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.
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