Notes from Russel A History of Western Philosophy

Russell, B. (1945). A History of Western Philosophy. Simon & Schuster/Touchstone.
The irrational separates us, the rational unites us.
(A history of western Philosophy, p. 172.  Bertrand Russell)

Definition of Ideal

What makes the difference between “ideal” and an ordinary object of desire is that the  former is impersonal; it is something having (at least ostensibly) no special reference to the ego of the man who feels the desire, and therefore capable, theoretically, of being desired by everybody. Thus we might define an “ideal” as something desired, not egocentric, and such that the person desiring it wishes that every one else also desired it. I may wish that everybody had enough to eat, that everybody felt kindly towards everybody, and so on, and if I wish anything of this kind I shall also wish others to wish it. In this way, I can build up what looks like an impersonal ethic, although in fact it rests upon the personal basis of my own desires–for the desire remains mine even when what is desired has no reference to myself. For example, one man may wish that everybody understood science, and another that everybody appreciated art; it is a personal difference between the two men that produces this difference in their desires.  (p.115,116)

I do not think that Plato’s logical objections to the reality of sensible particulars will bear examination. He says, for example, that whatever is beautiful is also in some respect ugly; what is double is also half; and so on. But when we say of some work of art that it is beautiful in some respects and ugly in others, analysis will always (at least theoretically) enable us to say “this part or aspect is beautiful, while that part or aspect is ugly.” And as regards “double” and “half,” these are relative terms; there is no contradiction in the fact that 2 is double of 1 and half of 4. 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.  (p.128-129)

There are, at this point, some puzzles of a very elementary character. We are told that, since 6 is greater than 4 but less than 12, 6 is both great and small, which is a contradiction. Again, Socrates is now taller than Theaetetus, who is a youth not yet full grown; but in a few years Socrates will be shorter than Theaetetus. Therefore Socrates is both tall and short. The idea of a relational proposition seems to have puzzled Plato, as it did most of the great philosophers down to Hegel (inclusive). These puzzles, however, are not very germane to the argument, and may be ignored. (p.150)
The Greeks contributed, it is true, something else which proved of more permanent value to abstract thought: they discovered mathematics and the art of deductive reasoning. Geometry,  in particular, is a Greek invention, without which modern science would have been impossible. But in connection with mathematics the one-sidedness of the Greek genius appears: it reasoned deductively from what appeared self-evident, not inductively from what had been observed. Its amazing successes in the employment of this method misled not only the ancient world, but the greater part of the modern world also. It has only been very slowly that scientific method, which seeks to reach principles inductively from observation of particular facts, has replaced the Hellenic belief in deduction from luminous axioms derived from the mind of the philosopher. For this reason, apart from others, it is a mistake to treat the Greeks with superstitious reverence. Scientific method, though some few among them were the first men who had an inkling of it, is, on the whole, alien to their temper of mind, and the attempt to glorify them by belittling the intellectual progress of the last four centuries has a cramping effect upon modern thought. (page 39)

(2) Over-estimation of the syllogism . The syllogism is only one kind of deductive argument. In mathematics, which is wholly deductive, syllogisms hardly ever occur. Of course it would be possible to re-write mathematical arguments in syllogistic form, but this would be very artificial and would not make them any more cogent. Take arithmetic, for example. If I buy goods worth $4.63, and tender a $5 bill in payment, how much change is due to me? To put this simple sum in the form of a syllogism would be absurd, and would tend to conceal the real nature of the argument. Again, within logic there are non-syllogistic inferences, such as: “A horse is an animal, therefore a horse’s head is an animal’s head.” Valid syllogisms, in fact, are only some among valid deductions, and have no logical priority over others. The attempt to give per-eminence to the syllogism in deduction misled philosophers as to the nature of mathematical reasoning.  (page 198)

We shall agree that Mr. Smith (say) is mortal, and we may, loosely, say that we know this because we know that all men are mortal. But what we really know is not “all men are mortal”; we know rather something like “all men born more than one hundred and fifty years ago are mortal, and so are almost all men born more than one hundred years ago.” This is our reason for thinking that Mr. Smith will die. But this argument is an induction, not a deduction. It has less cogency than a deduction, and yields only a probability, not a certainty; but on the other hand it gives new knowledge, which deduction does not. All the important inferences outside logic and pure mathematics are inductive, not deductive; the only exceptions are law and theology, each of which derives its first principles from an unquestionable text, viz. the statute books or the scriptures.

Russell, B. (1967). page 199

The authority of science, which is recognized by most philosophers of the modern epoch, is a very different thing from the authority of the Church, since it is intellectual, not governmental. No penalties fall upon those who reject it; no prudential arguments influence those who accept it. It prevails solely by its intrinsic appeal to reason. It is, moreover, a piecemeal and partial authority; it does not, like the body of Catholic dogma, lay down a complete system, covering human morality, human hopes, and the past and future history of the universe. It pronounces only on whatever, at the time, appears to have been scientifically ascertained, which is a small island in anocean of nescience. There is yet another difference from ecclesiastical authority, which declares its pronouncements to be absolutely certain and eternally unalterable: the pronouncements of science are made tentatively, on a basis of probability, and are regarded as liable to modification. This produces a temper of mind very different from that of the medieval dogmatist. So far, I have been speaking of theoretical science, which is an attempt to understand the world.Practical science, which is an attempt to change the world, has been important from the first, and has continually increased in importance, until it has almost ousted theoretical science from men’s thoughts.  (p.493)

