A History of Western Philosophy  

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"With this interpretation, Nietzsche's doctrine might be stated more simply and honestly in the one sentence : "I wish I had lived in the Athens of Pericles or the Florence of the Medici" --A History of Western Philosophy (1945) by Bertrand Russell


"The philosopher Roger Scruton, writing in A Short History of Modern Philosophy, described A History of Western Philosophy as elegantly written and witty, but faulted it for Russell's concentration on pre-Cartesian philosophy, lack of understanding of Immanuel Kant, and over-generalization and omissions." --Sholem Stein


History of Western philosophy

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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.

Contents

Background

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 USA and a year later in the UK. It was re-set as a 'second edition' in 1961, but no new material was added.

Content

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

Catholic Philosophy

Modern Philosophy

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.

Reviews

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

"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

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


"He did it to make money, he wrote it fast. Bertrand Russell was a great philosopher but a terrible historian." – Edward Pols, Professor of Philosophy and William J. Kenan Professor of the Humanities, 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."

References

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





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