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Notes on Analytic Philosophy: Ludwig Wittgenstein

American philosopher Daniel Dennett begins a 1999 Time Magazine article on Ludwig Wittgenstein with the following scenario:

If you would like to watch philosophers squirm — and who wouldn’t? — pose this tough question: Suppose you may either a) solve a major philosophical problem so conclusively that there is nothing left to say (thanks to you, part of the field closes down forever, and you get a footnote in history); or b) write a book of such tantalizing perplexity and controversy that it stays on the required-reading list for centuries to come. Which would you choose? Many philosophers will reluctantly admit that they would go for option b). If they had to choose, they would rather be read than right. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein tried brilliantly to go for a) and ended up with b).

In my last post I discussed the most important philosopher in the tradition of Continental philosophy — Martin Heidegger. Changing perspectives, I would now like to spend some time with the central character in the tradition of Analytic philosophy — Ludwig Wittgenstein — who is often considered (mostly by Analytic philosophers, admittedly) the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. His two most important works, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published in 1921, and Philosophical Investigations, published posthumously in 1953, are generally considered two of the most important works in modern philosophy, despite having quite different styles, methodology, and conclusions. The amount of secondary literature he has inspired in the 60 years since his death would probably rival any philosopher since Kant, and he continues to exert influence far beyond the field of philosophy itself. In academics and research, his ideas are important in evolutionary biology, theoretical linguistics, computer science, and human psychology; in popular culture, the force of his captivating personality exerts a strange cross-over appeal in the form of novels, art, TV and film, and memoirs by even his briefest acquaintances. In this post, I will give a brief biographical sketch of the man (as befitting my opinion that biography is important as a part of the study of history and ideas — my best resource, in this case, was Ray Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, which you can read or download here), followed by a summary of his two main works, and concluding with some of my thoughts about why Wittgenstein is a significant figure in philosophy and what we can make of his ideas.

His Life

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1889-1951

Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Vienna in 1889, the eighth and youngest child of Karl Wittgenstein, who was the biggest steel tycoon of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and one of the richest men in Europe. The Wittgensteins were great patrons of the arts, especially music, and Ludwig was raised in an incredibly cultured and privileged environment in fin-de-siècle Vienna. The family was of Jewish descent but had been Christianized for three generations and had no involvement in Jewish culture or community. Karl had his children privately educated in a manner to make them follow in his footsteps as captains of industry, science, and commerce. This partly led to the oldest three sons all eventually committing suicide (Ludwig himself also considered this option for most of his adult life as well). In 1903 he was sent to a technical school in Linz where Hitler was a student contemporaneously (there is no conclusive evidence that they had any contact, as Wittgenstein was moved forward a grade and the dim-witted Hitler was held back a grade). Eventually Wittgenstein went to Manchester to study engineering and aeronautics, where he designed and patented a new airplane propeller. At this time he became interested in mathematics after discovering the works of Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege, two of the founders of what would later be known as the Analytic school of philosophy. He travelled to Germany to meet with Frege, who recommended that he go to Cambridge to study with Russell. Wittgenstein thus appeared one day in Russell’s office to present himself and begin his apprenticeship. After a period as Russell’s pupil, in which he attended and dominated lectures and then had hours-long discussions (or monologues) late into the night, Wittgenstein began to challenge Russell’s ideas and reverse the nature of their relationship. Russell considered Wittgenstein a genius (“the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating”), and also thought of him as his successor who would continue to work on the problems of logic and mathematics that Russell could no longer solve. Russell lost so much confidence in his own abilities due to the criticisms of Wittgenstein that he later wrote, “His criticism, tho I don’t think he realized it at the time, was an event of first-rate importance in my life, and affected everything I have done since. I saw that he was right, and I saw that I could not hope ever again to do fundamental work in philosophy.”

