History of Literature, Fhilosophy and Religions


Part III

A Brief History of Western Philosophy

Introduction Phylosophy

The nature of Western philosophy

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy

Medieval philosophy

Renaissance philosophy

Modern philosophy

Contemporary philosophy


Western Philosophy







Western philosophy

Encyclopaedia Britannica





Western philosophy

History of Western philosophy from its development among the ancient Greeks to the present.

This article has three basic purposes:

(1) to provide an overview of the history of philosophy in the West,

(2) to relate philosophical ideas and movements to their historical background and to the cultural history of their time, and

(3) to trace the changing conception of the definition, the function, and the task of philosophy.

The nature of Western philosophy » The Western tradition

It would be difficult if not impossible to find two philosophers who would define philosophy in exactly the same way. Throughout its long and varied history in the West, philosophy has meant many different things. Some of these have been a search for wisdom (the meaning closest to the Latin philosophia, itself derived from the Greek philosoph, “lover of wisdom”); an attempt to understand the universe as a whole; an examination of humankind’s moral responsibilities and social obligations; an effort to fathom the divine intentions and the place of human beings with reference to them; an effort to ground the enterprise of natural science; a rigorous examination of the origin, extent, and validity of human ideas; an exploration of the place of will or consciousness in the universe; an examination of the values of truth, goodness, and beauty; and an effort to codify the rules of human thought in order to promote rationality and the extension of clear thinking. Even these do not exhaust the meanings that have been attached to the philosophical enterprise, but they give some idea of its extreme complexity and many-sidedness.

It is difficult to determine whether any common element can be found within this diversity and whether any core meaning can serve as a universal and all-inclusive definition. But a first attempt in this direction might be to define philosophy either as “a reflection upon the varieties of human experience” or as “the rational, methodical, and systematic consideration of those topics that are of greatest concern to humankind.” Vague and indefinite as such definitions are, they do suggest two important facts about philosophizing:

(1) that it is a reflective, or meditative, activity and

(2) that it has no explicitly designated subject matter of its own but is a method or type of mental operation (like science or history) that can take any area or subject matter or type of experience as its object.

Thus, although there are a few single-term divisions of philosophy of long standing—such as logic, ethics, epistemology, or metaphysics—its divisions are probably best expressed by phrases that contain the preposition of—such as philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, philosophy of nature (philosophy of biology and philosophy of physics), philosophy of law, and philosophy of art (aesthetics).

Part of what makes it difficult to find a consensus among philosophers about the definition of their discipline is precisely that they have frequently come to it from different fields, with different interests and concerns, and that they therefore have different areas of experience upon which they find it especially necessary or meaningful to reflect. St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–75), a Dominican friar, George Berkeley (1685–1753), a bishop of the Irish Church, and Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55), a Danish divinity student, all saw philosophy as a means to assert the truths of religion and to dispel the materialistic or rationalistic errors that, in their opinion, had led to its decline. Pythagoras (c. 580–c. 500 bc) in southern Italy, René Descartes (1596–1650) in France, and Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) in England were primarily mathematicians whose views of the universe and of human knowledge were vastly influenced by the concept of number and by the method of deductive thinking. Some philosophers, such as Plato (c. 428–c. 348 bc), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Stuart Mill (1806–73), were obsessed by problems of political arrangement and social living, so that whatever they have done in philosophy has been stimulated by a desire to understand and, ultimately, to change the social and political behaviour of human beings. And still others—such as the Milesians (the first philosophers of Greece, from the ancient Anatolian city of Miletus), Francis Bacon (1561–1626), an Elizabethan philosopher, and Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947), an English metaphysician—began with an interest in the physical composition of the natural world, so that their philosophies resemble more closely the generalizations of physical science than those of religion or sociology.

Saint Thomas Aquinas
Italian Christian theologian and philosopher
also called Aquinas, Italian San Tommaso d’Aquino, byname Doctor Angelicus (Latin: Angelic Doctor)

born 1224/25, Roccasecca, near Aquino, Terra di Lavoro, Kingdom of Sicily
died March 7, 1274, Fossanova, near Terracina, Latium, Papal States; canonized July 18, 1323; feast day January 28, formerly March 7

Italian Dominican theologian, the foremost medieval Scholasticist. He developed his own conclusions from Aristotelian premises, notably in the metaphysics of personality, creation, and Providence. As a theologian he was responsible in his two masterpieces, the Summa theologiae and the Summa contra gentiles, for the classical systematization of Latin theology; and as a poet he wrote some of the most gravely beautiful eucharistic hymns in the church’s liturgy. His doctrinal system and the explanations and developments made by his followers are known as Thomism. Although many modern Roman Catholic theologians do not find St. Thomas altogether congenial, he is nevertheless recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as its foremost Western philosopher and theologian.

Early years
Thomas was born to parents who were in possession of a modest feudal domain on a boundary constantly disputed by the emperor and the pope. His father was of Lombard origin; his mother was of the later invading Norman strain. His people were distinguished in the service of Emperor Frederick II during the civil strife in southern Italy between the papal and imperial forces. Thomas was placed in the monastery of Monte Cassino near his home as an oblate (i.e., offered as a prospective monk) when he was still a young boy; his family doubtless hoped that he would someday become abbot to their advantage. In 1239, after nine years in this sanctuary of spiritual and cultural life, young Thomas was forced to return to his family when the emperor expelled the monks because they were too obedient to the pope. He was then sent to the University of Naples, recently founded by the emperor, where he first encountered the scientific and philosophical works that were being translated from the Greek and the Arabic. In this setting Thomas decided to join the Friars Preachers, or Dominicans, a new religious order founded 30 years earlier, which departed from the traditional paternalistic form of government for monks to the more democratic form of the mendicant friars (i.e., religious orders whose corporate as well as personal poverty made it necessary for them to beg alms) and from the monastic life of prayer and manual labour to a more active life of preaching and teaching. By this move he took a liberating step beyond the feudal world into which he was born and the monastic spirituality in which he was reared. A dramatic episode marked the full significance of his decision. His parents had him abducted on the road to Paris, where his shrewd superiors had immediately assigned him so that he would be out of the reach of his family but also so that he could pursue his studies in the most prestigious and turbulent university of the time.

Studies in Paris
Thomas held out stubbornly against his family despite a year of captivity. He was finally liberated and in the autumn of 1245 went to Paris to the convent of Saint-Jacques, the great university centre of the Dominicans; there he studied under Albertus Magnus, a tremendous scholar with a wide range of intellectual interests.

Escape from the feudal world, rapid commitment to the University of Paris, and religious vocation to one of the new mendicant orders all meant a great deal in a world in which faith in the traditional institutional and conceptual structure was being attacked. The encounter between the gospel and the culture of his time formed the nerve centre of Thomas’s position and directed its development. Normally, his work is presented as the integration into Christian thought of the recently discovered Aristotelian philosophy, in competition with the integration of Platonic thought effected by the Fathers of the Church during the first 12 centuries of the Christian Era. This view is essentially correct; more radically, however, it should also be asserted that Thomas’s work accomplished an evangelical awakening to the need for a cultural and spiritual renewal not only in the lives of individual men but also throughout the church. Thomas must be understood in his context as a mendicant religious, influenced both by the evangelism of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order, and by the devotion to scholarship of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican order.

When Thomas Aquinas arrived at the University of Paris, the influx of Arabian-Aristotelian science was arousing a sharp reaction among believers; and several times the church authorities tried to block the naturalism and rationalism that were emanating from this philosophy and, according to many ecclesiastics, seducing the younger generations. Thomas did not fear these new ideas, but, like his master Albertus Magnus (and Roger Bacon, also lecturing at Paris), he studied the works of Aristotle and eventually lectured publicly on them.

For the first time in history, Christian believers and theologians were confronted with the rigorous demands of scientific rationalism. At the same time, technical progress was requiring men to move from the rudimentary economy of an agrarian society to an urban society with production organized in trade guilds, with a market economy, and with a profound feeling of community. New generations of men and women, including clerics, were reacting against the traditional notion of contempt for the world and were striving for mastery over the forces of nature through the use of their reason. The structure of Aristotle’s philosophy emphasized the primacy of the intelligence. Technology itself became a means of access to truth; mechanical arts were powers for humanizing the cosmos. Thus, the dispute over the reality of universals—i.e., the question about the relation between general words such as “red” and particulars such as “this red object”—which had dominated early Scholastic philosophy, was left behind; and a coherent metaphysics of knowledge and of the world was being developed.

During the summer of 1248, Aquinas left Paris with Albertus, who was to assume direction of the new faculty established by the Dominicans at the convent in Cologne. He remained there until 1252, when he returned to Paris to prepare for the degree of master of theology. After taking his bachelor’s degree, he received the licentia docendi (“license to teach”) at the beginning of 1256 and shortly afterward finished the training necessary for the title and privileges of master. Thus, in the year 1256 he began teaching theology in one of the two Dominican schools incorporated in the University of Paris.

Years at the papal Curia and return to Paris
In 1259 Thomas was appointed theological adviser and lecturer to the papal Curia, then the centre of Western humanism. He returned to Italy, where he spent two years at Anagni at the end of the reign of Alexander IV and four years at Orvieto with Urban IV. From 1265 to 1267 he taught at the convent of Santa Sabina in Rome and then, at the request of Clement IV, went to the papal Curia in Viterbo. Suddenly, in November 1268, he was sent to Paris, where he became involved in a sharp doctrinal polemic that had just been triggered off.

The works of Averroës, the outstanding representative of Arabic philosophy in Spain, who was known as the great commentator and interpreter of Aristotle, were just becoming known to the Parisian masters. There seems to be no doubt about the Islamic faith of the Cordovan philosopher; nevertheless, he asserted that the structure of religious knowledge was entirely heterogeneous to rational knowledge: two truths—one of faith, the other of reason—can, in the final analysis, be contradictory. This dualism was denied by Muslim orthodoxy and was still less acceptable to Christians. With the appearance of Siger of Brabant, however, and from 1266 on, the quality of Averroës’s exegesis and the wholly rational bent of his thought began to attract disciples in the faculty of arts at the University of Paris. Thomas Aquinas rose in protest against his colleagues; nevertheless, the parties retained a mutual esteem. As soon as he returned from Italy, Thomas began to dispute with Siger, who, he claimed, was compromising not only orthodoxy but also the Christian interpretation of Aristotle. Aquinas found himself wedged in between the Augustinian tradition of thought, now more emphatic than ever in its criticism of Aristotle, and the Averroists. Radical Averroism was condemned in 1270, but at the same time Thomas, who sanctioned the autonomy of reason under faith, was discredited.

In the course of this dispute, the very method of theology was called into question. According to Aquinas, reason is able to operate within faith and yet according to its own laws. The mystery of God is expressed and incarnate in human language; it is thus able to become the object of an active, conscious, and organized elaboration in which the rules and structures of rational activity are integrated in the light of faith. In the Aristotelian sense of the word, then (although not in the modern sense), theology is a “science”; it is knowledge that is rationally derived from propositions that are accepted as certain because they are revealed by God. The theologian accepts authority and faith as his starting point and then proceeds to conclusions using reason; the philosopher, on the other hand, relies solely on the natural light of reason. Thomas was the first to view theology expressly in this way or at least to present it systematically, and in doing so he raised a storm of opposition in various quarters. Even today this opposition endures, especially among religious enthusiasts for whom reason remains an intruder in the realm of mystical communion, contemplation, and the sudden ecstasy of evangelical fervour.

The literary form of Aquinas’s works must be appreciated in the context of his methodology. He organized his teaching in the form of “questions,” in which critical research is presented by pro and con arguments, according to the pedagogical system then in use in the universities. Forms varied from simple commentaries on official texts to written accounts of the public disputations, which were significant events in medieval university life. Thomas’s works are divided into three categories: 1) commentaries on such works as the Old and New Testaments, the Sentences of Peter Lombard (the official manual of theology in the universities), and the writings of Aristotle; 2) disputed questions, accounts of his teaching as a master in the disputations; 3) two summae or personal syntheses, the Summa contra gentiles and the Summa theologiae, which were presented as integral introductions for the use of beginners. Numerous opuscula (“little works”), which have great interest because of the particular circumstances that provoked them, must also be noted.

The logic of Aquinas’s position regarding faith and reason required that the fundamental consistency of the realities of nature be recognized. A physis (“nature”) has necessary laws; recognition of this fact permits the construction of a science according to a logos (“rational structure”). Thomas thus avoided the temptation to sacralize the forces of nature through a naïve recourse to the miraculous or the Providence of God. For him, a whole “supernatural” world that cast its shadow over things and men, in Romanesque art as in social customs, had blurred men’s imaginations. Nature, discovered in its profane reality, should assume its proper religious value and lead to God by more rational ways, yet not simply as a shadow of the supernatural. This understanding is exemplified in the way that Francis of Assisi admired the birds, the plants, and the Sun.

The inclusion of Aristotle’s Physics in university programs was not, therefore, just a matter of academic curiosity. Naturalism, however, as opposed to a sacral vision of the world, was penetrating all realms: spirituality, social customs, and political conduct. About 1270, Jean de Meun, a French poet of the new cities and Thomas’s neighbour in the Rue Saint-Jacques in Paris, gave expression in his Roman de la Rose to the coarsest realism, not only in examining the physical universe but also in describing and judging the laws of procreation. Innumerable manuscripts of the Roman poet Ovid’s Ars amatoria (Art of Love) were in circulation; André le Chapelain, in his De Deo amoris (On the God of Love) adapted a more refined version for the public. Courtly love in its more seductive forms became a more prevalent element in the culture of the 13th century.

At the same time, Roman law was undergoing a revival at the University of Bologna; this involved a rigorous analysis of the natural law and provided the jurists of Frederick II with a weapon against ecclesiastical theocracy. The traditional presentations of the role and duties of princes, in which biblical symbolism was used to outline beautiful pious images, were replaced by treatises that described experimental and rational attempts at government. Thomas had composed such a treatise—De regimine principum (On the Government of Princes)—for the king of Cyprus in 1266. In the administration of justice, juridical investigations and procedures replaced fanatical recourse to ordeals and to judgments of God.

In the face of this movement, there was a fear on the part of many that the authentic values of nature would not be properly distinguished from the disorderly inclinations of mind and heart. Theologians of a traditional bent firmly resisted any form of a determinist philosophy which, they believed, would atrophy liberty, dissolve personal responsibility, destroy faith in Providence, and deny the notion of a gratuitous act of creation. Imbued with Augustine’s doctrines, they asserted the necessity and power of grace for a nature torn asunder by sin. The optimism of the new theology concerning the religious value of nature scandalized them.

Although he was an Aristotelian, Thomas Aquinas was certain that he could defend himself against a heterodox interpretation of “the Philosopher,” as Aristotle was known. Thomas held that human liberty could be defended as a rational thesis while admitting that determinations are found in nature. In his theology of Providence, he taught a continuous creation, in which the dependence of the created on the creative wisdom guarantees the reality of the order of nature. God moves sovereignly all that he creates; but the supreme government that he exercises over the universe is conformed to the laws of a creative Providence that wills each being to act according to its proper nature. This autonomy finds its highest realization in the rational creature: man is literally self-moving in his intellectual, volitional, and physical existence. Man’s freedom, far from being destroyed by his relationship to God, finds its foundation in this very relationship. “To take something away from the perfection of the creature is to abstract from the perfection of the creative power itself.” This metaphysical axiom, which is also a mystical principle, is the key to St. Thomas’s spirituality.

Last years at Naples
At Easter time in 1272, Thomas returned to Italy to establish a Dominican house of studies at the University of Naples. This move was undoubtedly made in answer to a request made by King Charles of Anjou, who was anxious to revive the university. After participating in a general chapter, or meeting, of the Dominicans held in Florence during Pentecost week and having settled some family affairs, Thomas resumed his university teaching at Naples in October and continued it until the end of the following year.

Although Thomas’s argument with the Averroists had for years been matched by a controversy with the Christian masters who followed the traditional Augustinian conception of man as fallen, this latter dispute now became more pronounced. In a series of university conferences in 1273, Bonaventure, a Franciscan friar and a friendly colleague of Thomas at Paris, renewed his criticism of the Aristotelian current of thought, including the teachings of Thomas. He criticized the thesis that philosophy is distinct from theology, as well as the notion of a physical nature that has determined laws; he was especially critical of the theory that the soul is bound up with the body as the two necessary principles that make up the nature of man and also reacted strongly to the Aristotelians’ denial of the Platonic-Augustinian theory of knowledge based upon exemplary Ideas or Forms.

The disagreement was profound. Certainly, all Christian philosophers taught the distinction between matter and spirit. This distinction, however, could be intelligently held only if the internal relationship between matter and spirit in individual human beings was sought. It was in the process of this explanation that differences of opinion arose—not only intellectual differences between idealist and realist philosophers but also emotional differences. Some viewed the material world merely as a physical and biological reality, a stage on which the history of spiritual persons is acted out, their culture developed, and their salvation or damnation determined. This stage itself remains detached from the spiritual event, and the history of nature is only by chance the setting for the spiritual history. The history of nature follows its own path imperturbably; in this history, man is a foreigner, playing a brief role only to escape as quickly as possible from the world into the realm of pure spirit, the realm of God.

Thomas, on the contrary, noted the inclusion of the history of nature in the history of the spirit and at the same time noted the importance of the history of spirit for the history of nature. Man is situated ontologically (i.e., by his very existence) at the juncture of two universes, “like a horizon of the corporeal and of the spiritual.” In man there is not only a distinction between spirit and nature but there is also an intrinsic homogeneity of the two. Aristotle furnished Aquinas with the categories necessary for the expression of this concept: the soul is the “form” of the body. For Aristotle, form is that which makes a thing to be what it is; form and matter—that out of which a thing is made—are the two intrinsic causes that constitute every material thing. For Thomas, then, the body is the matter and the soul is the form of man. The objection was raised that he was not sufficiently safeguarding the transcendence of the spirit, the doctrine that the soul survives after the death of the body.

In January 1274 Thomas Aquinas was personally summoned by Gregory X to the second Council of Lyons, which was an attempt to repair the schism between the Latin and Greek churches. On his way he was stricken by illness; he stopped at the Cistercian abbey of Fossanova, where he died on March 7. In 1277 the masters of Paris, the highest theological jurisdiction in the church, condemned a series of 219 propositions; 12 of these propositions were theses of Thomas. This was the most serious condemnation possible in the Middle Ages; its repercussions were felt in the development of ideas. It produced for several centuries a certain unhealthy spiritualism that resisted the cosmic and anthropological realism of Aquinas.

The biography of Thomas Aquinas is one of extreme simplicity; it chronicles little but some modest travel during a career devoted entirely to university life: at Paris, the Roman Curia, Paris again, and Naples. It would be a mistake, however, to judge that his life was merely the quiet life of a professional teacher untouched by the social and political affairs of his day. The drama that went on in his mind and in his religious life found its causes and produced its effects in the university. In the young universities all the ingredients of a rapidly developing civilization were massed together, and to these universities the Christian church had deliberately and authoritatively committed its doctrine and its spirit. In this environment, Thomas found the technical conditions for elaborating his work—not only the polemic occasions for turning it out but also the enveloping and penetrating spiritual milieu needed for it. It is within the homogeneous contexts supplied by this environment that it is possible today to discover the historical intelligibility of his work, just as they supplied the climate for its fruitfulness at the time of its birth.

Thomas Aquinas was canonized a saint in 1323, officially named doctor of the church in 1567, and proclaimed the protagonist of orthodoxy during the modernist crisis at the end of the 19th century. This continuous commendation, however, cannot obliterate the historical difficulties in which he was embroiled in the 13th century during a radical theological renewal—a renewal that was contested at the time and yet was brought about by the social, cultural, and religious evolution of the West. Thomas was at the heart of the doctrinal crisis that confronted Christendom when the discovery of Greek science, culture, and thought seemed about to crush it. William of Tocco, Aquinas’s first biographer, who had known him and was able to give evidence of the impression produced by his master’s teaching, says:

Brother Thomas raised new problems in his teaching, invented a new method, used new systems of proof. To hear him teach a new doctrine, with new arguments, one could not doubt that God, by the irradiation of this new light and by the novelty of this inspiration, gave him the power to teach, by the spoken and written word, new opinions and new knowledge.

The Rev. Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P.




George Berkeley
Irish philosopher

born March 12, 1685, near Dysert Castle, near Thomastown?, County Kilkenny, Ire.
died Jan. 14, 1753, Oxford

Anglo-Irish Anglican bishop, philosopher, and scientist, best known for his Empiricist philosophy, which holds that everything save the spiritual exists only insofar as it is perceived by the senses.

Early life and works.
Berkeley was the eldest son of William Berkeley, described as a “gentleman” in George’s matriculation entry, and as a commissioned officer, a cornet of dragoons, in the entry of a younger brother. Brought up at Dysert Castle, Berkeley entered Kilkenny College in 1696 and Trinity College, Dublin, in 1700, where he was graduated with a B.A. degree in 1704. While awaiting a fellowship vacancy, he made a critical study of time, vision, and the hypothesis that there is no material substance. The principal influences upon his thinking were Empiricism, represented by the English philosopher John Locke, and Continental Skepticism, represented by Nicolas Malebranche and Pierre Bayle. His first publication, Arithmetica and Miscellanea Mathematica (published together in 1707), was probably a fellowship thesis.

Elected fellow of Trinity College in 1707, Berkeley began to “examine and revise” his “first arguings” in his revision notebooks. The revision was drastic and its results revolutionary. His old principle was largely superseded by his new principle; i.e., his original line of argument for immaterialism, based on the subjectivity of colour, taste, and the other sensible qualities, was replaced by a simple, profound analysis of the meaning of “to be” or “to exist.” “To be,” said of the object, means to be perceived; “to be,” said of the subject, means to perceive.

Berkeley called attention to the whole situation that exists when a person perceives something, or imagines it. He argued that, when a person imagines trees or books “and no body by to perceive them,” he is failing to appreciate the whole situation: he is “omitting” the perceiver, for imagined trees or books are necessarily imagined as perceivable. The situation for him is a two-term relation of perceiver and perceived; there is no third term; there is no “idea of ” the object, coming between perceiver and perceived.

The revision was a gradual development. At the start Berkeley held that nothing exists but “conscious things.” “On second thoughts,” he was certain of the existence of bodies and knew intuitively “the existence of other things besides ourselves.” His expressions, “in the mind” and “without the mind,” must be understood accordingly. As he wrote in his notebook, heat and colour (which philosophers had classed as secondary qualities because of their supposed subjectivity) are “as much without the mind” as figure and motion (classed as primary qualities) or as time; for both primary and secondary qualities are so in the mind as to be in the thing, and are so in the thing as to be in the mind. The mind does not become red, blue, or extended when those qualities are in it; they are not modes or attributes of mind. Colour and extension are not mental qualities for Berkeley: colour can be seen, and extension can be touched; they are “sensible ideas,” or sense-data, the direct objects of percipient mind.

Berkeley accepted possible perception as well as actual perception; i.e., he accepted the existence of what a person is not actually perceiving but might perceive if he took the appropriate steps. The opposite view was held by some philosophers, including Materialists, who (in Berkeley’s words) “are by their own principles forced” to accept it. They are forced to accept that objects actually seen and touched have only an intermittent existence, that they come into existence when perceived and pass into nothingness when no longer perceived. Berkeley treated those views with respect; he denied that they are absurd; but he did not hold them, and he explicitly denied that they follow from his principles. In effect he said to his readers, “You may hold, if you will, that objects of sense have only an ‘in-and-out’ existence, that they are created and annihilated with every turn of man’s attention; but do not father those views on me. I do not hold them.” In his notebook he wrote, “Existence is percipi or percipere. The horse is in the stable, the Books are in the study as before.” Horse and books, when not being actually perceived by man, are still there, still perceivable “still with relation to perception.” To a nonphilosophical friend Berkeley wrote, “I question not the existence of anything that we perceive by our senses.”

