Russellian insights on history

This month I’ve started to read Russell’s ‘A History of Western Philosophy’; when I’ve attempted to read it in the past I only went in a non chronological order or didn’t get past the pre-socratics. Hopefully this time I’ll get it all done. I’m currently on the Romans.

The range of opinion varies on the topic of the value of this work. I was some time ago, at a publishing event concerning Russell’s corpus (Routledge); and the speakers on the topic had quite accessible and very overview kinds of perspectives on his historical exploration of philosophy. While many people say that the historical and exegetical content of the work is distinctly lacking; this book is worth reading for two very valid reasons: Russell is one of the philosophical greats and his ‘Russell’s guide to history’ communicates some interesting perspectives on the history of philosophy.

1. Philosophy and the historical condition

For Russell, a distinct message can be made insofar that philosophy has a dependence on the underlying historical conditions. In the case of the Greeks; the nature of their philosophical enquiry had a distinct style on the basis of the underlying socio-poligical sytem.

Russell divides the ‘Ancient Greeks’ by the ‘Polis model’ (not his word), the ‘Hellenic order’ and ‘Romanisation’ period. The polis model allowed for open and relatively ffee speculation on all matters. In this era before specialisation, philosophers spake of natural science, mathematical speculation, astrology, metaphysics and ethics; they also didn’t write a great deal. In the Hellenic era, specialisation occured. Mathematics, medicine, astrology and ethics became the subject of people seperate from overall ‘renaissance men’ (excuse the anachronism). There is a distinct relationship between the agenda of philosophers and their historical situation. Later philosophers were not as interested in metaphysics after Aristotle, it took until the Neoplatonists before philosophy seriously considered metaphysics again (so says Russell)

2. The humour of Russell’s history

Russell’s distinctly clear, accessible and humourous tone speaks through in this book. For example, in the chapter on Alexander the Great’s conquest from Africa to China; he speaks of how overstated the impact can be. Tibetans who called themselves distinct descendants of Alexander (and thus claim some divine status) also always happen to be ex Etonians.

3. Is Russell being charitable?

Russell’s chapters on Aristotle border between derision and charity. To call Aristotle’s work as essentially a lot of old tosh is an interesting view from a 20thC perspective. While it is certainly true that the modern period was largely an overthrow of Aristotelian ideas; what Aristotle became in the medieval realm does leave a large stain on the originality of his thought. To take Thales’ notion of everything being made of water as charitable is a large leap even for me, and yet Russell takes to an analysis of the notion using atomic theory, which is not merited.

The Atomists, by contrast; are treated very well by Russell, and rightly so. The Atomists were perhaps the most forward thinking of all the philosophers in the early period; for their opposition to Teleology and their appeal to mechanical explanation away from the recourse to the divine found a renewed inspiration in the modern period. They were, like their successors; treated like heretics. How interesting that they eventually, after 1500 years had taken to be an orthodox.

4. Philosophy beyond Europe

One thing that particularly interested me was European influence in Africa and Asia It is often forgotten that ancient cultures had their own channels of cultural and economic exchange. The eurocentric view ignores important things like the trade significance of Afghanistan and its source of Lapiz Lazuli. Around the same time of Alexander’s conquest, Hindu and Buddhist cultures were also extant. While the book does concern western philosophy proper; the influence of intellectual culture has a much wider case which would make the subject of a far more interesting monograph.


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