A History of Western Philosophy

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A History of Western Philosophy
History of Western Philosophy.jpeg
First UK edition
Author Bertrand Russell
Subject Western Philosophy, History
Publisher Simon & Schuster (US)
George Allen & Unwin Ltd (UK)
Publication date
1945 (US)
1946 (UK)
ISBN 0-415-32505-6

A History of Western Philosophy[1] is a 1945 book by philosopher Bertrand Russell. A survey 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.[2] 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.

Ancient Philosophy[edit]

Catholic Philosophy[edit]

Modern Philosophy[edit]

Reaction and aftermath[edit]

The reception of the book was mixed, especially from academic reviewers. Russell was somewhat dismayed at the reaction.[3] 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.[4]

Russell himself described the text as a work of social history, asking that it be treated in such a manner.[5]


"A precious book ... a work that is in the highest degree pedagogical which stands above the conflicts of parties and opinions." – Albert Einstein[5]

"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[6]

"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[7]

"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[8]

"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[9]

"History of Western Philosophy, a vulgar, but representative book." – George Steiner[10]

"He did it to make money, he wrote it fast. Bertrand Russell was a great philosopher but a dreadful historian." – Edward Pols

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."[5]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ Russell, B: "A History of Western Philosophy", page xi. Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1972
  3. ^ Monk p. 296
  4. ^ Scruton, R: "Short History of Modern Philosophy ", Routledge, 2001
  5. ^ a b c Russell, B: "The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell", Routledge, 2000
  6. ^ Grayling, A. C.: "Russell: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)", Oxford University Press, 2002
  7. ^ Roberts, L: "Review of History of Western Philosophy", Isis, 38(1948): 268–270
  8. ^ Boas, G: "Review of History of Western Philosophy", Journal of the History of Ideas, 8(1947): 117–123
  9. ^ Erwin Schrödinger (1996). 'Nature and the Greeks' and 'Science and Humanism'. Cambridge University Press. p. 4. ISBN 9780521575508. 
  10. ^ Steiner, G: "Martin Heidegger", University of Chicago Press, 1991


  • Ray Monk (2000). Bertrand Russell. The Ghost of Madness. London. 

External links[edit]