on January 14, 2000
Russell's "History of Western Philosophy" is not the best introduction to western philosophy that I have read. That place goes to Antony Flew's "Introduction to Western Philosophy." But for many readers, Russell's is still the better book. Flew's book is purely about philosophy. Russell, on the other hand, strives to place thought in its social context, and he is so successful that the book doubles as an outline history of the western world, and a very interesting one. Also, Russell's deep understanding of the relationship between philosophy and science adds interest. Finally, Russell's clear explanations of difficult concepts should make those concepts clear even to the novice or near-novice; Flew's book, although it assumes no knowledge of philosophy, is more technical, and so is not suitable for all novices.
Despite this book's well-deserved status as a classic work, it has some major flaws that a reader should keep in mind, all stemming from Russell's intolerance of viewpoints different from his own. Russell, like other logical positivists, saw no place for metaphysics in philosophy. In his "History of Western Philosophy," he makes no effort to curb that bias, resulting in what might be considered unfair treatments of all thinkers who did not stick purely to science. Also, Russell has no tolerance for systems of thought that do not conform to his preferences for democracy, atheism, pacifism, and social liberalism. So Plato is described as just another proponent of totalitarianism, Rousseau is portrayed as a crackpot and Nietzsche is depicted as a warmonger, but the much less significant thinkers John Dewey and William James get personal kudos for being nice progressive guys full of human kindness. Russell's book is a great place to start, but to get a fair treatment of thinkers such as Rousseau and Nietzsche, it should be supplemented with material such as the chapters on those thinkers in Strauss and Cropsey's "History of Political Philosophy." And, of course, read Copleston's "History of Philosophy" if you have time.
on March 6, 2000
As a novice in the world of formal philosophy, I was entirely grateful for the existence of this book. Russell offers not only an expansive view of western philosophy within rigorous historical context, but manages to convey much of his own philosophy within his critiques. I came, over time, to look at this book as more an expression of Russell's philosophy in relation to the entire course of western thought. How could it be anything different? Russell's perspective is, however well-informed, quite one-sided. So much so that the individual philosophers he takes on have no hope of a fair trial. However much I agree with him about Nietzsche, Russell does not even attempt to be fair. Better to appreciate this book for what it is: a personal view. As such, it is quite expansive, and if you need to know more about western philosophy, you'll easily fill in the missing pieces if you start here. But don't run away hurt if your favorite philosopher gets short shrift - I also find myself disagreeing with Russell in many areas. Instead, as you read, try to keep what he accomplishes here separate from how he does it. This is truly a great work, and downplaying its importance because of skipping or riding some particular fellow would be like criticizing the Great Wall of China because they used sub-par mortar. Here is a journey through history through the eyes of one great man. Keep yours open and you may learn something.
Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy," quite simply, is the best all-around history I've seen. Will Durant's is accessible but more informative about its subjects lives than their thoughts. Copleston's history is much more informative but much too long (11 vol.) for any but the most serious student. Antony Flew's, for all of its strenghts, presumes much more technical knowlege than the average lay reader will have. Russell's book, then, seems the best all around intro - it is long enough but not too long, detailed enough but not overly technical, and interesting enough while remaining all the while informative. And unlike all of the others, Russell writes with the impeccable clarity we expect from him, and admirable enthusiasm.
Russell's layout is thus: he sets the stage for each section (ancient, scholastic, enlightenment, romantic, modern) by giving a brief historical chapter. Once done, he sets to work on a 10-20 page walk through of each prominent philosopher therein. While he is quite objective throughout (with the occasional biting remark for humor), he generally finishes each 'walk through' with a critique from his perspective of the philosopher in question. These are useful for both the lay person (who has fodder for thought) and the more experienced reader (who gets both the philosopher's and Russell's view).
Before I finish my review of this remarkably clear and interesting book, I must present a quote from the book that I feel is endemic of Russell and how he approaches all the multifarious philosophers that fill these pages. The quote intros his section on Greek philosopher Heraclitus:
"In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first, a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to bleieve in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude... Two things are to be remembered: that a man whose opinions and theories are worth studying may be presumed to have had some intellegence, but that no man is likely to have arrived at complete and final truth on any subject whatever." (Chapter IV, paragraph 4)
Yes, Russell has biases (as has been duly noted in these reviews); yes, he makes occasional biting comments and undoubtedly betrays misunderstandings (though none, I think, deliberate). All the while though, it is obvious that in these pages, Russell presents his subject as honestly, excitedly, and (yes!) fairly as he can. Even when he does express his opinion, it seems obvious to me that he lets you know when he is doing so, and never proposes (as do many philosophers) to have the last word on the subject or to make the readers' minds up for them.
