History of Western philosophy and its connection with political and social circumstances from the earliest times to the present day

by Bertrand Russell

Paper Book, 1979



Call number




London : Unwin Paperbacks, 1979, pr. 1980


First published in 1946, History of Western Philosophy went on to become the best-selling philosophy book of the twentieth century. A dazzlingly ambitious project, it remains unchallenged to this day as the ultimate introduction to Western philosophy. Providing a sophisticated overview of the ideas that have perplexed people from time immemorial, it is 'long on wit, intelligence and curmudgeonly scepticism', as the New York Times noted, and it is this, coupled with the sheer brilliance of its scholarship, that has made Russell's History of Western Philosophy one of t

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LibraryThing member BrianDewey
Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. Touchstone, New York, 1972. This is perhaps the most important book I've read in a long time. I picked it up to read at the beginning of Christmas vacation 2000 because I'm making myself read through the books I have but have never read. I
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expected something dry that would be a torture to get through and be a burden for six months or more (the book is 800+ pages, and I remember how long it took to get through Ulysses. glad to say this wasn't the case at all. I was pleasantly surprised on several levels. First, Bertrand Russell's writing style is incredibly witty and for the most part easy to follow. Second, the subject matter was intensely interesting. The book really operates on two levels: philosophy (of which I know much of the basics) and history (of which I'm embarassingly ignorant). The book is surprisingly light on the philosophy; those looking for a primer will be better off with Durant's The Story of Philosophy. What I found both enjoyable and fascinating was seeing the philosophy put into a historical context. This book was so interesting on the historical front, in fact, that it's inspired me to read my eight volumes of Gibbon. Finally, the fact this book was written in 1945 illustrates the importance of philosophy and clear thinking like nothing else. From the perspective of 2001, philosophy seems a dry subject, isolated in the Ivory Tower, with no bearing on reality. It's a good reminder that 56 years ago, differences of political philosophy tore the world apart. This book traces the development of those philosophical ideas through the millenia. Just as it is important to never forget the Holocaust, it is important to understand the philosophies that made the Holocaust possible, to understand their fallacies, and to fight against those fallacies as they threaten to emerge again.
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LibraryThing member neurodrew
I started this book after having it on my shelves since college, although I vaguely remember a spasm of self improvement in which I had read the first chapter. I spent many airplane hours with a copy of it on the Kindle, and found that that eased the process of highlighting and saving favorite
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passages, of which there were many. Russell’s style is clear, opinionated, acerbic, and he has a tremendous erudition. Starting with the ancient Greeks, stopping with William James and John Dewey, philosophers that Russell knew, he tries to put the thoughts of the philosophers in the context of their times. He obviously has prejudices against Communism, and is neutral to hostile to religion, but he covers the great church fathers of early medieval times and Thomas Aquinas with care. This book was prepared from public lectures delivered at the Barne’s foundation in 1943, and probably is too breezy to satisfy the professional philosopher. It is necessarily dated, but Russell’s voice remains clear and compelling.
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LibraryThing member billmcn
Acerbic, comprehensive, and completely accessible. In addition to providing lively precis of the ideas of all the major figures of western philosophy, Russell shows how substantive ideas can be discussed without lapsing into needless obscurantism and proper name worship. If only the rest of
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academia shared his admirable lack of B.S.
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LibraryThing member MarcusBastos
This book its about philosophers (some of them) and philosophies. Russell, in a clear and concise style, exposes the ideas and the social context of the most important philosophers in the Western until Dewey. The philosophers’s main arguments are examined and criticized. Russell gives his
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thoughts about the main questions and presents the alternatives one may have when study the distincts systems of thought conceived by different men in diverse epocs. An amazing work about philosophy.
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LibraryThing member hellbent
This book is a terrific overview of philosophy and good introduction into individual schools and thinkers.
LibraryThing member Sunyidean
This book is valuable, not only for introduction it provides into philosophy, but for the compassion and integrity with which it is presented.

Bertrand Russell writes,

"When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow
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true, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true. This exercise of historical and psychological imagination at once enlarges the scope of our thinking and helps us to realize how foolish many of our own cherished prejudices will seem to an age which has a different temper of mind." (p. 39)

No truer words were ever spoken. (I often wish that other people would attempt to understand my point of view, as - I hope - I attempt to understand theirs, rather than just assuming I'm uninformed or misguided.) We like to think that we are superior to our predecessors, that we are the inheritors of an enlightened age - but perhaps it would be more accurate to simply say that we are inheritors.
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LibraryThing member yapete
Still one of the best introductions to western philosophy.
LibraryThing member TysonAdams
An important point was left out of this book: The history of philosophy is also a history of drunks.

Bertrand Russell has attempted to give a brief overview of the History of Western Philosophy. In this 900 page tome he touches on the major figures, major fields of thought, and the socio-political
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backgrounds that influenced (and were influenced by) them. Russell also offers up some critique on these aspects, because it wouldn't be a philosophy book if it wasn't doing so.

