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A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell
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Jan 14, 08

bookshelves: history-of-philosophy
Read in April, 2006

Russell's History of Philosophy is a good little introduction to a massive field. His biases will be a problem for those who are aligned with the ones he critiques. This is because he frequently lets his biases cloud his thinking. For example, he writes,

"So little is known of him [Leucippus] that Epicurus (a later follower of Democritus) was thought to have denied his existence all together, and some moderns have revived this theory. There are, however, a number of allusions to him in Aristotle, and it seems incredible that these (which include textual quotations) would have occurred if he had been merely a myth." -Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy, 1972, p.64

But has made claims like this elsewhere,

"Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about him, so that I am not concerned with the historical question, which is a very difficult one." -Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian."

The Gospels were written far closer to the life of Jesus than Aristotle was to the time of Leucippus. I could multiply the above with ease - given that the book is over 800 pages. I just chose the one I did since I am a Christian, and his biases stood out especially in his criticisms of Christianity. Most of his critiques against many of the arguments for God's existence would, if you're familiar with the contemporary scene, be whittled away in a matter of minutes. Another person I could defend, and show some obvious blunders by Russell, is Aristotle. But that would take us too far off scope. I should add that he does give a good presentation of Leibniz, though. Of course, the philosophy of Leibniz was his specialty.

Russell states that he purposes to give more of a history than an analysis of the philosophers he discusses. For the most part this is fair, be Russell does seem to read his own views back into the history he is discussing quite a bit.

Russell also writes very well. Reading the book is smooth, and his work is available to the layman. I should add that there is something good about the bias. As I said above, it's not that he has biases that is bad, it's that they affect his work and take away some credibility. But where it is useful to have his bias is that you can get a glimpse into the mind of atheistic thinking. This allows one, especially a religious defender, to better understand and anticipate atheistic thought - even if said thought is outdated. There’s nothing new under the sun.

Russell is a realist about universals, and that's a good thing. :-) He also has some arguments and statements to the effect that immaterial entities exist. Thus this book also serves as fodder to pit atheists against themselves. I'm not a raving Russellian, and so I have the book a respectable three stars. There are better, and far more detailed, history of philosophy series out there (e.g., Routledge's).
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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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Endre So you dislike this book because you're a Christian and Russell's critique of Christianity is too much for you to stomach. Yet you are pompous enough to condescendingly grant the book three stars. Are you sure Russell is the one who is biased? Do you think a Christian scholar would be able to treat these philosophers in an unbiased and more objective manner?

You shrug off Russell's critiques against the arguments of a deity's existence with the easy phrase "would be whittled away in a matter of minutes", disregarding the fact that not a shred of evidence exists in support of the existence of a god, and likewise ignoring the fact that said arguments can be and have been easily "whittled away" by anybody who is familiar with scientific thinking.

I'm curious as to what made you state that atheistic thought is outdated, because it seems to me that the scientific method has been continually eating away at religion since the Enlightenment, and it, as opposed to theistic (i.e. wishful) thinking, actually keeps providing us with real knowledge concerning the nature of the universe.


Paul I did not say I "disliked it." Furthermore, even if I did say that, I did not say that it was "because I'm a Christian;" but, even if I did say both of those things, I did not say that it was because Russell's "critique of Christianity was too much to stomach." Indeed, Russell doesn't really even criticize Christianity in this book, that would be found in *Why I'm not a Christian*. I granted the book three stars for objective reasons pertaining to histories of western philosophy. There's simply better ones out there. Moreover, goodreads labels their stars ratings. Four stars would laud too much praise on the book. Because of that addition, I feel constrained on the stars I give a book so as to not give the impression that I LOVED or DISLIKED a book that I simply "liked." If someone hovers over the star rating, they may think I thought more highly of the book than I did. So, sorry to burst your bubble, but there was nothing pompous about the rating. At this point, you look rather ridiculous. A jaded, angry, village atheist.

I won't bother to respond to your other comments, for you tipped your hand. Your comments are laughably ignorant of contemporary philosophy of religion and philosophy of science (for one example, you speak of "the" scientific method, when virtually *all* philosophers of science point out that there is no such thing). Anyway, don't go away mad, just go away.


Paul Re the scientific method, do some studying. Perhaps start with this:

http://www.amazon.com/Philosophy-Scie...


message 4: by Phillip (new) - added it

Phillip Edwin It is a shame to see an argument erupting over the rating of a truly great book. Bertrand Russell was a G.

As for your comparison of biases, I can't say that I see the similarities: one concerns his personal thoughts and reflections on the nature of his faith, his beliefs, (the ultimate fallibility of which I believe he recognised) and the other focuses on creating an explanation of the history of philosophy. Choosing a quote like that is to undo the remainder of the book and his rather bold essay. Also we're just commenting, but he got published.

The stylistic elements are what you appear to have baulked at: his to-the-point manner, logical and seemingly hyper empirical rationalism. I was just sad that the point in which you chose to highlight was one where only second hand accounts survive (of ancient Greek philosophy), through an oral tradition not too dissimilar from that practiced in ancient Judea.

In an all too familiar way the ultimate direction of the comment was all too predictable: the juxtaposition of two quotes gave you more control, you had the ability to manipulate the contextual framework and direction of the information contained in your point. Taking something out of its context and recontextualising it.

My father is a catholic priest, so I'm not anti religious. Not at all. But don't you think that, as a Christian, it is rather disparaging to call someone else a "village atheist"? Should a Christian not focus on his faith and succumb to the senseless chatter of atheists? Or should he actually follow Jesus, an look upon him for direction? And I'm not a Christian, but i obviously won't go into that now because this is a discussion about Bertrand Russell's highly entertaining book, the history of western philosophy.


message 5: by Adam (new)

Adam Morva Paul, you are some guy telling somebody else to study the scientific method.. Aren't you a christian? Perhaps you missed the part about the scientific method.


message 6: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Did you read books of modern philosophy?


Paul Adam wrote: "Paul, you are some guy telling somebody else to study the scientific method.. Aren't you a christian? Perhaps you missed the part about the scientific method."

My wife tells me I'm "some guy" too. Thanks!

Oh, and yeah, I told someone to study up on the concept and history of "the" scientific method, and I'm a Christian too. And?


Paul Melissa wrote: "Did you read books of modern philosophy?"

Of course.


message 9: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Did you read "a crossing or the drop's history" by Anatoliy Obraztsov?


message 10: by Paul (last edited Jan 07, 2013 06:25AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Melissa wrote: "Did you read "a crossing or the drop's history" by Anatoliy Obraztsov?"

Can't say that I have. "Modern philosophy" is technically that period starting, roughly, with Descartes and ending, roughly, with Nietzsche. By 'modern' did you mean, 'contemporary' or 'current?' If so, I read almost exclusively analytic philosophy.


Tiago Babo Hello Mr. Paul,
I appreciate your comments on this book which I am also reading. Nevertheless, as I came across to the following lines:

"Most of his critiques against many of the arguments for God's existence would, if you're familiar with the contemporary scene, be whittled away in a matter of minutes",

I wonder if you could provide me some reading recommendations of contemporary theologians. I warn you that this is not a provocative comment. As you may know the Catholic church still presents the same arguments which were given by the church doctors, despite the centuries of distance. I am just curious about the new ones.


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