Before finishing his degree or publishing his own ideas on logic, Wittgenstein moved to Norway to live in seclusion in a hut he built and concentrate on his work, and then volunteered in the Austro-Hungarian army immediately after World War I broke out. He spent the next four years mostly in lonely despair, and began to develop his lifelong mystical side after reading Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief and Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, as well as Schopenhauer. At the end of the war, he spent a year in an Italian POW camp and completed the only philosophical work published in his lifetime, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. So strong was his belief that in this short treatise he had solved all problems of philosophy, that, after giving away his entire enormous recently inherited fortune, he abandoned philosophy for the next 10 years while working as a gardener, a school teacher, and an architect for his sister’s house. He would meet occasionally with the group known as the Vienna Circle, who had been inspired by the Tractatus, but Wittgenstein held little regard for their interpretations of his work and he spent his time with them reciting poetry. Eventually, he was persuaded to re-enter the world of philosophy due to widespread lack of understanding of his Tractatus, as well as his own doubts about its faultlessness. In 1929, with assistance from John Maynard Keynes and a token PhD examination administered by Russell and G.E. Moore, Wittgenstein was made a lecturer and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. After Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, he became a British citizen (his sisters made a deal with to give money and stocks to the Nazis in return for being immune to the Nuremberg laws and to remain unmolested in their Vienna palaces; his older brother Paul, a concert pianist who lost an arm in WWI and commissioned such works as Maurice Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, moved to America and continued to perform). When G.E. Moore retired in 1939, Wittgenstein was made Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge, where he attracted many devoted disciples of his innovative new method of philosophizing (a young Alan Turing was certainly not one of these disciples during his attendance of Wittgenstein’s lectures in 1939; Turing was the sole courageous defender of the importance of mathematical logic during these dialogues, contra Wittgenstein, which is fortunate since his own ideas were fundamental in the development of the digital computer). Wittgenstein retired in 1947 to focus on his writing, and spent the next three years reworking and adding to his 20-year unpublished project, Philosophical Investigations, as well as several notebooks later published as Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (1956), On Certainty (1969), Remarks on Colour (1977), and Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology (1980). He died of prostate cancer in 1951 three days after his 62nd birthday, with his last words: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (read and download here, with original German and both English translations side-by-side)

This 75-page work consists entirely of 7 main propositions each followed by numbered sub-propositions, which shows it to be a long formal proof rather than a discussion or explanation. The first proposition is “The world is all that is the case.” Its original aim, deriving from the time when he began at Cambridge in 1911, was to continue Russell’s search for an explicit foundation of logical rules based on an ideal language that could explain mathematics and would solve Russell’s paradox (which involves the fact that any class or set or list of objects can neither belong or not belong to any higher order classification of such classes, sets, or lists) which was left somewhat unresolved at the end of Russell and Whitehead’s monumental 10-year project Principia Mathematica. The final result of the Tractatus was a much broader attempt to reveal the relationship between language and the world, not only logically, but also in terms of ethics, aesthetics, and the meaning of life. The cause of this expanded subject matter probably had to do with Wittgenstein’s expanded worldview brought about by the devastation he witnessed during the war, especially after being moved to the front lines in 1916. It must be difficult to maintain the airy metaphysics of logic in such a tragic and illogical real world, and it is indeed the final main purpose of the Tractatus to only show what can be demonstrated by logic through use of atomic propositions of facts, but also what are the limits of what can be described or understood by logic and language. Accordingly, it ends with a solitary and oracular proposition: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Wittgenstein was convinced that philosophy was limited by language itself, and that much of human experience which cannot be explained clearly is not necessarily untrue, but is outside the bounds of philosophical understanding. We are reminded of Hamlet’s “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Interestingly, Russell was also forced by the war to descend from the mountain of reason and speculation to enter the real world beyond philosophy–he spent the rest of his long life writing popular and political works and spreading ideas of peaceful understanding and social and political reform).

Another of the points of the Tractatus is to distinguish what can be said, with words, and what can only be shown in actuality, outside of language. Thus, while he was confident that he had built the logical foundation for all philosophical explanations, there nevertheless remained a body of facts that could not be explained within this logical system and would only be reduced to nonsense if someone attempted to explain them in terms of logical atomic propositions. The penultimate proposition in the Tractatus, 6.54, reads: “My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.” The world beyond logic can only be shown, not said. And, prefiguring the final proposition, Wittgenstein wrote in the preface that, “Its whole meaning could be summed up somewhat as follows: What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” Ultimately, according to Wittgenstein, neither science nor philosophy could show us the meaning of life; of the few things that philosophy could do for us, he believed that he had now demonstrated how to do them. Thus, after writing it he gave up philosophy.

Philosophical Investigations (read or download here)

Wittgenstein began working on many of the ideas for this book as soon as he returned to Cambridge to begin lecturing in 1929. He struggled for two decades to express his thoughts in writing (perhaps running into trouble from his own view about the disparity between what can be said and what can only be shown). He wrote much of Part One during WWII while serving as a hospital assistant, though he was still unhappy with much of it and he added many notes, which became Part Two, while living in Ireland and Wales in the years before his death. He left the final manuscript in the hands of Georg Henrik von Wright, his successor at Cambridge, and Elizabeth Anscombe, another colleague who translated it into English.

