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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 9 August 2013
The philosopher, Brian Magee, writes that Bertrand Russell based this book on lecture notes for mature students he was teaching at a local college. Even though he was friends with Bertrand Russell, Magee didn't like his History of Western Philosophy. The trouble isn’t that the chapters feel like hand-outs, or that Russell didn’t read the philosopher he was rubbishing, but the problem is that Bertrand Russell is a very good writer and talks directly to the reader and so the reader thinks there is something there and because Bertrand Russell was so conceited, this cock-sure manner will only lead the student astray. We find this problem with charismatic minds all the time.

My favourite introduction to modern philosophy is found in Schopenhauer’s Parerga, titled ‘Sketch of the Ideal and the Real’. Here Arthur Schopenhauer is doing what Adi Shankara did in India, and independently. He is enquiring on the nature of subjectivity and how we mix up the transitory with the eternal, which is in us. In Schopenhauer’s second volume of his main work, the chapter titled ‘Fundamental view of Idealism’ is excellent. These won’t be understood by dabblers. Even though Schopenhauer writes in a crystal clear way, the Indians say that we are blinded by ‘avidya’ or what Westerners call ‘realism’.

Schopenhauer writes that to Awaken, we have to read his main work twice, and only then will avidya fall off like cataracts’ being removed. But the average reader doesn’t even notice the cataracts! This is the problem, though it isn’t a problem also… Modern civilisation is happy with technology, so the brightest and the best don’t even suspect that the unborn is looking and no one is at all bothered with enlightenment. The world has moved on from the sage with beard down to the ankles.
In ancient India, a Brahmin kid will have to study hard for a few decades, and only then will he get the proper teaching.
Now Arthur Schopenhauer claimed that if a teenaged Bertrand Russell sat down and read The World as Will and Idea, twice, this will lead to his enlightenment, and without a guru or the Upanishad. But the Indian will say ‘NO’, this isn’t the way. The Indian will say that only a middle aged Bertrand Russell, at the peak of his powers, will have to read The World as Will and Idea twice, and only then, immortality.
But this isn’t ancient India. Modern man can never change his mind. Even today, if you tried talking to a proper celebrity philosopher, say, Roger Scruton or AC Grayling, it will be like talking to hardened wax. They will never take up Schopenhauer’s challenge.

It was Plato who wrote that once you reach middle age, your mind hardens like wax. Plato didn’t go to India.
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on 22 March 2011
This is an incredible achievement. It is more of a history of the world than simply philosophy. Russell's ability to handle, discuss, analyse, refute, agree with and point out the weaknesses of the greatest minds ever to exist is breathtaking.
He starts with Ancient Greece, covers the source and rise of Christianity, the fall of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, Enlightenment and everything! Hume and Rousseau stand out as remarkable.
If you have any interest in religion and/or philosophy I recommend that you read this incredible book.
I must confess that I am only 2/3 through this considerable tome and will update when I'm finished.
Russell has to be the greatest Polymath ever to grace the planet. He was a brilliant mathematician amongst everything else.
I've downgraded this book by a star. I'm sure Bertrand would not mind. There is far too much emphasis on religion in this work. As intelligent people realise religion belongs in the realm of myth and not in the discipline of philosophy. Russell likes to discuss how each philosopher was influenced by religious belief but he does this in a non critical manner. This leads to a discussion of philosophy including religion whereas it would be better to simply mention that in older times unenlightened man was handicapped by superstitious nonsense and a lack of technology such as scanning electron microscopes, lasers, radio telescopes etc. If Plato, Socrates and Aristotle had knowledge of pulsars - objects a million times more massive than our little planet that rotate at 50 times a second! - they would not have given 'Gods' a second thought. And if anyone thinks that black holes were 'created and designed' by a supernatural deity who 'talked' to Moses then they are a deeply deluded. I suspect that Bertrand studied Greek comprehensively and he threw all his knowledge into this book that includes chapters on Byron amongst others.
This is still a fabulous book and in many ways far more interesting that a purely philosophical thesis but I got fed up of talk of creators and 'God' whatever that is. It really is time to consign the 'gods', all gods, to the trash can. So, this book is a bit of an eclectic hotchpotch. I'm sure Bertrand just threw all his knowledge of history at it and left it there without much editing once it was finished. From an authorial perspective that is the problem with brilliant minds: editing is just too boring for them!

