Name: History of Western Philosophy
Author: Bertrand Russell
Series: Routledge Classics
Edition/ Impression / Year of Publication: First Published 1946/ Reprint 2016
Cover Design: Keenan
Often quoted as one of the reasons that won Bertrand Russel a Nobel Prize in Literature, History of Western Philosophy is a historical account and survey of the entire Western Philosophy since the beginning of it in Greece, 6th Century B.C. Moreover, it also works as an excellent introductory reading for those who are new to Philosophy.
History of Western Philosophy is admired by the then contemporary scientists like Einstein and Schrodinger but with admiration also comes criticism. Russell is often criticised for having a biased view to which he replies in his Autobiography, ‘A man without bias cannot write interesting history if, indeed, such a man exists.’ Still the reader could hold him guilty of bias for the fact that his writing style always fluctuates within his work where he sometimes writes as a Historian on Philosophy and sometimes as a Philosopher.
On the criteria used by Russell in his book he says, ‘The problem of selection, in such a book as the present, is very difficult. Without detail, a book becomes jejune and uninteresting; with detail, it is in danger of becoming intolerably lengthy. I have sought a compromise, by treating only those philosophers who seem to me to have considerable importance, and mentioning, in connection with them, such details as, even if not of fundamental importance, have value on account of some illustrative or vivifying quality.’ One might not, like me, be happy to see that Heidegger did not meet the above criteria and is left out in the book. Other reason that one might fantasize about because of which he might be missed is that Russell was a typical English Philosopher and Heidegger a German and one might assume that the translations to the works of Heidegger might not be available to Russell at the time when the book was first published that is in 1946. It was only in the year 1959 when one finds Russell quoting Heidegger for the first time and most probably for the last time as well (I have so far been through many of his books and still have not yet found another entry upon him) in his Wisdom of the West.
For Russell, Philosophy is a No Man’s Land that lies in between the definite knowledge of Science and the dogmas of Theology. Of the relationship between Science, Theology, and Philosophy he says, ‘Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that Philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.’
Talking of Philosophers and the way he has systematized the philosophy of each he says, ‘Philosophers are both effects and causes: effects of their social circumstances and of the politics and institutions of their time; causes (if they are fortunate) of beliefs which mould the politics and institutions of later ages. In most histories of Philosophy, each philosopher appears as in vacuum; his opinions are set forth unrelated except, at most, to those of earlier philosophers. I have tried, on the contrary, to exhibit each philosopher, as far as truth permits, as an outcome of his milieu, a man in whom were crystallized and concentrated thoughts and feelings which, in vague and diffused form, were common to the community of which he was a part.’
One must not take up the book for the sake of researched content that one might find within but only to embrace and take a glimpse of the whole Western Philosophy. Russell, being an academic philosopher who criticized Nietzsche for being more literary instead of academic, his writing style one would find is itself ordinary, well accustomed to the general reader, not academic in any sense and suits well to a non-academic reader. The reason behind this might be that in later years of his life due to the immense popularity and his activism against the possible threat of Nuclear War; he was addressing the general public at large and almost limited his formal academic university style writing.
The book is divided into three parts, Ancient, Catholic and Modern Philosophy. The further division goes on within each section with the name of the concerned Philosopher and upon whose Philosophy the chapter deals with. The first episode is on the Pre-Socratics and this chapter likewise every other chapter in the book is accompanied by a short introduction and then the central philosophy of the philosopher concerned. In the last episode, The Philosophy of Logical Analysis, Russell expounds his Philosophy. His wife Patricia has supported and assisted Russell well in completing his research on this broad subject on the History of Western Philosophy.
The book apparently lacks in details compared to the more well-researched books that are now available on the subject. Still, indeed it is the book that I would recommend to those who like to begin with the History of Philosophy, not because of the researched content that one might find within it, but purely for the joy and love of Philosophy and the way it is communicated within the book.