While PI shares with the Tractatus a focus on language, the latter work no longer favors explicit fundamental logical rules, but instead speaks of ‘language games’ as a way towards mutual understanding and philosophical problem-solving. Unlike almost every preceding work of philosophy, he invites the reader to participate in the act of thinking along with the author — an almost Socratic method of philosophizing rather than advancing a specific theory or system of ideas. The result is therefore an intense method of thinking about problems, especially as regards the use of language and semantics in understanding the problem, rather than necessarily advocating solutions. One famous expression of this was his statement, “Philosophy is the battle against bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” Unlike some Analytic philosophers, Wittgenstein was not concerned with science or the amassing of empirical knowledge; he saw philosophy merely as a method of understanding and clarifying what we already know. “Philosophy only states what everyone admits.”

The content of PI consists in a series of dialogues and puzzles which attempts to show this method of clarification (“to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle”) in regards to language meaning and use. Wittgenstein claimed that the meanings of words are acquired through the use of sentences in a practical context, as part of everyday human social activity and interaction. Basically, meaning is use, and the use totally depends on the social environment (he said that, for example, if a lion could speak, we [humans] would not be able to understand it). He also rejected the common notion of the existence of private languages, since a language depends not on an individual’s private and subjective sensibilities, but on its use in social context.

He determined that, contrary to much philosophical tradition since Descartes, not every word can stand for an object, nor do concepts have an essence (though they might share a ‘family resemblance’). The ramifications for these critiques show that language does not mirror the world, thus language and logic cannot be the source for philosophical principles. For Wittgenstein, instead, philosophy begins in the world of real people and things; therefore, philosophical problems can be resolved only by clarifying the role that words play, and nothing more. In this way, philosophy is a therapy that eliminates confusion by focusing on the use of language that causes such confusion, with the end goal being the end of the need for theorizing.

An example of one his language games on the topic of private languages is the ‘beetle in the box’ scenario: imagine a room with 6 people each containing a small box; no one can see the contents of any box but his own; when questioned as to the contents of his box, each person responds, “beetle”; Wittgenstein asks: If each person had his own private language, how could anyone know the meaning of the word ‘beetle’ in any language but his own? How could anyone, seeing something in the box, know it to be a beetle, without prior agreement on what a beetle is? Thus, meaning is socially constructed only through the actual practices of a community (and, therefore, not private).

Last photograph of Wittgenstein (left), with G.H. von Wright (right)

According to Wittgenstein, Philosophy, which is a search for meanings, truth, knowledge, etc., can only be understood as a social undertaking proceeding accorded to grammatical forms. All philosophical problems are not real problems but only part of a language game — instead of epistemology or metaphysics, what is called for is linguistic analysis. Going back to the ‘fly in the fly-bottle’, we must remember that the nature of the fly has not changed once it has left the bottle, and there is no guarantee that it will not fly into another bottle later if it feels so compelled. Likewise, philosophy is an activity which can be therapeutic and lead to understanding, but can only describe things as they are in the world, and not vice versa.

What to Make of Wittgenstein

The life and thoughts of Wittgenstein are full of paradoxes. His centrality to Analytic philosophy is unquestioned, given his influence by Frege, Russell, and Moore, his influence on Russell, Moore, the Logical Positivists, and every subsequent Anglo-American philosopher, his focus on logic, mathematics, and mind, and his disregard for historicism (his ignorance of vast swathes of the history of ideas from Plato and Aristotle onwards is legendary — even if some of his own ideas seem a bit Aristotelian). At the same time, he would have never considered himself a part of any ‘school’ of ideas, and he criticized philosophy as much as he influenced it. As much as he is central to Analytic philosophy, he also seems to have surpassed it and to stand somewhat apart from it, sharing some resemblance to Heidegger (they were exact contemporaries, even though Heidegger lived 25 years longer) as well as to the American Pragmatists. Like Heidegger, he wanted to redefine the meaning, use, language, and aim of philosophy itself, and to help it carve out a niche away from the sciences. Like the Pragmatists, he saw philosophy as an activity useful for understanding the world in its social, subjective, and historical context, rather than in the Cartesian/Kantian paradigm of a search for absolute truth and analytic/synthetic distinctions. Wittgenstein’s work is both groundbreaking and revolutionary. Willard Van Orman Quine, who is considered the most important successor to Wittgenstein in the English-speaking world, followed in the latter’s footsteps by more clearly delineating the limits of Analytic and empirically-based philosophy, settling instead on a similar pseudo-Pragmatic idea of “ontological relativism”.