Berkeley’s immaterialism is open to “gross misinterpretation,” as he said in his preface; rightly understood, it is common sense. Like most people, he accepted and built on “two heads,” “two kinds entirely distinct and heterogeneous”: (1) active mind or spirit, perceiving, thinking, and willing; and (2) passive objects of mind, viz., sensible ideas (sense-data) or imaginable ideas.

Period of his major works.
Berkeley’s golden period of authorship followed the revision. In An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), he examined visual distance, magnitude, position, and problems of sight and touch, and concluded that “the proper (or real) objects of sight” are not without the mind, though “the contrary be supposed true of tangible objects.” In his Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Part I (1710), he brought all objects of sense, including tangibles, within the mind; he rejected material substance, material causes, and abstract general ideas; he affirmed spiritual substance; and he answered many objections to his theory and drew the consequences, theological and epistemological. His Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713), by its attractive literary form and its avoidance of technicalities, reinforced the main argument of the Principles; the two books speak with one voice about immaterialism.

Berkeley was made a deacon in 1709 and ordained a priest in 1710. He held his fellowship for 17 years, acting as librarian (1709), junior dean (1710–11), and tutor and lecturer in divinity, Greek, and Hebrew.

In politics Berkeley was a Hanoverian Tory, and he defended the ethics of that position in three sermons, published as Passive Obedience (1712). Thus, with four major books in five years, the foundations of his fame were laid; and, when he first left Ireland in 1713 on a leave of absence, he was already a man of mark in the learned world; his books were reviewed on the Continent, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the wide-ranging author of the Monadology, knew of his immaterialism and commented upon it.

Among the London wits he was an immediate success. Jonathan Swift, dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, presented him at court. For Sir Richard Steele, an essayist, he wrote essays in The Guardian against the freethinkers. He was in the theatre with Joseph Addison, essayist and poet, on the first night of Cato and has left a spirited description of the experience. Alexander Pope credited him with “ev’ry virtue under heav’n.” In 1713–14 he went on an embassy to Sicily as chaplain with Charles Mordaunt, 3rd earl of Peterborough, whom Berkeley called an “ambassador extraordinary.” In 1715 during the Jacobite rebellion (on behalf of the exiled Stuarts) he proved his loyalty by publishing his Advice to the Tories Who Have Taken the Oaths. He was abroad again from 1716 to 1720 in Italy, acting as tutor to George Ashe, son of the Bishop of Clogher (later, of Derry); his four travel diaries give vivid pictures of sightseeing in Rome and of tours in southern Italy. On his return he published his De motu (1721), which rejected Sir Isaac Newton’s absolute space, time, and motion, gave a veiled hint of his immaterialism, and has recently earned him the title “precursor of Mach and Einstein.”

Resuming his work in Dublin, he took a full part in teaching and administration for more than three years. In 1724 he was appointed dean of Derry, and his 24 years’ connection with Trinity College ended.

His American venture and ensuing years. The deanery and legacy from Hester van Homrigh (Swift’s Vanessa) were seen by Berkeley as providences, furthering his “scheme of Bermuda,” in the New World. The frenzied speculation that preceded the bursting of the South Sea Bubble had shaken his faith in the Old World, and he looked in hope to the New. His Essay Towards preventing the Ruin of Great-Britain (1721) was soon succeeded by his prophetic verses on “Westward the course of empire takes its way.” Already by 1722 he had resolved to build a college in Bermuda for the education of young Americans (Indians), publishing the plan in A Proposal For the better Supplying of Churches . . . (1724). The scheme caught the public imagination; the King granted a charter; the Archbishop of Canterbury acted as trustee; subscriptions poured in; and Parliament passed a contingent grant of £20,000. But there was opposition; an alternative charity for Georgia was mooted; and the prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, hesitated.

In 1728 Berkeley married Anne, daughter of Chief Justice Forster, a talented and well-educated woman, who defended her husband’s philosophy after his death. Soon after the wedding, they sailed for America, settling at Newport, R.I., where Berkeley bought land, built a house (Whitehall), and waited. Berkeley preached often in Newport and its neighbourhood, and a philosophical study group met at Whitehall. Eventually, word came that the grant would not be paid, and Berkeley returned to London in October 1731. Several American universities, Yale in particular, benefitted by Berkeley’s visit; and his correspondence with Samuel Johnson, later president of King’s College (Columbia University), is of philosophical importance.

Alciphron; or, The Minute Philosopher (1732) was written at Newport, and the setting of the dialogues reflects local scenes and scenery. It is a massive defense of theism and Christianity with attacks on deists and freethinkers and discussions of visual language and analogical knowledge and of the functions of words in religious argument.

Upon his return to London in 1731, Berkeley’s pen, never idle for long, became active. A writer in the Daily Post-boy commended Alciphron but attacked the appended Essay on vision. Berkeley replied with The Theory of Vision, or Visual Language . . . Vindicated and Explained (1733). This fine work brought the metaphysics (theory of being) of the Essay into line with the Principles and added his doctrine of cause, admitting defects in the premises of the original Essay. Alciphron provoked replies from the satirist Bernard de Mandeville; John Hervey, Baron Hervey of Ickworth; the statesman Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke; and Peter Browne, Berkeley’s former teacher and provost. To Browne, Berkeley sent a long, private letter on analogy—first published in Mind (July 1969)—which constitutes an important supplement to his 4th dialogue.

In 1734 Berkeley published The Analyst; or, a Discourse Addressed to an Infidel Mathematician, which Florian Cajori, a historian of mathematics, has called “the most spectacular event of the century in the history of British mathematics.” Besides being a contribution to mathematics, it was an argument ad hominem for religion. “He who can digest a second or third fluxion,” wrote Berkeley, “need not, methinks, be squeamish about any point in divinity.” A long and fruitful controversy followed. James Jurin, a Cambridge physician and scientist, John Walton of Dublin, and Colin Maclaurin, a Scottish mathematician, took part. Berkeley answered Jurin in his lively satire A Defence of Free-Thinking in Mathematics (1735) and answered Walton in an appendix to that work and again in his Reasons For Not Replying (1735).

Years as bishop of Cloyne.
Berkeley was consecrated as bishop of Cloyne in Dublin in 1734. He found Trinity College flourishing: its new library was completed, and John Stearne’s Doric printing house was being built. To the latter, Berkeley contributed a font of Greek type and also founded the Berkeley gold medal for Greek. His episcopate, as such, was uneventful. He took a seat in the Irish House of Lords in 1737 and, while in Dublin, published A Discourse Addressed to Magistrates and Men in Authority (1738), condemning the Blasters whose Hell-Fire Club, now in ruins, still can be seen near Dublin.

The see-house at Cloyne was a cultured home and a social centre and, during epidemics, a dispensary. On arrival, the family consisted of his wife and two sons; and two more sons and two daughters were born at Cloyne.

In 1745 Berkeley addressed open letters to his clergy and to the Roman Catholics of his diocese about the Stuart uprising. In letters to the press over his own name or through a friend, he expressed himself on several public questions, political, social, and scientific. Two major works stand out, The Querist and Siris. The Querist, published in three parts from 1735 to 1737, deals with basic economics—credit, demand, industry, and “the true idea of money”—and with special problems, such as banking, currency, luxury, and the wool trade. The final query puts the central question, “Whose fault is it if poor Ireland still continues poor?”

Siris (1744) passed through some six editions in six months. It is at once a treatise on the medicinal virtues of tar-water, its making and dosage, and a philosopher’s vision of a chain of being, “a gradual evolution or ascent” from the world of sense to “the mind, her acts and faculties” and, thence, to the supernatural and God, the three in one.

In August 1752, Berkeley commissioned his brother, Dr. Robert Berkeley, as vicar-general and arranged with the bishop of Cork as to his episcopal duties and, with his wife and his children George and Julia, went to Oxford and took a house in Holywell Street, where he resided until his death. He was buried in Christ Church Chapel.




Søren Kierkegaard
Danish philosopher
in full Søren Aabye Kierkegaard

born May 5, 1813, Copenhagen, Den.
died Nov. 11, 1855, Copenhagen

Danish philosopher, theologian, and cultural critic who was a major influence on existentialism and Protestant theology in the 20th century. He attacked the literary, philosophical, and ecclesiastical establishments of his day for misrepresenting the highest task of human existence—namely, becoming oneself in an ethical and religious sense—as something so easy that it could seem already accomplished even when it had not even been undertaken. Positively, the heart of his work lay in the infinite requirement and strenuous difficulty of religious existence in general and Christian faith in particular.

A life of collisions
Kierkegaard’s life has been called uneventful, but it was hardly that. The story of his life is a drama in four overlapping acts, each with its own distinctive crisis or “collision,” as he often referred to these events. His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a prosperous but retired businessman who devoted the later years of his life to raising his children. He was a man of deep but gloomy and guilt-ridden piety who was haunted by the memory of having once cursed God as a boy and of having begun his family by getting his maid pregnant—and then marrying her—shortly after the death of his first wife. His domineering presence stimulated young Søren’s imaginative and intellectual gifts but, as his son would later bear witness, made a normal childhood impossible.

Kierkegaard enrolled at the University of Copenhagen in 1830 but did not complete his studies until 1841. Like the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), whose system he would severely criticize, Kierkegaard entered university in order to study theology but devoted himself to literature and philosophy instead. His thinking during this period is revealed in an 1835 journal entry, which is often cited as containing the germ of his later work:

The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.…What is truth but to live for an idea?

While a student at the university, Kierkegaard explored the literary figures of Don Juan, the wandering Jew, and especially Faust, looking for existential models for his own life.

The first collision occurred during his student days: he became estranged both from his father and from the faith in which he had been brought up, and he moved out of the family home. But by 1838, just before his father’s death, he was reconciled both to his father and to the Christian faith; the latter became the idea for which he would live and die. Despite his reference to an experience of “indescribable joy” in May of that year, it should not be assumed that his conversion was instantaneous. On the one hand, he often seemed to be moving away from the faith of his father and back toward it at virtually the same time. On the other hand, he often stressed that conversion is a long process. He saw becoming a Christian as the task of a lifetime. Accordingly, he decided to publish Sygdommen til døden (1849; Sickness unto Death) under a pseudonym (as he had done with several previous works), lest anyone think he lived up to the ideal he there presented; likewise, the pseudonymous authors of his other works often denied that they possessed the faith they talked about. Although in the last year of his life he wrote, “I dare not call myself a Christian,” throughout his career it was Christianity that he sought to defend by rescuing it from cultural captivity, and it was a Christian person that he sought to become.

After his father’s death, Kierkegaard became serious about finishing his formal education. He took his doctoral exams and wrote his dissertation, Om begrebet ironi med stadigt hensyn til Socrates (On the Concept of Irony, with Constant Reference to Socrates), completing it in June of 1841 and defending it in September. In between, he broke his engagement with Regine Olsen, thus initiating the second major collision of his life. They had met in 1837, when she was only 15 years old, and had become engaged in 1840. Now, less than one year later, he returned her ring, saying he “could not make a girl happy.” The reasons for this action are far from clear.

What is clear is that this relationship haunted him for the rest of his life. Saying in his will that he considered engagement as binding as marriage, he left all his possessions to Regine (she did not accept them, however, since she had married long before Kierkegaard died). It is also clear that this crisis triggered a period of astonishing literary productivity, during which Kierkegaard published many of the works for which he is best known: Enten-Eller: et livs-fragment (1843; Either/Or: A Fragment of Life), Gjentagelsen (1843; Repetition), Frygt og baeven (1843; Fear and Trembling), Philosophiske smuler (1844; Philosophical Fragments), Begrebet angest (1844; The Concept of Anxiety), Stadier paa livets vei (1845; Stages on Life’s Way), and Afsluttende uvidenskabelig efterskrift (1846; Concluding Unscientific Postscript). Even after acknowledging that he had written these works, however, Kierkegaard insisted that they continue to be attributed to their pseudonymous authors. The pseudonyms are best understood by analogy with characters in a novel, created by the actual author to embody distinctive worldviews; it is left to the reader to decide what to make of each one.

Kierkegaard had intended to cease writing at this point and become a country pastor. But it was not to be. The first period of literary activity (1843–46) was followed by a second (1847–55). Instead of retiring, he picked a quarrel with The Corsair, a newspaper known for its liberal political sympathies but more famous as a scandal sheet that used satire to skewer the establishment. Although The Corsair had praised some of the pseudonymous works, Kierkegaard did not wish to see his own project confused with that of the newspaper, so he turned his satirical skills against it. The Corsair took the bait, and for months Kierkegaard was the target of raucous ridicule, the greatest butt of jokes in Copenhagen. Better at giving than at taking, he was deeply wounded, and indeed he never fully recovered. If the broken engagement was the cloud that hung over the first literary period, the Corsair debacle was the ghost that haunted the second.

The final collision was with the Church of Denmark (Lutheran) and its leaders, the bishops J.P. Mynster and H.L. Martensen. In his journals Kierkegaard called Sickness unto Death an “attack upon Christendom.” In a similar vein, Anti-Climacus, the pseudonymous author of Indøvelse i Christendom (1850; Training in Christianity), declared the need “again to introduce Christianity into Christendom.” This theme became more and more explicit as Kierkegaard resumed his writing career. As long as Mynster, the family pastor from his childhood, was alive, Kierkegaard refrained from personal attacks. But at Mynster’s funeral Martensen, who had succeeded to the leadership of the Danish church, eulogized his predecessor as a “witness to the truth,” linking him to the martyrs of the faith; after this Kierkegaard could no longer keep silent. In December 1854 he began to publish dozens of short, shrill pieces insisting that what passed as Christianity in Denmark was counterfeit and making clear that Mynster and Martensen were responsible for reducing the religion to “leniency.” The last of these pieces was found on Kierkegaard’s desk after he collapsed in the street in October 1855.

Stages on life’s way
In the pseudonymous works of Kierkegaard’s first literary period, three stages on life’s way, or three spheres of existence, are distinguished: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. These are not developmental stages in a biological or psychological sense—a natural and all-but-automatic unfolding according to some DNA of the spirit. It is all too possible to live one’s life below the ethical and the religious levels. But there is a directionality in the sense that the earlier stages have the later ones as their telos, or goal, while the later stages both presuppose and include the earlier ones as important but subordinate moments. Kierkegaard’s writings taken as a whole, whether pseudonymous or not, focus overwhelmingly on the religious stage, giving credence to his own retrospective judgment that the entire corpus is ultimately about the religious life.

The personages Kierkegaard creates to embody the aesthetic stage have two preoccupations, the arts and the erotic. It is tempting to see the aesthete as a cultured hedonist—a fairly obvious offshoot of the Romantic movement—who accepts the distinction made by Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) between artistic and sensuous pleasure while combining them in a single existential project. But in one of the essays of Either/Or, the aesthete sees boredom as the root of all evil and is preoccupied with making life interesting; and the famous seducer in the same volume seems less concerned with sex than with the fascinating spectacle of watching himself seduce his victim.

This clue helps one both to define the aesthetic stage and to see what a stage or sphere of existence in general is. What the various goals of aesthetic existence have in common is that they have nothing to do with right and wrong. The criteria by which the good life is defined are premoral, unconcerned with good and evil. A stage or sphere of existence, then, is a fundamental project, a form of life, a mode of being-in-the-world that defines success in life by its own distinctive criteria.

What might motivate an aesthete to choose the ethical? The mere presence of guardians of the good, who are willing to scold the aesthete’s amorality as immorality, is too external, too easily dismissed as bourgeois phariseeism. Judge William, the representative of the ethical in Either/Or, tries another tack. The aesthete, he argues, fails to become a self at all but becomes, by choice, what David Hume (1711–76) said the self inevitably is: a bundle of events without an inner core to constitute identity or cohesion over time. Moreover, the aesthete fails to see that in the ethical the aesthetic is not abolished but ennobled. Judge William presents marriage as the scene of this transformation, in which, through commitment, the self acquires temporal continuity and, following Hegel, the sensuous is raised to the level of spirit.

In Fear and Trembling this ethical stage is teleologically suspended in the religious, which means not that it is abolished but that it is reduced to relative validity in relation to something absolute, which is its proper goal. For Plato (c. 428–c. 348 bc) and Kant, ethics is a matter of pure reason gaining pure insight into eternal truth. But Hegel argued that human beings are too deeply embedded in history to attain such purity and that their grasp of the right and the good is mediated by the laws and customs of the societies in which they live. It is this Hegelian ethics of socialization that preoccupies Judge William and that gets relativized in Fear and Trembling. By retelling the story of Abraham, it presents the religious stage as the choice not to allow the laws and customs of one’s people to be one’s highest norm—not to equate socialization with sanctity and salvation but to be open to a voice of greater authority, namely God.

This higher normativity does not arise from reason, as Plato and Kant would have it, but is, from reason’s point of view, absurd, paradoxical, even mad. These labels do not bother Kierkegaard, because he interprets reason as human, all too human—as the rationale of the current social order, which knows nothing higher than itself. In the language of Karl Marx (1818–83), what presents itself as reason is in fact ideology. Kierkegaard interprets Abrahamic faith as agreeing with Hegel and Marx about this historical finitude of reason, and, precisely because of this, he insists that the voice of God is an authority that is higher than the rationality of either the current establishment (Hegel) or the revolution (Marx). Against both Hegel and Marx, Kierkegaard holds that history is not the scene in which human reason overcomes this finitude and becomes the ultimate standard of truth.

Three dimensions of the religious life
The simple scheme of the three stages becomes more complex in Concluding Unscientific Postscript. The fundamental distinction is now between objectivity and subjectivity, with two examples of each. Objectivity is the name for occupying oneself with what is “out there” in such a way as to exempt oneself from the strenuous inward task of becoming a self in the ethico-religious sense. One example is the aesthetic posture, presented in earlier work; the other is the project of speculative philosophy, to which this text devotes major attention. The target is Hegelian philosophy, which takes the achievement of comprehensive, absolute knowledge to be the highest human task.

But, it is argued in the first place, speculative philosophy cannot even keep its own promises. It purports to begin without presuppositions and to conclude with a final, all-encompassing system. The very idea that thought should be without presuppositions, however, is itself a presupposition, and thus the system is never quite able to complete itself. The goal of objective knowledge is legitimate, but it can never be more than approximately accomplished. Reality may well be a system for God, but not for any human knower.

Secondly, even if speculative philosophy could deliver what it promises, it would have forgotten that the highest human task is not cognition but rather the personal appropriation or embodiment of whatever insights into the good and the right one is able to achieve. Becoming a self in this way is called existence, inwardness, and subjectivity. This use of existence as a technical term for the finite, human self that is always in the process of becoming can be seen as the birth of existentialism.

The two modes of subjectivity are not, as one might expect, the ethical and the religious stages. One does not become a self simply through successful socialization. Besides, in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, ethics is treated as already recontextualized in a religious rather than merely a social context. So the two modes of ethico-religious subjectivity are “Religiousness A” and “Religiousness B.” The fact that the latter turns out to be Christianity should not lead one to think that the former is some other world religion. It is rather the generic necessary condition for any particular religion and, as such, is available apart from dependence on the revelation to be found in any particular religion’s sacred scriptures. Socrates (c. 470–399 bc), here distinguished from the speculative Plato, is the paradigm of Religiousness A.

Religiousness A is defined not in terms of beliefs about what is “out there,” such as God or the soul, but rather in terms of the complex tasks of becoming a self, summarized as the task of being simultaneously related “relatively” to relative goods and “absolutely” to the absolute good. Kierkegaard and his pseudonyms refer to the absolute good variously as the Idea, the Eternal, or God. As the generic form of the religious stage, Religiousness A abstracts from the “what” of belief to focus on the “how” that must accompany any “what.” The Hegelian system purports to be the highest form of the highest religion, namely Christianity, but in fact, by virtue of its merely objective “how,” it belongs to a completely different genus. It could not be the highest form of Christianity, no more than a dog could be the world’s prettiest cat.

There is something paradoxical about Religiousness A. Socratic ignorance—the claim of Socrates that he is the wisest of men because, while others think that they know, he knows that he does not—reflects the realization that the relation of the existing, and thus temporal, individual to the eternal does not fit neatly into human conceptual frameworks. But Christianity, as Religiousness B, is more radically paradoxical, for the eternal itself has become paradoxical as the insertion of God in time. In this way the task of relating absolutely to the absolute becomes even more strenuous, for human reason is overwhelmed, even offended, by the claim that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. In the Concluding Unscientific Postscript there is an echo of Kant’s admission, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith”—though Kantian faith has a very different “what.”

Some writings of Kierkegaard’s second literary period extend the analyses of the first. For example, the two halves of Sickness unto Death can be read as reprising Religiousness A and B, respectively, in a different voice. But several texts, most notably Kjerlighedens gjerninger (1847; Works of Love), Training in Christianity, Til selvprøvelse (1851; For Self-Examination), and Dømmer selv! (1851; Judge for Yourselves!), go beyond Religiousness B to what might be called “Religiousness C.” The focus is still on Christianity, but now Christ is no longer just the paradox to be believed but also the paradigm or prototype to be imitated.

These works present the second, specifically Christian, ethics that had been promised as far back as The Concept of Anxiety. They go beyond Hegelian ethics, which only asks one to conform to the laws and customs of one’s society. They also go beyond the religion of hidden inwardness, whether A or B, in which the relation between God and the soul takes place out of public view. They are Kierkegaard’s answer to the charge that religion according to his view is so personal and so private as to be socially irresponsible. Faith, the inward God-relation, must show itself outwardly in works of love.

The first half of Works of Love is a sustained reflection on the biblical commandment “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:36). This commanded love is contrasted with erotic love and friendship. Through its poets, society celebrates these two forms of love, but only God dares to command the love of neighbours. The celebrated loves are spontaneous: they come naturally, by inclination, and thus not by duty. Children do not have to be taught to seek friends; nor, at puberty, do they need to be commanded to fall in love. The celebrated loves are also preferential: one is drawn to this person but not to that one as friend or lover; something in the other is attractive or would satisfy one’s desire if the relation could be established. Because they are spontaneous and preferential, Kierkegaard calls the celebrated loves forms of “self-love.”

This is not to say that every friend or lover is selfish. But, by their exclusionary nature, such relations are the self-love of the “We,” even when the “I” is not selfish in the relation. Here one sees the political ramifications of commanded love, for an ethics that restricts benevolence to one’s own family, tribe, nation, race, or class expresses only the self-love of the We.

By contrast, commanded love is not spontaneous, and it needs to be commanded precisely because it is not preferential. Another person need not be attractive or belong to the same We to be one’s neighbour, whom one is to love. Even one’s enemy can be one’s neighbour, which is a reason why society never dares to require that people love their neighbours as they do themselves. For the Christian, this command comes from Christ, who is himself its embodiment to be imitated.

One could hardly expect the literary and philosophical elite to focus on the strenuousness of faith as a personal relation to God unsupported by reason, or on the strenuousness of love as responsibility to and for one’s neighbour unsupported by society’s ethos. That task was the responsibility of the church—a responsibility that, in Kierkegaard’s view, the church had spectacularly failed to fulfill. As these themes came more clearly into focus in his writings, the attack upon Christendom with which his life ended became inevitable.

Kierkegaard says that his writings as a whole are religious. They are best seen as belonging to the prophetic traditions, in which religious beliefs become the basis for a critique of the religious communities that profess them. The 20th-century theologies that were influenced by Kierkegaard go beyond the tasks of metaphysical affirmation and ethical instruction to a critique of complacent piety. In existential philosophies—which are often less overtly theological and sometimes entirely secular—this element of critique is retained but is directed against forms of personal and social life that do not take the tasks of human existence seriously enough. Thus, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) complains that his secular contemporaries do not take the death of God seriously enough, just as Kierkegaard complains that his Christian contemporaries do not take God seriously enough. Likewise, the German existential phenomenologist Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) describes how people make life too easy for themselves by thinking and doing just what “they” think and do. And Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80), the leading representative of atheistic existentialism in France, calls attention to the ways in which people indulge in self-deceiving “bad faith” in order to think more highly of themselves than the facts warrant.

