Bertrand Russell on the pre-Socratics

I’m reading Bertrand Russell’s mammoth?History of Western Philosophy, and just read these two gems on the pre-Socratics, for whom the old fellow had a very soft spot indeed.

?The atomists, unlike Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, sought to explain the world without introducing the notion of?purpose?or?final cause.?The ?final cause? of an occurrence is an event in the future for the sake of which the occurrence takes place. In human affairs, this conception is applicable. Why does the baker make bread? Because people will be hungry. Why are railways built? Because people will wish to travel. In such cases, things are explained by the purpose they serve. When we ask ?Why?? concerning an event, we may mean either of two things. We may mean: ?What purpose did this event serve?? or we may mean: ?What earlier circumstances caused this event?? The answer to the former question is a teleological explanation, or an explanation by final causes; the answer to the latter question is a mechanistic explanation. I do not see how it could have been known in advance which of these two questions science ought to ask, or whether it ought to ask both. But experience has shown that the mechanistic question leads to scientific knowledge, while the teleological question does not. The atomists asked the mechanistic question, and gave a mechanistic answer. Their successors, until the Renaissance, were more interested in the teleological question, and thus led science up a blind alley.?

?What is amiss, even in the best philosophy after Democritus, is an undue emphasis on man as compared with the universe. First comes scepticism, with the Sophists, leading to a study of?how?we know rather than to the attempt to acquire fresh knowledge. Then comes, with Socrates, the emphasis on ethics; with Plato, the rejection of the world of sense in favour of the self-created world of pure thought; with Aristotle, the belief in purpose as the fundamental concept in science. In spite of the genius of Plato and Aristotle, their thought has vices which proved infinitely harmful. After their time, there was a decay of vigour, and a gradual recrudescence of popular superstition. A partially new outlook arose as a result of Catholic orthodoxy; but it was not until the Renaissance that philosophy regained the vigour and independence that characterise the predecessors of Socrates.?


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