on 26 April 2006
As a student of philosophy I can't stress enough the help this book has given me. As my understanding of philosophy increases, it has become more apparent that philosophers and their theories are interconnected in many ways. This is where this book comes in. It is a great reference book that provides a link between philosophers from Ancient Greece to the 20th century. Russell tells you about the life of individual philosophers, religious thought and philsophical schools in great detail, combined with their influences, theories and inspirations. All explained in as little jargon as possible, Russell focuses in on the major contributions that changed western thought.
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.
on 4 July 2009
Best book on philosophy that I know of. But don't get the idea that it's simple: Russell's style is clear, and he is witty, and this can lead readers to think his material is simple; but Russell now and then puts in very sharp and complicated theory-of-types analysis. Its divided mostly into names, which is handy for anyone dipping into the views of Parmenides, Plato, Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Spinoza, John Stuart Mill, Marx, Nietzsche... there's a long list. Russell is happy to admit that academic philosophers have usually been cowardly types, and admits many names (e.g. Byron) not normally considered philosophers.
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.
on 12 February 2004
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.
on 2 August 2002
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.
on 28 November 2011
There are two things you are almost certain to utter constantly to yourself while reading this book: "It can't be that simple!" and "this cannot possibly be true!". A direct result of Russell's lucid presentation on the one hand, that makes seemingly impenetrable concepts readily understandable, and his almost insolent bravery on the other, not shying away from exposing the darker sides of revered philosophers who, if you only happen to have heard of as names, you will be left wondering and slightly ashamed that someone is so ardently criticizing (and even lambasting in several instances).
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.
on 26 December 2012
I first read this as a young man in the early 50's and it has informed my thinking more than I can describe. Re-reading it with the perspective of a lifetime's experience of political, ethical and religious developments has proved fascinating. Russell treats with repect the complex issues that have engaged thinkers throughout the millenia even when he clearly disagrees with their conclusions. As he says, to understand someone else's views properly you must first suspend criticism and seek to enter into the mind set of that person, and ask what has influenced him in coming to his conclusions. Only then can you start to evaluate the evidence supporting or undermining that position. This is also true in one's approach to this book because much has happened since it was written, particularly in the fields of neuroscience, psychology and evolutionary theory, that casts new light on many of the most fundamental philosophical issues. Even as a first-time read this is an outstanding overview of the way great thinkers have influenced the way we think today and the still unresolved issues that, if we are serious thinkers ourselves, we still seek to resolve.
on 23 April 2003
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.
on 18 December 2007
Being an engineering student, the closest brush I had with the formal study of philosophy was a few university courses, which I barely passed. Therefore, I decided to buy Bertrand Russell's classic work in order to refresh my knowledge. I wish I had done it earlier.
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.
on 12 May 2011
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 Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard ? And why leave out the inconvenient half of Hume ? and anything from Plato that swims against Russell's stream ?
Definitely a 'whig history' . But an essential read.
on 12 May 2011
As a rather philistine individual I cannot critique this book on any philosophical grounds. However, what I will say is that it is broken down into manageable chapters, is outstandingly well written and is an extremely informative read. It tackles concepts which great minds have grappled with for millennia and explains them in very simple prose. This, for me, is the real achievement of this book, it allows one to engage with these complex theories and for this I am very grateful. This book has both entertained and educated me...