Merold Westphal




Greek philosopher and mathematician

born c. 580 bc, Samos, Ionia [now in Greece]
died c. 500, Metapontum, Lucania [now in Italy]

Greek philosopher, mathematician, and founder of the Pythagorean brotherhood that, although religious in nature, formulated principles that influenced the thought of Plato and Aristotle and contributed to the development of mathematics and Western rational philosophy (see Pythagoreanism).

Pythagoras migrated to southern Italy about 532 bc, apparently to escape Samos’s tyrannical rule, and established his ethico-political academy at Croton (now Crotone, Italy).

It is difficult to distinguish Pythagoras’s teachings from those of his disciples. None of his writings have survived, and Pythagoreans invariably supported their doctrines by indiscriminately citing their master’s authority. Pythagoras, however, is generally credited with the theory of the functional significance of numbers in the objective world and in music. Other discoveries often attributed to him (e.g., the incommensurability of the side and diagonal of a square, and the Pythagorean theorem for right triangles) were probably developed only later by the Pythagorean school. More probably the bulk of the intellectual tradition originating with Pythagoras himself belongs to mystical wisdom rather than to scientific scholarship.




René Descartes
French mathematician and philosopher

born March 31, 1596, La Haye, Touraine, France
died February 11, 1650, Stockholm, Sweden

French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher. Because he was one of the first to abandon scholastic Aristotelianism, because he formulated the first modern version of mind-body dualism, from which stems the mind-body problem, and because he promoted the development of a new science grounded in observation and experiment, he has been called the father of modern philosophy. Applying an original system of methodical doubt, he dismissed apparent knowledge derived from authority, the senses, and reason and erected new epistemic foundations on the basis of the intuition that, when he is thinking, he exists; this he expressed in the dictum “I think, therefore I am” (best known in its Latin formulation, “Cogito, ergo sum,” though originally written in French, “Je pense, donc je suis”). He developed a metaphysical dualism that distinguishes radically between mind, the essence of which is thinking, and matter, the essence of which is extension in three dimensions. Descartes’s metaphysics is rationalist, based on the postulation of innate ideas of mind, matter, and God, but his physics and physiology, based on sensory experience, are mechanistic and empiricist.

Early life and education
Although Descartes’s birthplace, La Haye (now Descartes), France, is in Touraine, his family connections lie south, across the Creuse River in Poitou, where his father, Joachim, owned farms and houses in Châtellerault and Poitiers. Because Joachim was a councillor in the Parlement of Brittany in Rennes, Descartes inherited a modest rank of nobility. Descartes’s mother died when he was one year old. His father remarried in Rennes, leaving him in La Haye to be raised first by his maternal grandmother and then by his great-uncle in Châtellerault. Although the Descartes family was Roman Catholic, the Poitou region was controlled by the Protestant Huguenots, and Châtellerault, a Protestant stronghold, was the site of negotiations over the Edict of Nantes (1598), which gave Protestants freedom of worship in France following the intermittent Wars of Religion between Protestant and Catholic forces in France. Descartes returned to Poitou regularly until 1628.

In 1606 Descartes was sent to the Jesuit college at La Flèche, established in 1604 by Henry IV (reigned 1589–1610). At La Flèche, 1,200 young men were trained for careers in military engineering, the judiciary, and government administration. In addition to classical studies, science, mathematics, and metaphysics—Aristotle was taught from scholastic commentaries—they studied acting, music, poetry, dancing, riding, and fencing. In 1610 Descartes participated in an imposing ceremony in which the heart of Henry IV, whose assassination that year had destroyed the hope of religious tolerance in France and Germany, was placed in the cathedral at La Flèche.

In 1614 Descartes went to Poitiers, where he took a law degree in 1616. At this time, Huguenot Poitiers was in virtual revolt against the young King Louis XIII (reigned 1610–43). Descartes’s father probably expected him to enter Parlement, but the minimum age for doing so was 27, and Descartes was only 20. In 1618 he went to Breda in the Netherlands, where he spent 15 months as an informal student of mathematics and military architecture in the peacetime army of the Protestant stadholder, Prince Maurice (ruled 1585–1625). In Breda, Descartes was encouraged in his studies of science and mathematics by the physicist Isaac Beeckman (1588–1637), for whom he wrote the Compendium of Music (written 1618, published 1650), his first surviving work.

Descartes spent the period 1619 to 1628 traveling in northern and southern Europe, where, as he later explained, he studied “the book of the world.” While in Bohemia in 1619, he invented analytic geometry, a method of solving geometric problems algebraically and algebraic problems geometrically. He also devised a universal method of deductive reasoning, based on mathematics, that is applicable to all the sciences. This method, which he later formulated in Discourse on Method (1637) and Rules for the Direction of the Mind (written by 1628 but not published until 1701), consists of four rules: (1) accept nothing as true that is not self-evident, (2) divide problems into their simplest parts, (3) solve problems by proceeding from simple to complex, and (4) recheck the reasoning. These rules are a direct application of mathematical procedures. In addition, Descartes insisted that all key notions and the limits of each problem must be clearly defined.

Descartes also investigated reports of esoteric knowledge, such as the claims of the practitioners of theosophy to be able to command nature. Although disappointed with the followers of the Catalan mystic Ramon Llull (1232/33–1315/16) and the German alchemist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486–1535), he was impressed by the German mathematician Johann Faulhaber (1580–1635), a member of the mystical society of the Rosicrucians.

Descartes shared a number of Rosicrucian goals and habits. Like the Rosicrucians, he lived alone and in seclusion, changed his residence often (during his 22 years in the Netherlands, he lived in 18 different places), practiced medicine without charge, attempted to increase human longevity, and took an optimistic view of the capacity of science to improve the human condition. At the end of his life, he left a chest of personal papers (none of which has survived) with a Rosicrucian physician—his close friend Corneille van Hogelande, who handled his affairs in the Netherlands. Despite these affinities, Descartes rejected the Rosicrucians’ magical and mystical beliefs. For him, this period was a time of hope for a revolution in science. The English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626), in Advancement of Learning (1605), had earlier proposed a new science of observation and experiment to replace the traditional Aristotelian science, as Descartes himself did later.

In 1622 Descartes moved to Paris. There he gambled, rode, fenced, and went to the court, concerts, and the theatre. Among his friends were the poets Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac (1597–1654), who dedicated his Le Socrate chrétien (1652; “Christian Socrates”) to Descartes, and Théophile de Viau (1590–1626), who was burned in effigy and imprisoned in 1623 for writing verses mocking religious themes. Descartes also befriended the mathematician Claude Mydorge (1585–1647) and Father Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), a man of universal learning who corresponded with hundreds of scholars, writers, mathematicians, and scientists and who became Descartes’s main contact with the larger intellectual world. During this time Descartes regularly hid from his friends to work, writing treatises, now lost, on fencing and metals. He acquired a considerable reputation long before he published anything.

At a talk in 1628, Descartes denied the alchemist Chandoux’s claim that probabilities are as good as certainties in science and demonstrated his own method for attaining certainty. The Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle (1575–1629)—who had founded the Oratorian teaching congregation in 1611 as a rival to the Jesuits—was present at the talk. Many commentators speculate that Bérulle urged Descartes to write a metaphysics based on the philosophy of St. Augustine as a replacement for Jesuit teaching. Be that as it may, within weeks Descartes left for the Netherlands, which was Protestant, and—taking great precautions to conceal his address—did not return to France for 16 years. Some scholars claim that Descartes adopted Bérulle as director of his conscience, but this is unlikely, given Descartes’s background and beliefs (he came from a Huguenot province, he was not a Catholic enthusiast, he had been accused of being a Rosicrucian, and he advocated religious tolerance and championed the use of reason).

Residence in the Netherlands
Descartes said that he went to the Netherlands to enjoy a greater liberty than was available anywhere else and to avoid the distractions of Paris and friends so that he could have the leisure and solitude to think. (He had inherited enough money and property to live independently.) The Netherlands was a haven of tolerance, where Descartes could be an original, independent thinker without fear of being burned at the stake—as was the Italian philosopher Lucilio Vanini (1585–1619) for proposing natural explanations of miracles—or being drafted into the armies then prosecuting the Catholic Counter-Reformation. In France, by contrast, religious intolerance was mounting. The Jews were expelled in 1615, and the last Protestant stronghold, La Rochelle, was crushed—with Bérulle’s participation—only weeks before Descartes’s departure. In 1624 the French Parlement passed a decree forbidding criticism of Aristotle on pain of death. Although Mersenne and the philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) did publish attacks on Aristotle without suffering persecution (they were, after all, Catholic priests), those judged to be heretics continued to be burned, and laymen lacked church protection. In addition, Descartes may have felt jeopardized by his friendship with intellectual libertines such as Father Claude Picot (d. 1668), a bon vivant known as “the Atheist Priest,” with whom he entrusted his financial affairs in France.

In 1629 Descartes went to the university at Franeker, where he stayed with a Catholic family and wrote the first draft of his Meditations. He matriculated at the University of Leiden in 1630. In 1631 he visited Denmark with the physician and alchemist Étienne de Villebressieu, who invented siege engines, a portable bridge, and a two-wheeled stretcher. The physician Henri Regius (1598–1679), who taught Descartes’s views at the University of Utrecht in 1639, involved Descartes in a fierce controversy with the Calvinist theologian Gisbertus Voetius (1589–1676) that continued for the rest of Descartes’s life. In his Letter to Voetius of 1648, Descartes made a plea for religious tolerance and the rights of man. Claiming to write not only for Christians but also for Turks—meaning Muslims, libertines, infidels, deists, and atheists—he argued that, because Protestants and Catholics worship the same God, both can hope for heaven. When the controversy became intense, however, Descartes sought the protection of the French ambassador and of his friend Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687), secretary to the stadholder Prince Frederick Henry (ruled 1625–47).

In 1635 Descartes’s daughter Francine was born to Helena Jans and was baptized in the Reformed Church in Deventer. Although Francine is typically referred to by commentators as Descartes’s “illegitimate” daughter, her baptism is recorded in a register for legitimate births. Her death of scarlet fever at the age of five was the greatest sorrow of Descartes’s life. Referring to her death, Descartes said that he did not believe that one must refrain from tears to prove oneself a man.

The World and Discourse on Method
In 1633, just as he was about to publish The World (1664), Descartes learned that the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) had been condemned in Rome for publishing the view that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Because this Copernican position is central to his cosmology and physics, Descartes suppressed The World, hoping that eventually the church would retract its condemnation. Although Descartes feared the church, he also hoped that his physics would one day replace that of Aristotle in church doctrine and be taught in Catholic schools.

Descartes’s Discourse on Method (1637) is one of the first important modern philosophical works not written in Latin. Descartes said that he wrote in French so that all who had good sense, including women, could read his work and learn to think for themselves. He believed that everyone could tell true from false by the natural light of reason. In three essays accompanying the Discourse, he illustrated his method for utilizing reason in the search for truth in the sciences: in Dioptrics he derived the law of refraction, in Meteorology he explained the rainbow, and in Geometry he gave an exposition of his analytic geometry. He also perfected the system invented by François Viète for representing known numerical quantities with a, b, c, … , unknowns with x, y, z, … , and squares, cubes, and other powers with numerical superscripts, as in x2, x3, … , which made algebraic calculations much easier than they had been before.

In the Discourse he also provided a provisional moral code (later presented as final) for use while seeking truth: (1) obey local customs and laws, (2) make decisions on the best evidence and then stick to them firmly as though they were certain, (3) change desires rather than the world, and (4) always seek truth. This code exhibits Descartes’s prudential conservatism, decisiveness, stoicism, and dedication. The Discourse and other works illustrate Descartes’s conception of knowledge as being like a tree in its interconnectedness and in the grounding provided to higher forms of knowledge by lower or more fundamental ones. Thus, for Descartes, metaphysics corresponds to the roots of the tree, physics to the trunk, and medicine, mechanics, and morals to the branches.

In 1641 Descartes published the Meditations on First Philosophy, in Which Is Proved the Existence of God and the Immortality of the Soul. Written in Latin and dedicated to the Jesuit professors at the Sorbonne in Paris, the work includes critical responses by several eminent thinkers—collected by Mersenne from the Jansenist philosopher and theologian Antoine Arnauld (1612–94), the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and the Epicurean atomist Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655)—as well as Descartes’s replies. The second edition (1642) includes a response by the Jesuit priest Pierre Bourdin (1595–1653), who Descartes said was a fool. These objections and replies constitute a landmark of cooperative discussion in philosophy and science at a time when dogmatism was the rule.

The Meditations is characterized by Descartes’s use of methodic doubt, a systematic procedure of rejecting as though false all types of belief in which one has ever been, or could ever be, deceived. His arguments derive from the skepticism of the Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus (fl. 3rd century ad) as reflected in the work of the essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) and the Catholic theologian Pierre Charron (1541–1603). Thus, Descartes’s apparent knowledge based on authority is set aside, because even experts are sometimes wrong. His beliefs from sensory experience are declared untrustworthy, because such experience is sometimes misleading, as when a square tower appears round from a distance. Even his beliefs about the objects in his immediate vicinity may be mistaken, because, as he notes, he often has dreams about objects that do not exist, and he has no way of knowing with certainty whether he is dreaming or awake. Finally, his apparent knowledge of simple and general truths of reasoning that do not depend on sense experience—such as “2 + 3 = 5” or “a square has four sides”—is also unreliable, because God could have made him in such a way that, for example, he goes wrong every time he counts. As a way of summarizing the universal doubt into which he has fallen, Descartes supposes that an “evil genius of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me.”

Although at this stage there is seemingly no belief about which he cannot entertain doubt, Descartes finds certainty in the intuition that, when he is thinking—even if he is being deceived—he must exist. In the Discourse, Descartes expresses this intuition in the dictum “I think, therefore I am”; but because “therefore” suggests that the intuition is an argument—though it is not—in the Meditations he says merely, “I think, I am” (“Cogito, sum”). The cogito is a logically self-evident truth that also gives intuitively certain knowledge of a particular thing’s existence—that is, one’s self. Nevertheless, it justifies accepting as certain only the existence of the person who thinks it. If all one ever knew for certain was that one exists, and if one adhered to Descartes’s method of doubting all that is uncertain, then one would be reduced to solipsism, the view that nothing exists but one’s self and thoughts. To escape solipsism, Descartes argues that all ideas that are as “clear and distinct” as the cogito must be true, for, if they were not, the cogito also, as a member of the class of clear and distinct ideas, could be doubted. Since “I think, I am” cannot be doubted, all clear and distinct ideas must be true.

On the basis of clear and distinct innate ideas, Descartes then establishes that each mind is a mental substance and each body a part of one material substance. The mind or soul is immortal, because it is unextended and cannot be broken into parts, as can extended bodies. Descartes also advances a proof for the existence of God. He begins with the proposition that he has an innate idea of God as a perfect being and then concludes that God necessarily exists, because, if he did not, he would not be perfect. This ontological argument for God’s existence, originally due to the English logician St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033/34–1109), is at the heart of Descartes’s rationalism, for it establishes certain knowledge about an existing thing solely on the basis of reasoning from innate ideas, with no help from sensory experience. Descartes then argues that, because God is perfect, he does not deceive human beings; and therefore, because God leads us to believe that the material world exists, it does exist. In this way Descartes claims to establish metaphysical foundations for the existence of his own mind, of God, and of the material world.

The inherent circularity of Descartes’s reasoning was exposed by Arnauld, whose objection has come to be known as the Cartesian Circle. According to Descartes, God’s existence is established by the fact that Descartes has a clear and distinct idea of God; but the truth of Descartes’s clear and distinct ideas are guaranteed by the fact that God exists and is not a deceiver. Thus, in order to show that God exists, Descartes must assume that God exists.

Physics, physiology, and morals
Descartes’s general goal was to help human beings master and possess nature. He provided understanding of the trunk of the tree of knowledge in The World, Dioptrics, Meteorology, and Geometry, and he established its metaphysical roots in the Meditations. He then spent the rest of his life working on the branches of mechanics, medicine, and morals. Mechanics is the basis of his physiology and medicine, which in turn is the basis of his moral psychology. Descartes believed that all material bodies, including the human body, are machines that operate by mechanical principles. In his physiological studies, he dissected animal bodies to show how their parts move. He argued that, because animals have no souls, they do not think or feel; thus, vivisection, which Descartes practiced, is permitted. He also described the circulation of the blood but came to the erroneous conclusion that heat in the heart expands the blood, causing its expulsion into the veins. Descartes’s L’Homme, et un traité de la formation du foetus (Man, and a Treatise on the Formation of the Foetus) was published in 1664.

In 1644 Descartes published Principles of Philosophy, a compilation of his physics and metaphysics. He dedicated this work to Princess Elizabeth (1618–79), daughter of Elizabeth Stuart, titular queen of Bohemia, in correspondence with whom he developed his moral philosophy. According to Descartes, a human being is a union of mind and body, two radically dissimilar substances that interact in the pineal gland. He reasoned that the pineal gland must be the uniting point because it is the only nondouble organ in the brain, and double reports, as from two eyes, must have one place to merge. He argued that each action on a person’s sense organs causes subtle matter to move through tubular nerves to the pineal gland, causing it to vibrate distinctively. These vibrations give rise to emotions and passions and also cause the body to act. Bodily action is thus the final outcome of a reflex arc that begins with external stimuli—as, for example, when a soldier sees the enemy, feels fear, and flees. The mind cannot change bodily reactions directly—for example, it cannot will the body to fight—but by altering mental attitudes, it can change the pineal vibrations from those that cause fear and fleeing to those that cause courage and fighting.

Descartes argued further that human beings can be conditioned by experience to have specific emotional responses. Descartes himself, for example, had been conditioned to be attracted to cross-eyed women because he had loved a cross-eyed playmate as a child. When he remembered this fact, however, he was able to rid himself of his passion. This insight is the basis of Descartes’s defense of free will and of the mind’s ability to control the body. Despite such arguments, in his Passions of the Soul (1649), which he dedicated to Queen Christina of Sweden (reigned 1644–54), Descartes holds that most bodily actions are determined by external material causes.

Descartes’s morality is anti-Jansenist and anti-Calvinist in that he maintains that the grace that is necessary for salvation can be earned and that human beings are virtuous and able to achieve salvation when they do their best to find and act upon the truth. His optimism about the ability of human reason and will to find truth and reach salvation contrasts starkly with the pessimism of the Jansenist apologist and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623–62), who believed that salvation comes only as a gift of God’s grace. Descartes was correctly accused of holding the view of Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609), an anti-Calvinist Dutch theologian, that salvation depends on free will and good works rather than on grace. Descartes also held that, unless people believe in God and immortality, they will see no reason to be moral.

Free will, according to Descartes, is the sign of God in human nature, and human beings can be praised or blamed according to their use of it. People are good, he believed, only to the extent that they act freely for the good of others; such generosity is the highest virtue. Descartes was Epicurean in his assertion that human passions are good in themselves. He was an extreme moral optimist in his belief that understanding of the good is automatically followed by a desire to do the good. Moreover, because passions are “willings” according to Descartes, to want something is the same as to will it. Descartes was also stoic, however, in his admonition that, rather than change the world, human beings should control their passions.

Although Descartes wrote no political philosophy, he approved of the admonition of Seneca (c. 4 bc–ad 65) to acquiesce in the common order of things. He rejected the recommendation of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) to lie to one’s friends, because friendship is sacred and life’s greatest joy. Human beings cannot exist alone but must be parts of social groups, such as nations and families, and it is better to do good for the group than for oneself.

Descartes had been a puny child with a weak chest and was not expected to live. He therefore watched his health carefully, becoming a virtual vegetarian. In 1639 he bragged that he had not been sick for 19 years and that he expected to live to 100. He told Princess Elizabeth to think of life as a comedy; bad thoughts cause bad dreams and bodily disorders. Because there is always more good than evil in life, he said, one can always be content, no matter how bad things seem. Elizabeth, inextricably involved in messy court and family affairs, was not consoled.

In his later years Descartes said that he had once hoped to learn to prolong life to a century or more, but he then saw that, to achieve that goal, the work of many generations would be required; he himself had not even learned to prevent a fever. Thus, he said, instead of continuing to hope for long life, he had found an easier way, namely to love life and not to fear death. It is easy, he claimed, for a true philosopher to die tranquilly.

Final years and heritage
In 1644, 1647, and 1648, after 16 years in the Netherlands, Descartes returned to France for brief visits on financial business and to oversee the translation into French of the Principles, the Meditations, and the Objections and Replies. (The translators were, respectively, Picot, Charles d’Albert, duke de Luynes, and Claude Clerselier.) In 1647 he also met with Gassendi and Hobbes, and he suggested to Pascal the famous experiment of taking a barometer up Mount Puy-de-Dôme to determine the influence of the weight of the air. Picot returned with Descartes to the Netherlands for the winter of 1647–48. During Descartes’s final stay in Paris in 1648, the French nobility revolted against the crown in a series of wars known as the Fronde. Descartes left precipitously on August 17, 1648, only days before the death of his old friend Mersenne.

Clerselier’s brother-in-law, Hector Pierre Chanut, who was French resident in Sweden and later ambassador, helped to procure a pension for Descartes from Louis XIV, though it was never paid. Later, Chanut engineered an invitation for Descartes to the court of Queen Christina, who by the close of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) had become one of the most important and powerful monarchs in Europe. Descartes went reluctantly, arriving early in October 1649. He may have gone because he needed patronage; the Fronde seemed to have destroyed his chances in Paris, and the Calvinist theologians were harassing him in the Netherlands.

In Sweden—where, Descartes said, in winter men’s thoughts freeze like the water—the 22-year-old Christina perversely made the 53-year-old Descartes rise before 5:00 am to give her philosophy lessons, even though she knew of his habit of lying in bed until 11 o’clock in the morning. She also is said to have ordered him to write the verses of a ballet, The Birth of Peace (1649), to celebrate her role in the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War. The verses in fact were not written by Descartes, though he did write the statutes for a Swedish Academy of Arts and Sciences. While delivering these statutes to the queen at 5:00 am on February 1, 1650, he caught a chill, and he soon developed pneumonia. He died in Stockholm on February 11. Many pious last words have been attributed to him, but the most trustworthy report is that of his German valet, who said that Descartes was in a coma and died without saying anything at all.

Descartes’s papers came into the possession of Claude Clerselier, a pious Catholic, who began the process of turning Descartes into a saint by cutting, adding to, and selectively publishing his letters. This cosmetic work culminated in 1691 in the massive biography by Father Adrien Baillet, who was at work on a 17-volume Lives of the Saints. Even during Descartes’s lifetime there were questions about whether he was a Catholic apologist, primarily concerned with supporting Christian doctrine, or an atheist, concerned only with protecting himself with pious sentiments while establishing a deterministic, mechanistic, and materialistic physics.

These questions remain difficult to answer, not least because all the papers, letters, and manuscripts available to Clerselier and Baillet are now lost. In 1667 the Roman Catholic church made its own decision by putting Descartes’s works on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Latin: “Index of Prohibited Books”) on the very day his bones were ceremoniously placed in Sainte-Geneviève-du-Mont in Paris. During his lifetime, Protestant ministers in the Netherlands called Descartes a Jesuit and a papist—which is to say an atheist. He retorted that they were intolerant, ignorant bigots. Up to about 1930, a majority of scholars, many of whom were religious, believed that Descartes’s major concerns were metaphysical and religious. By the late 20th century, however, numerous commentators had come to believe that Descartes was a Catholic in the same way he was a Frenchman and a royalist—that is, by birth and by convention.

