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A History of Western Philosophy

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell is Russell’s attempt to show the readers how western philosophy evolved from the beginnings of human civilization until the 1950’s.

The book is a huge tome of knowledge. The scope is epic and Russell gets around more or less every important philosophical movement. Each chapter generally deals with a philosopher or a philosophy (though sometimes several chapters are needed to adequately explain a single philosophy). This makes it a bit easier to read as you can read it in small bites. But this is still a very hard book to read. Every chapter builds on top of the previous chapters and unless you are philosophically versed to begin with, you’ll have to read it cover to cover.

I found the content to be quite interesting but uneven. Interesting because I have an interest in philosophy and history, uneven because some philosophies are covered more than others or that some philosophies are more explained compared to others. Russell spends a long time outlining Aristotle and Plato but others are skipped more quickly past. I also found the explanations lacking. In some chapters, Russell describes the philosophy for the layman (like me!) and in other chapters, you would have to have preexisting knowledge of philosophy to understand it. Another thing I disliked was the personal commentary that appeared suddenly. While I am under no illusion that this is a completely objective work, the small personal commentaries really makes you doubt sometimes whether a fair description was being given of the philosophy. Sometimes Russell jumps to modern times while writing about an ancient philosophy, which is really distracting because you might know what happened, and would have to research a bit to find out why Russell makes the allegory to modern times. The last few chapters can similarly be disregarded completely as it is his own work that he discusses and in that sense the verdict is still out.

Overall it is a magnificent book. I am not aware of other books with such a breadth of concepts or have such a great scope. Read this if you are interested in philosophy or history. Beware of the personal opinions of Russell which shines through the entire book, if you can keep those separated, then you’ll enjoy this book.

3 out of 5 stars.