the puzzle individually; we should try to understand how they fit together to make the overall picture, which is God.

It is worth considering at this point the two different conceptions of God which existed within philosophy in the 17th century. The determinists (such as Spinoza and Descartes) said the world is generally good because it is predetermined to be so by God, who is good. Those who favoured free will over determinism believed that although we are free to sin, God ensures the world is generally good by intervening (such as to put his son on earth to teach us how to live) and by providing us with the stick and carrot incentives of heaven and hell. The latter was the orthodox view of God, so much so that Spinoza was accused of atheism, despite putting God at the centre of his philosophy.

The Bigger Picture

Spinoza’s ethics rests on the metaphysics described above – the world is made of a single substance, consisting of parts which cannot exist alone, and the nature of reality is predetermined by logical necessity. This is difficult for a modern reader to accept because we don’t accept that life is completely deterministic, which is why we believe knowledge comes from observation as well as reasoning. Russell discusses whether rejecting Spinoza’s metaphysics means we have to also reject his ethics. Spinoza suggests that we are powerless to alter events due to predetermination, but this shouldn’t stop us living happy and virtuous lives. Even if you don’t accept predetermination, it is obvious that our power to control events is limited. We can’t for example prevent our own death. If Spinoza’s way of thinking helps us overcome the general fear of death then it is useful. How should we feel when others hurt our friends? Most people would say that the Stoic principle to be indifferent to your friends is bad, and impossible. The Christian principle of forgiving your enemies is good, but difficult. Spinoza would agree with the Christian principle, but would also urge you to avoid feelings of sorrow becoming your whole world, and try to see what has happened in the context of a much bigger picture, in which the good outweighs the bad. The belief that good outweighs bad in life can, I think, survive without a belief in determinism, but not without a belief in God. 


Where Hobbes is commonly thought of as the first modern political philosopher, Descartes is generally considered the founder of modern philosophy. According to Russell, Descartes is modern in that while he is influenced by the scholastics and the ancients, he seeks to create a new philosophy, and shows a creativity not seen in philosophy since Plato. Like Plato, he writes like an explorer rather than a teacher, and his literary style is in Russell’s words “extraordinarily excellent”.

I Think Therefore I Am

If the role of a philosopher is to understand the world, they must be able to determine what is real and what is not – they must have a theory of knowledge. The question of what is real is at the heart of Plato’s theory of ideas, and is the basis for Descartes’ most important philosophical work. Why not assume that everything we see around us is real? Several reasons, suggests Descartes: we might be dreaming, we might be mad and suffering hallucinations, or we might be deceived by an evil demon (!). The point is that we cannot know for certain that the world around us is real (had Descartes watched The Matrix, he might have added that scenario to his list). However, if we can think then we must have a mind which exists, and since mind is our essence it is enough to then say that we exist. To put it more succinctly: if I think, therefore I am. For Descartes this is something that we can know for certain, and even the most ardent sceptic could not deny it. It is therefore a firm foundation for his philosophy. Descartes then asks what else we can know. He first develops the ontological argument to prove to his satisfaction the existence of God; however Russell chooses to discuss this in relation to Leibniz who apparently expressed it better, so I will do the same.  Descartes deduces that if the mind definitively exists, then those things that we can perceive most clearly and precisely with our minds are most likely to exist as we perceive them. Knowledge based on geometry and mathematics are examples of this. I’ll briefly note Descartes significant contribution to mathematics as the inventor of the coordinate geometry system, where a point in space is described by its distance from fixed lines. In terms of what is real or true about material objects, knowledge that we derive through our senses (sight and touch etc) is less real and liable to be confused. Objects can, for example, change their properties and exhibit different properties over time. Real knowledge of objects comes from processing the inputs from our senses in our minds in order to understand them. The mind is central to understanding reality.

Separation of Mind & Matter

Where some philosophers had considered mind to be another type of matter, Descartes is consistent with Plato and Christian philosophy in treating mind as separate to matter. He is also a product of the mechanistic age in which he lived, and believed that the behaviour of all matter is entirely deterministic and governed by the laws of physics. This includes plants and animals, which do not have minds and in this respect are like machines. With sufficient understanding it would be possible to describe nature mathematically, such as the process by which a seed grows into a plant. In humans the physical body and the mind are separate, but Descartes believed they interact to some extent. Many of his followers believed the two are so different that it is impossible for them to interact, and that our physical movements are also entirely predetermined by physical laws. This doesn’t feel like it is true – it feels like our physical actions are controlled by our minds. The response was to say that the actions of both mind and body are predetermined by the same mechanical laws, such that while it seems like mind is controlling body, in fact they are both being controlled together by mechanical laws, which have been instituted by God. The analogy of the two clocks was used to explain this. Imagine there are two clocks perfectly in time with each other, and designed such that when one points to the hour the other will strike. It would appear to the casual observer that one had caused the other to strike, but in fact they are both independently following predetermined laws. Mind and body are to be viewed as two parts of a single machine, set in motion by God. As a result of this rigid determinism, Descartes and members of the Cartesian school did have trouble accepting the principle of free will. Indeed, some would go further than Descartes and think of humans as machines or robots, removing Descartes’ distinction between humans and other living things.

The Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes is one of the characters already met in this blog as the self-proclaimed first political scientist, but Bertrand Russell has more to say about him from a broader philosophical perspective. He is generally considered among the most influential modern thinkers, but Russell does not quite place him in the ‘first rank’ of philosophers, believing Hobbes to be crude at times and too inclined to dismiss a problem or awkward fact rather than address it. To quote Russell, Hobbes ‘wields the battle-axe better than the rapier’.

Human Nature

Hobbes has always been a controversial figure, including in his own time of the 17th century. His most famous work ‘Leviathan’ did not side fully with the Royalist or Parliamentary factions in England so pleased neither, and his criticisms of religion concerned many. However, the objective of his political philosophy as described in Leviathan is to describe how society can be happy. Human happiness requires a political State. Without that we would live in anarchy, or a ‘state of nature’ (as we did in prehistoric times). For Hobbes, human nature ensures that such an existence would be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. There is no objective ethics; good is merely what we want and bad is what we don’t want, and this is subjective. Therefore, there is no natural way for us to agree upon common standards for what is right and wrong in a state of nature. Human nature is also inclines towards conflict rather than peace. Our principle instincts are to preserve our own safety and freedom, but our safety and freedom must sometimes come at the expense of others, such as in the case of scarcity of resources. While we know our own intentions, we can’t know what others are thinking, so cannot assume we are safe from them. The only safe course is to attack others before they can attack us.

The political State is needed to force us to act contrary to our nature, in order that we can live happily together. The State prevents two individuals attacking each other, because they both fear what the State would do more than they fear each other. The only way that a State is strong enough to do that is it is given complete authority, and if this authority is focused on a single sovereign entity. We have a right to choose our sovereign, but after that we have no rights and the sovereign has unlimited power. It doesn’t really matter to Hobbes whether the sovereign is an individual or an assembly, but there must be only one sovereign, otherwise the State will be too weak to serve its function. Ultimately, this function is to protect us from ourselves. Hobbes recognises that this system risks despotic rule, but this is always preferable to anarchy. The purpose of the State is to protect its people, so the only circumstances when people may resist the State are in self-defence, and when the State is unable to protect them.

The Power of the State

According to Russell, one of the key questions in politics is how much power should the state have, and Hobbes takes an extreme view. A person’s view on this question partly depends on whether they fear anarchy or despotism most, and this partly depends on whether you agree with Hobbes’ view of human nature that without a powerful State society would slide into conflict and violence. We might each take offence at Hobbes’ view of human nature and believe that we are better than he describes us, but Hobbes might reply that we behave better because of the State, and that we don’t live according to our natural state. The lack of anarchic societies in the modern world makes it difficult to prove this argument either way, but Hobbes’ doctrine haunts us by bringing to life a version of ourselves that we fear exists within us. Modern history appears to show that it is possible for States to prevent anarchy without possessing absolute power. However, we sometimes forget how powerful the modern State really is, and are reminded during times of crisis. Further, how much power do we really have against the Sovereign? To take the UK Parliament as an example, we only get to have a say during elections, and are only able to choose between the limited options that are presented to us. Elections lead to personnel changes within Parliament, but the results are rarely transformative.

Hobbes’ doctrine does leave significant concerns unanswered, such as the relationship between States. Hobbes considers States to exist only at the national level, which means that anarchy exists between States, inevitably leading to war. If this is the case it seems unlikely that any State is able to guarantee the safety of its people, which is its purpose. Nevertheless, Hobbes’ doctrine remains relevant today as it addresses a question that remains important in the 21st century – how much power should we give to the State?

The Renaissance to Francis Bacon

At this point in my journey through western philosophy I have reached the modern era, which is characterised by the increasing authority of science and the secular state over religion. This led to increased freedom of thought within philosophy as compared to the medieval period.