Descartes himself said that good sense is destroyed when one thinks too much of God. He once told a German protégée, Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–78), who was known as a painter and a poet, that she was wasting her intellect studying Hebrew and theology. He also was perfectly aware of—though he tried to conceal—the atheistic potential of his materialist physics and physiology. Descartes seemed indifferent to the emotional depths of religion. Whereas Pascal trembled when he looked into the infinite universe and perceived the puniness and misery of man, Descartes exulted in the power of human reason to understand the cosmos and to promote happiness, and he rejected the view that human beings are essentially miserable and sinful. He held that it is impertinent to pray to God to change things. Instead, when we cannot change the world, we must change ourselves.




Bertrand Russell
British logician and philosopher
in full Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell of Kingston Russell, Viscount Amberley of Amberley and of Ardsalla

born May 18, 1872, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales
died Feb. 2, 1970, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth, Wales

British philosopher, logician, and social reformer, founding figure in the analytic movement in Anglo-American philosophy, and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Russell’s contributions to logic, epistemology, and the philosophy of mathematics established him as one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century. To the general public, however, he was best known as a campaigner for peace and as a popular writer on social, political, and moral subjects. During a long, productive, and often turbulent life, he published more than 70 books and about 2,000 articles, married four times, became involved in innumerable public controversies, and was honoured and reviled in almost equal measure throughout the world.

Russell was born in Ravenscroft, the country home of his parents, Lord and Lady Amberley. His grandfather, Lord John Russell, was the youngest son of the 6th Duke of Bedford. In 1861, after a long and distinguished political career in which he served twice as prime minister, Lord Russell was ennobled by Queen Victoria, becoming the 1st Earl Russell. Bertrand Russell became the 3rd Earl Russell in 1931, after his elder brother, Frank, died childless.

Russell’s early life was marred by tragedy and bereavement. By the time he was age six, his sister, Rachel, his parents, and his grandfather had all died, and he and Frank were left in the care of their grandmother, Countess Russell. Though Frank was sent to Winchester School, Bertrand was educated privately at home, and his childhood, to his later great regret, was spent largely in isolation from other children. Intellectually precocious, he became absorbed in mathematics from an early age and found the experience of learning Euclidean geometry at the age of 11 “as dazzling as first love,” because it introduced him to the intoxicating possibility of certain, demonstrable knowledge. This led him to imagine that all knowledge might be provided with such secure foundations, a hope that lay at the very heart of his motivations as a philosopher. His earliest philosophical work was written during his adolescence and records the skeptical doubts that led him to abandon the Christian faith in which he had been brought up by his grandmother.

In 1890 Russell’s isolation came to an end when he entered Trinity College, University of Cambridge, to study mathematics. There he made lifelong friends through his membership in the famously secretive student society the Apostles, whose members included some of the most influential philosophers of the day. Inspired by his discussions with this group, Russell abandoned mathematics for philosophy and won a fellowship at Trinity on the strength of a thesis entitled An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry, a revised version of which was published as his first philosophical book in 1897. Following Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), this work presented a sophisticated idealist theory that viewed geometry as a description of the structure of spatial intuition.

In 1896 Russell published his first political work, German Social Democracy. Though sympathetic to the reformist aims of the German socialist movement, it included some trenchant and farsighted criticisms of Marxist dogmas. The book was written partly as the outcome of a visit to Berlin in 1895 with his first wife, Alys Pearsall Smith, whom he had married the previous year. In Berlin, Russell formulated an ambitious scheme of writing two series of books, one on the philosophy of the sciences, the other on social and political questions. “At last,” as he later put it, “I would achieve a Hegelian synthesis in an encyclopaedic work dealing equally with theory and practice.” He did, in fact, come to write on all the subjects he intended, but not in the form that he envisaged. Shortly after finishing his book on geometry, he abandoned the metaphysical idealism that was to have provided the framework for this grand synthesis.

Russell’s abandonment of idealism is customarily attributed to the influence of his friend and fellow Apostle G.E. Moore. A much greater influence on his thought at this time, however, was a group of German mathematicians that included Karl Weierstrass, Georg Cantor, and Richard Dedekind, whose work was aimed at providing mathematics with a set of logically rigorous foundations. For Russell, their success in this endeavour was of enormous philosophical as well as mathematical significance; indeed, he described it as “the greatest triumph of which our age has to boast.” After becoming acquainted with this body of work, Russell abandoned all vestiges of his earlier idealism and adopted the view, which he was to hold for the rest of his life, that analysis rather than synthesis was the surest method of philosophy and that therefore all the grand system building of previous philosophers was misconceived. In arguing for this view with passion and acuity, Russell exerted a profound influence on the entire tradition of English-speaking analytic philosophy, bequeathing to it its characteristic style, method, and tone.

Inspired by the work of the mathematicians whom he so greatly admired, Russell conceived the idea of demonstrating that mathematics not only had logically rigorous foundations but also that it was in its entirety nothing but logic. The philosophical case for this point of view—subsequently known as logicism—was stated at length in The Principles of Mathematics (1903). There Russell argued that the whole of mathematics could be derived from a few simple axioms that made no use of specifically mathematical notions, such as number and square root, but were rather confined to purely logical notions, such as proposition and class. In this way not only could the truths of mathematics be shown to be immune from doubt, they could also be freed from any taint of subjectivity, such as the subjectivity involved in Russell’s earlier Kantian view that geometry describes the structure of spatial intuition. Near the end of his work on The Principles of Mathematics, Russell discovered that he had been anticipated in his logicist philosophy of mathematics by the German mathematician Gottlob Frege, whose book The Foundations of Arithmetic (1884) contained, as Russell put it, “many things…which I believed I had invented.” Russell quickly added an appendix to his book that discussed Frege’s work, acknowledged Frege’s earlier discoveries, and explained the differences in their respective understandings of the nature of logic.

The tragedy of Russell’s intellectual life is that the deeper he thought about logic, the more his exalted conception of its significance came under threat. He himself described his philosophical development after The Principles of Mathematics as a “retreat from Pythagoras.” The first step in this retreat was his discovery of a contradiction—now known as Russell’s Paradox—at the very heart of the system of logic upon which he had hoped to build the whole of mathematics. The contradiction arises from the following considerations: Some classes are members of themselves (e.g., the class of all classes), and some are not (e.g., the class of all men), so we ought to be able to construct the class of all classes that are not members of themselves. But now, if we ask of this class “Is it a member of itself?” we become enmeshed in a contradiction. If it is, then it is not, and if it is not, then it is. This is rather like defining the village barber as “the man who shaves all those who do not shave themselves” and then asking whether the barber shaves himself or not.

At first this paradox seemed trivial, but the more Russell reflected upon it, the deeper the problem seemed, and eventually he was persuaded that there was something fundamentally wrong with the notion of class as he had understood it in The Principles of Mathematics. Frege saw the depth of the problem immediately. When Russell wrote to him to tell him of the paradox, Frege replied, “arithmetic totters.” The foundation upon which Frege and Russell had hoped to build mathematics had, it seemed, collapsed. Whereas Frege sank into a deep depression, Russell set about repairing the damage by attempting to construct a theory of logic immune to the paradox. Like a malignant cancerous growth, however, the contradiction reappeared in different guises whenever Russell thought that he had eliminated it.

Eventually, Russell’s attempts to overcome the paradox resulted in a complete transformation of his scheme of logic, as he added one refinement after another to the basic theory. In the process, important elements of his “Pythagorean” view of logic were abandoned. In particular, Russell came to the conclusion that there were no such things as classes and propositions and that therefore, whatever logic was, it was not the study of them. In their place he substituted a bewilderingly complex theory known as the ramified theory of types, which, though it successfully avoided contradictions such as Russell’s Paradox, was (and remains) extraordinarily difficult to understand. By the time he and his collaborator, Alfred North Whitehead, had finished the three volumes of Principia Mathematica (1910–13), the theory of types and other innovations to the basic logical system had made it unmanageably complicated. Very few people, whether philosophers or mathematicians, have made the gargantuan effort required to master the details of this monumental work. It is nevertheless rightly regarded as one of the great intellectual achievements of the 20th century.

Principia Mathematica is a herculean attempt to demonstrate mathematically what The Principles of Mathematics had argued for philosophically, namely that mathematics is a branch of logic. The validity of the individual formal proofs that make up the bulk of its three volumes has gone largely unchallenged, but the philosophical significance of the work as a whole is still a matter of debate. Does it demonstrate that mathematics is logic? Only if one regards the theory of types as a logical truth, and about that there is much more room for doubt than there was about the trivial truisms upon which Russell had originally intended to build mathematics. Moreover, Kurt Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem (1931) proves that there cannot be a single logical theory from which the whole of mathematics is derivable: all consistent theories of arithmetic are necessarily incomplete. Principia Mathematica cannot, however, be dismissed as nothing more than a heroic failure. Its influence on the development of mathematical logic and the philosophy of mathematics has been immense.

Despite their differences, Russell and Frege were alike in taking an essentially Platonic view of logic. Indeed, the passion with which Russell pursued the project of deriving mathematics from logic owed a great deal to what he would later somewhat scornfully describe as a “kind of mathematical mysticism.” As he put it in his more disillusioned old age, “I disliked the real world and sought refuge in a timeless world, without change or decay or the will-o’-the-wisp of progress.” Russell, like Pythagoras and Plato before him, believed that there existed a realm of truth that, unlike the messy contingencies of the everyday world of sense-experience, was immutable and eternal. This realm was accessible only to reason, and knowledge of it, once attained, was not tentative or corrigible but certain and irrefutable. Logic, for Russell, was the means by which one gained access to this realm, and thus the pursuit of logic was, for him, the highest and noblest enterprise life had to offer.

In philosophy the greatest impact of Principia Mathematica has been through its so-called theory of descriptions. This method of analysis, first introduced by Russell in his article “On Denoting” (1905), translates propositions containing definite descriptions (e.g., “the present king of France”) into expressions that do not—the purpose being to remove the logical awkwardness of appearing to refer to things (such as the present king of France) that do not exist. Originally developed by Russell as part of his efforts to overcome the contradictions in his theory of logic, this method of analysis has since become widely influential even among philosophers with no specific interest in mathematics. The general idea at the root of Russell’s theory of descriptions—that the grammatical structures of ordinary language are distinct from, and often conceal, the true “logical forms” of expressions—has become his most enduring contribution to philosophy.

Russell later said that his mind never fully recovered from the strain of writing Principia Mathematica, and he never again worked on logic with quite the same intensity. In 1918 he wrote An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, which was intended as a popularization of Principia, but, apart from this, his philosophical work tended to be on epistemology rather than logic. In 1914, in Our Knowledge of the External World, Russell argued that the world is “constructed” out of sense-data, an idea that he refined in The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (1918–19). In The Analysis of Mind (1921) and The Analysis of Matter (1927), he abandoned this notion in favour of what he called neutral monism, the view that the “ultimate stuff” of the world is neither mental nor physical but something “neutral” between the two. Although treated with respect, these works had markedly less impact upon subsequent philosophers than his early works in logic and the philosophy of mathematics, and they are generally regarded as inferior by comparison.

Connected with the change in his intellectual direction after the completion of Principia was a profound change in his personal life. Throughout the years that he worked single-mindedly on logic, Russell’s private life was bleak and joyless. He had fallen out of love with his first wife, Alys, though he continued to live with her. In 1911, however, he fell passionately in love with Lady Ottoline Morrell. Doomed from the start (because Morrell had no intention of leaving her husband), this love nevertheless transformed Russell’s entire life. He left Alys and began to hope that he might, after all, find fulfillment in romance. Partly under Morrell’s influence, he also largely lost interest in technical philosophy and began to write in a different, more accessible style. Through writing a best-selling introductory survey called The Problems of Philosophy (1911), Russell discovered that he had a gift for writing on difficult subjects for lay readers, and he began increasingly to address his work to them rather than to the tiny handful of people capable of understanding Principia Mathematica.

In the same year that he began his affair with Morrell, Russell met Ludwig Wittgenstein, a brilliant young Austrian who arrived at Cambridge to study logic with Russell. Fired with intense enthusiasm for the subject, Wittgenstein made great progress, and within a year Russell began to look to him to provide the next big step in philosophy and to defer to him on questions of logic. However, Wittgenstein’s own work, eventually published in 1921 as Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922), undermined the entire approach to logic that had inspired Russell’s great contributions to the philosophy of mathematics. It persuaded Russell that there were no “truths” of logic at all, that logic consisted entirely of tautologies, the truth of which was not guaranteed by eternal facts in the Platonic realm of ideas but lay, rather, simply in the nature of language. This was to be the final step in the retreat from Pythagoras and a further incentive for Russell to abandon technical philosophy in favour of other pursuits.

During World War I Russell was for a while a full-time political agitator, campaigning for peace and against conscription. His activities attracted the attention of the British authorities, who regarded him as subversive. He was twice taken to court, the second time to receive a sentence of six months in prison, which he served at the end of the war. In 1916, as a result of his antiwar campaigning, Russell was dismissed from his lectureship at Trinity College. Although Trinity offered to rehire him after the war, he ultimately turned down the offer, preferring instead to pursue a career as a journalist and freelance writer. The war had had a profound effect on Russell’s political views, causing him to abandon his inherited liberalism and to adopt a thorough-going socialism, which he espoused in a series of books including Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916), Roads to Freedom (1918), and The Prospects of Industrial Civilization (1923). He was initially sympathetic to the Russian Revolution of 1917, but a visit to the Soviet Union in 1920 left him with a deep and abiding loathing for Soviet communism, which he expressed in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920).

In 1921 Russell married his second wife, Dora Black, a young graduate of Girton College, Cambridge, with whom he had two children, John and Kate. In the interwar years Russell and Dora acquired a reputation as leaders of a progressive socialist movement that was stridently anticlerical, openly defiant of conventional sexual morality, and dedicated to educational reform. Russell’s published work during this period consists mainly of journalism and popular books written in support of these causes. Many of these books—such as On Education (1926), Marriage and Morals (1929), and The Conquest of Happiness (1930)—enjoyed large sales and helped establish Russell in the eyes of the general public as a philosopher with important things to say about the moral, political, and social issues of the day. His public lecture “Why I Am Not a Christian,” delivered in 1927 and printed many times, became a popular locus classicus of atheistic rationalism. In 1927 Russell and Dora set up their own school, Beacon Hill, as a pioneering experiment in primary education. To pay for it, Russell undertook a few lucrative but exhausting lecture tours of the United States.

During these years Russell’s second marriage came under increasing strain, partly because of overwork but chiefly because Dora chose to have two children with another man and insisted on raising them alongside John and Kate. In 1932 Russell left Dora for Patricia (“Peter”) Spence, a young University of Oxford undergraduate, and for the next three years his life was dominated by an extraordinarily acrimonious and complicated divorce from Dora, which was finally granted in 1935. In the following year he married Spence, and in 1937 they had a son, Conrad. Worn out by years of frenetic public activity and desiring, at this comparatively late stage in his life (he was then age 66), to return to academic philosophy, Russell gained a teaching post at the University of Chicago. From 1938 to 1944 Russell lived in the United States, where he taught at Chicago and the University of California at Los Angeles, but he was prevented from taking a post at the City College of New York because of objections to his views on sex and marriage. On the brink of financial ruin, he secured a job teaching the history of philosophy at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Although he soon fell out with its founder, Albert C. Barnes, and lost his job, Russell was able to turn the lectures he delivered at the foundation into a book, A History of Western Philosophy (1945), which proved to be a best-seller and was for many years his main source of income.

In 1944 Russell returned to Trinity College, where he lectured on the ideas that formed his last major contribution to philosophy, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits (1948). During this period Russell, for once in his life, found favour with the authorities, and he received many official tributes, including the Order of Merit in 1949 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. His private life, however, remained as turbulent as ever, and he left his third wife in 1949. For a while he shared a house in Richmond upon Thames, London, with the family of his son John and, forsaking both philosophy and politics, dedicated himself to writing short stories. Despite his famously immaculate prose style, Russell did not have a talent for writing great fiction, and his short stories were generally greeted with an embarrassed and puzzled silence, even by his admirers.

In 1952 Russell married his fourth wife, Edith Finch, and finally, at the age of 80, found lasting marital harmony. Russell devoted his last years to campaigning against nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War, assuming once again the role of gadfly of the establishment. The sight of Russell in extreme old age taking his place in mass demonstrations and inciting young people to civil disobedience through his passionate rhetoric inspired a new generation of admirers. Their admiration only increased when in 1961 the British judiciary system took the extraordinary step of sentencing the 89-year-old Russell to a second period of imprisonment.

When he died in 1970 Russell was far better known as an antiwar campaigner than as a philosopher of mathematics. In retrospect, however, it is possible to see that it is for his great contributions to philosophy that he will be remembered and honoured by future generations.




Greek philosopher

born 428/427 bc, Athens, or Aegina, Greece
died 348/347, Athens

ancient Greek philosopher, the second of the great trio of ancient Greeks—Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—who between them laid the philosophical foundations of Western culture. Building on the life and thought of Socrates, Plato developed a profound and wide-ranging system of philosophy. His thought has logical, epistemological, and metaphysical aspects; but its underlying motivation is ethical. It sometimes relies upon conjectures and myth, and it is occasionally mystical in tone; but fundamentally Plato is a rationalist, devoted to the proposition that reason must be followed wherever it leads. Thus the core of Plato’s philosophy is a rationalistic ethics.

Plato, the son of Ariston and Perictione, was born in Athens, or perhaps in Aegina, about 428 bc, the year after the death of the great statesman Pericles. His family, on both sides, was among the most distinguished in Athens. Ariston is said to have claimed descent from the god Poseidon through Codrus, the last king of Athens; on the mother’s side, the family was related to the early Greek lawmaker Solon. Nothing is known about Plato’s father’s death. It is assumed that he died when Plato was a boy. Perictione apparently married as her second husband her uncle Pyrilampes, a prominent supporter of Pericles; and Plato was probably brought up chiefly in his house. Critias and Charmides, leaders among the extremists of the oligarchic terror of 404, were, respectively, cousin and brother of Perictione; both were friends of Socrates, and through them Plato must have known the philosopher from boyhood.

His own early ambitions—like those of most young men of his class—were probably political. A conservative faction urged him to enter public life under its auspices, but he wisely held back. He was soon repelled by its members’ violent acts. After the fall of the oligarchy, he hoped for better things from the restored democracy. Eventually, however, he became convinced that there was no place for a man of conscience in Athenian politics. In 399 bc the democracy condemned Socrates to death, and Plato and other Socratic men took temporary refuge at Megara with Eucleides, founder of the Megarian school of philosophy. The next few years are said to have been spent in extensive travels in Greece, in Egypt, and in Italy. Plato himself (if the Seventh Letter is authentic; see below General features of the dialogues) states that he visited Italy and Sicily at the age of 40 and was disgusted by the gross sensuality of life there but found a kindred spirit in Dion, brother-in-law of Dionysius I, the ruler of Syracuse.

Life » The Academy and Sicily
About 387 Plato founded the Academy as an institute for the systematic pursuit of philosophical and scientific teaching and research. He presided over it for the rest of his life. Aristotle was a member of the Academy for 20 years, first as a student and then as a teacher. The Academy’s interests encompassed a broad range of disciplines, including astronomy, biology, ethics, geometry, and rhetoric. Plato himself lectured—on at least one occasion he gave a celebrated public lecture “On the Good”—and he set problems for his students to solve. The Academy was not the only such “school” in Athens—there are traces of tension between the Academy and the rival school of Isocrates, and Aristotle started his own school, the Lyceum, after being passed over as Plato’s successor at the Academy.

The one outstanding event in Plato’s later life was his intervention in Syracusan politics. On the death of Dionysius I in 367, Dion conceived the idea of bringing Plato to Syracuse as tutor to his brother-in-law’s successor, Dionysius II, whose education had been neglected. Plato was not optimistic about the results; but because both Dion and Archytas of Tarentum, a philosopher-statesman, thought the prospect promising, he felt bound to risk the adventure. The plan was to train Dionysius II in science and philosophy and so to fit him for the position of a constitutional king who might hold Carthaginian encroachment on Sicily at bay. The scheme was crushed by Dionysius’ natural jealousy of the stronger Dion, whom he drove into virtual banishment. Plato later paid a second and longer visit to Syracuse in 361–360, still in the hope of effecting an accommodation; but he failed, not without some personal danger. Dion then captured Syracuse by a coup de main in 357, but he was murdered in 354. Plato himself died in 348/347.

Of Plato’s character and personality little is known, and little can be inferred from his writings. But it is worth recording that Aristotle, his most able student, described Plato as a man “whom it is blasphemy in the base even to praise,” meaning that Plato was so noble a character that bad men should not even speak about him.

To his readers through the ages Plato has been important primarily as one of the greatest of philosophical writers; but to himself the foundation and organization of the Academy must have appeared to be his chief work. The Seventh Letter contrasts the impact of written works with that of the contact of living minds as a vehicle of philosophy, and it passes a comparatively unfavourable verdict on written works. Plato puts a similar verdict into the mouth of Socrates in the Phaedrus. He perhaps intended his dialogues in the main to interest an educated outside world in the more serious and arduous labours of his school.

All of the most important mathematical work of the 4th century was done by friends or students of Plato. The first students of conic sections, and possibly Theaetetus, the creator of solid geometry, were members of the Academy. Eudoxus of Cnidus—author of the doctrine of proportion expounded in Euclid’s Elements, inventor of the method of finding the areas and volumes of curvilinear figures by exhaustion, and propounder of the astronomical scheme of concentric spheres adopted and altered by Aristotle—removed his school from Cyzicus to Athens for the purpose of cooperating with Plato; and during one of Plato’s absences he seems to have acted as the head of the Academy. Archytas, the inventor of mechanical science, was a friend and correspondent of Plato.

Nor were other sciences neglected. Speusippus, Plato’s nephew and successor, was a voluminous writer on natural history; and Aristotle’s biological works have been shown to belong largely to the early period in his career immediately after Plato’s death. The comic poets found matter for mirth in the attention of the school to botanical classification. The Academy was particularly active in jurisprudence and practical legislation. As Plutarch testifies,

Plato sent Aristonymus to the Arcadians, Phormion to Elis, Menedemus to Pyrrha. Eudoxus and Aristotle wrote laws for Cnidus and Stagirus. Alexander asked Xenocrates for advice about kingship; the man who was sent to Alexander by the Asiatic Greeks and did most to incite him to his war on the barbarians was Delios of Ephesus, an associate of Plato.

The Academy survived Plato’s death. Though its interest in science waned and its philosophical orientation changed, it remained for two and a half centuries a focus of intellectual life. Its creation as a permanent society for the prosecution of both humane and exact sciences has been regarded—with pardonable exaggeration—as the first establishment of a university.

Life » Formative influences
The most important formative influence to which the young Plato was exposed was Socrates. It does not appear, however, that Plato belonged as a “disciple” to the circle of Socrates’ intimates. The Seventh Letter speaks of Socrates not as a “master” but as an older “friend,” for whose character Plato had a profound respect; and he has recorded his own absence (through indisposition) from the death scene of the Phaedo. It may well be that his own vocation to philosophy dawned on him only afterward, as he reflected on the treatment of Socrates by the democratic leaders. Plato owed to Socrates his commitment to philosophy, his rational method, and his concern for ethical questions. Among other philosophical influences the most significant were those of Heracleitus and his followers, who disparaged the phenomenal world as an arena of constant change and flux, and of the Pythagoreans, with whose metaphysical and mystical notions Plato had great sympathy.

Plato had family connections with Pyrilampes, a Periclean politician, and with Critias, who became one of the most unscrupulous of the Thirty Tyrants who briefly ruled Athens after the collapse of the democracy.

