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.
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