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.

The Medieval Church – Power & Belief


The Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, after which political and economic life became more local. Centralised authority was preserved by the Church, but it was beset for centuries by internal theological disputes. From a purely philosophical perspective, a rare light in the dark was the Italian aristocrat Boethius. Russell praises him for being free from the superstition and fanaticism of the time, combined with great learning and zeal for the public good. While Boethius was a Christian his work is purely Platonic. He said that the true philosophers were Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and that the Hellenistic schools were usurpers. Blessedness (which is happiness) and God are both the chiefest good, and we are truly happy when we attain divinity. Boethius appears to stray into the heresy of pantheism here, i.e. the belief in many Gods. He says that when we attain divinity we feel and can be perceived as gods, but says that by nature there is only really one God. All men desire blessedness, but only the virtuous can achieve it, so the wicked will never be happy. Indeed, the wicked are unfortunate if they escape punishment, because just punishment will reform them and make them virtuous.


Monasticism had begun in the 4th century and was soon brought under Church control. The Church decreed that only priests could be monks, which minimised the occurrence of outbreaks of unorthodoxy and even heresy in monastic communities. Monks lived a life of austerity, initially as isolated hermits but increasingly within a monastery. They conceived of virtue as the absence of sin. The most famous monastic order was the Benedictine, named after St Benedict. He codified what was expected of monks and gave significant power to the Abbot. Perhaps the most famous Benedictine after the saint himself would be Pope Gregory the Great, who lived in the 6th century, and is most significant for bringing about a huge increase in papal power. Before his time the bishop of Rome, while being the most senior bishop was not considered to have any jurisdiction outside of his own diocese. Gregory wrote a book that became accepted as the guide to the duties of a bishop, and prolifically wrote letters to bishops and secular rulers throughout Europe. Russell remarks that except in his letters to the Eastern Emperor, Gregory’s tone is that of a headmaster, both commending and reproving, but confident in his right to give orders and instructions. One of the many things he reproved was evidence of learning beyond the study of the scriptures, and this attitude would remain prevalent within the Church until the 11th century.

John the Scot

John the Scot (an Irishman) is called by Russell the most astonishing man of the 9th century. He was far from orthodox – a Neoplatonist, Pelagian and pantheist, but escaped persecution thanks to the patronage of the king of France. He set reason above faith, and cared little for the authority of ecclesiastics. Ireland in the 9th century was a leading centre for learning. As Russell says, learned men through history have often been refugees. In the 5th century they fled from Gaul to England to escape the German tribes and in the 9th century from England to Ireland to escape the Vikings. John sided against St Augustine in supporting free will over predestination. This was a divisive issue within Christianity, but worse was that John argued that philosophy was superior to revelation as a source of knowledge. Reason and revelation are both sources of truth so should not conflict, but if they ever seem to then reason is to be preferred. In his work ‘On the Division of Nature’ John divides nature into four categories. The first is what creates and is not created, which is God. The second is what creates and is created, which are the Platonic ideas and are part of God. The third is things which are created and do not create, which are things in space and time. The fourth is what neither creates nor is created, which is God again, but as the end and purpose of all things rather than as creator. All things naturally strive to return to God, so God is the beginning and end of all things. God is not a separate entity but exists in all things. Sin has its source in freedom and began when humankind turned inwards and away from God. It is caused when we try to decide for ourselves what is good and evil, rather than following the will of God.

Pope vs. Emperor

The power of the Eastern Emperors over the Catholic Church declined in the 7th and 8th centuries as they lost their territories in Italy, predominantly to the Lombards in northern Italy. The Popes struck an alliance with the Franks to protect themselves from the Lombards, and in the process began to achieve independent for the Church. The Frankish King Charlemagne would later go on to conquer much of Italy and Germany, and be crowned Emperor of the new Holy Roman Empire. This would lead to a power struggle between Pope and Emperor which lasted until the Popes were victorious in the 13th century, but during that period there was interdependence between both for legitimate power. Ecclesiastical reform on the 11th century increased the power of the church. Priests had already accrued unique and miraculous power, including the power to perform mass, and could determine if a person spent eternity in heaven or hell. This power rested on the belief that priests (and the Church in general) were morally superior to the laity. The ecclesiastical reforms aimed at reinforcing that belief, which included combating the sin of simony (purchase of religious title) that had become commonplace. This made priests appear all too human, made them focus on material concerns to recoup their outlay, led to promotion by wealth rather than merit, and generally meant priests were subservient to secular rulers who sold the titles. The advent of the Crusades also gave the Pope the power to compel the rulers of Europe to war, and whipped up religious zeal which also strengthened the Church.