While his ideas are generally respected and influential across the board in philosophy and other fields, Wittgenstein has not been immune to criticisms. Bertrand Russell, a figure of almost singular importance for Wittgenstein’s development, wrote in 1959 that “the later Wittgenstein seems to have grown tired of serious thinking and to have invented a doctrine which would make such an activity unnecessary.” Kurt Gödel, whose ‘Incompleteness Theorems’ are considered to have shown the impossibility of the project of Frege, Russell, and early Wittgenstein to provide a logical basis for mathematics, stated, “Has Wittgenstein lost his mind? Does he mean it seriously?” when he read the negative remarks about his theorems by Wittgenstein in the posthumous Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics. Wittgenstein is similar to Nietzsche in that he is sometimes considered a new starting point in philosophy, and sometimes dismissed as not a philosopher at all. His work is very technical and detailed, devoid of the usual theorizing and full of aphorisms, and often contains anti-philosophical and existential sentiments. “What we find out in philosophy is trivial; it does not teach us new facts, only science does that. But the proper synopsis of these trivialities is enormously difficult, and has immense importance. Philosophy is in fact the synopsis of trivialities.”

There is enough material in Wittgenstein’s works to keep the philosophical community occupied into some point far in the future, and I have obviously just scratched the surface here. What we have in Wittgenstein is a sort of modern-day Socrates, who engages in dialogues and questions that make us rethink our own opinions and knowledge. He invites us to participate in the act of thinking and philosophizing with him, rather than simply presenting us with more dogmatic statements of truth. For this reason, discounting whether we ultimately find ourselves in acquiescence with his own conclusions, he is important, because he shows us a method of thinking in new ways and seeing problems in a new light. For this alone, he could be considered, like Socrates, a model philosopher.

As I opened this essay with a quotation from Dennett’s article, now I finish with another one expressed more eloquently than I could:

The fact remains that one’s first exposure to either the Tractatus or Philosophical Investigations is a liberating and exhilarating experience. Here is a model of thinking so intense, so pure, so self-critical that even its mistakes are gifts.

Defining Philosophy and its Uses

The unexamined life is not worth living for man. Thus spoke Socrates through the writings of his greatest pupil, Plato. With this remark, Socrates, who is acknowledged as the first philosopher to direct his attention primarily at ethics in human affairs, might have come as close as anyone ever has in finding the solution to the questions of what is philosophy and how is it used. To him, it is an examination of one’s life. Nevertheless, let us expand on these questions to search for its role in the modern world, in which it is sometimes believed that science and technology have rendered obsolete the “love of wisdom.”

I believe it is de rigueur, when discussing any point about philosophy, to first refer to the twin titans of ancient Greece thought for their opinions on the matter (pun intended)–even if their opinions tend to be somewhat less than credible by today’s standards.

Plato, Theaetetus:

Wonder (Greek: thaumata) is the only beginning of philosophy.” (155d)

Aristotle, Metaphysics:

It is owing to their wonder (thaumata) that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” (982b)

They unexpectedly seem to agree on something in this case. To my mind, however, the sense of wonder brought about by pondering the mysteries of nature does not necessarily lead directly to philosophy. Nor does philosophy always begin with this sense of wonder. It could come from, say, doubt, or perhaps insatiable curiosity. As for the uses of philosophy, Plato and Aristotle spend the rest of their respective careers attempting to expound on them. They rarely came to the same conclusions, and today we are unlikely to find much sense in either one, but they both are entitled to the claim of setting the boundaries of philosophy and its subfields.

Martin Heidegger, from the essay What is Philosophy? (1955):

Thaumazein (to wonder or marvel at) is the astonishment wherein philosophizing originates.

There seems to be, in this case, a curious similarity between the Athenian and the Stagirite, and the German. In his essay, Heidegger further explains that “For, to be sure, although we do remain always and everywhere in correspondence to the Being of being, … only at times does it become an unfolding attitude specifically adopted by us. Only when this happens do we really correspond to that which concerns philosophy.” (75) Even if I can try to make myself understand what Heidegger is talking about, it is hard for me to grasp anything meaningful and useful in his abstractions. A definition or description should be, at a minimum, comprehensible (which is a word seldom ascribed to Heidegger). Let’s move on.

