A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

2 June 2009

Yes, still horribly backlogged in both my review posts and my non-review posts. Here’s a nice chewy review for the moment; when I have a few spare minutes to clean up another post or two, I hope to have more to talk about.

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

In the early 1940s, British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell was living in the United States, attempting to find a job and attempting to hold his fast-dissolving third marriage together. He had lost several previous teaching posts, some because of financial difficulties at the scholarly institutions to which he had applied and some because he had fallen out with his employers, and the war made it all but impossible for him to try to return to England. Public protests against his controversial writings on sex and marriage had prevented him from taking an appointment at the College of the City of New York, and he was only saved from complete financial collapse by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which offered him a post teaching the history of philosophy. Very short on cash, and struggling to keep both his personal and professional lives afloat, he compiled his Barnes Foundation lectures into a single comprehensive survey of the history of Western philosophy and published them in 1945 under the straightforward title A History of Western Philosophy. Russell’s history became an unexpected best-seller, saved him from complete financial ruin, and provided an steady income stream upon which he would depend for the rest of his life. Indeed, the book was a strong contributor to the body of literature for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1950 — and today, outside of the philosophical and mathematical communities, is possibly second only to Why I Am Not a Christian as the work for which Russell is best known today.

Russell divides his History of Western Philosophy into three parts, focusing on ancient (Greek and Roman) philosophy up through the third century CE, Catholic philosophy (which also includes bits about Jewish and Islamic philosophy) of the Church Fathers through St Thomas Aquinas and up to the Renaissance, and modern philosophy from the 1500s through the early 20th century and Russell’s own works. The first two parts receive much more attention than the final part, mainly because Russell’s attempts to show the founding principles and evoluation of various philosophical schools of thought require him to delve deeply into the works of the most influential ancient philosophers, particularly Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle. Russell makes very little pretense of being objective in his comments; it is more than clear which philosophers he likes and which he dislikes. Aristotle’s Ethics, for example, have an ’emotional poverty’ that ‘will be useful to comfortable men of weak passions’ — he acknowledges the work’s effect and influence on future generations of philosophers, but dismisses the work itself (and, for that matter, much of Aristotle’s other work). In contrast, he has high praise for Spinoza as both a person and a philosopher — in Russell’s words, Spinoza is ‘the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers’ — and the loving descriptions and generous assessments carry through the description of the man’s life and personality and into his work. Comments such as these make for alternately interesting and frustrating reading matter, all the way through the nearly 900-page book covering nearly three millennia of philosophic history.

In his autobiography, Russell defended his approach to the History of Western Philosophy by stating that ‘a man without bias cannot write interesting history’. Yet one conclusion which appears to be nearly universal among reviewers (including this reviewer) is that the History of Western Philosophy reveals far more about Russell’s own biases, prejudices, and personal philosophies than it does about those of any individual philosopher or philosophic tradition he surveys. He is prone to making authorial comments that may raise a few eyebrows, such as his remarks on Jewish history during the time of the Maccabees: ‘In enduring and resisting persecution the Jews of this time showed immense heroism, although in defence of things that do not strike us as important, such as circumcision and the wickedness of eating pork’ (316). In another digression, Russell’s strong belief in the need for a world government creeps into his discussion of Thomas Hobbes’ writings on the government: ‘Every argument that [Hobbes] adduces in favour of government…is valid in favour of international government. So long as national States exist and fight each other, only inefficiency can preserve the human race. To improve the fighting quality of separate States without having any means of preventing war is the road to universal destruction’ (557). In this light, the conclusions drawn in A History of Western Philosophy makes a good deal more sense after having read Russell’s massive Autobiography — at least, having more information about Russell’s background and circumstances may reduce the general frustration of reading the book and attempting to accept the author’s often peculiar conclusions at face value. As a history of Western philosophy, there are better works available…but as a reflection and even a microcosm of Bertrand Russell’s own political philosophies, this is one instance in which the book shows far more than it tells.


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