Monday, 4 May 2015

Bertrand Russell and Philosophy in the West

I’ve posted four chapters from the Sacred History of Being, two of them fairly technical. The first, which I discuss here, is a discussion of the philosophical outlook of George Berkeley, the late 17th/early 18th century Divine, as it emerges from a conversation between two characters in a dialogue, Hylas and Philonous. This comes to a rather eastern flavoured conclusion, that the reality of the world involves cosmic mind, and that its physical nature is of very little importance. Bertrand Russell summarised part of this dialogue in his History of Western Philosophy, but lost interest in the argument when it became an argument about theology, and about the divine. Russell was famously atheistic, and positivist in his understanding of what was important in philosophy and thought.

He was after all writing a history of western philosophy, and not a history of all varieties of philosophy. But I’m interested in the relationship between philosophy and theology in the west, and also the relationship between western philosophy and eastern philosophy. And Russell’s book won’t tell you much about either of those, because he wasn’t interested, and it wasn’t important.

Of course there is a strong connecting thread between philosophy and theology in the west, since Christian theology is largely built on the back of Greek and Roman ideas and discussions. So he had to deal with various theological writers in the course of his history, where they made important philosophical points, or where they were otherwise active in the history of philosophy. The second book of his history is therefore titled ‘Catholic Philosophy’, since there was no other philosophy around in the West, from around the time of Plotinus until the Renaissance, with the exception of Islamic philosophy, which is relatively briefly discussed.

Ancient philosophy is discussed in the first book, from the presocratics up until Plotinus. Altogether the discussion for this period runs to around 265 pages. It’s been an area of interest for me for a very long time, and over the years I’ve found that there is much that we might identify as eastern in the philosophy of Greece from the Milesians onwards, and that therefore it is actually very difficult to do justice to their work without an understanding of eastern philosophy and theology.
This is one of the reasons why there remain so many problems with our understanding of presocratic philosophy, classical philosophy, and also, more spectacularly, neoplatonism. When Heraclitus says ‘all things are full of gods’, who knows what he could possibly mean?

It is not at all difficult to understand this statement once it is understood that it depends on a philosophical doctrine concerning the gods, which the Greeks said was imported from Mesopotamia by Pythagoras (in fact it was already known to the Greeks: the doctrine underpins a passage in the Iliad concerned with Hephaestus and the making of the shield of Achilles). The doctrine (discussed in The Sacred History of Being) is repeated by Plato, by Porphyry, and by Iamblichus.

The second technical paper will be discussed in my next post.

I will be proofing the entire text of The Sacred History of Being during this week. Things which may need attention are orthographical issues, and paragraphing.  It is also a last chance to make changes and additions, and I have one significant addition to make. The conversion process for transforming Word files into various eBook formats has been tested and seems to work just fine. But I want to avoid changes which might complicate the conversions.  

The garden also needs some attention. It is great to meet spring again, and I have plant seedlings in my kitchen which will be ready to plant once we are clear of the risk of frost. So, sometime in late May. I’ve prepared a good spot in the garden for an attempt to grow three varieties of tomatoes in the open. I’ve also propagated some sweet pepper seedlings.

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