Thursday, July 24, 2008

Bertrand Russell on Aristotle

Not a long note here but just my observation that as much as Russell liked Spinoza, he really can't stand Aristotle. On the one hand, he recognizes Aristotle's greatness: "... after his death it was two thousand years before the world produced any philosopher who could be regarded as approximately his equal" (159).

With regard to his predecessors too, "Aristotle's merits are enormous."

Then we get a hint of Russell's frustration: "almost every serious intellectual advance has had to begin with an attack on some Aristotelian doctrine; in logic, this is still true at the present day" (160). Since logic and such were Russell's babies, this was his battle at the time.

But he has some interesting "snide" remarks throughout several chapters on Aristotle:

With regard to Aristotle tutoring Alexander the Great: "I cannot imagine his pupil regarding him as anything but a prosy old pedant, set over him by his father to keep him out of mischief" (161).

"Aristotle's metaphysics, roughly speaking, may be described as Plato diluted by common sense" (162).

"If, therefore, I have failed to make Aristotle's theory of universals clear, that is (I maintain) because it is not clear" (164).

After Russell has quoted at length Aristotle's sense of the best individual, he writes (perhaps correctly), "One shudders to think what a vain man would be like" given how Aristotle portrays a magnanimous one (176).

Again perhaps rightly, Russell writes, "When we come to compare Aristotle's ethical tastes with our own ... we find ... an acceptance of inequality which is repugnant to much modern sentiment. Not only is there no objection to slavery, or to the superiority of husbands and fathers over wives and children, but it is held that what is best is essentially only for the few--proud men and philosophers" (183).

"There is in Aristotle an almost complete absence of what may be called benevolence or philanthropy."

Then Russell gets to Aristotle's logic and the gloves come off.

"Even at the present day, all Catholic teachers of philosophy and many others still obstinately reject the discoveries of modern logic, and adhere with a strange tenacity to a system which is as definitely antiquated as Ptolemaic astronomy. This makes it difficult to do historical justice to Aristotle. His present-day influence is so inimical to clear thinking that it is hard to remember how great an advance he made upon all his predecessors... Aristotle ... is still especially in logic, a battle-ground, and cannot be treated in a purely historical spirit" (195).

"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" (202, italics mine!).

Finally, with regard to Aristotle's physics, Russell concludes with a number of observations:

"This theory provided many difficulties for later ages... Galileo's discovery that a projectile moves in a parabola shocked his Aristotelian colleagues. Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo had to combat Aristotle as well as the Bible in establishing the view that the earth is not the centre of the universe, but rotates once a day and goes round the sun once a year" (207).

"Aristotelian physics is incompatible with Newton's "First Law of Motion," originally enunciated by Galileo."

"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 forever. They are born from nebula, and in the end they either explode or die of cold... the Aristotelian belief to the contrary, though accepted by medieval Christians, is a product of the pagan worship of sun and moon and planets."


Jared said...

Is this really an attack on Aristotle or on the ongoing influence of Aristotle? Other than a remark here and there about clarity or prose style, it seems like Russell treats Aristotle as a trailblazer, but, like all trailblazers, later people have improved upon him. The problem comes when one ossifies the positions of the trailblazers rather dogmatically. Thus, the problem seems to be with Aristotelians. Aristotle's stuffy style may also derive from the nature of his writing--in the sense that it has been postulated that his writings were more like his lecture notes, and he would expand or elaborate, upon his terse statements when speaking.

Also, Aristotle does talk about benevolence in Nicomachian Ethics, with "open-handedness" (eleutheriotes) being something that anyone with funds at their disposal should engage in, and "munificence" (megaloprepeia) something that really only the wealthy have enough money to engage in. Russell's definition may differ, but should acknowledge that Aristotle does address it.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I still believe that there is nothing unlawful in itself, but the improper use of it. Moderation is still what character is to be about, because moderation can be rational and responsive, without negating the other with emotional abuse.Emotional abuse happens when one fears identity annihlation.
This is why it is not about religion, but character. Character is formed by choices and goals we have. And identity should be within our own control of characteristics that we deem worthy of aquiring.

Harper said...

Angie, what has that got to do with the post...?

Dan said...

Dr. Schenck,
What logic of Aristotle is Russell blasting and contrasting w/ "modern logic"?

Ken Schenck said...

Jared, you're right, although I get the impression that Russell had to force himself to credit Aristotle for being great in his day.

Dan, Russell faults Aristotle's logic as 1) having formal defects (not distinguishing between quite different kinds of premises), 2) over-estimating the syllogism (as if it were the only type of deductive argument), and 3) over-estimating deduction (we're more inductive). I wish I could say more...

Ken Schenck said...

Oh, I completely agree that Aristotle's understanding of form and substance, although an improvement on Plato, can only be seen as peculiar today. Although I am not inimical toward the catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, I consider it a fossil of Aristotle's now vastly outdated metaphysic.

Dan said...

Thanks..I'm just a novice...hurry up and finish that philosophy book so I can buy it and get a clue, haha.

Schaheb said...

"Aristotle, it should be said, has been one of the great misfortunes of the human race." Russell, "The Scientific Outlook." Bertie actually doesn't like Aristotle very much.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, it's astonishing. I would never have imagined Aristotle's work in logic hadn't been thoroughly addressed and retired long ago. He was still grinding that ax in History of Western Philosophy []...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your exposition of Russell's historically and substantially significant critique of Aristotle. His opinion is bolstered by being demonstrably correct in almost all respects.

Modern philosophy consists of persistent attempts by the vast majority of professional philosophers to create epicycles to work around indisputable refutations of Aristotle's metaphysics and epistemology by the major philosophers.

When Aristotle reversed Plato's metaphysical grounds, he also limited himself to what the Principle of Noncontradiction permits. This is analogous to Euclidean metaphysics. The real world is not fixed, but is subject to change, as Plato pointed out.

Kant and Wittgenstein have not really been accepted for the limitations they have demonstrated on the universal possibility of knowledge.

Steve G.

My Amazon Store