Plato’s early experiences covered the disastrous years of the Deceleian War, the shattering of the Athenian empire, and the fierce civil strife of oligarchs and democrats in the year of anarchy, 404–403. He was too young to have known anything by experience of the imperial democracy of Pericles and Cleon or of the tide of the Sophistic movement. It is certainly not from memory that he depicted Protagoras, the earliest avowed professional Sophist, or Alcibiades, a brilliant but unreliable Athenian politician and military commander. No doubt these early experiences helped to form the political views that were later expounded in the dialogues.

General features of the dialogues
The canon and text of Plato was apparently fixed at about the turn of the Christian era. By reckoning the Letters as one item, the list contained 36 works, arranged in nine tetralogies. None of Plato’s works has been lost, and there is a general agreement among modern scholars that a number of small items—Alcibiades I, Alcibiades II, Theages, Erastae, Clitopho, Hipparchus, and Minos—are spurious. Most scholars also believe that the Epinomis, an appendix to the Laws, was written by the mathematician Philippus of Opus. The Hippias Major and the Menexenus are regarded as doubtful by some, though Aristotle seems to have regarded them as Platonic. Most of the 13 Letters are certainly later forgeries. About the authenticity of the Seventh Letter, which is by far the most important from the biographical and the philosophical points of view, there exists a long and unsettled controversy.

General features of the dialogues » Order of composition
Plato’s literary career extended over the greater part of a long life. The Apology was probably written in the early 380s. The Laws, on the other hand, was the work of an old man, and the state of its text bears out the tradition that Plato never lived to give it its final revision. Since there is no evidence that Plato began his career with a fully developed system, and since there is every reason to believe that his thoughts changed, the order in which the various dialogues were written takes on importance. Only through it can the development of Plato’s thought be adequately charted. Unfortunately, Plato himself has given few clues to the order: he linked the Sophist and the Statesman with the Theaetetus externally as continuations of the conversation reported in that dialogue. Similarly, he seems to have linked the Timaeus with the Republic. And Aristotle noted that the Laws was written after the Republic.

Modern scholars, by the use of stylistic criteria, have argued that the Sophist, Statesman, Philebus, Timaeus (with its fragmentary sequel Critias), and Laws form a distinct linguistic group, belonging to the later years of Plato’s life. The whole group must be later than the Sophist, which professes to be a sequel to the Theaetetus. Since the Theaetetus commemorates the death of the eminent mathematician after whom it is named (probably in 369 bc), it may be ascribed to circa 368, the eve of Plato’s departure for Syracuse.

The earlier group of dialogues is generally believed to have ended with the Theaetetus and the closely related Parmenides. Apart from this, perhaps all that can be said with certainty is that the great dialogues, Symposium, Phaedo, and Republic (and perhaps also Protagoras), in which Plato’s dramatic power was at its highest, mark the culmination of this first period of literary activity. The later dialogues are often thought to lack the dramatic and literary merits of the earlier but to compensate for this by an increased subtlety and maturity of judgment.

General features of the dialogues » Persons of the dialogues
One difficulty that initially besets the modern student is that created by the dramatic form of Plato’s writings. Since Plato never introduced himself into his own dialogues, he is not formally committed to anything asserted in them. The speakers who are formally bound by the utterances of the dialogues are their characters, of whom Socrates is usually the protagonist. Since all of these are real historical persons, it is reasonable to wonder whether Plato is reporting their opinions or putting his own views into their mouths, and, more generally, to ask what was his purpose in writing dialogues.

Some scholars have suggested that Plato allowed himself to develop freely in a dialogue any view that interested him for the moment without pledging himself to its truth. Thus Plato can make Socrates advocate hedonistic utilitarianism in the Protagoras and denounce it in the Gorgias. Others argue that some of Plato’s characters, notably Socrates and Timaeus, are “mouthpieces” through whom he inculcates tenets of his own without concern for dramatic or historical propriety. Thus it has often been held that the theory of Forms, or Ideas, the doctrine of recollection, and the notion of the tripartite soul were originated by Plato after the death of Socrates and consciously fathered on the older philosopher.

General features of the dialogues » Thought of the earlier and later dialogues
There are undeniable differences in thought between the dialogues that are later than the Theaetetus and those that are earlier. But there are no serious discrepancies of doctrine between individual dialogues of the same period. Plato perhaps announced his own personal convictions on certain doctrines in the second group of dialogues by a striking dramatic device. In the Sophist and Statesman the leading part is taken by a visitor from Elea and in the Laws by an Athenian. These are the only anonymous, indeed almost certainly the only imaginary, personages of any moment in the whole of Plato’s writings. It seems likely, therefore, that these two characters were left anonymous so that the writer could be free to use them as mouthpieces for his own teaching. Plato thus took on himself the responsibility for the logic and epistemology of the Sophist and of the Statesman and for the ethics and the educational and political theory of the Statesman and of the Laws.

General features of the dialogues » Doctrine of Forms
There is a philosophical doctrine running through the earlier dialogues that has as its three main features the theory of knowledge as recollection, the conception of the tripartite soul, and, most important, the theory of Forms. The theory that knowledge is recollection rests on the belief that the soul is not only eternal but also preexistent. The conception of the tripartite soul holds that the soul consists of reason, appetite, and spirit (or will). Each part serves a purpose and has validity, but reason is the soul’s noblest part; in order for man to achieve harmony, appetite and spirit must be subjected to the firm control of reason. The theory of Forms has as its foundation the assumption that beyond the world of physical things there is a higher, spiritual realm of Forms, such as the Form of Beauty or Justice. This realm of Forms, moreover, has a hierarchical order, the highest level being that of the Form of the Good, which Plato sometimes seems to identify with the Form of Unity, or the One. Whereas the physical world, perceived with the senses, is in constant flux and knowledge derived from it restricted and variable, the realm of Forms, apprehensible only by the mind, is eternal and changeless. Each Form is the pattern of a particular category of things in this world; thus there are Forms of man, stone, shape, colour, beauty, and justice. The things of this world have the properties they do by “participating” in the corresponding Forms. Although it is traditional to conceive the relationship of participation as a kind of approximation or imperfect copying of a Form by a thing, many scholars now dispute this interpretation.

In the Phaedo Socrates is made to describe the theory of Forms as something quite familiar that he has for years constantly canvassed with his friends. In the dialogues of the second period, however, these tenets are less prominent, and the most important of them all, the theory of Forms, is in the Parmenides subjected to a searching set of criticisms. The question thus arises as to whether Plato himself had two distinct philosophies, an earlier and a later, or whether the main object of the first group of dialogues was to preserve the memory of Socrates, the philosophy there expounded being, in the main, that of Socrates—coloured, no doubt, but not consciously distorted, in its passage through the mind of Plato. On the second view, Plato had no distinctive Platonic philosophy until a late period in his life.

General features of the dialogues » Socrates and Plato
It may be significant that the only dialogue later than the Theaetetus in which Socrates takes a leading part is the Philebus, the one work of the second group that deals primarily with the ethical problems on which the thought of Socrates had concentrated. This is usually explained by supposing that Plato was unwilling to make Socrates the exponent of doctrines that he knew to be his own property. It would, however, be hard to understand such misgivings if Plato had already been employing Socrates in that very capacity for years. It is notable, too, that Aristotle, who apparently knew nothing of an earlier and a later version of Platonism, attributed to Plato a doctrine that is quite unlike anything to be found in the first group of dialogues. It was also the view of Neoplatonic scholars that the theory of Forms of the great earlier dialogues really originated with Socrates; and the fact that they did not find it necessary to argue the point may show that this had been the standing tradition of the Academy.

Few modern scholars, however, support this view. The differences between the early and late periods are not as great as they have sometimes been represented: although Plato’s thought developed from the early to the late dialogues, it underwent no sudden dislocation. The ideas of the early period may have been inspired by Socrates, but they were Plato’s own—for example, the theory of Forms could not have arisen with Socrates. Plato nevertheless attributed it to him because he saw it as the theoretical basis of what Socrates did teach.

The earlier dialogues
In the Republic, the greatest of all the dialogues that precede the Theaetetus, there are three main strands of argument deftly combined into an artistic whole—the ethical and political, the aesthetic and mystical, and the metaphysical. Other major dialogues belonging to this period give special prominence to one of these three lines of thought: the Phaedo to the metaphysical theme; the Protagoras and the Gorgias to the ethical and political; the Symposium and the Phaedrus to the aesthetic. But it should be noted that Plato’s dialogues are not philosophical essays, let alone philosophical treatises, and they do not restrict themselves to a single topic or subject.

The earlier dialogues » Dialogues of search
The shorter dialogues, dealing with more special problems, generally of an ethical character, mostly conform to a common type: a problem in moral philosophy, often that of the right definition of a virtue, is propounded, a number of tentative solutions are considered, and all are found to be vitiated by difficulties that cannot be dispelled. The reader is left, at the end of the conversation, aware of his ignorance of the very things that it is most imperative for a man to know. He has formally learned nothing but has been made alive to the confusions and fallacies in what he had hitherto been content to take as knowledge. The dialogues are “aporetic” and “elenctic”: they pose puzzles (aporiai in Greek) without solving them, and Socrates’ procedure consists in the successive refutation (elenchos) of the various views presented by his interlocutors.

The effect of these dialogues of search is thus to put the reader in tune with the spirit of Socrates, who had said that the one respect in which he was wiser than other men was in his keen appreciation of his own ignorance of the most important matters. The reader learns the meaning of Socrates’ ruling principle that the supreme business of life is to “tend” the soul and his conviction that “goodness of soul” means knowledge of good and evil. The three dialogues directly concerned with the trial of Socrates have a further purpose. They are intended to explain to a puzzled public, as a debt of honour to his memory, why Socrates thought it a matter of conscience neither to withdraw from danger before his trial, nor to make a conciliatory defense, nor, after conviction, to avail himself of the opportunity of flight.

The Apology, or Defense, purports to give Socrates’ speeches at his trial for impiety. In the Crito Socrates, in the condemned cell, explains why he will not try to escape paying the death penalty; the dialogue is a consideration of the source and nature of political obligation. The Euthyphro is represented as taking place just before Socrates’ trial. Its subject is the virtue of “piety,” or the proper attitude for men to take toward the gods. The Hippias Major propounds the question “What is the ‘fine’ (or ‘beautiful’)?” The Hippias Minor deals with the paradox that “wrongdoing is involuntary.” The Ion discredits the poets, who create not “by science” but by a nonrational inspiration. The Menexenus, which professes to repeat a funeral oration learned from Aspasia, Pericles’ mistress, is apparently meant as a satire on the patriotic distortion of history. The Charmides, Laches, and Lysis are typical dialogues of search. The question of the Charmides is what is meant by sōphrosunē, or “temperance,” the virtue that is shown in self-command, in dutiful behaviour to parents and superiors, in balance, and in self-possession amid the turns of fortune. It seems that this virtue can be identified with the self-knowledge that Socrates had valued so highly. The Laches is concerned with courage, the soldier’s virtue; and the Lysis examines in the same tentative way friendship, the relation in which self-forgetting devotion most conspicuously displays itself.

The question of whether words have meaning by nature or by convention is considered in the Cratylus—whether there is some special appropriateness of the sounds or forms of words to the objects they signify, or whether meaning merely reflects the usage of the community. Plato argues that, since language is an instrument of thought, the test of its rightness is not mere social usage but its genuine capacity to express thought accurately. The dialogue Euthydemus satirizes the “eristics”—those who try to entangle a person in fallacies because of the ambiguity of language. Its more serious purpose, however, is to contrast this futile logic chopping with the “protreptic,” or hortatory, efforts of Socrates, who urges that happiness is guaranteed not by the possession of things but by the right use of them—and particularly of the gifts of mind, body, and fortune.

The earlier dialogues » Ethical and political dialogues
The Gorgias, the Protagoras, and the Meno, like several of the lesser dialogues, give prominence to ethical and political themes. The Gorgias begins ostensibly as an inquiry into the nature and worth of rhetoric, the art of advocacy professed by Gorgias, and develops into a plea of sustained eloquence and logical power for morality—as against expediency—as the sovereign rule of life, both private and public. It ends with an imaginative picture of the eternal destinies of the righteous and of the unrighteous soul.

Gorgias holds that rhetoric is the queen of all “arts.” If the statesman skilled in rhetoric is clever enough, he can, though a layman, carry the day even against the specialist. Socrates, on the other hand, declares that rhetoric is not an art but a mere “knack” of humouring the prejudices of an audience. There are two arts conducive to health of soul, those of the legislator and of the judge. The Sophist counterfeits the first, the orator the second, by taking the pleasant instead of the good as his standard. The orator is thus not the wise physician of the body politic but its toady. This severe judgment is disputed by Polus, an ardent admirer of Gorgias, on the ground that the successful orator is virtually the autocrat of the community, and to be such is the summit of human happiness because he can do whatever he likes.

Socrates rejects this view. He does so by developing one of the “Socratic paradoxes”: to suffer a wrong is an evil, but to inflict one is much worse. Thus if rhetoric is of real service to men, it should be most of all serviceable to an offender, who would employ it to move the authorities to inflict the penalties for which the state of his soul calls. All of this is in turn denied by Callicles, who proceeds to develop the extreme position of an amoralist. It may be a convention of the herd that unscrupulous aggression is discreditable and wrong, but “nature’s convention” is that the strong are justified in using their strength as they please, while the weak “go to the wall.” To Socrates, however, the creators of the imperialistic Athenian democracy were no true statesmen; they were the domestic servants of the democracy for whose tastes they catered; they were not its physicians. That would be a condition like that of the Danaids of mythology, who are punished in Hades by being set to spend eternity in filling leaking pitchers. A happy life consists not in the constant gratification of boundless desires but rather in the measured satisfaction of wants that are tempered by justice and sōphrosunē.

The Meno is nominally concerned with the question of what virtue is and whether it can be taught. But it is further interesting for two reasons: it states clearly the doctrine that knowledge is “recollection”; and it introduces as a character the democratic politician Anytus, the main author of the prosecution of Socrates.

Whether virtue can be taught depends on what virtue is. But the inquiry into virtue is difficult—indeed, the very possibility of inquiry is threatened by Meno’s paradox concerning the quest for knowledge. If a person is ignorant about the subject of his inquiry, he could not recognize the unknown, even if he found it. If, on the other hand, the person already knows it, inquiry is futile because it is idle to inquire into what one already knows. But this difficulty would vanish if the soul were immortal and had long ago learned all truth, so that it needs now only to be reminded of truths that it once knew and has forgotten. To advance this argument, Socrates shows that a slave boy who has never studied geometry can be brought to recognize mathematical truths. He produces the right answer “out of himself.” In general, knowledge is “recollection.” Socrates next produces the hypothesis that virtue is knowledge and infers that it is teachable. But if virtue is knowledge, there must be professional teachers of it. Anytus insists that the Sophists, who claim to be such professionals, are mischievous impostors; and even the “best men” have been unable to teach it to their own sons. The Meno ends with a distinction between knowledge and true belief and with the suggestion that virtue comes not by teaching but by divine gift.

The Protagoras gives the most complete presentation of the main principles of Socratic morality. In this dialogue Socrates meets the eminent Sophist Protagoras, who explains that his profession is the “teaching of goodness”—i.e., the art of making a success of one’s life and of one’s city. Socrates urges, however, that both common opinion and the failure of eminent men to teach “goodness” to their sons suggest that the conduct of life is not teachable. But the problem arises as to whether the various commonly recognized virtues are really different or all one. Protagoras is ultimately ready to identify all of the virtues except courage with wisdom or sound judgment. Socrates then attempts to show that, even in the case of courage, goodness consists in the fact that, by facing pain and danger, one escapes worse pain or danger. Thus all virtues can be reduced to the prudent computation of pleasures and of pains. Here, then, is a second “Socratic paradox”: no one does wrong willingly—all wrongdoing is a matter of miscalculation. It is a puzzling feature of this argument that Socrates appears to embrace a form of hedonism.

The earlier dialogues » Metaphysical foundation of Plato’s doctrine: Phaedo
In the works so far considered, the foundation of a Socratic moral and political doctrine is laid, which holds that the great concern of man is the development of a rational moral personality and that this development is the key to man’s felicity. Success in this task, however, depends on rational insight into the true scale of good. The reason men forfeit felicity is that they mistake apparent good for real. If a man ever knew with assurance what the Good is, he would never pursue anything else; it is in this sense that “all virtue is knowledge.” The philosophical moralist, who has achieved an assured insight into absolute Good, is thus the only true statesman, for he alone can tend to the national character. These moral convictions have a metaphysical foundation and justification. The principles of this metaphysics are expounded more explicitly in the following dialogues, in which a theory of knowledge and of scientific method is also discernible.

The object of the Phaedo is to justify belief in the immortality of the soul by showing that it follows from a fundamental metaphysical doctrine (the doctrine of Forms), which seems to afford a rational clue to the structure of the universe. Socrates’ soul is identical with Socrates himself: the survival of his soul is the survival of Socrates—in a purified state. For his life has been spent in trying to liberate the soul from dependence on the body. In life, the body is always interfering with the soul’s activity. Its appetites and passions interrupt the pursuit of wisdom and goodness.

There are four arguments for thinking that the soul survives death. First, there is a belief that the soul has a succession of many lives. The processes of nature in general are cyclical; and it is reasonable to suppose that this cyclicity applies to the case of dying and coming to life. If this were not so, if the process of dying were not reversible, life would ultimately vanish from the universe.

Second, the doctrine that what men call “learning” is really “recollection” shows, or at least suggests, that the soul’s life is independent of the body.

Third, the soul contemplates the Forms, which are eternal, changeless, and simple. The soul is like the Forms. Hence it is immortal.

The fourth argument is the most elaborate. Socrates begins by recalling his early interest in finding the causes of being and change and his dissatisfaction with the explanations then current. He offers instead the Forms as causes. First, and safely, he says that something becomes, say, hot simply by participating in Heat. Then, a little more daringly, he is prepared to say that it becomes hot by participating in Fire, which brings Heat with it. Now if Fire brings Heat, it cannot accept Cold, which is the opposite of Heat. All this is then applied to the soul. Human beings are alive by participating in Life—and, more particularly, by having souls that bring Life with them. Since the soul brings Life, it cannot accept Death, the opposite of Life. But in that case the soul cannot perish and is immortal. (For further discussion of the theory of Forms, see metaphysics: Forms.)

The earlier dialogues » Aesthetic and mystical dialogues
Both the Symposium and the Phaedrus present the Forms in a special light, as objects of mystical contemplation and as stimuli of mystical emotion.

The immediate object of the Symposium, which records several banquet eulogies of erōs (erotic love), is to find the highest manifestation of the love that controls the world in the mystic aspiration after union with eternal and supercosmic beauty. It depicts Socrates as having reached the goal of union and puts the figure of Alcibiades, who has sold his spiritual birthright for the pleasures of the world, in sharp opposition to him.

The main argument may be summarized thus: Erōs is a reaching out of the soul to a hoped-for good. The object is eternal beauty. In its crudest form, love for a beautiful person is really a passion to achieve immortality through offspring by that person. A more spiritual form is the aspiration to combine with a kindred soul to give birth to sound institutions and rules of life. Still more spiritual is the endeavour to enrich philosophy and science through noble dialogue. The insistent seeker may then suddenly descry a supreme beauty that is the cause and source of all of the beauties so far discerned. The philosopher’s path thus culminates in a vision of the Form of the Good, the supreme Form that stands at the head of all others.

Though the immediate subject of the Phaedrus is to show how a truly scientific rhetoric might be built on the double foundation of logical method and scientific study of human passions, Plato contrives to unite with this topic a discussion of the psychology of love, which leads him to speak of the Forms as the objects of transcendent emotion and, indeed, of mystical contemplation. The soul, in its antenatal, disembodied state, could enjoy the direct contemplation of the Forms. But sense experience can suggest the Form of Beauty in an unusually startling way: through falling in love. The unreason and madness of the lover mean that the wings of his soul are beginning to grow again; it is the first step in the soul’s return to its high estate.

The earlier dialogues » The Republic
In the Republic the immediate problem is ethical. What is justice? Can it be shown that justice benefits the man who is just? Plato holds that it can. Justice consists in a harmony that emerges when the various parts of a unit perform the function proper to them and abstain from interfering with the functions of any other part. More specifically, justice occurs with regard to the individual, when the three component parts of his soul—reason, appetite, and spirit, or will—each perform their appropriate tasks; with regard to society, justice occurs when its component members each fulfill the demands of their allotted roles. Harmony is ensured in the individual when the rational part of his soul is in command; and in society when philosophers are its rulers, because philosophers—Platonic philosophers—have a clear understanding of justice, based on their vision of the Form of the Good.

In the ethical scheme of the Republic three roles, or “three lives,” are distinguished: those of the philosopher, of the votary of enjoyment, and of the man of action. The end of the first is wisdom; of the second, the gratification of appetite; and of the third, practical distinction. These reflect the three elements, or active principles, within a man: rational judgment of good; a multitude of conflicting appetites for particular gratifications; and spirit, or will, manifested as resentment against infringements both by others and by the individual’s own appetites.

This tripartite scheme is then applied to determine the structure of the just society. Plato develops his plan for a just society by dividing the general population into three classes that correspond to the three parts of man’s soul as well as to the three lives. Thus there are: the statesmen; the general civilian population that provides for material needs; and the executive force (army and police). These three orders correspond respectively to the rational, appetitive, and spirited elements. They have as their corresponding virtues wisdom, the excellence of the thinking part; temperance, that of the appetitive part (acquiescence of the nonrational elements to the plan of life prescribed by judgment); and courage, that of the spirited part (loyalty to the rule of life laid down by judgment). The division of the population into these three classes would be made not on the basis of birth or wealth but on the basis of education provided for by the state. By a process of examination, each individual would then be assigned to his appropriate rank in correspondence with the predominant part of his soul.

The state ordered in this manner is just because each of the elements vigorously executes its own function and, in loyal contentment, confines itself within its limits. Such a society is a true aristocracy, or rule of the best. Plato describes successive deviations from this ideal as timocracy (the benign military state), oligarchy (the state dominated by merchant princes, a plutocracy), and democracy (the state subjected to an irresponsible or criminal will).

The training of the philosophical rulers would continue through a long and rigorous education because the vision of the Good requires extensive preparation and intellectual discipline. It leads through study of the exact sciences to that of their metaphysical principles. The central books of the Republic thus present an outline of metaphysics and a philosophy of the sciences. The Forms appear in the double character of objects of all genuine science and formal causes of events and processes. Plato expressly denied that there can be knowledge, in the proper sense, of the temporal and mutable. In his scheme for the intellectual training of the philosophical rulers, the exact sciences—arithmetic, plane and solid geometry, astronomy, and harmonics—would first be studied for 10 years to familiarize the mind with relations that can only be apprehended by thought. Five years would then be given to the still severer study of “dialectic.” Dialectic is, etymologically, the art of conversation, of question and answer; and, according to Plato, dialectical skill is the ability to pose and answer questions about the essences of things. The dialectician replaces hypotheses with secure knowledge, and his aim is to ground all science, all knowledge, on some “unhypothetical first principle.”

This principle is the Form of the Good, which, like the Sun in relation to visible things, is the source of the reality of all things, of the light by which they are apprehended, and also of their value. (There are hints in the Republic, as well as in Plato’s lecture “On the Good” and in several of the later dialogues, that this first principle is identical with Unity.) As in the Symposium, the Good is the supreme beauty that dawns suddenly upon the pilgrim of love as he draws near to his goal.

The earlier dialogues » Dialogues of critical reconstruction
The two works that probably anticipate the dialogues of Plato’s old age, the Parmenides and Theaetetus, display a remarkable difference of tone, clearly the result of a period of fruitful reconstruction.