The Ontological Argument

Finally it is worth giving consideration to St Anselm’s famous ‘ontological argument’ for the existence of God. God can be defined as the greatest possible object of thought. If an object of thought does not exist then it must be based on a greater idea which does exist. Therefore if God is the greatest idea he must exist. This idea does not at first appear convincing but it interested such eminent philosophers as Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza and Hegel. There is an assumption here that good things are better if they exist (would you prefer a real £10 note or just the idea of one?). Another part of the premise is the belief that it would not be possible for the human mind to imagine the concept of God if God at least in some form did not exist. In other words, our thoughts never come entirely from our own imagination but rather are influenced at least partly by an external source. Few people would agree that our ability to conceive of mythical creatures such as unicorns and fairies is evidence of their existence, but such creatures are generally influenced by real creatures, and so perhaps aspects of them at least do exist. The ontological argument does not try to prove that God is exactly as we perceive him, only that in broad terms there must be a supreme being of some kind.

St Augustine – Philosophy & Theology

As I implied in an earlier post, St Augustine was obsessed with sin. The idea of sin came to Christianity from Judaism, and had helped explain the various defeats and suffering of the Jews, despite their place as God’s chosen people. To begin with, sin had been considered in communal terms – it was the Jewish nation that sinned, and was punished collectively. By Augustine’s time it had become individual. The Church, representing Christianity was a spiritual entity and could not sin; individual Christians could and did sin. Augustine believed that we are all sinners, which explains why God makes us all suffer, at least at some point in our lives.

God & Time

Augustine was heavily influenced by the need to agree with Scripture. There are things that can be discovered by reason, but knowledge of God can only be found through Christ. The Scriptures are not to be questioned. This led to disagreements with the Greek philosophers, such as on the nature of God. Genesis says that God created the universe out of nothing, but the Greeks thought of God as an architect, who designed and built the universe from existing matter, which is eternal and uncreated (this obviously doesn’t explain how the matter came to exist). Augustine did not tackle the problem of how something can be created out of nothing – the word of the scriptures was enough for him. He does have an answer for why the universe appears to have been created at a certain point in time – why not sooner? The answer is that time was created when the universe was created, so there was no ‘sooner’. God was able to exist before time because he exists outside of time. He does not experience a series of events in chronological order as we do. God has knowledge of everything simultaneously, such that everything is in the present. Augustine goes on to say that ‘time’ does not exist except in the mind. Only the present really exists, but the past exists in our minds as memories and the future as expectations. Therefore it makes sense to say that time does not exist until there existed beings. Russell does not fully accept this theory, but believes it makes a great advance from Greek philosophy, and anticipated some of the later ideas of Kant and Descartes.

The Sack of Rome

In 410 AD Rome was sacked by the Goths, and the pagans blamed this on Rome’s abandonment of the old gods. Augustine’s ‘The City of God’ is his response to the pagans. He starts with the straightforward observation that worse crises had affected Rome and humankind in general when they worshipped the pagan gods. This sack was milder than most according to Augustine, because the Goths (who were Christian) spared the churches and anyone sheltering within. Augustine believed that the pagan gods exist, but that they are evil devils, who had kept Rome on the path of wickedness. All things including devils are created by and allowed to exist by God – devils have a role in allowing us to reject temptation. Augustine holds Plato to be the greatest philosopher. The Platonists were right in many things, including the belief that perception is not the source of truth. The Platonists were wrong to worship many gods, and wrong to deny the incarnation of the body.

Sin & Free Will

Augustine believed in predestination: God has decided whether we go to hell or to heaven before we are born, and this decision is arbitrary (or at least seems arbitrary to humankind). Those that go to hell do so due to the original sin of Adam, rather than their own sin. This however does not sit comfortably with the belief that sinful Christians will go to hell, as will those who are not baptised. Augustine was influential in combating the Pelagian heresy (Pelagius was actually a Welshman, real name Morgan). Pelagius did not believe in the importance of original sin and preached that people go to heaven as a reward for their own moral efforts. Augustine taught that only before eating the apple did Adam have free will. After that Adam and his descendants were corrupted and no longer had complete control over their will, and so lost the power to abstain from sin. Only the grace of God, rather than our own will allows some of us to be virtuous.

An example of the loss of control can be seen in the act of procreation, which explains why Augustine and the other Fathers considered procreation sinful and virginity a mark of holiness. Since original sin and the loss of control over our will, the act of procreation has generally been accompanied by the sin of lust and a certain loss of self-control. Before original sin Adam and Eve could have engaged in procreation in the same dispassionate way that a carpenter carves wood or a plumber repairs a boiler. Yes there may be a certain satisfaction in a job well done, but no feelings beyond that. The Fathers were aware that procreation is necessary for the continuation of humankind, but it was a constant reminder of our corruption and the fact that we are doomed to forever live in sin.

