In A History of Western Philosophy, Russell argues:

I conclude that the Aristotelian doctrines with which we have been concerned in this chapter are wholly false, with the exception of the formal theory of the syllogism, which is unimportant. Any person in the present day who wishes to learn logic will be wasting his time if he reads Aristotle or any of his disciples. Nonetheless, Aristotle's logical writings show great ability, and would have been useful to mankind if they had appeared at a time when intellectual originality was still active. Unfortunately, they appeared at the very end of the creative period of Greek thought, and therefore came to be accepted as authoritative. By the time that logical originality revived, a reign of two thousand years had made Aristotle very difficult to dethrone. Throughout modern times, practically every advance in science, in logic, or in philosophy has had to be made in the teeth of the opposition from Aristotle's disciples.

My question is: In which way has the modern advancement in science and humanities conflicted with Aristotelianism and, generally, what is a lowdown of Russell's opposition to it?

  • 1
    Also worth noting that in Western Europe, Aristotle actually did not have the pride of place that Russell seems to say that he does, see eg: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recovery_of_Aristotle. About 1500 years took place between Aristotle and when Aristotle again became prominent in the West. – James Kingsbery Apr 14 '15 at 17:27
  • 1
    @JamesKingsbery A good point, but that math still leaves 500 years of post-Renaissance Aristotle prior to Russell. – Chris Sunami Apr 14 '15 at 18:59
  • 1
    Well, if that were true, Russell exagerates by a factor of 4. But given Aristotle was "rediscoverd" in about the mid 13th century, that leaves on the order of 250 years or so between that rediscovery and the Renaissance, at which point lots of other things were rediscovered and Aristotelianism hardly seems dominant. – James Kingsbery Apr 14 '15 at 20:59
  • 2
    There's also an issue on the otherside of the timeline: Russell makes the claim that Aristotle was the tail end of creative Greek thought, but Greek philosophy continued in the years after Aristotle, and Aristotle hardly dominated this period. One example of an important tradition other than Aristotle at this time was Stoicism, which was arguably much more important in the Latin west. There was also a very strong Platonism tradition in the years after the Aristotle in the east. – James Kingsbery Apr 14 '15 at 21:05
  • 1
    I don't understand how he can blow off "the formal theory of the syllogism, which is unimportant". That, along with hylemorphism, would seem to be the most perennial aspects of Aristotelianism. Of course Aristotelianism itself is immensely variegated, not monolithic, both in time and space. – Geremia Apr 17 '15 at 6:17

The history of ideas and the history of philosophy is a world riddled with boogeymen versions of certain philosophers. Some of the more common historical boogeymen are "Plato", "Aristotle", "scholasticism" / "Medieval philosophy" , "Descartes", "Kant", "Hegel", "Nietzsche", and "Kierkegaard" . You may notice two things about this list: (1) every name is in quotes and (2) every one of these is a philosopher and/or philosophical position.

To really follow the history of ideas, you often need to know both the philosopher and the boogeyman version because some authors use these names to talk about boogeymen.

The Aristotle boogeyman usually occurs in the context of science and sometimes in some 20th century logic. The general attributes are:

  1. Some sort of crazy view about biology that we call "teleology"
  2. Horrible observational skills as identifiable from mistakes like miscounting the number of teeth in women
  3. Inaccurate beliefs about pregnancy
  4. Convoluted logical method that does not compare with contemporary logic

Teleology is a deeply misunderstood idea, because later scholastic philosophers used it to prop up vitailism and other views that were deeply mistaken about life. But Aristotle's idea is not (at least on all occasions) so onerously off. But people who at best have read small snippets of Aristotle's works in biology associate the view with him -- because that's the story they are taught.

Regarding 2, he was just wrong. I have no idea why. His father was a physician and he spent a decade looking at animals.

Regarding 3, the picture is more complicated, because he gets right what you need to make offspring, but he does not understand exactly what the man and woman bring and associates this with his hylomorphic account such that the woman contributes the hyle (matter) and the man the morphe (form). But if you compare what he understood with the views, he's critiquing, he's a biological genius.

Regarding 4, could Aristotle solve every problem we can now with propositional logic, modal logic, deontic logic, and set theory? No, but again, think about how impressive it is that he came up with the syllogistic method that after its rediscovery transformed Western thought.

I think Russell is for the most part thinking of a boogeyman Aristotle -- an antiquated ignoramus not well identified with remnant texts we possess.There's a grain of truth in the weakness of some of Aristotle's methods for logic. I would not say this is because they are wrong, I would say it is because they are just limited. (But then I would like to add in passing that many of Russell's forays regarding logical positivism and philosophy of language are no longer current either).


I think Russell is fairly clear in this passage --his gripe is not so much with Aristotle, but with how (in his opinion) Aristotelian thought continued to dominate the fields of science, philosophy, and logic long after it had outlived its usefulness.

In particular, he saw the field of logic as having ossified for thousands of years after Aristotle's death. As one of the leading figures of a movement that ushered in a new era of a radically different and advanced approach to logic, he would quite naturally have viewed the fact that two thousand years passed without significant advances in his field as a crime against human potential.

The modern dethronement of Aristotelian logic, although long delayed, was so successful that it is now difficult to imagine how stiff the initial opposition to innovators like Russell and his predecessors must have been at the time.

  • How is there a "modern dethronement of Aristotelian logic"? – Geremia Apr 17 '15 at 6:17
  • 1
    @Geremia Well, syllogisms and the like are occasionally still taught, but modern symbolic logic is far more dominant now --it's much more powerful. – Chris Sunami Apr 17 '15 at 6:19
  • @sunami: how does that gel with Schriebers answer? I'd suggest that it's more likely that it was already immanent in it. – Mozibur Ullah Apr 17 '15 at 23:46
  • @MoziburUllah I'm a fan of Schriebers' concept, but I've never heard that argued anywhere else but in his post --it certainly isn't a standard line of thinking. And while Aristotle definitely anticipated and pioneered many things developed in modern logic, his logic wasn't even able to consider much of what modern logic handles with rigor and elegance. You couldn't build a computer on Aristotelian logic, for instance. – Chris Sunami Apr 18 '15 at 3:53
  • 1
    Aristotle's negative impact on physics and biology is even more major, so Russell's gripes are just as supportable all around. Aristotle's opposition to artificial experimentation, and his bias that things should be observed naturally, had a major negative impact on all of the sciences. Notions like horror vacui and the absolute definition of 'down' were clearly disproved by contemporaneous folks in other countries (who made vacuum barometers and measured the diameter of the Earth) and Aristotle's physics would have been seen as trash, but for its timing and geography. – jobermark Apr 19 '15 at 4:59

Regarding specifically Russell's attitude towards Aristotle's logic, I have come to wonder if in the course of a justified complaint about an enormous time span of intellectual stagnation, Russell maybe missed an opportunity to recognize a few excellent aspects of Aristotle's logic, which, after dismissing them, took much effort to be rediscovered by Russell himself and then eventually by other people.

Here I am thinking of the fact that Aristotle's logic, while certainly naive and inaccurate from a modern perspective, has the exceptional feature of being a primitive kind of type theory.

Where Aristotle says "All A are B" we should recognize what in modern systems would be a function of types A -> B (maybe a monomorphism, if you insist, making A a subtype of B).

Where Aristotle says "Some B1 are B2" this is clearly to be read as an intersection of types, what in modern categorical logic is called a fiber product.

From this perspective, two complaints that are frequently raised against Aristotle's logic seem to be easily transmuted into virtues:

Some of Aristotle's deductions really depend on some silently assumed context. While that means that these were inaccuracies back then, today we easily know how to fix this right away: all types should be regarded as dependent types that exist in some context, to be specified.

Another common complaint is that as Aristotle's types move from the subject of a judgement to the predicate, they seem to turn from types to propositions. For instance on the one hand Aristotle speaks of the collection of all mortal beings, on the other hand he speaks of the proposition "X is mortal". But there is no need to complain about this, in fact this very conflation is a famous accomplishment of modern logic, famous as the Curry-Howard isomorphism or the propositions-as-types paradigm.

Of course one has to be slightly benevolent to see all this in Aristotle, but it seems to me that the ratio of benevolence over advantage of hindsight that we have is not too large.

This is a bit ironic, because it is Russell him very self who, right after rejecting Aristotle, runs into the paradoxes of the young modern logic and is then the one to introduce the modern fix to these: types. See the references here.

I came to think of this when following Lawvere's suggestion to keep an eye open for hidden insights in Hegel that are invisible to first-order logic but that begin to make a great deal of sense in modern categorical logic and type theory. Since Hegel likes syllogisms, that made me wonder. I have collected a few further details on what I have in mind here.

  • 1
    +1 Great work here --if this is an original observation, you might think about trying to publish it. We laugh at the elders at our peril. So often they have anticipated us. – Chris Sunami Apr 17 '15 at 6:10

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.