on November 19, 2000
Perhaps we can say that this book represents the best in philosophy -- and lo -- the worst in philosophy. Widely regarded as one of the century's most eminent and controversial thinkers it is not unusual that this book should attract a great deal of attention. Russell shows that he is clearly a man of his times, and while he treats some philosophers with too much superficiality, this book remains a solid exposition of western philosophy. The writing here is superb, it is both accessible and insightful, and he always keeps the storyline moving forward in a kind of spirited hop, while trying to throw in some humor along the way. With great confidence in his own intellectual devices, he never hesitates to follow calm philosophic discussions with sharp polemical swipes. And why not? This is what gives the book its spice. While the main focus of this book is on western philosophy, the book tries to push into the border disciplines of history, science and mathematics. The reader gets to enjoy a nice introduction into the problem of 2 squared, the mathematics of Tycho Brahe, and the paradox of sets. Russell shows no intention of giving short shrift to mathematics and science. In fact, his chapter on the rise of science in the 17th century is the finest in the book.
So what does our Superstar think of philosophy? What makes his opinions so popular to some, but not to others? To avoid any misunderstanding let us see exactly what Russell has to say about philosophy. He says "Philosophy...is something intermediate between between theology and science. It consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason. Between theology and science there is a no Man's Land; this no Man's Land is philosophy." So philosophy inhabits a murky domain between two spheres, a sort of open arena of rational speculation that avoids the the trappings of dogma and the minutiae of scientific fact. Unlike the scientific spirit, which must always remain patient and tentative, the philosophic spirit can be bold and speculative, but unlike the theological spirit, must remain free from dogma. As we shall see later, however, Russell is really a man of science and he evaluates each philosopher on whether or not they pushed philosophy in the direction of science and away from theology and metaphysics. Even things like ethics, politics, immortality and the rest of the fodder for metaphysicians do not pass his legitimacy test since they are not easily illuminated by the light of scientific investigation. Russell thinks all definite knowledge belongs to science and the "philosophers" who point the way out of No Man's Land receive his adulation. Those who don't, his contempt.
With this in mind it easy to know who Russell likes and who doesn't. The early Greek, Thales, receives a great deal of grace for originating a distinctive hypothesis -- all is water -- and always seeking to look for natural causes and effects. Moreover, Thales is free from bias; his quip that "all is water" is more akin to an hypothesis and one that has much merit -- physicists used to think hydrogen was the fundamental element and it is 2/3s water. Russell encourages us to think of Thales more as a scientist than philosopher. The fondness he has for many of the Pre-Socratics, especially the Atomists, turns into a rather smug contempt when he gets to Socrates. He expresses particular admiration for the Atomists who were strict determinists and avoided most of the faults to which Greek speculation was prone. More than anyone else, the Atomists had the clearest conception of the scientific method that later Greek philosophers were to reject or betray. Socrates is given very little credit except as a man of deep integrity, but as a philosopher Russell sentences him to a scientific purgatory. Plato pushes scientific interest out of the way even further by rejecting the sensible world as illusory; real knowledge is only to be found in the sympathetic contemplation of true forms. Aristotle, while finding the empirical world fascinating and important, introduced "purpose" (teleology) into scientific explanations and further muddied the scientific waters that future philosophers would drink from. This evaluation of Aristotle seems unduly harsh, since he was by far the most careful, studious, and systematic of all the Greeks. His writings on politics, logic, and most importantly biology are pillars of the western canon. His work On Animals was the greatest scientific achievement of the Greeks. Did the Atomists achieve anything remotely comparable? With Russell however, your achievements matter little, it is your philosophy that counts.
Russell is like a college instructor who treats previous philosophers as students. He rates each philosopher on how well they were able to twist it in a scientific direction. Russell even thinks traditional philosophy is an inharmonious blend of values (political, religious, ethical) on the one hand and nature of the world on the other. So philosophy only makes progress when it sheds another of its metaphysical layers and starts to metamorphasize into the finer crystallized elements of science. The philosophy of science becomes just the scientific method. Russell is really a scientist, a mathematician, who sees philosophy as precursor to his discipline, perhaps a logical antecedent, but one that needs to die. Much like chemistry had its roots in alchemy, and astronomy in astrology, so does science in philosophy. No wonder Socrates is sent to Purgatory!