The Italian Renaissance

The modern era starts with the renaissance, and Bertrand Russell distinguishes between the Italian renaissance of the 15th century and the northern European renaissance of the 16th century. The Italian renaissance was not a mass movement but one for the wealthy and highly educated. It preceded the rise of science and was characterised by the substitution of the authority of the Church with that of the ancient Greeks. It was not a great period for philosophy in its own right, but did pave the way for the greatness of the 17th century by reviving the study of Plato and breaking through the straightjacket of scholastic philosophy.  Intellectual discussion became a popular and social activity, as opposed to the individual contemplation of previous periods. Adherence to a single authority (such as Aristotle or Aquinas) gave way to lively debate between competing ideas, even though few new ideas were generated in philosophy. While the Italian Renaissance thinkers were intellectually unorthodox, they were well aware of the considerable temporal power of the Church in Italy, and of the fact that the wealth of Italy relied on the wealth of the Church, which still received tributes from states all across Christendom. The lack of centralised political control in Italy (as compared to the emerging nation states of England, France & Spain) allowed individual achievements to flourish, but as with the ancient Greek city states it was an unstable political system and would be extinguished by outside powers.

The Northern Renaissance

The northern renaissance (principally in England, France and Germany) did not have the intellectual anarchism of its Italian equivalent, but  was concerned with applying greater standards of scholarship to the study of the Bible, as well as with reform of the Catholic church. Erasmus was the most influential person of this period. He wrote a satirical book called ‘The Praise of Folly’, claiming that happiness can best be found in flattery and delusion – it is far easier to imagine yourself successful than to become successful. Reason is a burden and a source of endless worries. The humour is gone in those passages where he attacks the Church, including the practice of indulgences. His attack on the monastic orders is particularly fierce. Monks care only for their own happiness and for the minutiae of doctrine, and for the power they gain from learning secrets at the confessional. Erasmus desired simplicity in Christianity, and rejected all elaborate theology with the view that true religion comes from the heart and not the head. Before we think of Erasmus as truly modern, it should be said that he was far more interested in the world as depicted by the ancients than in the discoveries that were taking place around him. The legend of the Argonauts was of more interest than the discoveries of Columbus. As the Reformation broke out both sides tried to recruit him. Despite his feelings on ecclesiastical abuses his hatred of violence won out, and he sided with the status quo. As religious passions become inflamed, timid men of letters lost their influence. Russell makes the point that the Reformation and subsequent Counter-Reformation led to no immediate intellectual benefit, but did eventually lead people to abandon the medieval hope for doctrinal unity, which in turn led to greater freedom of thought.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon was born in the late 16th century and became Lord Chancellor in England under King James I. Russell refers to his philosophy as ‘unsatisfactory’, but Bacon is significant as the founder of the modern inductive method (where knowledge is derived from observation). He is also commonly regarded as the originator of the saying ‘knowledge is power’. He was a Christian, but believed that philosophy should be separate from theology. Matters of theology can only be discovered through revelation, whereas philosophy is the realm of reason. Philosophy is also practical, and should have the aim of giving humankind mastery over nature by scientific discovery. Bacon improved on simple methods of induction, where general laws and theories were derived from observations, but often from insufficient and unscientific observation, leading to flawed outcomes. As well as taking a more systematised approach to observation he also used a hierarchic approach to induction, where you start by making very specific inductions from observation (which are therefore more likely to be valid). It is then possible to make less general inductions from multiple more specific ones, until very general laws can be derived based on a mass of supporting observations.

Bacon was hostile towards Aristotle, and entirely followed the mechanistic rather than teleological way of thinking, where things can be understood by studying their causes rather than their purpose. He identified four bad habits of thinking that lead to error: errors which are inherent in human nature, those that are due to personal prejudices, those caused by the misuse or misunderstanding of language, and finally those that are due to excessive acceptance of received wisdom. According to Russell, Bacon was not without error himself. Most importantly he underestimated the importance of the deductive method. Any observation should be grounded in a hypothesis which has been deduced, otherwise the work will be inefficient, and likely to lead to an unmanageable mass of data. If for example one is searching for buried Roman treasure, it is impossible to deduce its exact location, but it is also impractical to dig everywhere. Better to be guided by a hypothesis, such as the treasure is more likely to be found near the site of Roman settlements.

Scholastic Philosophy

Scholasticism began in the 12th century and was marked by an adherence to Catholic orthodoxy, and by the ascension of Aristotle as the preeminent authority in philosophy, in place of Plato. Russell remarks that this period represents an increase in intellectual confidence as well as freedom of the exercise of reason, at least as far as adherence to orthodoxy permitted. It also suffers from an unquestioning view of Aristotle, and an indifference to facts, science and the benefits of empirical study.