Meanwhile science as technique was building up in practical men a quite different outlook from any that was to be found among theoretical philosophers. Technique conferred a sense of power: man is now much less at the mercy of his environment than he was in former times. But the power
conferred by technique is social, not individual; an average individual wrecked on a desert island could have achieved more in the seventeenth century than he could now. Scientific technique requires the co-operation of a large number of individuals organized under a single direction. Its
tendency, therefore, is against anarchism and even individualism, since it demands a well-knit social structure. Unlike religion, it is ethically neutral: it assures men that they can perform wonders, but does not tell them what wonders to perform. In this way it is incomplete. In practice,
the purposes to which scientific skill will be devoted depend largely on chance. The men at the head of the vast organizations which it necessitates can, within limits, turn it this way or that as they please. The power impulse thus has a scope which it never had before. The philosophies that
have been inspired by scientific technique are power philosophies, and tend to regard everything non-human as mere raw material. Ends are no longer considered; only the skilfulness of the process is valued. This also is a form of madness. It is, in our day, the most dangerous form, and
the one against which a sane philosophy should provide an antidote.  (p. 494)


Machiavelli, for he remarks that “all armed prophets have conquered and unarmed ones failed”   (p.504)

A ruler will perish if he is always good; he must be as cunning as a fox and as fierce as a lion. There is a chapter (XVIIII) entitled: “In What Way Princes Must Keep Faith.” We learn that they should keep faith when it pays to do so, but not otherwise. A prince must on occasion be faithless.
“But it is necessary to be able to disguise this character well, and to be a great feigner and dissembler; and men are so simple and so ready to obey present necessities, that one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived. I will mention only One modern
instance. Alexander VI did nothing else but deceive men, he thought of nothing else, and found the occasion for it; no man was ever more able to give assurances, or affirmed things with stronger oaths, and no man observed them less; however, he always succeeded in his deceptions, as he
knew well this aspect of things. It is not necessary therefore for a prince to have all the abovenamed qualities [the conventional virtues], but it is very necessary to seem to have them.” He goes on to say that, above all, a prince should seem to be religious.  (p. 508)

Northern writers, even so late as Locke, argue as to what happened in the Garden of Eden, and think that they can thence derive proofs that certain kinds of power are “legitimate.” In Machiavelli there is no such conception. Power is for those who have
the skill to seize it in a free competition. His preference for popular government is not derived from any idea of “rights,” but from the observation that popular governments are less cruel, unscrupulous, and inconstant than tyrannies.  (p. 509)  The best constitution is one which apportions legal
rights among prince, nobles, and people in proportion to their real power, for under such a constitution successful revolutions are difficult and therefore stability is possible; but for considerations of stability, it would be wise to give more power to the people……..In the first place, those who have seized
power can, by controlling propaganda, cause their party to appear virtuous; no one, for example, could mention the sins of Alexander VI in a New York or Boston public school. In the second place, there are chaotic periods during which obvious knavery frequently succeeds; the period of
Machiavelli was one of them. In such times, there tends to be a rapidly growing cynicism, which makes men forgive anything provided it pays. Even in such times, as Machiavelli himself says, it is desirable to present an appearance of virtue before the ignorant public. (510)

Every increase in the understanding of what happens to us consists in referring events to the idea of God, since, in truth, everything is part of God. This understanding of everything as part of God is love of God. When all objects are referred to God, the idea of God will fully occupy the mind.
Thus the statement that “love of God must hold the chief place in the mind” is not a primarily moral exhortation, but an account of what must inevitably happen as we acquire understanding.  (Spinoza p. 576)


The hereditary principle has almost vanished from politics. During my lifetime, the emperors of Brazil, China, Russia, Germany, and Austria have disappeared, to be replaced by dictators who do not aim at the foundation of a hereditary dynasty. Aristocracy has lost its privileges throughout Europe, except in England, where they have become little more than a historical form. ……..

It is curious that the rejection of the hereditary principle in politics has had almost no effect in the economic sphere in democratic countries. (In totalitarian states, economic power has been absorbed by political power.) We still think it natural that a man should leave his property to his children; that is to say, we accept the hereditary principle as regards economic power while rejecting it as regards political power. Political dynasties have disappeared, but economic dynasties survive. I am not at the moment arguing either for or against this different treatment of the two forms of power; I am merely pointing out that it exists, and that most men are unconsciousof it.  (p.622)

Amir: In my opinion, although russell is right to hightlight the point, the subjects are of diffrent nature, one is the deligated power by many to few which revokable even in their life time, the other is on the basis of accumulation of work result (assuming it is so) which is not just to be revoked by others opinion. One can not do whatever he wants with the power deligate dto him as proxy, but can do what he wants ( with liberal limitations) to what he has properly earned. Of course this accumulated power has consequences which democratic theory must deal with.



No one has yet succeeded in inventing a philosophy at once credible and self-consistent. Locke  aimed at credibility, and achieved it at the expense of consistency. Most of the great
philosophers have done the opposite. A philosophy which is not self-consistent cannot be wholly true, but a philosophy which is self-consistent can very well be wholly false. The most
fruitful philosophies have contained glaring inconsistencies, but for that very reason have been partially true. There is no reason to suppose that a self-consistent system contains more truth
than one which, like Locke’s, is obviously more or less wrong.    (p 613)


I dislike Nietzsche because he likes the contemplation of pain, because he erects conceit into a duty, because the men whom he most admires are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing
men to die. But I think the ultimate argument against his philosophy, as against any unpleasant but internally self-consistent ethic, lies not in an appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the
emotions. Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world.  (Bertrand Russel, A History of Western Philosophy, 1945, p.772-772)