Bertrand Russell, from ‘Introduction’ of A History of Western Philosophy (1945):

Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge-so I should contend-belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy. Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries. Is the world divided into mind and matter, and, if so, what is mind and what is matter? Is mind subject to matter, or is it possessed of independent powers? Has the universe any unity or purpose? Is it evolving towards some goal? Are there really laws of nature, or do we believe in them only because of our innate love of order? Is man what he seems to the astronomer, a tiny lump of impure carbon and  water impotently crawling on a small and unimportant planet? Or is he what he appears to Hamlet? Is he perhaps both at once? Is there a way of living that is noble and another that is base, or are all ways of living merely futile? If there is a way of living that is noble, in what does it consist, and how shall we achieve it? Must the good be eternal in order to deserve to be valued, or is it worth seeking even if the universe is inexorably moving towards death? Is there such a thing as wisdom, or is what seems such merely the ultimate refinement of folly? To such questions no answer can be found in the laboratory. Theologies have professed to give answers, all too definite; but their very definiteness causes modern minds to view them with suspicion. The studying of these questions, if not the answering of them, is the business of philosophy.

Why, then, you may ask, waste time on such insoluble problems? To this one may answer as a historian, or as an individual facing the terror of cosmic loneliness.

The answer of the historian, in so far as I am capable of giving it, will appear in the course of this work. Ever since men became capable of free speculation, their actions, in innumerable important respects, have depended upon their theories as to the world and human life, as to what is good and what is evil. This is as true in the present day as at any former time. To understand an age or a nation, we must understand its philosophy, and to understand its philosophy we must ourselves be in some degree philosophers. There is here a reciprocal causation: the circumstances of men’s lives do much to determine their philosophy, but, conversely, their philosophy does much to determine their circumstances. This interaction throughout the centuries will be the topic of the following pages.

There is also, however, a more personal answer. Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.

I have already written a two-part essay based around excerpts from Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, and this segment is taken from the introduction in which he gives his definition and use of philosophy. It is self-explanatory, and I have nothing to add other than to say that I hope the reader is as inspired by Russell as the author of this website.

Ludwig WittgensteinPhilosophical Investigations (1953):

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” (§ 109)

The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.” (§ 127)

A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.‘” (§123), therefore the aim of philosophy is “to show the fly out of the fly-bottle.” (§ 309)

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I have cited Russell’s brilliant protégé because his position represents arguably the furthest possible development of thought within logical and philosophical analysis. Wittgenstein attempted to prove that all philosophical problems could be attributed simply to problems of language involving grammar and syntax, as shown in his ‘language games’. Here, logic is king and mathematical precision can be used to solve formerly insoluble problems. This conclusion is useful in some respects, but, I think, clearly lacks something substantial. Ethics and politics, for example. In his own life, Wittgenstein was a restless man of action who in a certain sense had no use for his own philosophical conclusions, rather embodying the maxim of primum vivere, deinde philosophari–“first one must live, then one may philosophize.”

Will Durant (1885-1981), from ‘Introduction’ to The Story of Philosophy (1926):

Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art: It arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement. Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown (as in metaphysics), or of the inexactly known (as in ethics or political philosophy). It is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory, and behind it are those secure regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world. Philosophy seems to stand still, perplexed, but only because she leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters the sciences, and herself passes on, divinely discontent, to the uncertain and unexplored.

Shall we be more technical? Science is analytical description; philosophy is synthetic interpretation. Science wishes to resolve the whole into parts, the organism into organs, the obscure into the known. It does not inquire into the values and ideal possibilities of things or into their total and final significance. It is content to show their present actuality and operation. It narrows its gaze resolutely to the nature and process of things as they are.

The scientist is as impartial as Nature in Turgenev’s poem: He is as interested in the leg of a flea as in the creative throes of a genius. But the philosopher is not content to describe the fact. He wishes to ascertain its relation to experience in general and thereby to get at its meaning and its worth. He combines things in interpretive synthesis. He tries to put together, better than before, that great universe-watch which the inquisitive scientist has analytically taken apart.

Science tell us how to heal and how to kill. It reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war. But only wisdom — desire coordinated in the light of all experience — can tell us when to heal and. when to kill. To observe processes and to construct means is science. To criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy. And because in these days our means and instruments have multiplied beyond our interpretation and synthesis of ideals and ends, our life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” For a fact is nothing except in relation to desire. It is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from havoc and despair. Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom.