The theory expounded in the Phaedo and Republic does not allow enough reality to the sensible world. These dialogues suppose that an entity capable of being sensed is a complex that participates in a plurality of Forms; what else it may be they do not say. Clearly, however, the relation between a thing and a Form (e.g., beauty), which has been called participation, needs further elucidation. In these dialogues truths of fact, of the natural world, have not yet had their importance recognized.

Plato clearly had an external motive for the reexamination of his system as well. The Parmenides, the Theaetetus, and the Sophist all reveal a special interest in the Eleatic philosophy, of which Parmenides was the chief representative. The doctrine of his friend Eucleides of Megara, like that of Parmenides, was that phenomena which can be apprehended by the senses are illusions with no reality at all. Continued reflection on this problem led straight to the discussion of the meaning of the copula “is” and the significance of the denial “is not,” which is the subject of the Sophist.

Formally the Parmenides leads to an impasse. In its first half the youthful Socrates expounds the doctrine of Forms as the solution of the problem of the “one and many.” (“How can this, that, and the other cat all be one thing—e.g., black?” “Each distinct cat participates in the unique Form of Blackness.”) Parmenides raises what appear to be insoluble objections and hints that the helplessness of Socrates under his criticism arises from insufficient training in logic. In the second half Parmenides gives an example of the logical training that he recommends. He takes for examination his own thesis, “The one is,” and constructs upon it as basis an elaborate set of contradictions.

The Eleatic objections to the doctrine of Forms are, first, that it does not really reconcile unity with plurality, because it leads to a perpetual regress. It says that the many things that have a common predicate, or characteristic, participate in a single Form. But the Form itself also admits of the same predicate, and therefore a second Form must exist, participated in alike by the sensible things and the first Form, and so on, endlessly. This objection came to be known in Plato’s time as the problem of the Third Man, because it alleges that, in addition to an individual man and the Form of Man, there must be a third entity.

Because the Parmenides does not clearly resolve these objections, some scholars have concluded that Plato had become aware of fatal flaws in the doctrine of Forms and that the second half of the dialogue is merely a demonstration of the kind of dry logical exercise to which he had resigned himself. Others, taking Parmenides at his word, have urged that Plato believed that the doctrine could be satisfactorily revised and that the second half of the dialogue is a demonstration of the logical means necessary for accomplishing this task. According to this view, the problem of the Third Man arises from Socrates’ failure to distinguish between two senses in which a Form may be said to admit of a predicate. One sense consists of participating in another Form; another involves bearing a certain relationship to the predicate whereby the predicate is part of the Form’s nature or essence. Because in general the Forms can be predicated of themselves only in the second sense, the self-predication in the Third Man does not imply the existence of additional Forms, and the infinite regress is blocked. The details and implications of this view continue to be debated by scholars.

The Theaetetus is a discussion of the question of how knowledge should be defined. It is remarkable that the dialogue treats knowledge at length without making any reference to the Forms or to the mythology of recollection. It remains to this day one of the best introductions to the problem of knowledge. The main argument is as follows:

It seems plausible to say that knowledge is perception, which appears to imply that “what seems to me is so to me; what seems to you is so to you” (Protagoras). This relativistic doctrine is, rather oddly, claimed by Plato to be equivalent to the view held by the late 6th-century-bc Greek philosopher Heracleitus that “everything is always and in all ways in flux.” But these views imply that there is no common perceived world and therefore nothing of certainty can be said or thought at all.

As for the thesis that knowledge is perception, one must first distinguish what the soul perceives through bodily organs from what it apprehends by itself without organs—such as number, sameness, likeness, being, and good. But because all knowledge involves truth and therefore being, perception, which cannot grasp being, is not identical with knowledge.

Is knowledge, then, true belief? The reference to true belief leads Plato into a discussion of false belief, for which he can discover no satisfactory analysis. False belief is belief in what is not, and what is not cannot be believed. But the example of verdicts in the law courts is enough to show that there can be true belief without knowledge.

Finally, is knowledge true belief together with an “account”? The concept of an account (logos) is not a simple one. No satisfactory definition of knowledge emerges, and the dialogue ends without a conclusion.

Because Plato’s argument nowhere appeals to his favourite doctrine of Forms and because the dialogue ends so inconclusively, some scholars have suggested that Plato wanted to show that the problem of knowledge is insoluble without the Forms.

The later dialogues
Formally the important dialogues the Sophist and the Statesman are closely connected, both being ostensibly concerned with a problem of definition. The real purpose of the Sophist, however, is logical or metaphysical; it aims at explaining the true nature of negative predication, or denials that something is so. The object of the Statesman, on the other hand, is to consider the respective merits of two contrasting forms of government, personal rule and constitutionalism, and to recommend the second, particularly in the form of limited monarchy. The Sophist thus lays the foundations of all subsequent logic, the Statesman those of all constitutionalism. A second purpose in both dialogues is to illustrate the value of careful classification as a basis for scientific definition.

The Sophist purports to investigate what a Sophist really is. The definitions all lead to such notions as falsity, illusion, nonbeing. But these notions are puzzling. How can there be such a thing as a false statement or a false impression? The false means “what is not,” and what is not is nothing at all and can be neither uttered nor thought. Plato argues that what is not in some sense also is and that what is in some sense is not; and he refutes Parmenidean monism by drawing the distinction between absolute and relative nonbeing. A significant denial, A is not B, does not mean that A is nothing but that A is other than B; every one of the “greatest kinds,” or most general, features of reality—being, identity, difference, motion, and rest—is other than every other feature. Motion, say, is other than rest; and thus motion is not rest—but it does not follow that motion is not. The true business of dialectic is to treat the Forms themselves as an interrelated system, with relations of compatibility and incompatibility among themselves.

In the Statesman the conclusion is reached that government by a benevolent dictator is not suitable to the conditions of human life because his direction is not that of a god. The surrogate for direction by a god is the impersonal supremacy of inviolable law. Where there is such law, monarchy is the best and democracy the least satisfactory form of constitution; but where there is no law, this situation is inverted.

The Philebus contains Plato’s ripest moral psychology. Its subject is strictly ethical—the question of whether the Good is to be identified with pleasure or with wisdom. Under the guidance of Socrates a mediating conclusion is reached: the best life contains both elements, but wisdom predominates.

Philosophically most important is a classification adopted to determine the formal character of the two claimants to recognition as the Good. Everything real belongs to one of four classes: (1) the infinite or unbounded, (2) the limit, (3) the mixture (of infinite and limit), (4) the cause of the mixture. It emerges that all of the good things of life belong to the third class—that is, are produced by imposing a definite limit upon an indeterminate continuum.

The Timaeus is an exposition of cosmology, physics, and biology. Timaeus first draws the distinction between eternal being and temporal becoming and insists that it is only of the former that one can have exact and final knowledge. The visible, mutable world had a beginning; it is the work of God, who had its Forms before him as eternal models in terms of which he molded the world as an imitation. God first formed its soul out of three constituents: identity, difference, being. The world soul was placed in the circles of the heavenly bodies, and the circles were animated with movements. Subsequently the various subordinate gods and the immortal and rational element in the human soul were formed. The human body and the lower components of its soul were generated through the intermediacy of the “created gods” (i.e., the stars).

The Timaeus combines the geometry of the Pythagoreans with the biology of Empedocles by a mathematical construction of the elements, in which four of the regular solids—cube, tetrahedron, octahedron, and icosahedron—are assumed to be the shapes of the corpuscles of earth, fire, air, and water. (The fifth, the dodecahedron, comprises the model for the whole universe.)

Among the important features of the dialogue are its introduction of God as the “demiurge”—the intelligent cause of all order and structure in the world of becoming—and the emphatic recognition of the essentially tentative character of natural science. It is also noteworthy that, though Plato presents a corpuscular physics, his metaphysical substrate is not matter but chōra (space). The presence of space as a factor requires the recognition, over and above God or mind, of an element that he called anankē (necessity). The activity of the demiurge ensures that the universe is in general rational and well-ordered, but the brute force of material necessity sets limits to the scope and efficacy of reason. The details of Plato’s cosmology, physiology, and psychophysics are of great importance for the history of science but metaphysically of secondary interest.

The Laws, Plato’s longest and most intensely practical work, contains his ripest utterances on ethics, education, and jurisprudence, as well as his one entirely nonmythical exposition of theology. The immediate object is to provide a model of constitution making and legislation to assist in the actual founding of cities. The problem of the dialogue is thus not the construction of an ideal state as in the Republic but the framing of a constitution and code that might be successfully adopted by a society of average Greeks. Hence the demands made on average human nature, though exacting, are not pitched too high; and the communism of the Republic is dropped.

Purely speculative philosophy and science are excluded from the purview of the Laws, and the metaphysical interest is introduced only so far as to provide a basis for a moral theology. In compensation the dialogue is exceptionally rich in political and legal thought and appears, indirectly, to have left its mark on the great system of Roman jurisprudence.

In the ethics of the Laws, Plato is rigid and rigorous—for example, homosexuality shall be completely suppressed, and monogamous marriage with strict chastity shall be the rule. (In the Republic the guardian class enters into temporary unions or “sacred marriages,” with a community of wives and children, to foster a concern for the common good.) In politics, Plato favours a mixed constitution, one with elements of democratic freedom and autocratic authoritarianism, and he suggests a system for securing both genuine popular representation and the proper degree of attention to personal qualifications. The basis of society is to be agriculture, not commerce. What amounts to a tax of 100 percent is to be levied on incomes beyond the statutory limits. Education is regarded as the most important of all the functions of government. The distinction between the sexes is to be treated as irrelevant.

Careful attention is to be paid to the right utilization of the child’s instinct for play and to the demand that the young shall be taught in institutions where expert instruction in all of the various subjects is coordinated. Members of the supreme council of the state shall be thoroughly trained in the supreme science, which “sees the one in the many and the many in the one”—i.e., in dialectic. In the Laws Plato instituted regulations which would ensure that trials for serious offenses would take place before a court of highly qualified magistrates and would proceed with due deliberation. Also, provision was made for appeals, and a foundation was laid for a distinction between civil and criminal law.

The Laws also creates a natural theology. There are three false beliefs, Plato holds, that are fatal to moral character: atheism, denial of the moral government of the world, and the belief that divine judgment can be bought off by offerings. Plato claims that he can disprove them all. His refutation of atheism turns on the identification of the soul with the “movement which can move itself.” Thus all motion throughout the universe is ultimately initiated by souls. It is then inferred from the regular character of the great cosmic motions and their systematic unity that the souls which originate them form a hierarchy with a best soul, God, at their head. Since some motions are disorderly, there must be one soul that is not the best, and there may be more. (There is no suggestion, however, that there is a worst soul, a Devil.) The other two heresies can be similarly disposed of. Plato thus becomes the originator of the view that there are certain theological truths that can be strictly demonstrated by reason—i.e., of philosophical theology. Plato goes on to enact that the denial of any of his three propositions shall be a grave crime.

The Laws strikes many readers as a dull and depressing work. Its prose lacks the sparkle of the early dialogues; and Socrates, the hero of those works, would not have been tolerated under a government of the repressively authoritarian style that the Laws recommends.

Jonathan Barnes




Thomas Hobbes
English philosopher

born April 5, 1588, Westport, Wiltshire, Eng.
died Dec. 4, 1679, Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

English philosopher, scientist, and historian, best known for his political philosophy, especially as articulated in his masterpiece Leviathan (1651). Hobbes viewed government primarily as a device for ensuring collective security. Political authority is justified by a hypothetical social contract among the many that vests in a sovereign person or entity the responsibility for the safety and well-being of all. In metaphysics, Hobbes defended materialism, the view that only material things are real. His scientific writings present all observed phenomena as the effects of matter in motion. Hobbes was not only a scientist in his own right but a great systematizer of the scientific findings of his contemporaries, including Galileo and Johannes Kepler. His enduring contribution is as a political philosopher who justified wide-ranging government powers on the basis of the self-interested consent of citizens.

Early life
Hobbes’s father was a quick-tempered vicar of a small Wiltshire parish church. Disgraced after engaging in a brawl at his own church door, he disappeared and abandoned his three children to the care of his brother, a well-to-do glover in Malmesbury. When he was four years old, Hobbes was sent to school at Westport, then to a private school, and finally, at 15, to Magdalen Hall in the University of Oxford, where he took a traditional arts degree and in his spare time developed an interest in maps.

For nearly the whole of his adult life, Hobbes worked for different branches of the wealthy and aristocratic Cavendish family. Upon taking his degree at Oxford in 1608, he was employed as page and tutor to the young William Cavendish, afterward the second earl of Devonshire. Over the course of many decades Hobbes served the family and their associates as translator, traveling companion, keeper of accounts, business representative, political adviser, and scientific collaborator. Through his employment by William Cavendish, the first earl of Devonshire, and his heirs, Hobbes became connected with the royalist side in disputes between the king and Parliament that continued until the 1640s and that culminated in the English Civil Wars (1642–51). Hobbes also worked for the marquess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a cousin of William Cavendish, and Newcastle’s brother, Sir Charles Cavendish. The latter was the centre of the “Wellbeck Academy,” an informal network of scientists named for one of the family houses at Wellbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire.

Intellectual development
The two branches of the Cavendish family nourished Hobbes’s enduring intellectual interests in politics and natural science, respectively. Hobbes served the earls of Devonshire intermittently until 1628; Newcastle and his brother employed him in the following decade. He returned to the Devonshires after the 1640s. Through both branches of the Cavendish family, and through contacts he made in his own right on the Continent as traveling companion to various successors to the Devonshire title, Hobbes became a member of several networks of intellectuals in England. Farther afield, in Paris, he became acquainted with the circle of scientists, theologians, and philosophers presided over by the theologian Marin Mersenne. This circle included René Descartes.

Hobbes was exposed to practical politics before he became a student of political philosophy. The young William Cavendish was a member of the 1614 and 1621 Parliaments, and Hobbes would have followed his contributions to parliamentary debates. Further exposure to politics came through the commercial interests of the earls of Devonshire. Hobbes attended many meetings of the governing body of the Virginia Company, a trading company established by James I to colonize parts of the eastern coast of North America, and came into contact with powerful men there. (Hobbes himself was given a small share in the company by his employer.) He also confronted political issues through his connection with figures who met at Great Tew; with them he debated not only theological questions but also the issues of how the Anglican church should be led and organized and how its authority should be related to that of any English civil government.

In the late 1630s Parliament and the king were in conflict over how far normal kingly powers could be exceeded in exceptional circumstances, especially in regard to raising money for armies. In 1640 Hobbes wrote a treatise defending King Charles I’s own wide interpretation of his prerogatives. Royalist members of Parliament used arguments from Hobbes’s treatise in debates, and the treatise itself circulated in manuscript form. The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (written in 1640, published in a misedited unauthorized version in 1650) was Hobbes’s first work of political philosophy, though he did not intend it for publication as a book.

The development of Hobbes the scientist began in his middle age. He was not trained in mathematics or the sciences at Oxford, and his Wiltshire schooling was strongest in classical languages. His interest in motion and its effects was stimulated mainly through his conversation and reading on the Continent, as well as through his association with the scientifically and mathematically minded Wellbeck Cavendishes. In 1629 or 1630 Hobbes was supposedly charmed by Euclid’s method of demonstrating theorems in the Elements. According to a contemporary biographer, he came upon a volume of Euclid in a gentleman’s study and fell in love with geometry. Later, perhaps in the mid-1630s, he had gained enough sophistication to pursue independent research in optics, a subject he later claimed to have pioneered. Within the Wellbeck Academy, he exchanged views with other people interested in the subject. And as a member of Mersenne’s circle in Paris after 1640, he was taken seriously as a theorist not only of ethics and politics but of optics and ballistics. Indeed, he was even credited with competence in mathematics by some very able French mathematicians, including Gilles Personne de Roberval.

Self-taught in the sciences and an innovator at least in optics, Hobbes also regarded himself as a teacher or transmitter of sciences developed by others. In this connection he had in mind sciences that, like his own optics, traced observed phenomena to principles about the sizes, shapes, positions, speeds, and paths of parts of matter. His great trilogy—De Corpore (1655; “Concerning Body”), De Homine (1658; “Concerning Man”), and De Cive (1642; “Concerning the Citizen”)—was his attempt to arrange the various pieces of natural science, as well as psychology and politics, into a hierarchy, ranging from the most general and fundamental to the most specific. Although logically constituting the last part of his system, De Cive was published first, because political turmoil in England made its message particularly timely and because its doctrine was intelligible both with and without natural-scientific preliminaries. De Corpore and De Homine incorporated the findings of, among others, Galileo on the motions of terrestrial bodies, Kepler on astronomy, William Harvey on the circulation of the blood, and Hobbes himself on optics. The science of politics contained in De Cive was substantially anticipated in Part II of The Elements of Law and further developed in Leviathan; or, The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil (1651), the last—and in the English-speaking world the most famous—formulation of Hobbes’s political philosophy (see below Hobbes’s system).

Exile in Paris
When strife became acute in 1640, Hobbes feared for his safety. Shortly after completing The Elements of Law, he fled to Paris, where he rejoined Mersenne’s circle and made contact with other exiles from England. He would remain in Paris for more than a decade, working on optics and on De Cive, De Corpore, and Leviathan. In 1646 the young prince of Wales, later to become Charles II, sought refuge in Paris, and Hobbes accepted an invitation to instruct him in mathematics.

Political philosophy
Hobbes presented his political philosophy in different forms for different audiences. De Cive states his theory in what he regarded as its most scientific form. Unlike The Elements of Law, which was composed in English for English parliamentarians—and which was written with local political challenges to Charles I in mind—De Cive was a Latin work for an audience of Continental savants who were interested in the “new” science—that is, the sort of science that did not appeal to the authority of the ancients but approached various problems with fresh principles of explanation.

De Cive’s break from the ancient authority par excellence—Aristotle—could not have been more loudly advertised. After only a few paragraphs, Hobbes rejects one of the most famous theses of Aristotle’s politics, namely that human beings are naturally suited to life in a polis and do not fully realize their natures until they exercise the role of citizen. Hobbes turns Aristotle’s claim on its head: human beings, he insists, are by nature unsuited to political life. They naturally denigrate and compete with each other, are very easily swayed by the rhetoric of ambitious men, and think much more highly of themselves than of other people. In short, their passions magnify the value they place on their own interests, especially their near-term interests. At the same time, most people, in pursuing their own interests, do not have the ability to prevail over competitors. Nor can they appeal to some natural common standard of behaviour that everyone will feel obliged to abide by. There is no natural self-restraint, even when human beings are moderate in their appetites, for a ruthless and bloodthirsty few can make even the moderate feel forced to take violent preemptive action in order to avoid losing everything. The self-restraint even of the moderate, then, easily turns into aggression. In other words, no human being is above aggression and the anarchy that goes with it.

War comes more naturally to human beings than political order. Indeed, political order is possible only when human beings abandon their natural condition of judging and pursuing what seems best to each and delegate this judgment to someone else. This delegation is effected when the many contract together to submit to a sovereign in return for physical safety and a modicum of well-being. Each of the many in effect says to the other: “I transfer my right of governing myself to X (the sovereign) if you do too.” And the transfer is collectively entered into only on the understanding that it makes one less of a target of attack or dispossession than one would be in one’s natural state. Although Hobbes did not assume that there was ever a real historical event in which a mutual promise was made to delegate self-government to a sovereign, he claimed that the best way to understand the state was to conceive of it as having resulted from such an agreement.

In Hobbes’s social contract, the many trade liberty for safety. Liberty, with its standing invitation to local conflict and finally all-out war—a “war of every man against every man”—is overvalued in traditional political philosophy and popular opinion, according to Hobbes; it is better for people to transfer the right of governing themselves to the sovereign. Once transferred, however, this right of government is absolute, unless the many feel that their lives are threatened by submission. The sovereign determines who owns what, who will hold which public offices, how the economy will be regulated, what acts will be crimes, and what punishments criminals should receive. The sovereign is the supreme commander of the army, supreme interpreter of law, and supreme interpreter of scripture, with authority over any national church. It is unjust—a case of reneging on what one has agreed—for any subject to take issue with these arrangements, for, in the act of creating the state or by receiving its protection, one agrees to leave judgments about the means of collective well-being and security to the sovereign. The sovereign’s laws and decrees and appointments to public office may be unpopular; they may even be wrong. But unless the sovereign fails so utterly that subjects feel that their condition would be no worse in the free-for-all outside the state, it is better for the subjects to endure the sovereign’s rule.

It is better both prudentially and morally. Because no one can prudently welcome a greater risk of death, no one can prudently prefer total liberty to submission. Total liberty invites war, and submission is the best insurance against war. Morality too supports this conclusion, for, according to Hobbes, all the moral precepts enjoining virtuous behaviour can be understood as derivable from the fundamental moral precept that one should seek peace—that is to say, freedom from war—if it is safe to do so. Without peace, he observed, man lives in “continual fear, and danger of violent death,” and what life he has is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” What Hobbes calls the “laws of nature,” the system of moral rules by which everyone is bound, cannot be safely complied with outside the state, for the total liberty that people have outside the state includes the liberty to flout the moral requirements if one’s survival seems to depend on it.

The sovereign is not a party to the social contract; he receives the obedience of the many as a free gift in their hope that he will see to their safety. The sovereign makes no promises to the many in order to win their submission. Indeed, because he does not transfer his right of self-government to anyone, he retains the total liberty that his subjects trade for safety. He is not bound by law, including his own laws. Nor does he do anything unjustly if he makes decisions about his subjects’s safety and well-being that they do not like.

Although the sovereign is in a position to judge the means of survival and well-being for the many more dispassionately than they are able to do themselves, he is not immune to self-interested passions. Hobbes realizes that the sovereign may behave iniquitously. He insists that it is very imprudent for a sovereign to act so iniquitously that he disappoints his subjects’s expectation of safety and makes them feel insecure. Subjects who are in fear of their lives lose their obligations to obey and, with that, deprive the sovereign of his power. Reduced to the status of one among many by the defection of his subjects, the unseated sovereign is likely to feel the wrath of those who submitted to him in vain.

Hobbes’s masterpiece, Leviathan (1651), does not significantly depart from the view of De Cive concerning the relation between protection and obedience, but it devotes much more attention to the civil obligations of Christian believers and the proper and improper roles of a church within a state. Hobbes argues that believers do not endanger their prospects of salvation by obeying a sovereign’s decrees to the letter, and he maintains that churches do not have any authority that is not granted by the civil sovereign.

Hobbes’s political views exerted a discernible influence on his work in other fields, including historiography and legal theory. His political philosophy is chiefly concerned with the way in which government must be organized in order to avoid civil war. It therefore encompasses a view of the typical causes of civil war, all of which are represented in Behemoth; or, The Long Parliament (1679), his history of the English Civil Wars. Hobbes produced the first English translation of Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponesian War, which he thought contained important lessons for his contemporaries regarding the excesses of democracy, the worst kind of dilution of sovereign authority, in his view.

Hobbes’s works on church history and the history of philosophy also strongly reflect his politics. He was firmly against the separation of government powers, either between branches of government or between church and state. His ecclesiastical history emphasizes the way in which power-hungry priests and popes threatened legitimate civil authority. His history of philosophy is mostly concerned with how metaphysics was used as a means of keeping people under the sway of Roman Catholicism at the expense of obedience to a civil authority. His theory of law develops a similar theme regarding the threats to a supreme civil power posed by common law and the multiplication of authoritative legal interpreters.

Return to England
There are signs that Hobbes intended Leviathan to be read by a monarch, who would be able to take the rules of statecraft from it. A specially bound copy was given to Prince Charles while he was in exile in Paris. Unfortunately, Hobbes’s suggestion in Leviathan that a subject had the right to abandon a ruler who could no longer protect him gave serious offense to the prince’s advisers. Barred from the exiled court and under suspicion by the French authorities for his attack on the papacy (see below), Hobbes found his position in Paris becoming daily more intolerable. At the end of 1651, at about the time that Leviathan was published, he returned to England and made his peace with the new regime of Oliver Cromwell. Hobbes submitted to that authority for a long time before the monarchy was restored in 1660.