(And surely the publisher could have made a better cover? a bunch of timepieces to signify history is such a cliche!)

JP :)
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on 2 June 2015
Is post-Enlightenment philosophy anything more than the thinking up of pointless non-problems, and then spending a lot of time failing to solve them (he asked rhetorically)? If Bertrand Russell - one of Britain's last philosophers of note - worried about that, it didn't stop him writing this history of the discipline. It's huge, not so much in page count as in the density of argument and the sheer amount of learning brought to bear; yet it lacks breadth of understanding, and the ability to consider other points of view which any good historian needs. Russell, with his colourful private life, had a down on Christianity. He comments sarcastically that 'it's a pity God made man', only for some to be damned; you could equally say it's a pity Russell bothered with long sections about Christian philosophy, when he can't seem to find a good word to say about any of it.

Objectivity is an unrealistic goal, but you do expect some semblance of fairness. It's ridiculous for him to dismiss Aquinas on the grounds that he made his philosophy fit pre-existing goals, when that is what most philosophers (and many scientists) do. Philosophy is a matter of getting your ideas in better order. Any philosophy is a closed system; like a computer system, you can't find anything in it that wasn't there at the start. The starting point has to be one's prior beliefs, whether in God, a material universe, or whatever it might be. Russell also plays fast and loose with history. When it comes to blaming the horrors of the Dark Ages on the Church - which is actually the one thing that mitigated them - it really is a bit dishonest. Similarly, there's really no basis for saying that the lot of ordinary people (as opposed to fancy Italian painters) got any better at the Renaissance, or for centuries after it. It's simply that those of Russell's stamp feel that, because the post-Renaissance era is more congenial to them than the Middle Ages, life just *must* have been better.

In a word, Russell does exactly what he accuses Aquinas of doing - what he cannot help doing: he has his ideology, his 'narrative', a tale of life improving steadily in proportion to the benign influence of reason (a vision most of us realise to be simplistic at best), and the facts have to be fitted into it. The trouble is that he's not honest about it.
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on 11 January 2018
This book is a phenomenal piece of work.

You hardly need to spend time scanning the reviews for Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy to know it’s a good book. A quick glance at the amount of five stars it receives on Amazon (or anywhere else for that matter) simply confirm that the book is a masterpiece.

Indeed, it’s not only a masterpiece because of the coverage and learning within the pages of the book, but also because of Russell’s wit and writing style. A style that many have tried to emulate but never quite managed to do so. When I first dipped into the book many years ago I was totally blown over by it. For here was a book that not only covered the great philosophers but was also a pleasure to read.

The book is structured into three parts (Ancient Philosophy - Catholic Philosophy - Modern Philosophy) with its philosophy going right back to before Socrates, through the Middle Ages and onwards to present times. Because the book was written in the 1940s, the last two philosophers covered are James and Dewey. And although it may not cover every philosopher to have raised their head (particularly twentieth-century ones), it certainly covers all the major philosophers that anyone would care to know about.

When a single author writes a history of philosophy there is always the fear that there are others that know more about certain philosophers than they do. Therefore, histories of philosophy usually have many authors with a single editor bringing the work together. What they lack, however, is the cohesive style that a single author can bring to the subject.

There are very few books that can compare with Russell’s history. Will Durant comes closest with his Story of Philosophy. But it does not quite have the breath (it covers fewer philosophers) of Russell’s work. Even so, it remains a highly readable work. John Hospers’ An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis is another contender. But this is not a history of philosophy like Russell’s book. It is a book that examines philosophical questions and it does not take an historical approach to the subject.

It’s hard to believe that Russell’s work does have its critics. I’ve read in the pages of other philosophy books that Russell gives too much coverage to ancient rather than modern philosophy; that his coverage of certain philosophers fails to give a sufficient or true account of them; that his writing is often over opinionated. However, I take all this with a pinch of salt! Anyone can find fault within a work of this size (near 800 pages). And it seems the people finding fault tend to be those nit-picking professional philosophers that envy Russell’s writing style and best-seller status.

