Russell's History of Western Philosophy

I picked this book up at a used bookstore chiefly because of the chapter on Berkeley, but I have been perusing other sections as well. The book is somewhat infamous in its ahistorical approach to the history of philosophy. George Boas said of it:

"A History of Western Philosophy errs consistently in this respect. Its author never seems to be able to make up his mind whether he is writing history or polemic.... [Its method] confers on philosophers who are dead and gone a kind of false contemporaneity which may make them seem important to the uninitiate. But nevertheless it is a misreading of history."

In other words, Russell failed to place the ideas of past philosophers in their historical context, a significant flaw in many interpretations of Berkeley (as my forthcoming paper points out), and certainly a major failing in a book with "history" in its title.

While flipping through it, I found this little gem:

"In the general decay of civilization that came about during the incessant wars of the sixth and succeeding centuries, it was above all the Church that preserved whatever survived of the culture of ancient Rome. [So far so good: at least this avowed non-Christian admits that much.] The Church performed this work very imperfectly, because... [several reasons] and secular learning was thought wicked." (p. 175)

There is no citation of anyone actually ever saying such a thing, which one thinks might be wanted in a book purporting to be a history. Now, it is certainly true that there were important figures in the Church who thought that paying too much attention to pagan philosophers was a bad idea: their reasoning would've been something along the lines of claiming that whatever was good in these philosophers could be found in Christianity, and thus one could only pick up bad things by adding these philosophers to one's study of Christian thought. While I don't agree with this line of thought, it is not obviously nutty.

But "secular learning" would include much more than that: for instance, learning a new agricultural technique, or a new way of metalworking. There have been a lot of Christians in the world, so I'm sure you can find at least one who held that such learning was "wicked," but I've never seen any evidence that such a believe was common. Russell's claim seems to be just another instance of "in those deranged Dark Ages, they believed the stupidest things."


  1. You have hit upon one of my pet peeves: the notion that medievals (and it applies to earlier too) believed stupid stuff, unlike today. Well stupid is mostly a matter of context. It's not stupid to think of the heart as a heater before any real anatomy was known, but it would be stupid now.
    I bet there are at least as many stupid ideas around now as ever, and likely more.

    1. And Aristotle's physics was very common-sensical.

  2. Would "secular learning" include the heliocentric theory?

    1. Well of course, why not? I am not claiming that the Church did not think ANY secular learning was wicked, I am just claiming the blanket statement seems absurd.


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