Durant continues by listing the five fields of philosophical study and discourse: logic, aesthetics, ethics, politics, and metaphysics. Logic, though it has been instrumental in improving methods of thinking and research, has been relocated, since the developments of Frege, Cantor, and Russell and Whitehead, into the field of pure science and mathematics. Aesthetics is the most subjective of the five fields, and ultimately finds a better fit in the area of psychology rather than philosophy. According to Durant, ontology (the study of ‘being’) and epistemology (the study of knowledge) are subsets of metaphysics. Epistemology, which must now be considered within the province of neuroscience, was unapologetically neglected by Durant except in the chapter on Kant, and it was, he claims, “largely responsible for the decadence of philosophy” in the 19th century by the followers of Kant. I happily concur with Durant on this point. I also find it more than mere coincidence that one of the few points of convergence between the Analytic and Continental traditions is the insignificance or total irrelevance of metaphysics in modern philosophy.

There remain only two fields of interest, then, that are applicable, in theory and in practice, to the modern, non-scientific but practical-minded philosopher: ethics and politics. The former is “the study of ideal conduct”, which emphasizes especially individual behavior (How should we act?); the latter is “the study of ideal social organization”, and, thus, focuses on the role of individuals within society (What kind of government should we have? What is freedom?).

I have chosen to conclude with the wonderful prose excerpt from Durant because, in this case, on the definition of philosophy and its uses, I agree with his position that philosophy is necessary to synthesize knowledge from diverse areas into something understandable.

Here is a shorter version of the same idea from the article “What is Philosophy?”:

We shall define philosophy as “total perspective,” as mind overspreading life and forging chaos into unity… Philosophy is harmonized knowledge making a harmonious life; it is the self-discipline which leads us to security and freedom. Knowledge is power, but only wisdom is liberty.

And here is an examination of the idea of ‘wisdom’ from the article “What is Wisdom?” (1957):

The first lesson of philosophy is that philosophy is the study of any part of experience in the light of our whole experience; the second lesson is that the philosopher is a very small part in a very large whole. Just as philosopher means not a “possessor” but a “lover” of wisdom, so we can only seek wisdom devotedly, like a lover fated, as on Keats’ Grecian urn, never to possess, but only to desire. Perhaps it is more blessed to desire than to possess.

Bertrand Russell on Plato and Aristotle

Bertrand Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, 1872-1970.

Bertrand Russell must be considered, by any standards, one of the greatest intellectuals and human beings of the 20th century. Upon completing his magisterial A History of Western Philosophy, one can also understand why he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950, chiefly for this work– the citation states that the award was “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” These varied writings consist of more than 90 published works in philosophy, logic, mathematics, political theory, education, and social commentary over the course of 74 years, until his death at the age of 97. The details of his life are equally varied and significant, though I will only provide here a couple of my favorite anecdotes. He was the godchild of John Stuart Mill (whom I discussed here), orphaned by the age of 6, and raised by his grandfather who was the former Prime Minister (and who had visited Napoleon on Elba!). He was one of the most important founders of the Analytic school of philosophy, along with his brilliant student Ludwig Wittgenstein, and attempted to provide a mathematical and logical solution for all problems of philosophy. He was imprisoned during World War I for pacifism, which did not stop him from receiving the Order of Merit from the King 30 years later. He co-authored the Russell-Einstein manifesto of 1955 calling for nuclear disarmament, and remained an anti-war activist, especially in regards to Vietnam and the Israeli-Arab wars, until his last days. An online sample of some of his writings can be found here. Perhaps these opening lines from his autobiography, completed the year before his death, most eloquently encapsulate the man (video excerpt is here):

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair… This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

A History of Western Philosophy was written in the United States, which Russell had fled to while it was still neutral, in the last years of World War II, and it was published in 1945. Over the course of 76 chapters and 836 pages it traces the history and evolution of ideas from early Babylonians and Egyptians to the Greeks and on to the 20th century (ending with a justification for his own school of logical analysis). Divided into three large sections, the longest and most comprehensive is “Ancient Philosophy”, the shortest and most tedious is the medieval “Catholic Philosophy”, and the most interesting is, in my opinion, “Modern Philosophy”. The strengths of the work include not only its great “clarity, erudition, grace, and wit”, but also the historical context and continuity derived from a single-volume work that sheds light on the influences and origins of modern ideas, as well as the useful commentary by the author, an eminent philosopher in his own right. Its weaknesses include its cursory treatment or outright omission of certain philosophers (mostly in the section on “Modern Philosophy”–Kierkegaard is famously not mentioned, nor is Pascal; and unfortunately Husserl’s Phenomenology and Heidegger’s and Sartre’s Existentialism seem to have been too recent; curiously, Russell’s student and friend Wittgenstein is unnamed in the final chapter on the Analytics), as well as his highly partisan treatment against many philosophers (especially those in the Continental tradition from Rousseau to Kant to Nietzsche).

