A History of Western Philosophy
|Subject||Western Philosophy, History|
|Publisher||George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London|
A History of Western Philosophy is a 1945 book by philosopher Bertrand Russell. A conspectus of Western philosophy from the pre-Socratic philosophers to the early 20th century, it was criticised for its over-generalization and its omissions, particularly from the post-Cartesian period, but nevertheless became a popular and commercial success, and has remained in print from its first publication. When Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, the book was cited as one of those that won him the award. The book provided Russell with financial security for the last part of his life.
The book was written during the Second World War, having its origins in a series of lectures on the history of philosophy that Russell gave at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia during 1941 and 1942. Much of the historical research was done by Russell's third wife Patricia. In 1943, Russell received an advance of $3000 from the publishers, and between 1943 and 1944 he wrote the book while living at Bryn Mawr College. The book was published in 1945 in the United States and a year later in the UK. It was re-set as a 'new edition' in 1961, but no new material was added. Corrections and minor revisions were made to printings of the British first edition and for 1961's new edition; no corrections seem to have been transferred to the American edition (even Spinoza's birth year remains wrong).
The work is divided into three books, each of which is subdivided into chapters; each chapter generally deals with a single philosopher, school of philosophy, or period of time.
- The Pre-Socratics (including Thales, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, Democritus and Protagoras)
- Socrates, Plato and Aristotle
- Ancient Philosophy after Aristotle (including the Cynics, Sceptics, Epicureans, Stoics and Plotinus)
- The Fathers (including developments in Jewish philosophy, Islamic philosophy (which he calls Mohammedan throughout, after the fashion of his time), St Ambrose, St Jerome, St Augustine, St Benedict and Pope Gregory the Great)
- The Schoolmen (including John the Scot and St Thomas Aquinas)
- From the Renaissance to Hume (including Machiavelli, Erasmus, More, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley and Hume)
- From Rousseau to the Present Day (including Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Byron, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, the Utilitarians, Marx, Bergson, William James and John Dewey)
- The last chapter in this section, The Philosophy of Logical Analysis, is concerned with Russell's own philosophical views at the time.
Reaction and aftermath
The reception of the book was mixed, especially from academic reviewers. Russell was somewhat dismayed at the reaction. Roger Scruton writes that the book is elegantly written and witty, but faults it for its concentration on pre-Cartesian philosophy, lack of understanding of Immanuel Kant, and over-generalization and omissions.
Russell himself described the text as a work of social history, asking that it be treated in such a manner.
"Parts of this famous book are sketchy ... in other respects it is a marvelously readable, magnificently sweeping survey of Western thought, distinctive for placing it informatively into its historical context. Russell enjoyed writing it, and the enjoyment shows; his later remarks about it equally show that he was conscious of its shortcomings." – A. C. Grayling
"Mr. Russell's qualities as a writer and thinker ... are of a high order: deftness of wit, vigor of mind and suppleness of style. Yet their presence ... do not save the book ... from being perhaps the worst that Mr. Russell has written.... As one would expect, the author is at his best when dealing with present day ideas, if for no other reason than his large share in their inception.... By contrast, his treatment of ancient and medieval doctrines is nearly worthless." – Leo Roberts
"A History of Western Philosophy errs consistently in this respect. Its author never seems to be able to make up his mind whether he is writing history or polemic.... [Its method] confers on philosophers who are dead and gone a kind of false contemporaneity which may make them seem important to the uninitiate. But nevertheless it is a misreading of history." – George Boas
"Indeed, within the short period of one or two years several books had been published, whose authors were not classical scholars but were primarily interested in the scientific and philosophic thought of today; yet they had devoted a very substantial part of the scholarly labour embodied in their books to expounding and scrutinizing the earliest roots of modern thought in ancient writings. ...There is the marvellous History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, on whose manifold merits I need not and cannot enlarge here..." – Erwin Schrödinger
"He did it to make money, he wrote it fast. Bertrand Russell was a great philosopher but a dreadful historian." – Edward Pols, Professor of Philosophy and William J. Kenan Professor of the Humanities Emeritus, Bowdoin College
Russell himself had something to say about the book: "I regarded the early part of my History of Western Philosophy as a history of culture, but in the later parts, where science becomes important, it is more difficult to fit into this framework. I did my best, but I am not at all sure that I succeeded. I was sometimes accused by reviewers of writing not a true history but a biased account of the events that I arbitrarily chose to write of. But to my mind, a man without bias cannot write interesting history — if, indeed, such a man exists."
A comparison of the biases of Bertrand Russell, to the biases of his critics could have great explanatory value. Russell was definitely biased toward evidence-based thinking free from fear, hope, and prejudice. This bias he clearly states. Russell's actions demonstrated an intellectual courage rarely seen. His effort to make explicit and share the good ideas of human history is a treasure in our human legacy. His inquiry free from reverence and distain is continually demonstrated in his works. Compare Russell's bias, action, and works with those of his critics.
- A History of Philosophy by Frederick Copleston
- Lectures on the Philosophy of History by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
- Full title A History of Western Philosophy And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day – the indefinite article was deleted in the British editions
- Russell, B: "A History of Western Philosophy", page xi. Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1972
- Monk p. 296
- Scruton, R: "Short History of Modern Philosophy ", Routledge, 2001
- Russell, B: "The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell", Routledge, 2000
- Grayling, A. C.: "Russell: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)", Oxford University Press, 2002
- Roberts, L: "Review of History of Western Philosophy", Isis, 38(1948): 268–270
- Boas, G: "Review of History of Western Philosophy", Journal of the History of Ideas, 8(1947): 117–123
- Erwin Schrödinger (1996). 'Nature and the Greeks' and 'Science and Humanism'. Cambridge University Press. p. 4. ISBN 9780521575508.
- Steiner, G: "Martin Heidegger", University of Chicago Press, 1991
- name=Russell, B., "Understanding History", Philosophical Library, NY, 1957
- Russell, B., "Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits", London: George Allen & Unwin., 1948.
- Ray Monk (2000). Bertrand Russell. The Ghost of Madness. London.