The Rise of Christianity

Catholic philosophy dominated European thought from Augustine in the 5th century to the Renaissance. In the first half of this period philosophy was concerned with providing the theory to support the doctrines of the Catholic Church. In the second half it was concerned with defending the faith and the interests of the Church. According to Russell, the appeal to reason in defence of the Church was perhaps in the long run a mistake. The mood of philosophy was one of deep unhappiness with regards to the affairs of the world, and in that sense little had changed since the Hellenistic period. In the early Christian world this unhappiness was only endurable through hope of a better life in heaven.

From Jewish Sect to Western Empire

Christianity to begin with was preached by Jews to Jews. It was St Paul in particular who opened up this religion to gentiles. Christianity retained the advantages of Judaism (such as the certainty of faith including belief in the kingdom of heaven) but removed the features that were hardest for gentiles to accept. It was also significantly influenced by Greek philosophy, and this can be seen in the example of Origen who was a contemporary of Plotinus and is considered one of the Fathers of the Church. Origen shares Plotinus’ belief in the Holy Trinity, and said that even the stars are living rational beings, to whom God has given souls. He believed that the essential aspects of Christianity (such as God, immortality and free will) can be established through reason, but that we can only truly understand God through reading the Scriptures, which should be believed on faith and not subjected to reason. Origen would later be condemned for several heresies, including the Platonic belief in the pre-existence of souls, and the belief that after resurrection we exist only as ethereal rather than material bodies.

Russell accepts Gibbon’s explanation (from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) for the growth of Christianity prior to Constantine making it the official religion of the Roman Empire. The reasons are firstly the intolerant zeal of the Christians, who were unusual in believing that only they would go to heaven, and that non-Christians were doomed to suffer the worst torments of hell. Second was the belief in the afterlife, although Russell cautions that while this was a popular belief, it was also common through human history and certainly not unique to Christianity. Third was the existence of Christian miracles, which were widely believed. Miracles were again not exclusive to Christianity, but Russell adds that the existence of a sacred book was also important and less common.  Fourth was the pure and austere morals of the Christians, which was admired even by the Roman officials responsible for persecuting them. The final reason is the unity and discipline of the early Christians from a political perspective. In modern times we can still refer to the ‘Catholic vote’ particularly in places like the United States (although it must be said that the idea of Christianity as a unified system of belief in this period is disputed among historians). The Emperor Constantine calculated that he needed their political support more than other groups, who were poorly organised by comparison. Having given the Christians the power of state legitimacy, Constantine then spent the rest of his reign trying to manage factional infighting within Christianity.

The Doctors of the Western Church

Four men are called the Doctors of the Western Church: St Ambrose, St Jerome, St Augustine and Pope Gregory the Great. The first three lived in the 4th century, after the victory of Christianity in the Roman Empire but before the barbarian invasions that ended the Western Empire. Russell writes that they were revered for a 1000 years, and between them fixed the mould into which the Church was shaped. For now I will focus on St Ambrose, who determined the relationship between Church and State, and St Jerome, who translated the bible into Latin and was a driving force behind monasticism. St Ambrose gave up a promising career as a regional governor to become bishop of Milan, giving all his possessions away to the poor at the same time. In his letters to the Western Roman Emperors he speaks as an equal and sometimes as a superior, always happy to admonish them when they fell short of their duty. He won several high profile victories against the Emperor, and in the process established the idea that there were matters in which State must yield to the Church. While the people owe service to their Emperor, so the Emperor owes service to God. God instructs us how to live, and only the Church can interpret the will of God. The Church can (as St Ambrose did) declare an Emperor’s actions to be sinful and demand penitence. While material possessions held privately by any individual (including bishop) are ultimately the possessions of the Emperor, any possessions owned collectively by the Church are ultimately owned by God rather than the Emperor.

After receiving a good education in Rome, St Jerome became an ascetic and spent five years as a hermit in Syria. Wherever he went after that he preached the virtues of the ascetic life. St Jerome is most famous for creating the Vulgate – the Latin translation of the Bible directly from the Hebrew original, which would become the official Catholic version. Prior to that the Greek Septuagint had been the official version, but had differed significantly from the Hebrew original. Despite writing at length about the woes of the Roman Empire, his thoughts never seem to turn towards practical political solutions, and the same can be said of St Ambrose and St Augustine.