In short: If you only ever buy one philosophy book in your life, buy this one. You won’t be disappointed. It is a phenomenal achievement that you will read and continue to enjoy over many years. Five stars, easily.

I hope you find my review helpful.
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on 6 June 2014
I admit this is a judge-a-book-by-its-cover type comment. I get this book hoping to keep it for life. It is extremely disappointing to me that the inside of the spine cracked in between the pages in several places soon after I got it. It's a common problem I know. Not a good excuse though.
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on 21 June 2006
I have bought this book some years ago and have read it re-read it and re-re-read it several times. It is a decent starting point and devent reference source. HOWEVER.........

As a history and philosphy of science student postgraduate there are a few things that you should be warned. First, this work is now rather outdated and in a lot of places wildly inaccurate.

The other thing to keep in mind, which is of great importance, is that Russel, intentionally or not writes very bad history. He is very judgemental, which on its own is not a vice, however it becomes so when he is judging everything from a rather stern present-centrism and he falls victim to the worst case of the so-called 'whiggish interpatation of history'.

He judgements and critiques are very much coloured by his own experiences from his own era (post first and second world war experience live quite a scar it seems). If you do get this book, I advise you to take anything he says with a grain of salt (or two) and do not regard it as the final word.

Unofortunately no other decent book exist that treats the whole western philosophy in one concice volume so in some respects this might seem like the only choice.

if you are interested in the earlier stages of western though I wholeheartedly recommend the following:

1. Davind Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science

A great book and one of the best around on the subject. It of course more geared up towards the more 'scientific' aspect as the name suggests. But covers wonderfully the period from anitquity up to the late middle ages.

2. For more on ancient Greek philosophy, look for Eduard Zeller's 'Outlines of the history of Greek philosophy'. Is a bit old but still one of the best comprehensive review on the subject, while still being easy to read for the non specialist.

3. Andrew Gregory's Eureka! The birth of science is also a nice short and easy to read overview.

4. G.E.R. Lloyd and Heath are two great authors when it comes to ancient greek scholarship. Somewhat more advanced but worth the effort.

AS for a general philosophy guide, I would wholly recommend the Oxford Companion of Philosphy...you really cant go wrong with that!
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on 2 August 2007
Russell's book is essentially an Introduction to Philosophy for the common reader, for he (or she) who is genuinly interested in philosophy but has no, or very little, experience with the subject.

Many of the previous reviewers have already stressed what are some of the major faults of Russell's "History" and in particular his dismissive attitude towards some of the major philosophers from Descartes onwards.
I must say I felt quite surprised: I have read some history of philosophies by both Italian and French authors not as popular or "authorative" as Russell, yet I must confirm the objective superiority of the former (tough it is true that Russell comprised the entire history of philosophy, or at least SOME PART OF IT, in one single volume, an effort that as far as I know, has not been made by any other author).
The fact that Russell, like someone has already stated, is "judgemental" in his exposing style, is actually a mental fault which inevitably intacts his objective reasoning: the result?
He cut off 3/4 of the history of philosophy.
Where are the long, detailed and coincise chapters on Descartes ("father" of modern philosophy), Spinoza (such a loved thinker, 6-7 pages?), Kant (founder of German Idealism, 9-10 pages), Hegel (practically nothing), Nietzsche (an intellectual murder), Schopenhauer (shallow philosophy? according to Mr Russell, maybe), Karl Marx (he is only the founder of probably the most influential political philosophy)?
And where are Husserl? Freud (tough he is really not a philosopher, his psychoanalitic discoveries where clearly influenced by his philosophical stances, in particular nineteenth-century materialism)? Wittgenstein (his contemporary)?
I frankly cannot believe that the English speaking world, has accepted this book as "the MAJOR introduction to the history of philosophy".
Certainly, he had to comprise something; writing the whole history of philosophical tought in one volume is no easy task and requires the ability to be proportional in the extension of the chapters which deal with the single philosophers.
But it is unecceptable to sacrifice some of the most important thinkers, simply because they did not fit into Russell's retrospective historical analysis or into his likability criteria: if he does not appreciate Hegel, Kant, Marx, Rousseau and so on, simply because he does not agree with them, why bother to write a history of philosophy which must necessarly degress on their lives, on their social context, on their ideas, etc.?
If we all eliminated each other, just because we did not agree, what would be the purpose of any form of dialogue? There is an inherent contradiction in Russell's book.
Still, after all this criticism I must give credit to Mr Russell for:

a)writing in an ACCESSIBLE style, by no means technical
b)like I have already said, for having comprised MOST of the philosophical tought in one volume
c)having produced a work fully commerciable and readable by those who do not necessairly no much about philosophy and are interested in learning the very general lines concerning some of the major philosophers

