48 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb layman's guide
I am not a philosophy student myself, and I find Bertrand Russell's acerbic style extremely readable. The 2 inch thick book is fascinating, funny and too short. Bertrand Russell's style is not the dry, carefully unbiased style of the accademic, but a colourful walk through several millenia of philosophers and their work. I would thoroughly recommend this book to any...
Published on 12 Feb 2004 by Mike Sadler
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars dark side of the moon
I have read this many times in both love and hatred . In short Russell is a flawed genius. If he took his own advice on Nietzsche and made an emotional response to Friederich's hammerwork maybe he coud have saved himself.
The philosophers absent from the history are pertinent - I can understand the squemishness towards Heidegger, but to leave out both...
Published on 12 May 2011 by Mr. David R. Portus
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48 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb layman's guide,
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This review is from: A History of Western Philosophy (Paperback)I am not a philosophy student myself, and I find Bertrand Russell's acerbic style extremely readable. The 2 inch thick book is fascinating, funny and too short. Bertrand Russell's style is not the dry, carefully unbiased style of the accademic, but a colourful walk through several millenia of philosophers and their work. I would thoroughly recommend this book to any readers who have an interest in the development of moral, ethical and analytical thought in Europe.
71 of 72 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable,
This is essentially three books compiled into one - Ancient, Catholic and Modern philosophy. In book 1, Russell kicks off with the rise of greek civilisation and its relationship to Mesopotamia and Egypt. Then the Pre-Socratic philosophers, through to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and finally the Roman Empire. Book 2 takes you through the rise of Christian thought, the forefathers of Theology, the Dark Ages, Mohammedan culture and its philosophy. Book 3 starts at the Renaissance, through the rise of science and upto the Romantic period with Rousseau. Finally it moves through onto the 20th century through Kant, Hegel, Byron, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Marx. Inbetween the different 'books' Russell tells you the relevant connections and changes of philosophy that took place.
Due to the nature and great expanse of philosophy, it is no doubt impossible to fit every detail into this book as Russell explains, and that is why some of the chapters are explained or mentioned to how Russell sees them worthy and their effect or change on western thought. But but he did a great job considering its size and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to students, non-students or anyone interested in philosophy.
49 of 51 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great read and a good introduction,
This review is from: A History of Western Philosophy (Paperback)The book conveys a brilliant sense of the development of philosophy from ancient Greek cults to modern logical analysis. Ancient philosophers are treated with the respect that they deserve for getting philosophy out of the starting gates and for their unashamed delight in anything that they could debate about. Russell celebrates Democritus' atomic theory and Aristarchus' heliocentric hypothesis and rarely uses the word crude when discussing ancient philosophies. And the benefits of logical analysis are displayed by identifying techniques as they emerge in the work of particular philosophers as well as by Russell's own discussions. Philosophy really is shown as closely related to community life- dispelling the image of the philosopher hidden away from the world in an ivory tower.
The above merits make the book a good introduction and a real insight for those who know philosophy but lack knowledge of its history. However, I cannot recommend it as a reference book. Russell fails to treat some very important philosophers (e.g. Kierkegaard, Husserl and Heidegger) and gives disproportionate space to lesser figures (Bergson, Dewey and Byron). The strengths of Kantian philosophy are almost completely missed. The least developed elements in Nietzsche's philosophy are emphasized to the exclusion of the more developed ones. The out of date elements of Aristotle's ethics are criticized and Aristotle's attempt to put ethics on a purely factual basis is ignored. Also, Russell's discussions often fail to acknowledge the approaches G E Moore and others have taken to the 'is-ought gap' (Russell just states his relativism and leaves it) as well as important elements in Wittgenstein (I suspect partly because Wittgenstein's philosophy makes a strong attack upon Russell's epistemology). But these faults are at least mainly isolated to the section on modern philosophy.
