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?

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    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. Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 17:27
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    @JamesKingsbery A good point, but that math still leaves 500 years of post-Renaissance Aristotle prior to Russell. Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 18:59
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    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. Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 20:59
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    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. Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 21:05
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    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
    Commented Apr 17, 2015 at 6:17

6 Answers 6


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).

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    2 and 3 just seem like silly criticisms. would you be offended if i tried to fix some of the grammar? e.g. the parenthetical commas to 'he's critiquing'
    – user38026
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 11:31
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    On #1, scholars of Aristotelian thought like Robert Pasnau do say Aristotle and his followers had a view of substantial forms having some sort of causal influence fundamentally different from from what later thinkers would call "mechanistic" or "reductionist" notions of causality (where the physical laws governing basic parts like atoms are all that's needed to get the right high-level behavior). See for ex. p 644 of spot.colorado.edu/~pasnau/inprint/pasnau.formmatter.pdf with the comment "In Aristotle, these two aspects of form – proto-scientific and metaphysical – exist side by side"
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jun 30, 2021 at 17:47
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    It's like criticising Euclid, for not presaging Minkowski space
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 16:51
  • Very good answer. The quote is from Hist of W Philosophy. I noticed Russell's Whig-historical tendency to evaluate past philosophers according to the "boogeyman" version (and according to their contribution to the eventual, inevitable and final triumph of philosophy in Russell himself) even as a 1st-year undergraduate. His treatment of Nietzsche is particularly lamentable. Russell, as a philosopher, though, is far more interesting than Hist W Philosophy.
    – SebTHU
    Commented Aug 3, 2021 at 16:32

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
    Commented Apr 17, 2015 at 6:17
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    @Geremia Well, syllogisms and the like are occasionally still taught, but modern symbolic logic is far more dominant now --it's much more powerful. Commented Apr 17, 2015 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. Commented Apr 17, 2015 at 23:46
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    @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. Commented Apr 18, 2015 at 3:53
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    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.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 19, 2015 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.

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    +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. Commented Apr 17, 2015 at 6:10

I watched a video of senior college students grapple with Aristotle's ideas and expressions. Their common underlying theme seem to be a trying very hard to ascertain what Aristotle was actually saying. Some of his philosophy is clear and common, and in agreement with most other well known philosophers. But a good bit of it is convoluted or ambiguous.

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    Would you have examples of the parts that were well known compared with those that seemed convoluted? Is the video available online? Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 20:32

Just wanted to add a few qualifications to some comments about Aristotle and his place in the history of logic. It's too strong to say that Aristotle was "dethroned" as some have put it: he created the template for the more sophisticated logical systems that we have today like the propositional calculus and first-order logic. Virtually all logic relies on some formulation of deductive validity, which Aristotle was the first to codify. Virtually all logic uses some version of Aristotle's three laws of thought: the law of non-contradiction in particular is the cornerstone of most logics. Virtually all logics make use of Aristotle's codification of quantity (all & some) and quality (affirmation & negation).

As someone else put it, the problem with Aristotle was that he was too good, not that he got some things wrong: that is inevitable with any individual thinker/scientist. The systematic approach to investigating the world is in some strong respects inherited from Aristotle. Even though his physics is utterly archaic by today's standards, the mode of reasoning about the physical world through causes and effects is still the overriding schematism -- nowhere is that more lucidly formulated than in Aristotle. The problem was that subsequent history took many of his insights as "settled" and transmitted his corpus as authority, which is not a norm that we today accept in intellectual pursuits, nor was it the norm in Aristotle's time.


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?

First, this claim:

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.

This comes at the end of the chapter on Aristotle's logic. So, he is saying that Aristotle's logic is wholly false with the exception of the formal theory of the syllogism.

This claim is based on what Russell say are "formal defects" in Aristotle's logic. One example in this chapter of a formal defect is explained by Russell as follows:

(1) Formal defects. (…) Some of Aristotle's syllogisms are not valid (…) If I were to say: 'All golden mountains are mountains, all golden mountains are golden, therefore some mountains are golden,' my conclusion would be false, though in some sense my premisses would be true. -- Bertrand Russell, History of Western philosophy (1946)

Read carefully:

My conclusion would be false, though in some sense my premisses would be true.

Russell's claim here is patently fallacious. He chooses to assess the premises as true "in some sense" and to assess the conclusion as false as a matter of fact. Thus, Russell's fallacy here is a shameless equivocation on the word "true", which certainly comes on top of all logical fallacies.

I conclude that Russell's criticism of Aristotle's logic was seriously biased.

Remember that Russell was one of the most brilliant intellect of the time. This is no mistake on Russell's part. It had to be a deliberate choice.

Now this:

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.

The reality is that Russell has been largely ignored by scholars and logicians alike. Logicians keep coming back to Aristotle's logic essentially because it makes sense. It makes sense because it is simple enough that we can check for ourselves that his reasonings are logical, something no one can do in mathematical logic because it is too complicated.

Aristotle's logic is simple, but modern logicians often don't have the time to read it properly. It is frequent to find mistakes in modern commentaries on Prior Analytics for example. My personal experience is that every time I checked a claim by some modern professor of philosophy or some mathematician, including Russell, that Aristotle had made some mistake or committed some fallacy, it turned out that Aristotle was right and the modern logician was wrong. Russell is consistently slipshod about his criticisms of Aristotle. Not just me saying this, read John Corcoran, Robin Smith or Strawson.

Aristotle kept his logic simple. His syllogistic is really simple. All his reasonings can be shown to be trivial, somewhat on a par with the modus ponens or the modus tollens, including his reductio ad impossibile reasonings (always the same throughout Prior Analytics). And it is formally impeccable, notwithstanding Russell's bilious criticisms.

We should also keep in mind that Russell worked for a very long time on mathematical logic and was unable to extend Aristotle's syllogistic so as to be able to apply it to mathematics. He didn't extend it because he didn't even try. However, the result is that the kind of mathematical logic that Boole, Frege and Russell invented is contradictory with Aristotle's logic. Contradictory, not just something else. As such, Russell had to claim that Aristotle was plain wrong. The problem for Russell is that anybody can verify for themselves that Aristotle's logic is good. 100% good.

As to its limitations, it is funny to say that since it is really Russell who failed to extend Aristotle's logic to mathematics. Aristotle's logic as it is applies to mathematics just as well as to anything else. Limited, sure, wrong, no.

EDIT Here is a complement where modern logicians express the same point as I do here, only more diplomatically:

A major objection to this modeling of Aristotelian syntax is that it does not exactly reproduce the Aristotelian theorems; more specifically: By the rules of First-Order Predicate Logic one cannot, for example, prove the Law of Subalternation, A(S, P) → I(S, P), which plays a central role in Aristotle’s theory. Whereas our undergraduate texts today still use to offer a simple “solution” to this problem, called existential import, we know now that such auxiliary constructs have nothing to do with problems of Aristotelian logic, but solely of its inadequate translation into a modern framework. I agree with Nedzynski (1979):¹ “The problem of existential import developed along with the development of modern symbolic logic during the nineteenth century. The problem is peculiar to the standard predicate calculus. There never was a real problem of existential import within the traditional syllogistic logic—it was placed there in retrospect by the modern logicians.” — Klaus Glashoff (University of Lugano), An intensional Leibniz semantics for Aristotelian logic (The Review of Symbolic Logic, June 2010)

1 Nedzynski, T. G. (1979). Quantification, domains of discourse, and existence. Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic

Academics are almost always very diplomatic, but here this is Bertrand Russell which is criticised:

"* (…) we know now that such auxiliary constructs have nothing to do with problems of Aristotelian logic, but solely of its inadequate translation into a modern framework*".

You have to wonder why my answers on logic and incidentally on mathematical logic are systematically either voted down or "closed" by some ayatollah. Maybe I am not sufficiently diplomatic, or perhaps diplomacy is only for show.

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    Ordinary language is just ambiguous on whether a statement like "all unicorns have horns" is true or false--I'm sure if you polled a bunch of people you'd find a fair number of advocates for both sides. Aristotelian logic and modern formal logic just adopt different conventions about these kinds of statements. Russell's "in some sense" statement just seems to be saying there's a case that the formal language version isn't clearly opposed to our understanding in natural language; if he meant that Aristotle was unambiguously wrong, he probably wouldn't have used such equivocal language.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jun 30, 2021 at 18:49
  • @Hypnosifl 1. Russell talks of "formal defects" and claims that "Some of Aristotle's syllogisms are not valid". - 2. We are discussing logic here, not whether there are actual unicorns. Whether there are or not golden mountains is irrelevant. - 3. It is fallacious to equivocate on "true" as Russell does. He assumes two universes of discourse, one for the premises, one for the conclusion. Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 17:03
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    "not valid" may simply refer to how the syllogisms would be judged in modern formal logic, but you have a point that this is a stronger-sounding dismissal. As for your comment "We are discussing logic here, not whether there are actual unicorns. Whether there are or not golden mountains is irrelevant"--if you say the existence of these things is irrelevant, why do you prefer Aristotle's logic over the modern kind? It's the modern kind that could say "all golden mts. are mts." is true regardless of whether there are golden mts., Aristotle must say it's false to avoid "some mts. are golden".
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 18:06
  • @Hypnosifl 1. "not valid" may simply refer to how the syllogisms would be judged in modern formal logic" No, there is no doubt that Russell meant "valid" in the usual sense of the word. 2. "Aristotle must say it's false to avoid "some mts. are golden" Sorry, you are being to fluffy here. I am teaching Aristotelian logic. Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 10:18
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    So you think Russell's syllogism is valid and sound, so the conclusion "some mountains are golden" must be true in reality? In general, for for any two classes B and C which each have nonzero members but are ordinarily thought to be mutually exclusive in reality, you think we're always allowed to define an entity A that is a member of both classes, and then use Darapti to prove that "some B are C"? What if I define an "evenodd number" as one that is both odd and even, then say "All evenodd numbers are even numbers. All evenodd numbers are odd numbers. So, some even numbers are odd numbers"?
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 17:20

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