St Thomas Aquinas

St Thomas Aquinas was born on the early 13th century. While at University in Naples he became a Dominican and developed an unusually deep understanding of Aristotle for the time, benefiting from relatively recent Latin translations of his original works. Aquinas achieved complete success in the not straightforward task of reconciling Aristotle with Christian orthodoxy, and securing the primacy of Aristotle, who would among scholastics become known simply as ‘The Philosopher’. Aquinas used reason to explain the truth of the Catholic Faith, where it was appropriate in his view to do so. Reason can prove many parts of the faith but not others, such as the nature of God. Nothing in revelation is contrary to reason, but reason belongs only to the learned – for everyone else revelation must suffice.

Human happiness does not consist in material pleasures or virtuous acts but in knowledge of God. Some knowledge can be gained by contemplation and faith, but true knowledge is only gained in heaven. Aquinas used reason to prove the existence of God, although he rejected the ontological argument on the basis that humans are not able to conceive of or understand God in any meaningful way, and so what we think of as God is not sufficient to prove his existence. Aquinas’ principle argument is based on Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover’. The idea is that movement of anything (including living things) is ultimately caused by something else, a ‘mover’. However, there must logically be a start point for this movement, an ‘unmoved mover’ which is God. In addition, the existence of perfect things in the world (including immaterial things such as mathematical concepts) must have their source in something completely perfect. Finally, given that even lifeless things appear to serve a purpose, that purpose must belong to some being external to them. Aquinas broadly agrees with the teachings of Augustine, including on the key issues of original sin and predestination, and with Aristotle’s understanding of the soul as the ‘form’ of the body.

Russell has more criticism than praise for Aquinas as a philosopher, and does not believe his immense reputation to be justified. Aquinas would generally explain a doctrine fairly and with force before refuting it, but his subsequent use of reason is insincere since the conclusion to be reached is fixed in advance by Catholic orthodoxy. Aquinas is systematic but lacks the originality and curiosity of Plato and other great philosophers. Where he cannot find reason to support orthodoxy he is all too ready to fall back on revelation.

The Franciscans

The Franciscans were rivals of the Dominicans, and did not accept the authority of Aquinas. They also took a more balanced view on the relative merits between Aristotle and Plato. Some believed that Plato’s ideas establish wisdom but not knowledge, where Aristotle’s ideas establish knowledge but not wisdom. The Franciscans and Dominicans disagreed on a question related to Aristotle’s theory of universals. It was agreed that all objects (including living objects) have properties which are essential (their essence) and those which are accidental. St Aquinas and the Dominicans believed that two objects for which the same universal word can be applied (e.g. two humans) must be identical in terms of their essence. This requires a belief that pure matter is always the same (as if it were all made of the same element), such that two people could to a large extent be two identical pieces of matter, only physically different by occupying a different position in space. The Franciscans believed that all individual objects are completely unique, including with respect to their essence. This debate is hard for modern minds to follow as we no longer have a conception of a single ‘substance’, but believe that all matter is made up of different combinations of various atomic elements.

Roger Bacon

Roger Bacon was unlike philosophers of his day in highly valuing experiment as a source of knowledge, and had a passion for mathematics and science. He also had a passion for criticising his contemporaries and identified four causes of ignorance. Firstly the influence of ignorant sources of authority, secondly the influence of custom, thirdly the opinion of the uneducated crowd and fourthly the influence of those who conceal their ignorance by apparent wisdom. From these four plagues spring all human evils. This type of thinking suggests the beginnings of modernity, but Bacon still believes that the Scriptures are infallible, and like many contemporary ‘men of science’ believed in magic, alchemy and astrology. 

William of Occam

William of Occam was born at the end of the 13th century and became a leading figure in the conciliar movement, which aimed to replace the absolutist power of the Pope with a democratic system within the Church. Power would reside in a General Council whose members would be elected by various local councils. This differed from Protestantism which rejected all forms of religious organisational structures. He is best known for his maxim ‘Occam’s razor’, namely ‘it is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer’. In a philosophical sense, if a solution exists which does not require inventing hypothetical entities, then that solution is to be preferred. Occam helped to separate logic and human knowledge from theology and metaphysics. Understanding applies to material things. The ideas we conceive of help us to understand things, but are not things themselves. Two people might be said to be similar, but ‘similarity’ is not a thing, only an idea in the mind that helps understand the two people better. Augustine had supposed things to be generally unintelligible and people unintelligent, but Occam’s attitude gave those that came after him greater confidence to increase human knowledge.