Book Review: A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell (audio version)

“You mock, dude!”

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a lively philosopher and prodigious writer known for his biting wit. Russell was deeply involved with the social issues of his day and spent time in prison for his efforts–for his pacifists views during World War I, and again for his anti-nuke protests in his 80’s(!). He was stripped of his professorship at my alma mater CCNY for being unfit, thus becoming a cause celeb for Einstein and others during the ’40’s. Today he is remembered for his popular books on philosophy, and his mathematical philosophy, most especially  Principia Mathematicawhich influenced men like Kurt Godel.

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell

Russell is a transitional figure. He came of age before WW I and is steeped in the Western tradition. During his long life the authority of the Western Canon–thanks to two world wars–came unmoored. In many respects Russell became a typical 20th century liberal intellectual, but in several important respects he remained outside that current. First, he was a staunch anti-communist. He came to his views after visiting the Soviet Union in the early ’20’s as part of a British delegation. He, alone among the two-dozen delegates, left the Soviet Union convinced it was a tragic and failed regime propped up by terror and violence. Second, although he was an atheist (he wrote several books outlining his views), he had deep respect for Christianity and was intimately familiar with both its history and its leading thinkers, such as SS. Augustine and Aquinas. Knowledge of and respect for those with whom one disagrees is rare these days–among intellectuals at any rate.

OK, now to the matter at hand.

“There has never been a philosophy that was both complete and credible.” “Marx was the last of the school men.” These sweeping statements, both found in the chapter on Locke’s philosophy, capture the flavor of A History of Western Philosophy. Russell’s style is pithy and erudite, filled with dazzling vistas and sweeping judgments. His knowledge and grasp of history is astonishing, surpassed by only Gibbon and few others. And although the amount of material covered by the book is huge, the pace rarely flags.

The book begins with the pre-socratic Greeks and ends with the current day–current, that is, when Russell finished the book in 1945. He is extremely good at summarizing the views of others, and glides easily (Hegel being the one exception) among the details. He is generally fair at recounting the views of those with whom he disagrees. He provides context whenever possible by placing philosophers in their milieu, although this is sometimes tedious and overdone.

And this brings me to the book’s major flaw: too much general history, especially British political history. If one is unfamiliar with western history in general, this book provides a pithy and generally reliable outline of the subject. If, on the other hand, you are, like me, already familiar with the topic, you will grow impatient at the amount of ink Russell spills on general European history. Do we need one more retelling of Galileo’s troubles with the Catholic Church, or Spinoza’s with the synagogue?

Not surprising for a Brit, Russell spends a lot of time on Locke.  Although Locke remains an important philosopher, Russell tarries too long with him. Of course, that is my subjective view. He also spends too much time with Rousseau, whom he despises.

Russell, as might be expected from a philosopher of mathematics, is in the camp (with many caveats) represented by James, Dewey, and other empiricists/pragmatists. Russell holds a very dim view on the subjective currents in philosophy, represented by people like Rousseau, Hegel, and Nietzsche. He reserves his harshest judgments–and most ferocious take downs–for them. His unfortunate take down of Henri Bergson (one of my favorites) shows Russell at his bullying worst–building and demolishing straw men with abandon. Luckily, these passages are few and Russell most often seems a man of almost inhuman patience and fairness.

I read and reread Russell’s volume when I was young. I loved the book and became a Russell enthusiast for several years. Many of his books remain in my library even now, including this one. For all its flaws, the History is still an unbeatable introduction to philosophy. Reading–listening–to it now, I am bemused to discover how much of the furniture of my early intellectual life was furnished by Russell’s writings.

For this review I listened to the 38-hour audio version from Audible, narrated by Jonathan Keeble, which I gave 5 stars. Kebble, by the way, is absolutely a first-rate narrator, and is pitch perfect for this book.



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