Bertrand Russell : A History of Western Philosophy

I’d had high expectations of this book, and I wasn’t disappointed. Since reading it I’m very much a confirmed Bertrand Russell fan, and if I was in the habit of putting pictures of my heroes on the wall, I’m sure his would be among them. The full title of the book is A History of Western Philosophy And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, and the preface to the edition I read starts as follows:

Many histories of philosophy exist, and it has not been my purpose merely to add one to their number. My purpose is to exhibit philosophy as an integral part of social and political life: not as the isolated speculations of remarkable individuals, but as both an effect and a cause of the character of the various communities in which different systems flourished.

In other words, Russell wants to put philosophy into its social and political context, and I think he succeeds very well. That said, and excellent though this book is, it could still have been better if Russell had spent slightly less time on the Middle Ages and on people like Plotinus, St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and dealt more fully with the much more interesting philosophers of the last few centuries. Ever since I started to look into western philosophy in any detail, I’ve become more and more convinced that although many of the pre-Socratic philosophers, certainly up to Democritus, did their best to search for truth in an honest, dispassionate and careful manner, things went rapidly downhill from there on. While people like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle certainly were great thinkers and had some brilliant ideas, the basis of their thought was fundamentally flawed, and they sent philosophy off in completely the wrong direction. As soon as it fell into the hands of the Christians things got even worse, and we have to wait till the Renaissance before they gradually start to improve and get back on the right track. Only with people like Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant can we really say that honest, unprejudiced investigation has regained its rightful place. Reading this book I see plenty of evidence that Russell would more or less agree with this analysis, so why does he waste so much time on the Middle Ages, rather than moving on more quickly to something more interesting? If and when I read this book again, there are large sections which I shall be skipping! (more…)