Trevor's Reviews > A History of Western Philosophy

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Jul 02, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: philosophy

This is a remarkable book. Over the years I have found various reasons to look into it now and again, but have never read the whole thing. Mostly I’ve read the bits about particular philosophers: Heraclitus, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Marx for example. I hadn’t realised that ‘dipping’ in this way was missing much of the point of the book.

This is not just a history of Western Philosophy, but also a bit of a ‘how do all of the main schools of Western Philosophy fit into their culture and times'. So, much time is spent giving thumb-nail sketches of the history of certain periods in a way that will help the student of philosophy understand where philosophers were coming from when they said such bizarre things as: nothing changes, everything changes, everything is fire, everything is water, matter does not exist, mind does not exist, and so on.

He makes some truly fascinating points in this book – not least that there is no philosophy that is wholly logically consistent and that sometimes the danger is when a philosopher seeks to remain logically consistent rather than acknowledge the horrendous conclusions that the logical consistency of his ideas forces him toward. I use the male pronoun not simply because Russell also uses it throughout, but because all of the philosophers discussed sport a Y-chromosome.

The book is divided into three parts: Ancient Philosophy, Catholic Philosophy and Modern Philosophy. It was written during the Second World War and I think this shows in part, particularly when Russell is discussing the merits of some philosophers – not least Nietzsche and Marx. I had thought that I would find the middle section on Catholics the least interesting – I believe that we ‘moderns’ feel we have much more in common with Ancients than we do with the Catholic scholastics of the dark and middle ages – but Russell is very kind to these philosophers, although in the main I found them to be little more than pedants adding Christian footnotes to Plato and Aristotle. Perhaps, in another life, I will have time to read one or two of them and see if my attitude changes.

This is not a book that requires either an extensive knowledge of philosophy, nor an extensive knowledge of history to be understood. Russell is a remarkably clear writer (something that for a philosopher really is worth commenting on and something that deserves the highest praise). He also is occasionally quite amusing. Now, I know that people who follow either Marx, Kant, Hegel, Dewey, Nietzsche or even Aristotle might find quite a few things to say in disagreement with Mr Russell, but that in no way takes away from the value of this book. I’ve listened to a Teaching Company ‘Great Ideas In Philosophy’ course which covered all of the philosophers discussed here, and I think Russell does at least as good a job as was done there. Invaluable is a word that is grossly overused on this site – particularly by me – but I do think this book gives an invaluable helicopter view of the history of Western Philosophy that is both accessible and often profound.

I once received my lowest mark in my degree for saying pretty much what Russell says here about his mate Dewey - I am rather proud of the fact that I've only discovered our shared view now - twenty years later. I’ve always found Instrumentalism (otherwise known as Pragmatism) a thoroughly unsatisfactory philosophical standpoint, despite both James and Dewey seeming to be nice enough people in themselves. My main problem with the total rejection of the possibility of any sense that there might be ‘truth’ (which Russell, as might be expected, confines to logical statements) has always had a bit of a smell about it. When I said this in a class paper at Uni I was nearly lynched by both the lecturer (a declared Instrumentalist) and the other students (who knew better than I which side their bread was buttered). I think Russell’s arguments in this section are similar to the ones I tried to make, but are made in a way that is infinitely clearer than I was capable of at the time - a time when I was keen to seem very 'philosophic' ie, totally unclear. Essentially, I've always thought that to move away from discussing the ‘truth’ of statements and to instead consider their ‘efficacy’ is a slippery slope and one that can all too easily bring us to splash down into logical and moral difficulties.

His discussion of Bergson’s philosophy was enough to ensure I will never read anything by Bergson. I find irrationalism dull and, what is even worse, mind-numbingly ‘poetic’ in the very worst sense of that word. Sometimes one needs to be obscure because what you are trying to say does not allow you to be immediately clear. However, as Russell displays so beautifully in this book, that is rarely really necessary and the onus is on the writer to make it clear why being turgid or obscure to the point of impenetrability is in either the interests of the reader or the writer.

What is best about this book is that it has inspired me to read some more Plato (I started his complete dialogues some time ago, but things got in the way.) Russell's discussion of Socrates and his relationship to Plato is worth reading the book on its own. Plato is a fascinating character, not least because it seems a case can be made that he became increasingly less convinced of his theory of forms as his dialogues went on. Given that this is the core of his system, this would seem somewhat of a problem.

The book ends by saying that a consistent philosophy that takes into consideration Quantum Theory is still to be written - as little as I know of modern philosophy, I would imagine the intervening 60 years have done little to correct this want. Quantum Theory still remains an enigma and all too often leaves the door wide open for all types of very silly ideas.