This description sounds like anathema to entertaining reading, and it would be if it wasn't being tackled by someone like Russell. Bertrand has a very clear, concise, and accessible writing style, and is easily able to explain in plain language even the most complex of philosophical ideas. Normally reading philosophy reminds me of reading genetics textbooks, as it is overstuffed with pedantry and jargon, Russell makes it feel like he is uses no jargon or technical terms.

It should also be noted that Russell is snarky to the point that you find yourself having to laugh and share his comment with someone. His comments are withering and witty, but they also serve as a great way of highlighting the flaws with certain arguments or "great" thinkers. If there are a few takeaway points from this book it is that the great minds were way ahead of their time, but that those same minds were confined by the structures of their time. It makes you wonder how many of today's ideas are going to look silly and biased to future peoples.

This isn't really a book to read about certain philosophers, nor fields of thought. A History of Western Philosophy is more a cliff notes version of several thousand years of thinking. Definitely an emphasis on the history and context. And it is all viewed through Russell's eyes, his snarky, snarky, eyes.
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LibraryThing member Ramirez
An encyclopedic account of the main thinkers of the Western tradition from a brilliant thinker.
LibraryThing member NaggedMan
An extraordinary book. Very much a personal perspective, we get the author's view on the value and the rights and wrongs of almost every philosopher he mentions. To the non-philosopher (like me!) the issues with which philosophers have grappled through most of history now seem of little interest
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and less importance. In later centuries, the thinkers seem to immerse themselves in perspectives that seem wilfully incoherent - for example, the metaphysical idea that there is no 'real world', that what we perceive as 'real things' such as a shovel, are only 'real' to the extent that we perceive them. Whether there's value in such debate is very hard to grasp. Its as though the philosopher is inventing concepts in order to explore them. On completing the book I started looking for an explanation of philosophy as studied 'today'.
Wikipedia's entry on metaphysics suggests that little progress is ever made:
"The strong, classical view assumes that the objects studied by metaphysics exist independently of any observer, so that the subject is the most fundamental of all sciences. The weak, modern view assumes that the objects studied by metaphysics exist inside the mind of an observer, so the subject becomes a form of introspection and conceptual analysis."
Clearly, there is a difference (sometime subtle, sometimes deep and significant) between an object itself (a dining table for example) and the object as perceived by a particular individual at a particular time. My kitchen table is sometimes simply utilitarian - I eat my breakfast and read the paper without giving the table much if any thought. If we have guests for an informal meal, the table has more significance - is it clean? Is it cluttered? Is it big enough?
If there's some real(!) value in employing university departments to study - over decades and centuries - the subtleties of what is real and what is unreal in my relationship with the kitchen table, I've not yet comprehended the nature of that value.
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LibraryThing member peterallenwebb
A very good book. Russell can be an engaging writer, and he is here. I love this particular book because it is written for smart people who don't neccessarily know a lot about philosophy. It's a great introduction. That said, Russell is openly biased for and against certain philosophers and
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schools, and this may turn some readers off.
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LibraryThing member AlexTheHunn
I am no philosopher. I have no formal training in the matter. Russell's work astounds me. I drink it in thirstily and still want more. He has the facility for explaining without condescending or diluting.
LibraryThing member ehines
I don't think for a moment that Russell is trying to be fair in this philosophical overview, but it makes for good reading, and he does give you his take on a wide range of philosophical and political issues over this long & detailed trip through the history of philosophy up to his own time.
LibraryThing member robertg69
Wonderful writing telling us about the essence of Western philosophy and philosophers. I paid the equivalent of $5 CDN in China for this softcover volume.
LibraryThing member tungsten_peerts
Bertrand Russell is one of my heroes; however, this is far from his best work. Amazingly for him, it manages to be rather ... shallow. Perhaps that is inevitable, given the amount of ground it attempts to cover.
LibraryThing member KidSisyphus
I've been working on this for months, which is no big deal because the book has independent sections covering each philosophical epoch and its representative philosophers. Russell is dry but knowledgeable. I'm not a fan of his strict materialism, but he is what he is.


7/15/09: Floating on the
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surface of Saint Augustine's intrigues. A little boring. I'm told that someone of my disposition is better suited to Tarnas's book, The Passion of the Western Mind.


