Top critical review
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on 2 June 2015
Is post-Enlightenment philosophy anything more than the thinking up of pointless non-problems, and then spending a lot of time failing to solve them (he asked rhetorically)? If Bertrand Russell - one of Britain's last philosophers of note - worried about that, it didn't stop him writing this history of the discipline. It's huge, not so much in page count as in the density of argument and the sheer amount of learning brought to bear; yet it lacks breadth of understanding, and the ability to consider other points of view which any good historian needs. Russell, with his colourful private life, had a down on Christianity. He comments sarcastically that 'it's a pity God made man', only for some to be damned; you could equally say it's a pity Russell bothered with long sections about Christian philosophy, when he can't seem to find a good word to say about any of it.
Objectivity is an unrealistic goal, but you do expect some semblance of fairness. It's ridiculous for him to dismiss Aquinas on the grounds that he made his philosophy fit pre-existing goals, when that is what most philosophers (and many scientists) do. Philosophy is a matter of getting your ideas in better order. Any philosophy is a closed system; like a computer system, you can't find anything in it that wasn't there at the start. The starting point has to be one's prior beliefs, whether in God, a material universe, or whatever it might be. Russell also plays fast and loose with history. When it comes to blaming the horrors of the Dark Ages on the Church - which is actually the one thing that mitigated them - it really is a bit dishonest. Similarly, there's really no basis for saying that the lot of ordinary people (as opposed to fancy Italian painters) got any better at the Renaissance, or for centuries after it. It's simply that those of Russell's stamp feel that, because the post-Renaissance era is more congenial to them than the Middle Ages, life just *must* have been better.
In a word, Russell does exactly what he accuses Aquinas of doing - what he cannot help doing: he has his ideology, his 'narrative', a tale of life improving steadily in proportion to the benign influence of reason (a vision most of us realise to be simplistic at best), and the facts have to be fitted into it. The trouble is that he's not honest about it.