Despite these shortcomings, the book is still well worth reading. It is often insightful and at points Russell's illustrations can be ingenious. But I would recommend that the student looking for a reference book should either buy a compilation of essays by different authors (and thus avoid the prejudices and gaps in knowledge of a single author) or also buy a seperate book on modern philosophy.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best single volume on philosophy.,
Russell's style is so convincing he was often plagiarised - unconscious imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. Joad (who copied Russell on Marx), and Aldous Huxley (who based Brave New World on a Russell work) are just two examples.
There are innumerable asides, which I presume (he wrote and assembled this book aged about 70) were the fruit of discussions in his youth and middle age; on psychology, groups, sex, emotions, animals, ethics, totalitarianism, adventures, trade - a vast range of topics.
I recommend this to everyone willing to take some trouble. I've met many people who would have benefitted from its intellectual stiffening - for example a gifted physics man who couldn't seem to grasp that atoms are mostly holes, even though they don't look that way. And who had never understood that the square root of two is 'irrational'. Hoary problems - 'universals', 'analytical' and 'synthetic', 'induction', 'teleology', 'determinism' - appear here and there, and it can do no harm to know about them. Russell also is good at picking out the odd practical effects of beliefs: just one example: Stoics and Christians both believed (supposedly) in personal virtue: if external circumstances cannot prevent a man from being virtuous, there is no need to seek a 'just' social system.
There are omissions, all I think to do with demarcation problems - the boundaries of philosophy, apart from politics, history, science, economics, and psychology. Darwin isn't here (much). Freud isn't here - but then Russell regarded the idea of unconscious motivation as the only significant part of Freud. Adam Smith isn't in. Marx is only treated as a philosopher: his economics is looked at by Russell in another book. Note that Russell seemed to regard Marx as 'socialistic'. All Russell's history in a sense is official: there must be innumerable people who were censored or killed or otherwise silenced; but Russell doesn't really bother with them. His book is a bit like commentary on a tidy, ordered library.
Russell's history is typical 20th century western: prehistory, with Egypt, Babylon and the rest regarded as 'oriental despotisms'. Rather inconsistently, the Bible is admitted. There's a conspiracy of silence about Jewish beliefs. Then Greece, then Rome; then the dark ages, and 'middle ages'; Russell accepts that Islam was a transmitter, though I'm not sure he makes a good case. Finally, modern enlightenment and science. Not much was known about many chunks of history, so this schema appeared satisfactory. Some of his historical comments are typically Victorian: the dislike of Rousseau from hatred of the French revolution, and of Rousseau as the supposed origin of romanticism and silliness. Rousseau and Nietzsche and Carlyle were supposed to have led to extremism and Auschwitz; Plato and Sparta to Stalin.
When eras change, Russell usually finds transitional people or ideas as exemplars: the Greeks treated in the then-usual awed way as a mix of peoples; Christianity as taking in Platonic and Judaic elements; Europe as church vs monarchs and feudal nobility and knights; Machiavelli, Erasmus and More at about the Renaissance. ...
Russell himself doubted his success in describing the relation of philosophy to social events when science became important. Russell mostly knew maths, but was notoriously hopeless in practical activities; he literally couldn't make a cup of tea. Such things as the rise and fall of the idea of phlogiston, the growth of chemistry, changes in transport, and such things as anaesthesia, aren't really covered but taken for granted, in rather the way unreflective people seem to think motor cars and piped water and printing have always existed.
Some accuse Russell of bias; typically these are:-
 Catholics often can't face the rationalistic side of Russell. (They don't seem to know that Russell wrote a lot on mysticism).
 People who like Kant and Hegel, and Nietzsche. Russell was not keen on German philosophy - when he was young, all official philosophers were Hegelians. He followed G E Moore in 'climbing down'.
 Supporters of Wittgenstein. Russell was a friend of his, and liked his work when it was new, but decided later it was rather trivial
 Supporters of Sartre and other existentialists. Russell dismissed it in a sentence: based emotionally on exasperation, and intellectually on errors of syntax.
 'Linguistic' philosophers of the Gilbert Ryle type - 'just another clever man' according to Russell.