From the time of the Restoration in 1660, Hobbes enjoyed a new prominence. Charles II received Hobbes again into favour. Although Hobbes’s presence at court scandalized the bishops and the chancellor, the king relished his wit. He even granted Hobbes a pension of £100 a year and had his portrait hung in the royal closet. It was not until 1666, when the House of Commons prepared a bill against atheism and profaneness, that Hobbes felt seriously endangered, for the committee to which the bill was referred was instructed to investigate Leviathan. Hobbes, then verging upon 80, burned such of his papers as he thought might compromise him.

Hobbes’s most significant contributions to natural science were in the field of optics. An optical theory in his day was expected to pronounce on the nature of light, on the transmission of light from the Sun to the Earth, on reflection and refraction, and on the workings of optical instruments such as mirrors and lenses. Hobbes took up these topics in several relatively short treatises and in correspondence, including with Descartes on the latter’s Dioptrics (1637). The most polished of Hobbes’s optical works was A Minute or First Draught of the Optiques (1646).

In its mature form, Hobbes’s optical theory held that the dilations and contractions of an original light source, such as the Sun, are transmitted by contact with a uniform, pervading ethereal medium, which in turn stimulates the eye and the nerves connected to it, eventually resulting in a “phantasm,” or sense-image, in the brain. In Hobbes’s theory, the qualities of a sense-image do not need to be explained in terms of the qualities of a perceived object. Instead, motion and matter—the motion of a light source, the disturbance of a physical nervous system, and sensory membranes—are all that have to be invoked. In contrast, traditional optics—optics as developed within Aristotle’s framework—had held that seeing the colour of something—the redness of a strawberry, for example—was a matter of reproducing the “form” of the colour in the sense organs; the form is then abstracted from the sense organs by the mind. “Sensible forms,” the characteristic properties transmitted by objects to the senses in the act of perception, were entirely dispensed with in Hobbes’s optics.

Hobbes’s system
Theories that trace all observed effects to matter and motion are called mechanical. Hobbes was thus a mechanical materialist: He held that nothing but material things are real, and he thought that the subject matter of all the natural sciences consists of the motions of material things at different levels of generality. Geometry considers the effects of the motions of points, lines, and solids; pure mechanics deals with the motions of three-dimensional bodies in a full space, or plenum; physics deals with the motions of the parts of inanimate bodies insofar as they contribute to observed phenomena; and psychology deals with the effects of the internal motions of animate bodies on behaviour. The system of the natural sciences described in Hobbes’s trilogy represents his understanding of the materialist principles on which all science is based.

The fact that Hobbes included politics as well as psychology within his system, however, has tended to overshadow his insistence on the autonomy of political understanding from natural-scientific understanding. According to Hobbes, politics does not need to be understood in terms of the motions of material things (although, ultimately, it can be); a certain kind of widely available self-knowledge is evidence enough of the human propensity to war. Although Hobbes is routinely read as having discerned the “laws of motion” for both human beings and human societies, the most that can plausibly be claimed is that he based his political philosophy on psychological principles that he thought could be illuminated by general laws of motion.

Last years and influence
Although he was impugned by enemies at home, no Englishman of the day stood in such high repute abroad as Hobbes, and distinguished foreigners who visited England were always eager to pay their respects to the old man, whose vigour and freshness of intellect remained unquenched. In his last years Hobbes amused himself by returning to the classical studies of his youth. The autobiography in Latin verse with its playful humour, occasional pathos, and sublime self-complacency was brought forth at the age of 84. In 1675 he produced a translation of the Odyssey in rugged English rhymes, with a lively preface, “Concerning the Virtues of an Heroic Poem.” A translation of the Iliad appeared in the following year. As late as four months before his death, he was promising his publisher “somewhat to print in English.”

Hobbes’s importance lies not only in his political philosophy but also in his contribution to the development of an anti-Aristotelian and thoroughly materialist conception of natural science. His political philosophy influenced not only successors who adopted the social-contract framework—John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant, for example—but also less directly those theorists who connected moral and political decision making in rational human beings to considerations of self-interest broadly understood. The materialist bent of Hobbes’s metaphysics is also much in keeping with contemporary Anglo-American, or analytic, metaphysics, which tends to recognize as real only those entities that physics in particular or natural science in general presupposes.

Tom Sorell




John Stuart Mill
British philosopher and economist

born May 20, 1806, London, Eng.
died May 8, 1873, Avignon, France

English philosopher, economist, and exponent of Utilitarianism. He was prominent as a publicist in the reforming age of the 19th century, and remains of lasting interest as a logician and an ethical theorist.

Early life and career
The eldest son of the British historian, economist, and philosopher James Mill, he was born in his father’s house in Pentonville, London. He was educated exclusively by his father, who was a strict disciplinarian. By his eighth year he had read in the original Greek Aesop’s Fables, Xenophon’s Anabasis, and the whole of the historian Herodotus. He was acquainted with the satirist Lucian, the historian of philosophy Diogenes Laërtius, the Athenian writer and educational theorist Isocrates, and six dialogues of Plato. He had also read a great deal of history in English. At the age of eight he started Latin, the geometry of Euclid, and algebra and began to teach the younger children of the family. His main reading was still history, but he went through all the Latin and Greek authors commonly read in the schools and universities and, by the age of 10 could read Plato and the Athenian statesman Demosthenes with ease. About the age of 12, he began a thorough study of Scholastic logic, at the same time reading Aristotle’s logical treatises in the original. In the following year he was introduced to political economy and studied the work of the Scottish political economist and philosopher Adam Smith and that of the English economist David Ricardo.

While the training the younger Mill received has aroused amazement and criticism, its most important aspect was the close association it fostered with the strenuous character and vigorous intellect of his father. From his earliest days he spent much time in his father’s study and habitually accompanied him on his walks. He thus inevitably acquired many of his father’s speculative opinions and his father’s way of defending them. But he did not receive the impress passively and mechanically. The duty of collecting and weighing evidence for himself was at every turn impressed upon the boy. His childhood was not unhappy, but it was a strain on his constitution and he suffered from the lack of natural, unforced development.

From May 1820 until July 1821, Mill was in France with the family of Sir Samuel Bentham, brother of Jeremy Bentham, the English Utilitarian philosopher, economist, and theoretical jurist. Copious extracts from a diary kept at this time show how methodically he read and wrote, studied chemistry and botany, tackled advanced mathematical problems, and made notes on the scenery and the people and customs of the country. He also gained a thorough acquaintance with the French language. On his return in 1821 he added to his work the study of psychology and of Roman law, which he read with John Austin, his father having half decided on the bar as the best profession open to him. This intention, however, was abandoned, and in 1823, when he had just completed his 17th year, he entered the examiner’s office of the India House. After a short probation he was promoted in 1828 to assistant examiner. For 20 years, from 1836 (when his father died) to 1856, Mill had charge of the British East India Company’s relations with the Indian states, and in 1856 he became chief of the examiner’s office.

In 1822 Mill had read P.-E.-L. Dumont’s exposition of Bentham’s doctrines in the Traités de Législation, which made a lasting impression upon him. The impression was confirmed by the study of the English psychologists and also of two 18th-century French philosophers—Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, who was also a psychologist, and Claude-Adrien Helvétius, who was noted for his emphasis on physical sensations. Soon after, in 1822–23, Mill established among a few friends the Utilitarian Society, taking the word, as he tells us, from Annals of the Parish, a novel of Scottish country life by John Galt.

Two newspapers welcomed his contributions—The Traveller, edited by a friend of Bentham’s, and The Morning Chronicle, edited by his father’s friend John Black. One of his first efforts was a solid argument for freedom of discussion in a series of letters to the Chronicle on the prosecution of Richard Carlile, a 19th-century English radical and freethinker. Mill seized every chance for exposing departures from sound principle in Parliament and courts of justice. Another outlet was opened up for him (April 1824) with the founding of the Westminster Review, which was the organ of the philosophical radicals. In 1825 he began work on an edition of Bentham’s Rationale of Judicial Evidence (5 vol., 1827). He took part eagerly in discussions with the many men of distinction who came to his father’s house and engaged in set discussions at a reading society formed at the home of English historian George Grote in 1825 and in debates at the London Debating Society, formed in the same year.

Public life and writing
The Autobiography tells how in 1826 Mill’s enthusiasm was checked by a misgiving as to the value of the ends that he had set before him. At the London Debating Society, where he first measured his strength in public conflict, he found himself looked upon with curiosity as a precocious phenomenon, a “made man,” an intellectual machine set to grind certain tunes. The elder Mill, like Plato, would have put poets under ban as enemies of truth; he subordinated private to public affections; and Landor’s maxims of “few acquaintances, fewer friends, no familiarities” had his cordial approval. The younger Mill now felt himself forced to abandon these doctrines. Too much in awe of his father to make him a confidant, he wrestled with his doubts in gloomy solitude. He emerged from the struggle with a more catholic view of human happiness, a delight in poetry for its own sake, a more placable attitude in controversy, a hatred of sectarianism, and an ambition no less noble and disinterested but moderated to practical possibilities. Gradually, the debates in the Debating Society attracted men with whom contact was invigorating and inspiring. Mill ceased to attend the society in 1829, but he carried away from it the conviction that a true system of political philosophy was

something much more complex and many-sided than he had previously had any idea of, and that its office was to supply, not a set of model institutions but principles from which the institutions suitable to any given circumstances might be deduced.

Mill’s letters in The Examiner in the autumn of 1830, after a visit to Paris, where he made the acquaintance of the younger liberals, may be taken as marking his return to hopeful activity; and a series of articles on “The Spirit of the Age” appeared in the same paper in 1831. During the years 1832 and 1833 he contributed many essays to Tait’s Magazine, The Jurist, and The Monthly Repository. In 1835 Sir William Molesworth founded The London Review, with Mill as editor. It was amalgamated with The Westminster (as The London and Westminster Review) in 1836, and Mill continued as editor (latterly as proprietor, also) until 1840. In and after 1840 he published several important articles in The Edinburgh Review. Some of the essays written for these journals were reprinted in the first two volumes (1859) of Mill’s Dissertations and Discussions and give evidence of the increasing width of his interests. Among the more important are “Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties” (1833), “Writings of Alfred de Vigny” (1838), “Bentham” (1838), “Coleridge” (1840), “M. De Tocqueville on Democracy in America” (1840), “Michelet’s History of France” (1844), and “Guizot’s Essays and Lectures on History” (1845). The twin essays on Bentham and Coleridge show Mill’s powers at their splendid best and indicate very clearly the new spirit that he tried to breathe into English radicalism.

During these years Mill also wrote his great systematic works on logic and on political economy. His reawakened enthusiasm for humanity had taken shape as an aspiration to supply an unimpeachable method of proof for conclusions in moral and social science; the French positivist philosopher Auguste Comte had some influence here, but the main inspiration undoubtedly came from the English scientist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, whose physics had already been accepted as a model of scientific exposition by such earlier British philosophers as John Locke, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, and James Mill. But he was determined that the new logic should not simply oppose the old logic. In his Westminster review (of 1828) of Richard Whately’s Elements of Logic, he was already defending the syllogism against the Scottish philosophers who had talked of superseding it by a supposed system of inductive logic. He required his inductive logic to “supplement and not supersede.” For several years he searched in vain for the means of concatenation. Finally, in 1837, on reading William Whewell’s Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences and rereading John F.W. Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, Mill at last saw his way clear both to formulating the methods of scientific investigation and to joining the new logic onto the old as a supplement. A System of Logic, in two volumes, was published in 1843 (3rd–8th editions, introducing many changes, 1851–72). Book VI is his valiant attempt to formulate a logic of the human sciences—including history, psychology, and sociology—based on causal explanation conceived in Humean terms, a formulation that has lately come in for radical criticism.

Mill distinguished three stages in his development as a political economist. In 1844 he published the Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy, which he had written several years earlier, and four out of five of these essays are solutions of perplexing technical problems—the distribution of the gains of international commerce, the influence of consumption on production, the definition of productive and unproductive labour, and the precise relations between profits and wages. Here for the most part Mill appears as the disciple of David Ricardo, striving after more precise statements and reaching forward to further consequences. In his second stage, originality and independence become more conspicuous as he struggles toward the standpoint from which he wrote his Principles of Political Economy. This was published in 1848 (2 vol.; 2nd and 3rd eds., with significant differences, 1849, 1852), and, at about the same time, Mill was advocating the creation of peasant proprietorships as a remedy for the distresses and disorder in Ireland. Thereafter, he made a more thorough study of Socialist writers. He was convinced that the social question was as important as the political question. He declined to accept property, devised originally to secure peace in a primitive society, as necessarily sacred in its existing developments in a quite different stage of society. He separated questions of production and distribution and could not rest satisfied with the distribution that condemned the labouring classes to a cramped and wretched existence, in many cases to starvation. He did not come to a Socialist solution, but he had the great merit of having considered afresh the foundations of society. This he called his third stage as a political economist, and he says that he was helped toward it by Mrs. Taylor (Harriet Hardy), who became his wife in 1851.

It is generally supposed that Mill writes with a lover’s extravagance about Harriet’s powers. He expressly says, indeed, that he owed none of his technical doctrine to her, that she influenced only his ideals of life for the individual and for society, and that the only work directly inspired by her is the essay on the “Enfranchisement of Women” (Dissertations, vol. 2). Nevertheless, Mill’s relations with her have always been something of a puzzle.

During the seven years of his marriage Mill became increasingly absorbed in the work of the British East India Company and in consequence published less than at any other period of his life. In 1856 he became head of the examiner’s office in the India House, and for two years, till the dissolution of the company in 1858, his official work kept him fully occupied. It fell to him as head of the office to write the defense of the company’s government of India when the transfer of its powers was proposed. Mill opposed the transfer, and the documents in which he defended the company’s administration are models of trenchant and dignified pleading. On the dissolution of the company, Mill was offered a seat in the new council but declined it and retired with a pension of £1,500. His retirement from official life was followed almost immediately by his wife’s death at Avignon, France. He spent most of the rest of his life at a villa at Saint-Véran, near Avignon, returning to his house at Blackheath only for a short period in each year.

The later years
Mill sought relief by publishing a series of books on ethics and politics that he had meditated upon and partly written in collaboration with his wife. The essay On Liberty appeared in 1859 with a touching dedication to her and the Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform in the same year. In his Considerations on Representative Government (1861) he systematized opinions already put forward in many casual articles and essays. It has been remarked how Mill combined enthusiasm for democratic government with pessimism as to what democracy was likely to do; practically every discussion in these books exemplifies this. His Utilitarianism (in Fraser’s Magazine, 1861; separate publication, 1863) was a closely reasoned attempt to answer objections to his ethical theory and to remove misconceptions about it. He was especially anxious to make it clear that he included in “utility” the pleasures of the imagination and the gratification of the higher emotions; and to make a place in his system for settled rules of conduct.

Mill also began to write again on the wider philosophical questions that had occupied him in the Logic. In 1865 he published both his Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy and his Auguste Comte and Positivism, but in both writings his motives were largely political. It was because he regarded the writings and sayings of Sir William Hamilton as the great fortress of intuitional philosophy in Great Britain that Mill undertook to counter his pretensions. In dealing with Comte, Mill distinguished sharply between Comte’s earlier philosophical doctrine of Positivism and his later religion of humanity. The doctrine he commended (as he had frequently done previously) because he regarded it as a natural development of the outlook of George Berkeley and Hume; the religion he attacked because he saw in it merely another attempt to foist a priestly hierarchy upon suffering humanity. It is noticeable that Mill’s language in these books is much closer to the language of Bentham and James Mill than it had been since his boyhood, and it was as an act of piety that in 1869 he republished his father’s Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind with additional illustrations and explanatory notes.

While engaged in these years mainly with theoretical studies, Mill did not remit his interest in current politics. He supported the North in the U.S. Civil War, using all his strength to explain that the real issue at stake in the struggle was the abolition of slavery. In 1865 he stood as parliamentary candidate for Westminster, on conditions strictly in accordance with his principles. He would not canvass or pay agents to canvass for him, nor would he engage to attend to the local business of the constituency. He was with difficulty persuaded even to address a meeting of the electors but was elected. He took an active part in the debates preceding the passage of the 1867 Reform Bill, and helped to extort from the government several useful modifications of the bill, for the prevention of corrupt practices. The reform of land tenure in Ireland (see his England and Ireland, 1868, and his Chapters and Speeches on the Irish Land Question, 1870), the representation of women (see below), the reduction of the national debt, the reform of London government, and the abrogation of the Declaration of Paris (1856)—concerning the carriage of property at sea during the Crimean War—were among the topics on which he spoke. He took occasion more than once to enforce what he had often advocated, England’s duty to intervene in foreign politics in support of freedom. As a speaker Mill was somewhat hesitating, but he showed great readiness in extemporaneous debate. Elected rector of St. Andrews University, he published his “Inaugural Address” in 1867.

Mill’s subscription to the election expenses of the freethinker and radical politician Charles Bradlaugh and his attack on the conduct of Gov. E.J. Eyre in Jamaica were perhaps the main causes of his defeat in the general parliamentary election of 1868. But his studied advocacy of unfamiliar projects of reform had made him unpopular with “moderate Liberals.” He retired with a sense of relief to Avignon. His villa was filled with books and newspapers; the country round it furnished him with a variety of walks; he read, wrote, discussed, walked, botanized. He was extremely fond of music and was himself a fair pianist. His stepdaughter, Helen Taylor (died January 1907), was his constant companion after his wife’s death. Mill was an enthusiastic botanist all his life and a frequent contributor of notes and short papers to the Phytologist. During his last journey to Avignon he was looking forward to seeing the spring flowers and completing a flora of the locality.

Mill did not relax his laborious habits or his ardent outlook on human affairs. The essays in the fourth volume of his Dissertations (1875; vol. 3 had appeared in 1867)—on endowments, on land, on labour, and on metaphysical and psychological questions—were written for the Fortnightly Review at intervals after his short parliamentary career. In 1867 he had been one of the founders, with Mrs. P.A. Taylor, Emily Davies, and others, of the first women’s suffrage society, which developed into the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and in 1869 he published The Subjection of Women (written 1861), the classical theoretical statement of the case for woman suffrage. His last public activity was concerned with the starting of the Land Tenure Reform Association, for which he wrote in The Examiner and made a public speech a few months before his death; the interception by the state of the unearned increment on land and the promotion of cooperative agriculture were the most striking features in his program, which he regarded as a timely compromise in view of the impending struggle between capital and labour in Europe. He died in 1873, and his Autobiography and Three Essays on Religion (1874) were published posthumously.

A bronze statue of Mill stands on the Thames embankment in London, and G.F. Watts’s copy of his original portrait of Mill hangs in the National Gallery there.

Influence and significance
Mill was a man of extreme simplicity in his mode of life. The influence that his works exercised upon contemporary English thought can scarcely be overestimated, nor can there be any doubt about the value of the liberal and inquiring spirit with which he handled the great questions of his time. Beyond that, however, there has been considerable difference of opinion about the enduring merits of his philosophy. At first sight he is the most lucid of philosophers. Many people have spoken of the marvelous intelligibility of his writing. Usually, however, it is not long before doubts begin to creep in. Although the lucidity remains, its span is seen to be somewhat limited, and one sometimes has the uneasy feeling that he is being equally lucid on both sides of a question.

Oddly enough, however, this judgment has not led to any neglect of Mill. Little attention is now paid to Hamilton or to Whewell, but Mill’s name continually crops up in philosophical discussions. This is partly due to the fact that Mill offers a body of doctrine and a set of technical terms on many subjects (notably on induction) that have proved extremely useful in the classroom. But a more important reason is that he has come to be regarded as a sort of personification of certain tendencies in philosophy that it is regarded as continually necessary to expound or expose because they make such a powerful appeal to serious minds. Thus he is or says he is a Utilitarian; yet nothing, it is pointed out, could tell more strongly against Utilitarianism than certain passages in his writings. Then again, he is said to be an Empiricist (although he says himself that he is not), and his theories of the syllogism and of mathematics are constantly used to demonstrate the fatal consequences of this way of thinking.

It is misleading to speak without qualification of Mill’s Utilitarianism. Nor is it sufficient to add that Mill modified the Utilitarianism that he inherited from Bentham and from his father in one way and another in order to meet the criticisms that it encountered in Victorian times. He does, it is true, sometimes give that impression (as in his essay Utilitarianism); but elsewhere (as in his essay On Liberty) he scarcely attempts to conceal the fact that his premises are completely independent of Bentham’s. Thus, contrary to the common belief, it appears to be very hazardous to characterize offhand the precise position of Mill on any major philosophical topic. He sometimes behaved with a reckless disregard of consequences more suitable to a Romantic than to a Utilitarian. He is thoroughly romantic, again, and thoroughly representative of his age in the eagerness with which he seeks out and endeavours to assimilate every last exotic line of thought which shows any signs of vitality. He himself claimed to be superior to most of his contemporaries in “ability and willingness to learn from everybody,” and indeed, for all his father’s careful schooling, there was never anybody less buttoned up against alien influences than Mill. In his writings there can be discerned traces of every wind of doctrine of the early 19th century.

Richard Paul Anschutz




Francis Bacon
Viscount Saint Alban
British author, philosopher, and statesman
also called (1603–18) Sir Francis Bacon

born Jan. 22, 1561, York House, London, Eng.
died April 9, 1626, London

British statesman and philosopher, father of modern scientific method.

He studied at Cambridge and at Gray’s Inn. A supporter of the Earl of Essex, Bacon turned against him when Essex was tried for treason. Under James I he rose steadily, becoming successively solicitor general (1607), attorney general (1613), and lord chancellor (1618). Convicted of accepting bribes from those being tried in his court, he was briefly imprisoned and permanently lost his public offices; he died deeply in debt. He attempted to put natural science on a firm empirical foundation in the Novum Organum (1620), which sets forth his scientific method. His elaborate classification of the sciences inspired the 18th-century French Encyclopedists (see Encyclopédie), and his empiricism inspired 19th-century British philosophers of science. His other works include The Advancement of Learning (1605), History of Henry VII (1622), and several important legal and constitutional works.

lord chancellor of England (1618–21). A lawyer, statesman, philosopher, and master of the English tongue, he is remembered in literary terms for the sharp worldly wisdom of a few dozen essays; by students of constitutional history for his power as a speaker in Parliament and in famous trials and as James I’s lord chancellor; and intellectually as a man who claimed all knowledge as his province and, after a magisterial survey, urgently advocated new ways by which man might establish a legitimate command over nature for the relief of his estate.

Life » Youth and early maturity
Bacon was born Jan. 22, 1561, at York House off the Strand, London, the younger of the two sons of the lord keeper, Sir Nicholas Bacon, by his second marriage. Nicholas Bacon, born in comparatively humble circumstances, had risen to become lord keeper of the great seal. Francis’ cousin through his mother was Robert Cecil, later earl of Salisbury and chief minister of the crown at the end of Elizabeth I’s reign and the beginning of James I’s. From 1573 to 1575 Bacon was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, but his weak constitution caused him to suffer ill health there. His distaste for what he termed “unfruitful” Aristotelian philosophy began at Cambridge. From 1576 to 1579 Bacon was in France as a member of the English ambassador’s suite. He was recalled abruptly after the sudden death of his father, who left him relatively little money. Bacon remained financially embarrassed virtually until his death.