In this post, I intend only to highlight some examples of Russell’s witty and useful commentary on those most influential of all ancient philosophers– Plato and Aristotle. Russell provides a concise summary of the thoughts of both of these men, as well as painting a picture as to why they are so important, despite being wrong about almost everything. To begin, I will give some context from his chapter on the pre-Socratic atomists, such as Democritus (whom I wrote about here), as well as from the chapter on Protagoras, a sophist and subject of one of Plato’s dialogues.

The Atomists

Democritus– such, at least, is my opinion– is the last of the Greek philosophers to be free from a certain fault which vitiated all later ancient and medieval thought… From this point onwards, there are first certain seeds of decay, in spite of previously unmatched achievement, and then a gradual decadence. What is amiss, even in the best philosophy after Democritus, is an undue emphasis on man as compared with the universe. First comes scepticism, with the Sophists, leading to a study of how we know rather than to the attempt to acquire fresh knowledge. Then comes, with Socrates, the emphasis on ethics; with Plato, the rejection of the world of sense in favour of the self-created world of pure thought; with Aristotle, the belief in purpose as the fundamental concept in science. In spite of the genius of Plato and Aristotle, their thought has vices which proved infinitely harmful. After their time, there was a decay of vigour, and a gradual recrudescence of popular superstition. A partially new outlook arose as a result of the victory of Catholic orthodoxy; but it was not until the Renaissance that philosophy regained the vigour and independence that characterize the predecessors of Socrates.


Plato is always concerned to advocate views that will make people what he thinks virtuous; he is hardly ever intellectually honest, because he allows himself to judge doctrines by their social consequences. Even about this he is not honest; he pretends to follow the argument and to be judging by purely theoretical standards, when in fact he is twisting the discussion so as to lead to a virtuous result. He introduced this vice into philosophy, where it has persisted ever since. It was probably largely hostility to the Sophists that gave this character to his dialogues. One of the defects of all philosophers since Plato is that their inquiries into ethics proceed on the assumption that they already know the conclusions to be reached.

The Sources of Plato’s Opinions


Plato possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals. It has always been correct to praise Plato, but not to understand him. This is the common fate of great men. My object is the opposite. I wish to understand him, but to treat him with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism.

Plato’s Utopia

When we ask: what will Plato’s Republic achieve? The answer is rather humdrum. It will achieve success in wars against roughly equal populations, and it will secure a livelihood for a certain small number of people. It will almost certainly produce no art or science, because of its rigidity; in this respect, as in others, it will be like Sparta. In spite of all the fine talk, skill in war and enough to eat is all that will be achieved. Plato had lived through famine and defeat in Athens; perhaps, subconsciously, he thought the avoidance of these evils the best that statesmanship could accomplish.

The Theory of Ideas

Plato is perpetually getting into trouble through not understanding relative terms. He thinks that if A is greater than B and less than C, then A is at once great and small, which seems to him a contradiction. Such troubles are among the infantile diseases of philosophy.

The belief in the good as the key to the scientific understanding of the world was useful, at a certain stage, in astronomy, but at every later stage it was harmful. The ethical and aesthetic bias of Plato, and still more of Aristotle, did much to kill Greek science.

Plato’s Theory of Immortality

The Platonic Socrates was a pattern to subsequent philosophers for many ages. What are we to think of him ethically? His merits are obvious. He is indifferent to worldly success, so devoid of fear that he remains calm and urbane and humourous to the last moment, caring more for what he believes to be truth than for anything else whatever. He has, however, some very grave defects. He is dishonest and sophistical in argument, and in his private thinking he uses intellect to prove conclusions that are to him agreeable, rather than in a disinterested search for knowledge. There is something smug and unctuous about him, which reminds one of a bad type of cleric. His courage in the face of death would have been more remarkable if he had not believed that he was going to enjoy eternal bliss in the company of the gods. Unlike some of his predecessors, he was not scientific in his thinking, but was determined to prove the universe agreeable to his ethical standards. This is treachery to truth, and the worst of philosophic sins. As a man, we may believe him admitted to the communion of saints; but as a philosopher he needs a long residence in a scientific purgatory.