Note that, near the end of his life, Russell spent years on the problem of nuclear weapons, Kennedy's assassination, and, later, the Americans and the Vietnam War. For this reason he's partly censored, still.
It's a pity there is no equivalent book on eastern philosophies... Incidentally 'Sophie's World' is based on Russell.
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unrivalled,
This review is from: A History of Western Philosophy (Paperback)Russell’s History of Western Philosophy no doubt suffers from drawbacks, and may not reflect the positions that some would like, and certainly there IS an agenda of his own lurking behind the text. BUT - and this is a very big but - few writers could ever have aspired to writing such a book with such style, verve and elan that it stands the test of time so well after so many years. There are very good reasons why it won its author such plaudits. No reader with an open mind and a willingness to accept that even the greatest amongst us have shortcomings, can fail to be impressed by one of the greatest books of its kind written by one of the pre-eminent minds of the last century.
34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book that will stand the test of time,
This review is from: A History of Western Philosophy (Paperback)I personally love Russell's style of writing, he is amusing, clear and concise. This book is probably the best book I've ever read, and I've read a lot of books. I study philosophy and time after time I find myself looking up chapters in this book to get a better understanding of philosophies or philosophers. Its enormous, and covers everything that is well known in the subject.
It is certainly not the right book for somebody to start with for learning philosophy though - its extremely tough going from that respect. Anybody wanting a good introduction would not do bad to look at Nigel Warburton's 'Philosophy - The Basics', or Simon Blackburn's 'Think'. Or, even better, start a course with the Open Univeristy, A211 is the best one to begin with.
I will always hold this book in high regard, its a seminal piece of work, and will always remain that way.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Accesible and Enlightening,
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Colourful, fascinating and disturbingly relevant,
When I first read this book at a rather young age, I found it both compelling, as well as hard to believe in. Reading someone presenting Plato as an elitist prick with an openly totalitarian agenda, not to mention the attacks against Rousseau or Nietzsche, you are left thinking that this should better be taken with a grain of salt or two. And that's the way it should be. Contrary to what the title suggests, this isn't a history of philosophy in the usual sense. This is a history of philosophy through Russell-O-Vision and it is more than intentionally biased, or better said, tinged. This actually adds a lot to the intrigue of the text and makes the narrative quite spicy and interesting to a level that an actual history would never match. And it leaves no doubts to the reader that there is so much more to philosophy and its history than is written here. This isn't an all-encompassing, encyclopedic reference of western philosophy. It is more of a tease and it constantly hints to further subjects for study - this is actually one of its charms. Even the name-dropping, the quotations and the polymathic historical references are mostly intentionally left schematic, in order to intrigue the reader to search for himself and to doubt what he is reading. Russell's book may not be strictly speaking history, but it requires a far more critically thinking mindset than an ordinary history book. The author himself is more than ready to take a critical stance towards all the doctrines he presents, voicing both his consent and opposition and even debunking some philosophers here and there when he feels it is called for. And it is better to take his lead.
Many have derided the book as being biased. But now that, at a more mature age, I have the time to go through the original texts of the philosophers mentioned in the book, I am quite surprised to find that there is hardly any bias or misrepresentation in most cases and that especially the points that most seem to be over-the-top are usually spot-on. You can hardly read a single dialogue of Plato and not come across several elitist, misogynous (I am a man, by the way) and openly anti-democratic remarks. If this is what you like and agree with, that's fine, but you can't blame Russell for bias and he has every right to ridicule Plato the way he does. The same goes more or less for Nietzsche and Rousseau. After reading "of old and young women", there is hardly any room (for me at least) to take that guy seriously as a philosopher of morals and one can hardly blame Russell for dismissing him the way he does. As for Rousseau, all I can say is that I'd rather not take political advice from a man who is so quick to invoke capital punishment for crimes that are not even murder (as a benchmark, even in the Iliad, the punishment for murder is a fine paid to the relatives of the victim, and banishment in the case the perpetrator refused to pay. And all this 3000 years before Rousseau). After reading the original texts, all I can say is that Russell was probably restrained in his critique!