Life » Youth and early maturity » Early legal career and political ambitions
In 1576 Bacon had been admitted as an “ancient” (senior governor) of Gray’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court that served as institutions for legal education, in London. In 1579 he took up residence there and after becoming a barrister in 1582 progressed in time through the posts of reader (lecturer at the Inn), bencher (senior member of the Inn), and queen’s (from 1603 king’s) counsel extraordinary to those of solicitor general and attorney general. Even as successful a legal career as this, however, did not satisfy his political and philosophical ambitions.

Bacon occupied himself with the tract “Temporis Partus Maximus” (“The Greatest Part of Time”) in 1582; it has not survived. In 1584 he sat as member of Parliament for Melcombe Regis in Dorset and subsequently represented Taunton, Liverpool, the County of Middlesex, Southampton, Ipswich, and the University of Cambridge. In 1589 a “Letter of Advice” to the Queen and An Advertisement Touching the Controversies of the Church of England indicated his political interests and showed a fair promise of political potential by reason of their levelheadedness and disposition to reconcile. In 1593 came a setback to his political hopes: he took a stand objecting to the government’s intensified demand for subsidies to help meet the expenses of the war against Spain. Elizabeth took offense, and Bacon was in disgrace during several critical years when there were chances for legal advancement.

Life » Youth and early maturity » Relationship with Essex
Meanwhile, sometime before July 1591, Bacon had become acquainted with Robert Devereux, the young earl of Essex, who was a favourite of the Queen, although still in some disgrace with her for his unauthorized marriage to the widow of Sir Philip Sidney. Bacon saw in the Earl the “fittest instrument to do good to the State” and offered Essex the friendly advice of an older, wiser, and more subtle man. Essex did his best to mollify the Queen, and when the office of attorney general fell vacant, he enthusiastically but unsuccessfully supported the claim of Bacon. Other recommendations by Essex for high offices to be conferred on Bacon also failed.

By 1598 Essex’ failure in an expedition against Spanish treasure ships made him harder to control; and although Bacon’s efforts to divert his energies to Ireland, where the people were in revolt, proved only too successful, Essex lost his head when things went wrong and he returned against orders. Bacon certainly did what he could to accommodate matters but merely offended both sides; in June 1600 he found himself as the Queen’s learned counsel taking part in the informal trial of his patron. Essex bore him no ill will and shortly after his release was again on friendly terms with him. But after Essex’ abortive attempt of 1601 to seize the Queen and force her dismissal of his rivals, Bacon, who had known nothing of the project, viewed Essex as a traitor and drew up the official report on the affair. This, however, was heavily altered by others before publication.

After Essex’ execution Bacon, in 1604, published the Apologie in Certaine Imputations Concerning the Late Earle of Essex in defense of his own actions. It is a coherent piece of self-justification, but to posterity it does not carry complete conviction, particularly since it evinces no personal distress.

Life » Career in the service of James I
When Elizabeth died in 1603, Bacon’s letter-writing ability was directed to finding a place for himself and a use for his talents in James I’s services. He pointed to his concern for Irish affairs, the union of the kingdoms, and the pacification of the church as proof that he had much to offer the new king.

Through the influence of his cousin Robert Cecil, Bacon was one of the 300 new knights dubbed in 1603. The following year he was confirmed as learned counsel and sat in the first Parliament of the new reign in the debates of its first session. He was also active as one of the commissioners for discussing a union with Scotland. In the autumn of 1605 he published his Advancement of Learning, dedicated to the King, and in the following summer he married Alice Barnham, the daughter of a London alderman. Preferment in the royal service, however, still eluded him, and it was not until June 1607 that his petitions and his vigorous though vain efforts to persuade the Commons to accept the King’s proposals for union with Scotland were at length rewarded with the post of solicitor general. Even then, his political influence remained negligible, a fact that he came to attribute to the power and jealousy of Cecil, by then earl of Salisbury and the King’s chief minister. In 1609 his De Sapientia Veterum (“The Wisdom of the Ancients”), in which he expounded what he took to be the hidden practical meaning embodied in ancient myths, came out and proved to be, next to the Essayes, his most popular book in his own lifetime. In 1614 he seems to have written The New Atlantis, his far-seeing scientific utopian work, which did not get into print until 1626.

After Salisbury’s death in 1612, Bacon renewed his efforts to gain influence with the King, writing a number of remarkable papers of advice upon affairs of state and, in particular, upon the relations between Crown and Parliament. The King adopted his proposal for removing Coke from his post as chief justice of the common pleas and appointing him to the King’s Bench, while appointing Bacon attorney general in 1613. During the next few years Bacon’s views about the royal prerogative brought him, as attorney general, increasingly into conflict with Coke, the champion of the common law and of the independence of the judges. It was Bacon who examined Coke when the King ordered the judges to be consulted individually and separately in the case of Edmond Peacham, a clergyman charged with treason as the author of an unpublished treatise justifying rebellion against oppression. Bacon has been reprobated for having taken part in the examination under torture of Peacham, which turned out to be fruitless. It was Bacon who instructed Coke and the other judges not to proceed in the case of commendams (i.e., holding of benefices in the absence of the regular incumbent) until they had spoken to the King. Coke’s dismissal in November 1616 for defying this order was quickly followed by Bacon’s appointment as lord keeper of the great seal in March 1617. The following year he was made lord chancellor and baron Verulam, and in 1620/21 he was created viscount St. Albans.

The main reason for this progress was his unsparing service in Parliament and the court, together with persistent letters of self-recommendation; according to the traditional account, however, he was also aided by his association with George Villiers, later duke of Buckingham, the King’s new favourite. It would appear that he became honestly fond of Villiers; many of his letters betray a feeling that seems warmer than timeserving flattery.

Among Bacon’s papers a notebook has survived, the Commentarius Solutus (“Loose Commentary”), which is revealing. It is a jotting pad “like a Marchant’s wast booke where to enter all maner of remembrance of matter, fourme, business, study, towching my self, service, others, eyther sparsim or in schedules, without any maner of restraint.” This book reveals Bacon reminding himself to flatter a possible patron, to study the weaknesses of a rival, to set intelligent noblemen in the Tower of London to work on serviceable experiments. It displays the multiplicity of his concerns: his income and debts, the King’s business, his own garden and plans for building, philosophical speculations, his health, including his symptoms and medications, and an admonition to learn to control his breathing and not to interrupt in conversation. Between 1608 and 1620 he prepared at least 12 draftings of his most celebrated work, the Novum Organum, and wrote several minor philosophical works.

The major occupation of these years must have been the management of James, always with reference, remote or direct, to the royal finances. The King relied on his lord chancellor but did not always follow his advice. Bacon was longer sighted than his contemporaries and seems to have been aware of the constitutional problems that were to culminate in civil war; he dreaded innovation and did all he could, and perhaps more than he should, to safeguard the royal prerogative. Whether his policies were sound or not, it is evident that he was, as he later said, “no mountebank in the King’s services.”

Life » Fall from power
By 1621 Bacon must have seemed impregnable, a favourite not by charm (though he was witty and had a dry sense of humour) but by sheer usefulness and loyalty to his sovereign; lavish in public expenditure (he was once the sole provider of a court masque); dignified in his affluence and liberal in his household; winning the attention of scholars abroad as the author of the Novum Organum, published in 1620, and the developer of the Instauratio Magna (“Great Instauration”), a comprehensive plan to reorganize the sciences and to restore man to that mastery over nature that he was conceived to have lost by the fall of Adam. But Bacon had his enemies. In 1618 he fell foul of George Villiers when he tried to interfere in the marriage of the daughter of his old enemy, Coke, and the younger brother of Villiers. Then, in 1621, two charges of bribery were raised against him before a committee of grievances over which he himself presided. The shock appears to have been twofold because Bacon, who was casual about the incoming and outgoing of his wealth, was unaware of any vulnerability and was not mindful of the resentment of two men whose cases had gone against them in spite of gifts they had made with the intent of bribing the judge. The blow caught him when he was ill, and he pleaded for extra time to meet the charges, explaining that genuine illness, not cowardice, was the reason for his request. Meanwhile, the House of Lords collected another score of complaints. Bacon admitted the receipt of gifts but denied that they had ever affected his judgment; he made notes on cases and sought an audience with the King that was refused. Unable to defend himself by discriminating between the various charges or cross-examining witnesses, he settled for a penitent submission and resigned the seal of his office, hoping that this would suffice. The sentence was harsh, however, and included a fine of £40,000, imprisonment in the Tower of London during the King’s pleasure, disablement from holding any state office, and exclusion from Parliament and the verge of court (an area of 12 miles radius centred on where the sovereign is resident). Bacon commented to Buckingham: “I acknowledge the sentence just, and for reformation’s sake fit, the justest Chancellor that hath been in the five changes since Sir Nicolas Bacon’s time.” The magnanimity and wit of the epigram sets his case against the prevailing standards.

Bacon did not have to stay long in the Tower, but he found the ban that cut him off from access to the library of Charles Cotton, an English man of letters, and from consultation with his physician more galling. He came up against an inimical lord treasurer, and his pension payments were delayed. He lost Buckingham’s goodwill for a time and was put to the humiliating practice of roundabout approaches to other nobles and to Count Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador; remissions came only after vexations and disappointments. Despite all this his courage held, and the last years of his life were spent in work far more valuable to the world than anything he had accomplished in his high office. Cut off from other services, he offered his literary powers to provide the King with a digest of the laws, a history of Great Britain, and biographies of Tudor monarchs. He prepared memorandums on usury and on the prospects of a war with Spain; he expressed views on educational reforms; he even returned, as if by habit, to draft papers of advice to the King or to Buckingham and composed speeches he was never to deliver. Some of these projects were completed, and they did not exhaust his fertility. He wrote: “If I be left to myself I will graze and bear natural philosophy.” Two out of a plan of six separate natural histories were composed—Historia Ventorum (“History of the Winds”) appeared in 1622 and Historia Vitae et Mortis (“History of Life and Death”) in the following year. Also in 1623 he published the De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum, a Latin translation, with many additions, of the Advancement of Learning. He also corresponded with Italian thinkers and urged his works upon them. In 1625 a third and enlarged edition of his Essayes was published.

Bacon in adversity showed patience, unimpaired intellectual vigour, and fortitude. Physical deprivation distressed him but what hurt most was the loss of favour; it was not until Jan. 20, 1622/23, that he was admitted to kiss the King’s hand; a full pardon never came. Finally, in March 1626, driving one day near Highgate (a district to the north of London) and deciding on impulse to discover whether snow would delay the process of putrefaction, he stopped his carriage, purchased a hen, and stuffed it with snow. He was seized with a sudden chill, which brought on bronchitis, and he died at the Earl of Arundel’s house nearby on April 9, 1626.

Kathleen Marguerite Lea
Anthony M. Quinton, Baron Quinton




Alfred North Whitehead
British mathematician and philosopher

born Feb. 15, 1861, Ramsgate, Isle of Thanet, Kent, Eng.
died Dec. 30, 1947, Cambridge, Mass., U.S.

English mathematician and philosopher, who collaborated with Bertrand Russell on Principia Mathematica (1910–13) and, from the mid-1920s, taught at Harvard University and developed a comprehensive metaphysical theory.

Background and schooling.
Whitehead’s grandfather Thomas Whitehead was a self-made man who started a successful boys’ school known as Chatham House Academy. His father, Alfred Whitehead, an Anglican clergyman, in turn headed the school and later became vicar of St. Peter’s in Thanet. His mother, born Maria Sarah Buckmaster, was the daughter of a prosperous military tailor. Alfred North Whitehead was their youngest child. Because they considered him too frail for school or active sports, his father taught him at home until he was 14, when he was sent to Sherborne School, Dorset, which was then one of the best schools in England. Whitehead received a classical education, showing a special gift for mathematics. Despite his over-protected childhood, he showed himself a natural leader. In his last year at school, he was head prefect, responsible for all discipline outside the classroom, and was a highly successful captain of games.

In 1880 Whitehead entered Trinity College, Cambridge, on a scholarship. He attended only mathematical lectures, and his interests in literature, religion, philosophy, and politics were nourished solely by conversation. It was not until May 1884, however, that he was elected to an elite discussion society known as the “Apostles.” Whitehead did well in the Mathematical Tripos (honours examination) of 1883–84, won a Trinity fellowship, and was appointed to the mathematical staff of the college. His interest in James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electricity and magnetism (the subject of his fellowship dissertation) expanded toward a scrutiny of mathematical symbolism and ideas. Stimulated by pioneering works in modern algebra, he envisaged a detailed comparative study of systems of symbolic reasoning allied to ordinary algebra. He did not begin to write his Treatise on Universal Algebra (1898), however, until January 1891, one month after his marriage to Evelyn Willoughby Wade. She had been born in France, a child of impoverished Irish landed gentry, and educated in a convent. She was a woman with a great sense of drama and a real and unusual aesthetic sensibility, and she enriched Whitehead’s life immensely.

Shortly before his marriage, his long-standing interest in religion had taken a new turn. His background had been solidly tied into the Church of England; his father and uncles had been ordained; so had his brother Henry, who would become bishop of Madras. But Whitehead, under the influence of Cardinal Newman, began to consider the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church. For about eight years he read a great deal of theology. Then he sold his theological library and gave up religion. This agnosticism did not survive World War I, but Whitehead was never again a member of any church.

Whitehead was at work on a second volume of his Universal Algebra from 1898 to 1903, when he abandoned it because he was busy on a related, large investigation with Bertrand Russell. He had spotted young Russell’s brilliance when he examined him for entrance scholarships at Trinity College. In 1890 Russell was a freshman studying mathematics there, and Whitehead was one of his teachers. Gradually the two men became close friends. In July 1900 they went to the First International Congress of Philosophy in Paris, where they were impressed by the precision with which the mathematician Giuseppe Peano used symbolic logic to clarify the foundations of arithmetic. Russell at once mastered Peano’s notation and extended his methods. By the end of 1900 he had written the first draft of his brilliant Principles of Mathematics (1903). Whitehead agreed with its main thesis—that all pure mathematics follows from a reformed formal logic so that, of the two, logic is the fundamental discipline. By 1901 Russell had secured his collaboration on volume 2 of the Principles, in which this thesis was to be established by strict symbolic reasoning. The task turned out to be enormous. Their work had to be made independent of Russell’s book; they called it Principia Mathematica. The project occupied them until 1910, when the first of its three volumes was published. The “official” text was written in a notation, most of which was either taken from Peano or invented by Whitehead. Broadly speaking, Whitehead left the philosophical problems—notably the devising of a theory of logical types—to Russell; and Russell, who had no teaching duties, actually wrote out most of the book. But the collaboration was thorough, and Russell gave Whitehead an equal share of the credit. Whitehead’s only large published piece employing the symbolism of the Principia is a masterly speculative memoir, “On Mathematical Concepts of the Material World” (1905).

Career in London.
In 1903 Trinity College had given Whitehead a 10-year appointment as a senior lecturer, made him the head of the mathematics staff, and permitted his teaching career to run beyond the maximum of 25 years set by the college statutes. Yet Whitehead’s future was uncertain: he had not made the sort of discoveries that cause a man to be counted an outstanding mathematician. (His interest was always philosophical, in that it was directed more toward grasping the nature of mathematics in its widest aspects and organizing its ideas than toward discovering new theorems.) There was, thus, little prospect of a Cambridge professorship in mathematics for him at the expiration of his Trinity lectureship. He did not wait for it to expire but moved to London in 1910, even though he had no position waiting for him there. His years of service at Trinity, however, had made him a fellow for life, entitled to twice the regular quarterly dividend paid to fellows. This was scarcely enough to support his family, but Evelyn Whitehead encouraged the venture.

In that first London year, Whitehead wrote the first of his books for a wide audience, An Introduction to Mathematics (1911), still one of the best books of its kind. In 1911 he was appointed to the staff of University College (London), and in 1914 he became professor of applied mathematics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology.

In London Whitehead observed the education then being offered to the English masses. His own teaching had always elicited his pupils’ latent abilities to the fullest. Perceiving that mathematics was being taught as a disconnected set of largely unfathomed exercises, Whitehead made occasional addresses on the teaching of mathematics. He stressed getting a living understanding of a few interrelated abstract ideas by using them in a variety of ways so as to develop an intimate sense for their power. Whitehead also perceived that literature was so taught as to preclude its enjoyment, that curricula were fragmented, and that teachers were handcuffed by the system of uniform examinations set by outside examiners. In 1916, as president of the Mathematical Association, he delivered the notable address “The Aims of Education: A Plea for Reform.” Whitehead reminded youth’s keepers that the purpose of education was not to pack knowledge into the pupils but to stimulate and guide their self-development. “Culture,” he said, “is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it.” Whitehead’s address became a classic in virtue of its unequalled clarity, vigour, and realism and its reconciliation of general with special education. It was followed by penetrating essays on such topics as the rhythm of freedom and discipline. Though Whitehead’s essays on education had little effect on British practice, they inspired many teachers in Great Britain, the United States, and elsewhere.

From 1919 to 1924 Whitehead was chairman of the governing body of Goldsmiths’ College, London, one of England’s major institutes for training teachers. He also served as a governor of several polytechnic schools in London. In the University of London he became a member of the Senate, chairman of the Academic Council, and dean of the Faculty of Science. His shrewdness, common sense, and goodwill put him in great demand as a committeeman.

Whitehead was a pacific man but not a pacifist; he felt that the war was hideous but that England’s part in it was necessary. His elder son, North, fought throughout the war, and his daughter, Jessie, worked in the Foreign Office. In 1918 his younger son, Eric, was killed in action, and after that it was only by immense effort that Whitehead could go on working. To Whitehead, Russell’s pacifism was simplistic; yet he visited him in prison, remained his friend, and, as Russell later said, showed him greater tolerance than he could return.

During those years, Whitehead was also constructing philosophical foundations for physics. He was led to this by the way in which he wanted to present geometry—not as deduced from hypothetical premises about assumed though imperceptible entities (e.g., points) but as the science of actual space, which is a complex of relations between extended things. From perceivable elements and relations, he logically constructed entities that are related to each other just as points are in geometry. That was only the beginning of his task, for Albert Einstein had revised the ideas of space, time, and motion. Whitehead was convinced that these three concepts should be based upon the general character of men’s perception of the external world. In 1919 he published his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge; it was both searching and constructive but too philosophical and too complicated to influence physicists.

Whitehead had begun to have discussions of the perceptual basis of scientific knowledge with philosophers in 1915, and he followed up his Enquiry with a nonmathematical book, The Concept of Nature (1920). Though he rejected Idealistic views of the relation of nature to perceiving minds, neither was he a Realist of the school led by Russell and G.E. Moore. In maintaining that events are the basic components of nature and that passage, or creative advance, is its most fundamental feature—doctrines that foreshadowed his later metaphysics—Whitehead was somewhat influenced by Henri Bergson’s antimechanistic philosophy of change. Yet he was something of a Platonist; he saw the definite character of events as due to the “ingression” of timeless entities.

Career in the United States.
In the early 1920s Whitehead was clearly the most distinguished philosopher of science writing in English. When a friend of Harvard University, the historical scholar Henry Osborn Taylor, pledged the money for his salary, Harvard early in 1924 offered Whitehead a five-year appointment as professor of philosophy. He was 63 years old, with at most two more years to go in the Imperial College. The idea of teaching philosophy appealed to him, and his wife wholeheartedly concurred in the move. Harvard soon found that it had acquired more than a philosopher of science; it had acquired a metaphysician, one comparable in stature to Gottfried Leibniz and Georg Hegel.

Early in 1925, he gave a course of eight lectures in Boston, published that same year (with additions—among them his earliest writing about God) as Science and the Modern World. In it he dramatically described what had long engaged his meditation; namely, the rise, triumph, and impact of “scientific Materialism”—i.e., the view that nature consists of nothing else but matter in motion, or a flux of purely physical energy. He criticized this Materialism as mistaking an abstract system of mathematical physics for the concrete reality of nature. Whitehead’s mind was at home with such abstractions, and he saw them as real discoveries, not intellectual inventions; but his sense for the fullness of existence led him to urge upon philosophy the task of making good their omissions by reverting to the variety of concrete experience and then framing broader ideas. The importance of this book was immediately recognized. What perhaps impressed most readers was Whitehead’s appeal to his favourite poets, William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley, against the exclusion of values from nature.

In 1926, the compact book Religion in the Making appeared. In it, Whitehead interpreted religion as reaching its deepest level in humanity’s solitude, that is, as an attitude of the individual toward the universe rather than as a social phenomenon.

In January 1927 the University of Edinburgh invited him to give a set of 10 Gifford Lectures in the ensuing academic year. For this, Whitehead drew up the complex technical structure of “the philosophy of organism” (as he called his metaphysics) and thought through his agreements and disagreements with some of the great European philosophers. It was characteristic of him to insist, against David Hume, that an adequate philosophical theory must build on “practice” and not be supplemented by it. The lectures reflected Whitehead’s speculative hypothesis that the universe consists entirely of becomings, each of them a process of appropriating and integrating the infinity of items (“reality”) provided by the antecedent universe and by God (the abiding source of novel possibilities). When, in June 1928, the time for delivering the lectures arrived and Whitehead presented this system in its new and difficult terminology, his audience rapidly vanished, but the publication of the lectures, expanded to 25 chapters, gave Western metaphysics one of its greatest books, Process and Reality (1929).

Whitehead had an unwavering faith in the possibility of understanding existence and a superb power to construct a scheme of general ideas broad enough to overcome the classic dualisms. But he knew that no system can do more than make an approach, somewhat more adequate than its predecessors, to understanding the infinitude of existence. He had seen the collapse of the long-entrenched Newtonian system of physics, and he never forgot its lesson. Henceforth dogmatic assurance, whether in philosophy, science, or theology, was his enemy.

Adventures of Ideas (1933) was Whitehead’s last big philosophical book and the most rewarding one for the general reader. It offered penetrating, balanced reflections on the parts played by brute forces and by general ideas about humanity, God, and the universe in shaping the course of Western civilization. Whitehead emphasized the impulse of life toward newness and the absolute need for societies stable enough to nourish adventure that is fruitful rather than anarchic. In this book he also summarized his metaphysics and used it to elucidate the nature of beauty, truth, art, adventure, and peace. By “peace” he meant a religious attitude that is “primarily a trust in the efficacy of beauty.”

Except for an insufficient familiarity with Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, Whitehead was at home in both the scientific and the literary cultures of his time. Young people flocked to “Sunday evenings,” which his wife skillfully managed. Here the spare, rosy-cheeked man, who might have been of average height if he had not been so stooped, talked to them in a high-pitched but gentle voice—talked not about his system but about whatever was on their minds, sharply illuminating it from a broad and historical perspective.

In his Harvard lectures, as in his books, Whitehead liked best to explore the scope of application of an idea and to show how intuitions that were traditionally opposed could supplement each other, which he did by dint of his own ideas. Most students found attendance at his lectures a great experience. Harvard did not retire him until 1937.

In his first years in the United States, Whitehead visited many eastern and midwestern campuses as a lecturer. Though he loved Americans, he remained always very much an Englishman. A Fellow of the Royal Society since 1903, he was elected to the British Academy in 1931. In 1945 he received the Order of Merit. After his death his body was cremated, and there was no funeral. His unpublished manuscripts and correspondence were destroyed by his widow, as he had wanted.

Whitehead has not had disciples, though his admirers have included leaders in every field of thought. His educational and philosophical books have been translated into many languages. His metaphysics has been keenly studied, in the United States most of all. What is now called Whitehead’s “process theology” is easily the most influential part of his system; this is partly due to the influence of the U.S. philosopher Charles Hartshorne.

Whitehead’s habit of helpfulness made him universally beloved. Though his courtesy was perfect, there was nothing soft about him; never contentious, he was astute, charitable, and quietly stubborn. He had a realistic, well-poised mind and a fine irony free of malice. Whitehead combined singular gifts of intuition, intellectual power, and goodness with firmness and wisdom.

Victor Lowe



Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy