Book Summaries Philosophy

Currents of Thought in the Nineteenth Century (A History of Western Philosophy)

The intellectual life of the 19th century was more complex than that of previous centuries. The world grew larger, and more countries contributed to culture.

Science moved forward with new discoveries. Technology changed the social structure and imbued man with new powers over his environment. Political and philosophical movements challenged the beliefs and institutions that had been regarded as untouchable.

There were two kinds of revolt against traditional: one Romanic (Byron, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche to Mussolini, Hitler) and one rationalistic (French revolution philosophers, British philosophers, Karl Marx to Soviet Russia).

The intellectual dominance of Germany was another feature of this period, and was started with Kant, who inspired the idealistic philosophy of Hegel. Both men are heirs to rationalist thought.

The romantic form of revolt is very different from the rationalist form, though both are derived from the French Revolution and the philosophers who immediately preceded it.

Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy

Romanticism is a combination of rationalism and enthusiasm.

Philosophers that followed Bentham (the greatest happiness of the greatest number) were focused on economics. They were less radical than Socialists who followed Marx’s philosophy. The Romantic rebellion expressed the will “at the expense of the intellect” and aligns with nationalism.

Darwin was a key figure of the scientific enterprise during this time. The idea of evolution was not new, but Darwin provided plenty of evidence. His theory challenged Locke’s tabula rasa (people are born equal) – key biological differences existed between people. Yet evolution supported the liberal belief in progress.

Technology’s effect on human thought was to give intellectuals a greater sense of power. This has been a consistent movement since the beginning of civilization.

But the acceleration has been so great as to produce a radically new outlook in those who wield the powers that modern technique has created. In old days, mountains and waterfalls were natural phenomena; now, an inconvenient mountain can be abolished and a convenient waterfall can be created. In old days, there were deserts and fertile regions; now, the desert can, if people think it worth while, be made to blossom like the rose, while fertile regions are turned into deserts by insufficiently scientific optimists.

Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy

And peasants, who used to believe whatever their parents believed, and what was told to them by the church, now were educated by the state, and could believe whatever they wanted to. The state replaced Church authority and could transform the mentality of a population through universal education.

To frame a philosophy capable of coping with men intoxicated with the prospect of almost unlimited power and also with the apathy of the powerless is the most pressing task of our time.

Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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