What is most useful in Russell's presentation of the history of ideas is the stress on their relevance to our current society and the pitfalls they entail once applied to resolve practical problems without restraint and a critical spirit. The book also has the rare advantage of being written in the middle of the second world war, a time when Russell was witnessing the devastation of the world first hand from the very ideas he is often exposing. That gives a unique opportunity to juxtapose theory with practice and to show what is the real world application of ideas that once overly abstracted they seem very noble and respectable and free from criticism, but that lead to devastation once left to unfold towards their inexorable conclusion. Russell's plight for a more humanistic ideology and a respect for reason as an arbiter in human affairs and his opposition to the revolt against reason (and all the will/power philosophies that spawn from it) that was destroying the world at that time, is the most pertinent message of this work for all generations. The last paragraphs of "The sources of Plato's opinions" should be required reading for their defense of democracy. History tends to repeat itself and from what I'm gathering there is a resurgence of the revolt against reason with all of its malicious byproducts. The time resembles a little bit 19th century. After a prolonged period of peace, people are once again hungry for action, not thought, and this is bound to end badly. Russell's plight is again becoming all the more relevant.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Introduction to the Subject,
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Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, enlivens philosophy-from ancient Greece to today. His account is lengthy, as any account of such a subject should, but well worth it. How else does one condense 3000 years of Western intellectual history in one volume?
I liked the pace of the book. He begins with a definition of philosophy and its roots in the Ancient world. It is not so much a list of facts as it is a discussion of the ideas of the Ancients. Absurd though it seems to us today, the leap from religious explanations to material for nature was ground-breaking. He then follows philosophy as it slithers through the Middle Ages, into the Renaissance and into the Modern Period. I particularly like the way he treated the medieval philosophers, like Aquinas and Ockam. I wish my philosophy professor at Univerity could have explained nominalism that way.
The work is an introduction to the subject. By definition, it is superficial in a few areas. I would have liked to see more about how contemporary (to Russell) issues like the Worlds Wars were connected to eighteenth century European thinkers such as Hegel.
In conclusion, it is a great read. One I recommend for any reflective 16-year old, who is thinking about studying an applied science like engineering. Russell's work is a great introduction to the subject. It will enable one to see where our currently rational, scientific tradition springs from.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic and a delight to read,
He had the gift of a great memory, combined with an ease of composition that allowed him to be a most prolific writer over a long lifetime that began in 1872 and ended almost a hundred years later in 1970. He has something of the English Don and the 19th century naturalist about him as well as the 20th century progressive. He was intensely engaged in various political projects throughout his long life, most notably as an anti-war and later as an anti-nuclear activist while writing academic philosophy and mathematics as well as many volumes directed toward the general public. He was infamous (in some circles) for his free-love advocacy and his public rejection of Christianity. He was thrown into prison for his pacifism during WWI. He won the Noble Prize for Literature (not peace) in 1950.
Here he takes delight in surveying the entire spectrum of western philosophy beginning with the pre-Socratics and ending with his own philosophy of logical analysis. Curiously (or not so curiously) he does not mention Wittgenstein. His critique of the Greeks, especially Plato, is most edifying and fun to read. He sees modern philosophy as reaching its zenith with David Hume's empiricism. He finds Nietzsche disagreeable and is dismissive of Kant.
I am reading this for the second time, having first read it as a young man. It delights me anew. As I read I am unsure as to whether I find his opinions so congenial because they are so similar to mine or because in fact I acquired many of my early opinions through reading Russell! He had quite an influence on several generations before I came of age, although perhaps he reached the epitome of his fame (at least) during the fifties before I presumed to read philosophy.
Anyone interested in philosophy of any kind, especially of course western philosophy, should read this book. It is one of those books that cannot be ignored. First published in 1945, it is still in print today and will be for many decades to come. I only regret that Russell did not take the time to study eastern philosophies as well and to include them in this volume. How interesting it would be to read Russell on say, Buddhism, Taoism and Vedanta.
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A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell (Paperback - 17 Feb 2000)
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