If the reader will keep this in mind, and will also remeber not to take as final Russell's judgements, then on a whole, History of Western Philosophy will result a pleasent read for the common fellow.

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on 13 August 2009
I am not entirely sure if I like this book.
It is good.
It is at first, imposing, appearing at once intellectual, difficult, especially for the non specialist, of which I am.
In fact it is quite the opposite.
It is lucid, straightforward to read, but oddly, it appears to be quite simple, but like beef, it turns out to be a chewy read, for me anyway, as my knowledge of history and events is limited. Neither an easy, nor a difficult read, but an involved read, probably due to the words, phraseology, and style of writing used, its communicative though.
It is not what I expected it to be at all, which was difficult, dry and inacessible for all but the most highbrow intellectual.
It isn't academic, and its an error to say its the history of western philosophy.
It is actually the history of western philosophy and its relations to social religious and other things going on at the time, the full title inside, which really does alter the whole remit of the work.
The fact that is relates one event and subject to others around it, is imo one of its greatest strenghs and benefits, and when you think about it, events are a product of their time, the people and what is happening, the sheer control the church had at the time is an explanation for much that was happening, history, english, I think!! is much to do with power, of kings, church, politics, people,and the book shows how though fits into this.
It is also, whilst appearing lucid and a quick read, while you start it, you subsequently get engrossed, and it takes some thinking, not difficult thinking as such, just to understand and appreciate what he is saying, hence the chewyness.
But it also has errors, or at least, omissions.
Some chapters are woefully short on analysis, for example, he tells you about the renaisance, reformation and counter reformation, but not being a historian, I have little idea about some of the event he is telling about, in fact, he doesn't tell about them, he assumes you already know.
And he already assumes you know the philosophical terminologies, eg rationalism and other isms.
I could go on and on, it IS a great work, indispensible, unique, written well, but also, does possess inadequacies.
But superb to put events in perspective.
It shows you that science, philosophy, religion are all inter-related, along with power between kings, church, politics, and people, with a little philosophy thrown in, but surprisignly, not as much as you would expect.
I cannot globally rate it, I would give it 5 stars for its indespensiblity, and ability to fit all in context, but less for its shortcomings. Some language is slightly archaic, and also bear in mind that new discoveries in archaelogy may render some of it now less accurate, eg accepted knowledge on civilisations, of which I cannot say, but it is a possibility.
I have only read a few chapters thus far on it, but enough to form a inductive prediction that the rest will follow as it is. It really isn't what you think it to be, hence my strange review of it.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 26 November 2013
My wife and I being among those strange people that like reading at meal-times, we went (with our books) into a pizza parlour some time ago. I happened to be reading this.

The waitress asked "Are you reading that for a school project?"; and I replied "No, I'm reading it for fun."

I don't think she believed me. But it was true. For those who have never read Russell, this may seem implausible to the point of grotesqueness; but in fact he has an economy of verbiage, razor-sharp analytical faculties, an encyclopædic grasp of his subject, and (especially) a dry wit that make light work of the most cumbrous material. I've now read this several times, and enjoyed it every time.

(Too bad he died before Postmodernism and Poststructuralism got a serious grip — I'd have loved to have seen what he had to say about those!)