9/4/09: Finally finished Book II, Catholic Philosophy. Talk about an oxymoron: if you didn't toe the party line, they burned you at the stake; sometimes they burned you even if you did (particularly if you got in the way of the Pope politically, had a little money or piece of property). The most interesting individual to begin to extricate himself from the medieval morass was John Wycliffe (ca. 1320-84). He was excommunicated in 1366 because he preached "communistic opinions" (i.e., "property is the result of sin; Christ and the Apostles had no property, and the clergy ought to have none." He also denied transubstantiation and passively encouraged The Peasants Revolt of 1381. [p. 485:]). Most importantly, though, is that while his followers were eventually driven underground, "the revolt against the papacy remained in men's thoughts, and prepared the soil for Protestantism." [p. 486:] Ergo, Protestantism is an outcropping of "communistic opinions." Sadly, it has slid into a unique orthodoxy all its own. I am reminded of a quote by André Malraux, "Christ: an anarchist who succeeded. That's all." On to Book III and the Moderns.


9/7/09: "Almost everything that distinguishes the modern world from earlier centuries is attributable to science." [p. 525:] Francis Bacon died "of a chill caught while experimenting on refrigeration by stuffing a chicken full of snow." [p. 542:] Descartes "was not industrious; he worked short hours, and read little." [p. 560:] Spinoza, my favorite philosopher, is "the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers." [p. 569:]


10/19/09: Russell has it out for the romantics, particularly Rousseau, and, to a lesser extent, the quasi-romanticism of Nietzsche. But he doesn't seem to appreciate the (necessary?) reaction against materialism. After reading 836 pages on philosophy, I am reminded why I'm a fan of fiction. Theory can spin off into tedious abstractions and only becomes interesting where the rubber-meets-the-road (i.e., political philosophy). Besides, psychology has all the answers anyway, right?
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LibraryThing member MarkBeronte
Since its first publication in 1945? Lord Russell's A History of Western Philosophy has been universally acclaimed as the outstanding one-volume work on the subject -- unparalleled in its comprehensiveness, its clarity, its erudition, its grace and wit. In seventy-six chapters he traces philosophy
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from the rise of Greek civilization to the emergence of logical analysis in the twentieth century. Among the philosophers considered are: Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, the Atomists, Protagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Cynics, the Sceptics, the Epicureans, the Stoics, Plotinus, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Benedict, Gregory the Great, John the Scot, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Occam, Machiavelli, Erasmus, More, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, the Utilitarians, Marx, Bergson, James, Dewey, and lastly the philosophers with whom Lord Russell himself is most closely associated -- Cantor, Frege, and Whitehead, co-author with Russell of the monumental Principia Mathematica.
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LibraryThing member uufnn
Bertrand Russell was a British philosopher, logician, essayist and social critic. His life was marked by controversy, which included being fired from Trinity College and Cambridge in England and also City College, New York, but he was awarded the Order of Merit in 1949 and the Nobel Prize for
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Literature in 1950. It would take an ambitious reader to get all the way through this 895 page book, but if you're that kind of reader it would be worth it. However, there is a very thorough index and you can choose one or more areas you would like to explore.
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LibraryThing member lordraven
Important and inspiring. I actually listened to the audio book, which took a week. And to my surprise, at the end of each day I found myself reluctant to turn it off. In gulping it down so quickly I think I was able to see big picture more clearly than if i had read it slowly and focused the
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individual philosophies. Russel is eloquent, easy to understand and engaging. One leaves this book inspired with a deep desire for more, which is clearly the author's intent.
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LibraryThing member Nicole_VanK
Much as I am fond of Mr. Russell, the book doesn't live up to its title. Renaissance Neo-Platonism is skipped? (for instance) I can understand how it doesn't have any appeal to Mr. Russell, but it was there and is a part of that history.
LibraryThing member sometimeunderwater
Book One (and bits of Book Three) read 2020.

Magisterial is the only word for it. The breadth of knowledge here is enormous, and it is immensely readable - it feels chatty but never shallow. It does occasionally drift into long-windedness, though perhaps that's only a result of some things being
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more interesting than others (sorry Plotinus).

Book Two next, after a break...
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LibraryThing member danbarrett
This is a monolithic work, and, as far as I'm concerned, the best of it's kind for tone and readability. Goes in-depth without dragging each chapter down and surveys a massive amount of material. Just as good as any intro to philosophy course I ever took. I read a chapter every now and then just to
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brush up.
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LibraryThing member davidpwithun
In a word: awesome. This book is the best introduction to Western thought (which means: to the Western mind and the way it thinks) that I have yet read. Russell does an excellent job in his choice of subject matter, his explanations of the various philosophies that Westerners have adhered to since
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the most ancient ones of Greece, and in his evaluations of each of those. He is fair, balanced, insightful, and witty from cover to cover in this book; even when I found myself disagreeing with him, I had to admit that he made a good point and he made it well. The only complaint that I have is that I think he shortchanged much of the philosophy of the Middle Ages, either skipping it entirely or only giving a brief mention to certain individuals and movements that I think had much more importance than he gives credit for. Aside from that, this is a simply amazing book. I recommend it to anyone who wants to familiarize themselves with Western thought and/or better understand their own thinking.
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Original publication date

1945-10 (US)
1946 (UK)


0041090160 / 9780041090161
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