Review: A History of Western Philosophy

A History of Western Philosophy
A History of Western Philosophy
Bertrand Russell
New York: Touchtone, 1945 (1972)

Review Copyright © 2004 Garret Wilson — 23 June 2004 4:45pm

I've spent around a year reading A History of Western Philosophy, Russell's huge compendium of philosophical thought up until the mid 1900s. The work is comprehensive; not in the sense that it explores every aspect of every important western philosopher through the ages, nor that it provides references for its facts or even suggestions for further reading. Rather, the book is thorough in following the main streams of philosophical thought and showing how the work products of various philosophers interrelate—all this contextualized by Russell's personal commentary in typical Russellian prose. Think: Asimov on Philosophy, if such a book were to exist.

Russell's writing style has been heralded by many contemporary philosophers, and it succeeds if only in contrast to the indecipherable writings of other philosophers—Russell simply tells you what he wants to tell you. In many cases, what Russell wants to tell you is his personal opinion on the matter at hand:

The notion of essence is an intimate part of every philosophy subsequent to Aristotle, until we come to modern times. It is, in my opinion, a hopelessly muddle-headed notion, but its historical importance requires us to say something about it. (200).

Russell however manages to keep his opinions distinct from his explication of the philosopher being discussed, but Russell's opinions shouldn't be dismissed—he is himself one of the most influential philosopher of the Twentieth Century. Russell wrote this tome as World War II was being fought. (789). This has two implications. First, his tale of later philosophical doctrines are explained with an implied context of the war and in terms of Allied and Nazi ethical positions and propoganda. Secondly, more recent developments in philosophy (such as Gödel's blow to the project behind Russell's Principia Mathematica, and contemporary philosophers who have concentrated almost exclusively on the philosophy of language) are not covered in this volume.

But the book does guide one through philosophers from ancient Greece to World War II, and one could hardly ask for a better guide than Russell. At times one feels that, having passed through several generations, whatever was learned a few chapters back has been forever forgotten to make room for new material. In the end, this isn't the case—the farther one progresses through the book, one begins to see common threads appear and remember, if vaguely, how these threads run back to the earlier chapters (of the book and of human history).

Still, one cannot hope to remember in one pass everything Russell attempts to convey. The book is almost too much for an initial introduction to philosophy as well. Its place in philosophical studies therefore lies at two points: that at which one has a grasp on a general outline of what philosophy is, and wants to then find out what, why, and how philosphy is; and that at which one has read respective original materials of philosophers and wishes to remember and better understand how that work fits into the project which is Western Philosophy.

This book can be read alone, and also works well in conjunction with The Great Philosophers, which itself derives much of its background and attitude from Russell's work. It can be read early or late in one's study's of philosophy. What seems beyond dispute, however, is that it should be read; until another Russell comes along to update it, this work remains the best tying together of the strands of ideas that constitute modern Western thought.


Image obtained from