A lengthy commentary would be easy, but I'll leave that to others. What I will do is give you the complete table of contents, so you can decide whether you want to give this a go:


- The Pre-Socratics

01 The Rise of Greek Civilisation
02 The Milesian School
03 Pythagoras
04 Heraclitus
05 Parmenides
06 Empedocles
07 Athens in Relation to Culture
08 Anaxagoras
09 The Atomists
10 Protagoras

- Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

11 Socrates
12 The Influence of Sparta
13 The Sources of Plato's Opinions
14 Plato's Utopia
15 The Theory of Ideas
16 Plato's Theory of Immortality
17 Plato's Cosmogony
18 Knowledge and Perception in Plato
19 Aristotle's Metaphysics
20 Aristotle's Ethics
21 Aristotle's Politics
22 Aristotle's Logic
23 Aristotle's Physics
24 Early Greek Mathematics and Astronomy

- Ancient Philosophy after Aristotle

25 The Hellenistic World
26 Cynics and Sceptics
27 The Epicureans
28 Stoicism
29 The Roman Empire in Relation to Culture
30 Plotinus


- The Fathers

01 The Religious Development of the Jews
02 Christianity During the First Four Centuries
03 Three Doctors of the Church
04 Saint Augustine's Philosophy and Theology
05 The Fifth and Sixth Centuries
06 Saint Benedict and Gregory the Great

- The Schoolmen

07 The Papacy in the Dark Ages
08 John the Scot
09 Ecclesiastical Reform in the Eleventh Century
10 Mohammedan Culture and Philosophy
11 The Twelfth Century
12 The Thirteenth Century
13 Saint Thomas Aquinas
14 Franciscan Schoolmen
15 The Eclipse of the Papacy


- From the Renaissance to Hume

01 General Characteristics
02 The Italian Renaissance
03 Machiavelli
04 Erasmus and More
05 The Reformation and Counter-Reformation
06 The Rise of Science
07 Francis Bacon
08 Hobbes's Leviathan
09 Descartes
10 Spinoza
11 Leibniz
12 Philosophical Liberalism
13 Locke's Theory of Knowledge
14 Locke's Political Philosophy
15 Locke's Influence
16 Berkeley
17 Hume

- From Rousseau to the Present Day

18 The Romantic Movement
19 Rousseau
20 Kant
21 Currents of Thought in the Nineteenth Century
22 Hegel
23 Byron
24 Schopenhauer
25 Nietzsche
26 The Utilitarians
27 Karl Marx
28 Bergson
29 William James
30 John Dewey
31 The Philosophy of Logical Analysis
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on 1 November 2012
This edition (first published in 1946) has to be one of the most interesting and insightful narratives on the extensive history of western philosophy that there is. Beautifully captivating, complex and detailed this in-depth study is one that will fascinate you from beginning to end. It makes for a perfect introduction to the subject by explaining the fundamental basics of the topic, before then going into more detail with much explanation and examination of the topic. There is a reason why this book has become one of the best-selling philosophy books of the twentieth-century and why it remains unchallenged to this day, and that is because of the wonderful content that is blatantly meticulous and thorough on the subject matter. It gives on a sophisticated overview of the ideas that have perplexed people from the time immemorial that is intelligent and curmudgeonly skepticism. It is also one of the most significant and important philosophical works of its time, indeed of all time, that coupled with sheer brilliance of its scholarship is unequaled.
The luminous, astute prose is quite beautiful coupled with the author's scrupulously honest and candid opinions, thoughts and outlooks that which make this an absorbing read. I have never been so impressed by something that gives a complete and comprehensive look at something that is such an important and key subject, which tells the reader so much about themselves (thus in a way is quite truth-drawing). Just a great philosopher's logical and coherent look at the history of his own subject, that is wonderfully readable and truly enlightening hence I cannot fault it. I sadly never had the opportunity of studying up to now philosophy but it is a subject that in recent times has become of more interest to me, especially since reading Bertrand Russell's thought-provoking book that just captures the mind. This colorful, astute walk through several millennia of philosophers and their work is inconceivably amazing and which sparks a deep interest in any reader opening your eyes to moral, ethical and analytical thoughts in Europe.

This is a book that I would highly recommend to those studying philosophy, history and the changing thoughts and morals across Europe throughout the years. It is such an captivating and compelling read that covers pretty much everything on the subject you would want to know, and therefore there is nothing that is comparable or of an equivalent standard to it. I cannot praise Bertrand Russell highly enough, for he his contribution to the literary world is one that is marked, discernable to all and I thank him for it.
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