This is a book that repays the effort of reading it – it is not a short introduction by any means (being over 800 pages), but it is only a difficult read when he discusses philosophers like Hegel and Bergson who are notoriously difficult anyway. For what this book sets out to do – pretty much, give the average reader an overview of Western Philosophical thought and its place within Western Culture and History, it does a remarkable job. Although I still think it is very handy as a ready reference on a great many philosophers – it is much better, as I've found, to have read it all first.
56 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read A History of Western Philosophy.
Sign In »

Quotes Trevor Liked

Bertrand Russell
“Leibniz was somewhat mean about money. When any young lady at the court of Hanover married, he used to give her what he called a "wedding present," consisting of useful maxims, ending up with the advice not to give up washing now that she had secured a husband. History does not record whether the brides were grateful. ”
Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

Reading Progress

01/30/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-25 of 25) (25 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Meen (new)

Meen Russell is a remarkably clear writer (something that for a philosopher really is worth commenting on and something that deserves the highest praise).

Thank you for saying that.

message 2: by C. (new)

C. I use the male pronoun not simply because Russell also uses it throughout, but because all of the philosophers discussed sport a Y-chromosome.

Thank you.

(The rest of the review is great, too!)

Trevor It is a sad thing that I can be thanked for stating the obvious - sad in what it says about the world, I think.

Thanks to both of you too.

Helen (Helena/Nell) I've always wanted to read this book because when I've read BR in extract I've liked his style enormously. Also it's a book I've always thought I ought to have read. I don't suppose I ever WILL read it unless I live to be really really old, but I did enjoy this review. Maybe I'll dip . . .

Trevor Try the Socrates and Plato bits - I found them terribly interesting.

message 6: by Eric_W (last edited Jul 04, 2009 06:26AM) (new) - added it

Eric_W Great review. I always learn something from your reviews. Sounds like you were developing a rash to post-modernism already at the Uni. :)

Trevor I always count my fingers after shaking hands with the there-is-no-truth guys. I've always guessed they are trying to take me for a ride.

message 8: by Jason (new)

Jason It is a wonderful review, Trevor, even if this fairly committed pragmatist smarts a little at your swipes. (Who you callin' instrumentalist?) Funny, my intro-to-Phil prof was a committed analytic philosopher, 'though more committed to Ayer than Russell, and I recall sputtering (i.e., impotently trying to compete) as he got the entire class to agree that censorship was an indisputable social good.

I wouldn't say there is no truth as much as no Truth, or lots of truths. At the risk of incurring scorn (or paranoia--your fingers are safe with me, particularly at this distance), I'd toss out a pretty good lawyer for our defense: Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity .

Trevor Isn't it funny that the best things about this site are also the most challenging? I've no idea when I'm going to get time to read half of the books people recommend - but if I can track this one down (WorldCat says it is only available in two libraries in the world and they are half a world away and my local bookshops don't have it - which means having to get it through Amazon and the shipping costs are tragic... Still, I'll keep an eye out for it.

Yes, I know the feeling - I went from a Nietzsche freak to a pragmatist - my problems with both being they seemed much more concerned with convincing me what to think rather than how to think. What disturbed me more was that in both cases the majority of the class went along with the views of the lecturer - I received my worst marks in my degree for both of these subjects - who knows, possibly for good reason. After one lecture where I did the whole crucify-me-for-my-beliefs-if-you-must thing a couple of people stopped me in the hall outside the lecture to tell me how brave I was - and I kept thinking of that line by Gorky, "The brave are stupid."

Helen (Helena/Nell) And look, here you are, still being brave.

And . . . er . . . truthful.

Trevor or something

message 12: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Trevor wrote: "Try the Socrates and Plato bits - I found them terribly interesting."

Just got to this part of the book, and my interest has increased ten-fold (it also got me reading Plato).

Great review, Trevor.

message 13: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Dec 16, 2009 11:54AM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Russell gives Plato and Hegel (especially) a big ol' spanking in the first chapter of Unpopular Essays. Here's a good overview:

Trevor Thanks Bram.

I've no interest in arguing Hegel with you MFSO. You might find it interesting to read what Russell had to say on Nietzsche, though. Most people say it is a complete misreading of Nietzsche's works and intent. Sometimes Russell has a problem with telling the difference between baby and bathwater.

message 15: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Dec 16, 2009 01:04PM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Yeah, I know. I actually just found it interesting in a way that's outside of the purview of our last argument about Hegel. It's more about political implications of Plato and Hegel, nothing about ontological or even logical issues like the ones we clashed over. I feel like things haven't been the same between us since then. I hope you can forgive me for losing my temper in that thread. And I'm happy to just let the disagreement go. I think we exhausted it anyway and reigniting it would just be an exercise in repeating ourselves.