Plato’s Cosmogony

Plato’s cosmogony is set forth in the Timaeus, which was translated into Latin by Cicero, and was, in consequence, the only one of the dialogues that was known in the West in the Middle Ages… As philosophy, it is unimportant, but historically it was so influential that it must be considered in some detail.

It is difficult to know what to take seriously in the Timaeus, and what to regard as play of fancy.

Knowledge and Perception in Plato

All that Plato says about existence is bad grammar, or rather bad syntax. This point is important, not only in connection with Plato, but also with other matters such as the ontological argument for the existence of the Deity.

Plato, under the influence of the Pythagoreans, assimilated other knowledge too much to mathematics. He shared this mistake with many of the greatest philosophers, but it was a mistake none the less.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics

Aristotle’s metaphysics, roughly speaking, may be described as Plato diluted by common sense. He is difficult because Plato and common sense do not mix easily.

His doctrine on this point (theory of universals), as on many others, is a common-sense prejudice pedantically expressed.

Aristotle’s Ethics


This book (Nicomachean Ethics) appeals to the respectable middle-aged, and has been used by them, especially since the seventeenth century, to repress the ardours and enthusiasms of the young. But to a man with any depth of feeling it cannot but be repulsive.

There is in Aristotle an almost complete absence of what may be called benevolence or philanthropy. The sufferings of mankind, in so far as he is aware of them, do not move him emotionally… More generally, there is an emotional poverty in the Ethics, which is not found in the earlier philosophers. There is something unduly smug and comfortable about Aristotle’s speculations on human affairs; everything that makes men feel a passionate interest in each other seems to be forgotten. Even his account of friendship is tepid… For these reasons, in my judgment, his Ethics, in spite of its fame, is lacking in intrinsic importance.

Aristotle’s Politics

Plato’s communism annoys Aristotle. It would lead, he says, to anger against lazy people, and to the sort of quarrels that are common between fellow-travellers. It is better if each minds his own business. Property should be private, but people should be so trained in benevolence as to allow the use of it to be largely common… Finally we are told that, if Plato’s plans were good, someone would have thought of them sooner. I do not agree with Plato, but if anything could make me do so, it would be Aristotle’s arguments against him.

Aristotle concludes that there is no wickedness too great for a tyrant. There is, however, he says, another method of preserving a tyranny, namely by moderation and by seeming religious. There is no decision as to which method is likely to prove the more successful.

Aristotle’s fundamental assumptions, in his Politics, are very different from those of any modern writer. The aim of the State, in his view, is to produce cultured gentlemen– men who combine the aristocratic mentality with love of learning and the arts… Various forces have put an end to this state of affairs (government by cultured gentlemen). First, democracy, as embodied by the French Revolution and its aftermath. The cultured gentlemen, as after the age of Pericles, had to defend their privileges against the populace, and in the process ceased to be either gentlemen or cultured. A second cause was the rise of industrialism, with a scientific technique very different from traditional culture. A third cause was popular education, which conferred the power to read and write, but did not confer culture; this enabled a new type of demagogue to practice a new type of propaganda, as seen in the dictatorships. Both for good and evil, therefore, the day of the cultured gentleman is past.

Aristotle’s Logic

I conclude that the Aristotelian doctrines with which we have been concerned in this chapter are wholly false, with the exception of the formal theory of the syllogism, which is unimportant. Any person in the present day who wishes to learn logic will be wasting his time if he reads Aristotle or any of his disciples. None the less, Aristotle’s logical writings show great ability, and would have been useful to mankind if they had appeared at a time when intellectual originality was still active. Unfortunately, they appeared at the very end of the creative period of Greek thought, and therefore came to be accepted as authoritative.

Aristotle’s Physics

Words such as “quintessence” and “sublunary” are derived from the theories expressed in these books (Physics and On the Heavens). The historian of philosophy, accordingly, must study them, in spite of the fact that hardly a sentence in either can be accepted in the light of modern science.

Finally: The view that the heavenly bodies are eternal and incorruptible has had to be abandoned. The sun and stars have long lives, but do not live for ever. They are born from a nebula, and in the end they either explode or die of cold. Nothing in the visible world is exempt from change and decay; the Aristotelian belief to the contrary, though accepted by medieval Christians, is a product of the pagan worship of sun and moon and planets.

Raphael’s “School of Athens”. Plato is holding the Timaeus and Aristotle the Nichomachean Ethics.

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