Since our Superstar really does have an ax to grind, his writing is dynamic and pugnacious, bringing each philosopher to life in an animating contest of wills; swords crossed. How much more invigorating to see each philosopher in the heat of battle, rather than presented in long, arid ruminations in a stale lecture hall. What this book lacks in substance, it more than makes up for it in style and personality.
on April 6, 2003
If you've ever wanted to understand the greatest thinkers in the history of Western Philosophy, here's some simple advice: read all of them and all of their books. No problem, right? Start with the Pre-Socratic fragments, then onto Plato, Aristotle, up through the Philosophy of the Church, then into the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, British Empiricism, Romanticism, German Idealism, Pragmatism, Logical Positivism, and the list goes on. Oh, by the way, if you really want to understand this stuff, you'll have to know a bit about the historical context in which these thinkers thought, too.
The reality is that, if you're reading speed doesn't reach 2,000 words-per-minute, and if you don't have the desire to go to college for that doctorate in Philosophy, you're probably not going to be able to cover all of the greatest Western thinkers in their deserved depth.
This is where Bertrand Russell comes in. Bertrand, an early twentieth century thinker, educated at Cambridge, does the incredible: he provides a comprehensive history of Western thought, that is not only easy to understand, but amazingly hard to put down. Even if you're not usually interested in philosophy, Russell's lively account will pull you in. It's filled with history, humor, ancedotes and fascinating lives, but, most of all, it's filled with great ideas that will cringe your brow and make you ponder.
The History is easy to get through. It's written in quick, easy-to-digest chapters, usually about 10-15 pages in length. Want to know about Aristotle's Ethics? Read the chapter. Want to know about Christianity During the First Four Centuries? About Mohammedan Culture and Philosophy? About the Italian Renaissance? About Machiavelli, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, or Marx? Read the chapters. If you're eager for knowledge, your excitement will lead you quickly through this book, and Russell's intelligence and humor will not let you down. He's a great teacher.
A few criticisms. Because Russell is not afraid to give his opinion of all the philosophers, sometimes you wonder if you're getting the real picture. For example, he paints Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the arch-villain of history; this is certainly an intriguing perspective, but I can't help but question the author's implicit conclusion that Rousseau is almost singularly responsible for the ills of the world. Also, while the content is generally well-balanced, Russell gives an undue amount of attention to Locke (40+ pages), and two modern philosophers, Bergson (20 pages), and Dewey. As John Dewey is Russell's contemporary, Russell seems to have a keen desire to ingratiate himself to the man, and such toadying doesn't play well in a History of Western Philosophy. On the whole, though, the book sings.
You may think you're going to use this as a reference, but, like a good bag of potato chips, once you taste a bit of it, you'll want to finish the whole thing and your hand will be at the bottom of the bag, scraping out the crumbs and yearning for more.
on August 10, 2002
This is a fantastic reference book. I bought the "Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition," a series of high quality lectures produced by TeachCo.com, and I used Russell's book as a supplement. It turned out to be a great way to learn about philosophy. I really enjoyed the fact that Russell gives his opinion rather than trying to be artificially objective. My favorite part, that actually had me laughing (laughing at a philosophy book!), was the bit about what Buddha and Nietzsche would each say to the Almighty when asked to give advice about what sort of world He should create. Buddha would go first, then Nietzsche would respond to the Buddha's arguments. Russell writes, "Nietzsche, whom only Omnipotence could restrain from interrupting, would burst out when his turn came: 'Good heavens, man, you must learn to be of tougher fibre. Why go about snivelling because trivial people suffer? Or, for that matter, because great men suffer? Trivial people suffer trivially, great men suffer greatly...'" The book is very readable. Unfortunately, it was published in 1945, so it does not cover important modern figures such as Foucault, Heidegger, Derrida, etc., but it still absolutely worth owning.
In my teens this book meant much to me . As one who wanted to know who loved to know this book promised an entrance to the world of higher wisdom. Russell tells the story of philosophy as if it is a continuous narrative, a kind of progress in which successors learn from and transcend their predecessors. It all of course comes to climax in the analytic philosophy of his own time. But he does not present this last chapter as a final conclusion, but rather as a problem still problematic and needing addressing.
From the point- of - view of many years later the work still has its charm, still seems a wonderful piece of literary work, but is understood in many ways as prejudiced. Russell did not have space in his heart and mind for Kierkegaard, and the whole world of Existensialism. He did not really give much space to the philosophy of religion, or spiritual experience of any kind. The work does not really take into account sufficiently the scientific and technological developments which transform so greatly our understanding of ourselves and our world. It seems to me the ' philosophy' we need today, the wisdom we need today is much broader than that Russell envisaged. At the same time the Queen of the Sciences has if we rely on the analytic tradition alone contracted and is less central than before.
With all objection and qualification however this work is a wonderful introduction to the History of Philosophy, in no small part because of Russell's great enthusiasm for the subject and capacity to convey this in sparkling prose.
I'm going to make this short but sweet. There are many books out there promising the reader an introduction to philosophy. And more times than less these books do not measure up to the reader's expectations, or simply bore the reader and cause philosophy to lose another interested adherent. If you have ever wanted to know what philosophy was all about, whether a novice or simply a victim of an "Intro to Philosophy" course at college, this is the only book you will ever need. But I guarantee it won't be the only book you'll purchase on the subject of philosophy.
Written for the intelligent public with a verve and panache in the style that shows the author's love of the subject, this book will stimulate your interest as it makes the foggiest questions clear. No matter what the price you pay for it, it will go down as the best intellectual investment you've ever made. Sure, the are prejudices shown in the book, and Lord Russell was a strong-willed philosopher. But you will find yourself purchasing supplemental books on the subject to determine whether Russell was right or wrong in his opinion. You will already have the facts, due to Russell's diligence and clear style. I myself am on my third copy of the book, having worn out the previous two reading, writing and teaching the wisdom contained within their pages.
on February 26, 2008
Bertrand Russell was one of the preeminent thinkers of the Twentieth Century. It is difficult to imagine a man better qualified to compile and comment upon the greatest thinkers in Western Civilization. Of course, he does have a point of view, leaning more toward Aristotle's materialism than Plato's spirituality, and it is impossible to deny that it informs his interpretations of the great philosophers, but it really doesn't get in the way too much. His distillations of their thinking are as accurate as one may expect, and his commentary is always identified as opinion.
What is remarkable about this volume is it's presentation of the sweep of Western thought from the Greeks through the last century, each school of thought seeming to grow out of or be a reaction against what went before. I highly recommend reading it from the beginning so the causes and effects of each period of philosophy and the people who grew from them are fully appreciated. It is dense going at times, but the reward is worth the effort it takes to plow through.
That said, I found myself overwhelmed by the mathematical portions of the book, but that is not Russell's fault; if I have no head for it, he can't be blamed.
It is not a work for the casual reader; a great deal will be expected. There is a wealth of information here, but one must really spend time with each philosopher in order to understand his observations and conclusions. This is a book that needs to be studied, and is not for the dilettante. It requires a certain commitment.
Even so, for one who has neither the time nor the patience to slog through the actual writings of the philosophers presented here, this "Reader's Digest" version is just what is needed. One really cannot call oneself an educated person in our society without a passing knowledge of what is presented here. This introduction to Western Philosophy is about as good as you're going to get.
on June 24, 2004
History of Western Philosophy is Russell's attempt to reduce the breadth of intelligence, wisdom, creativity and thought of philosophy throughout the last two and a half thousand years. While in places the book is weak, and his personal bias shines through often, this is still a monumental work, and should be read by anyone interested in learning philosophy but unsure where to begin.
The book begins with an introduction stating Russell's intent in very clear language. He is not interested in providing a detailed thesis on each of the major philosophers, nor is he willing or able to give enough of a background so that the casual reader will become conversant in his philosophers of choice. Rather, the intent is to give an overview, to whet the appetite, to stimulate the mind with what higher thinking is capable of. From there, we are given a brief account of the history and importance of the Greeks before plunging into a chapter by chapter exposition of major authors.
It is an important part of this book that Russell allows us a look into the historical, economical and political aspects of each period. A proper understanding of a particular philosopher's thinking us not possible without at least some background in the conditions and prevalent thinking of the time. Without knowing of the huge importance of religion in the 15th and 16th century, is it so easy to appreciate Machiavelli's philosophy on power at all costs? No.
As I said earlier, there are faults. Obviously, Russell has his own personal philosophy, and where there are other philosophers who disagree either in part or totally, he gives them short shrift. Kant and Nietzsche in particular are dealt with harshly, I feel, and this is mostly because Russell's views are almost completely opposite. However, importantly, he does not hide this point. He always refers to his opinions as his, and you are allowed to disagree. From the introduction it is clear that he is a person with an opinion, where you agree, perfect. Where you don't, he gives a clear enough appraisal that it doesn't really matter.
In the end, this book serves only as an introduction. If you want to learn more, read the actual texts discussed as well as commentary from specialists. The goal of this book was to give a broad history, a coherent starting point and an easy access catalogue of great thinkers. In all of these goals Russell succeeds, and nowhere does he truly fail.