I have actually read the section on Nietzsche in this book and definitely agree with most Nietzsche scholars that Russell displays how little of Nietzsche's work he actually took the time to read more than anything else. Though to be fair, he makes one or two cogent points in there as well. I'm no worshiper of Nietzsche and agree that he was quite wrong about a fair number of things. I still find his work fascinating and useful.

message 16: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Dec 16, 2009 01:08PM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I also enjoyed your review. Not sure if you noticed my vote or not. It's made me reconsider giving this book a read, or at least some parts of it. I think I'll take your advice and check out the sections on Socrates and Plato. Which will likely make me want to look at Russell's take on Aristotle as well, whom I find more fascinating than his predecessors.

Trevor Hegel was an arsehole - he says somewhere that wars are like a breath of fresh air across the swamp of history. And Aristotle thought women were basically botched men (my experience has been rather the opposite) and that slaves are slaves and always shall remain so. I would hate to think someone would cast Aristotle aside unread on the basis of some rather obnoxious views he held.

I haven't been as active on the site since our disagreement - but that has not been due to the disagreement. That just proved to happen at the same time as a rather busy period for me unfortunately. Like you, I don't think revisiting dialectics would prove at all worthwhile.

message 18: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Dec 16, 2009 01:58PM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Haha, "revisiting dialectics." You're a funny and clever one, Trevor. Glad to see things are alright between us.

My main reason that I can't see myself picking up Hegel again anytime soon is that, as Russell points out, his work is the most difficult to read in all of western philosophy. He makes Kant look clear and concise. Of course, this is a complaint more about writing styles and perhaps things lost in translation through both historical and language differences and says nothing about the force of their ideas.

Trevor A philosophy lecturer I once had told me (and I've never been able to check if it is true) that many German philosophy students read Kant in English translation as he is easier to understand in English than in German. That may be total crap - but if it is true, god help us all.

message 20: by [deleted user] (new)

I just finished this book and found your review helpful, but still inadequate. I can't find Aristotle or Plato very interesting, can't read Hegel, can barely read Kant, and I'm a Buddhist, which I suppose you would classify as irrational. You will find my remarks on Nietzsche totally unstudied and unschooled. I never had a philosophy course, and if you turn to my full review on my blog, you'll see that I confess to not having "the philosophic mind."

Anyway, thanks for your readings of some of the philosophers. I have only Russell and myself as guides, so I will continue naive until, probably, the Rapture. (Kidding.) BTW, I don't sport the Y-chromosome either.

Trevor My reviews tend to be inadequate - hard to summarise a book of this length in a few hundred words and not be inadequate, but glad it was also helpful.

I'm anything but a philosopher too. I like the idea of being a lover of wisdom, but am probably more a lover of stuff. Stuff doesn't need to be nearly so certain or so up-itself for me to find it interesting.

I'm surprised you can't find any of the philosophers you've listed interesting - your blog implies otherwise. Aristotle is a good read, although harder than Russell at times. His Ethics is terribly interesting. I keep meaning to go back and read it again, but other things get in the way.

About being a Buddhist - I wouldn't worry what someone like me might think of that, who am I to judge? I quite like the way we Westerners have appropriated Buddhism. It is a hell of a lot nicer version of Buddhism than any extant in the East, as far as I can tell. As for being irrational - there are worse ways of being irrational too, I guess. If you're Buddhism amounts to not eating animals and thinking you are at one with the universe that is hardly something I can be bothered getting too worked up about. Russell, of course, was anything but complimentary about Buddhist politics - in fact, he was scathing about Tibet. But as I said, our Western version tends to be much nicer.

Nietzsche is a hard case. I think Russell misrepresents him, but if anyone was begging to be misrepresented it was Nietzsche. He writes in ways that actively cover what he is actually trying to say - at least, I've never read a book of his where I've taken from it what philosophers who read him take from it. But I find obsessions with being individuals and individualism - your concern with will in your blog - my main worry with him. As a culture we are far too obsessed with ourselves as individuals - it would be better if we got over ourselves a bit more.

And as for the Y-chromosome, from all I can gather of the world they are probably best avoided if one possibly can.

message 22: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Nice review. Very interesting. I want to ask did you read
"a crossing or the drop's history" by Anatoliy Obraztsov?

Trevor No, I'd never heard of it. I've read a review here on good reads now, but don't think I would like it very much.

message 24: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Trevor wrote: "No, I'd never heard of it. I've read a review here on good reads now, but don't think I would like it very much."

I've read it too. Ugly review for promotion.On Amazon is great review about this book. So, recommend follow it to understand what this book about.

Trevor I've read a review on Amazon now - it starts:

"If you're looking for a scientific argument for the soul, or even a scientific explanation of the soul then this is not the book you're looking for. If, however, you're seeking an understanding of the life of the soul and its current place in evolution from a place of pure belief (or knowing, depending on how you look at it) with no pretense of trying to prove anything to anybody, then you have come to the right place."

As someone who does not believe in the existence of souls - or even know what 'soul' could possibly mean - I really don't think this is the book for me.

back to top