The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell: REVIEW

It’s undeniable that Bertrand Russell has had an intense influence on a very large portion of Western thought since his heyday.   In some ways, he is the quintessential dogmatic academic.  His ideas about logic, ethics, and philosophy at large have lasted as the vast library of analytic philosophy over the last century.  He and his colleagues constructed a system via logical positivism that seemed at the time to close many of the gaps in philosophy.  Russell himself calls it the answer to all the inconsistencies in Kant in closing the gap between a priori knowledge and a posteriori knowledge.  From this perspective, he is able to look back at the entire Western canon of philosophy and make judgments about each and every philosophical position.

The book is written not with an emphasis on who Russell thinks was right, but on who was influential.  Three chapters are written on Locke though his inconsistencies are persistently pointed out.  It is split into three books.  The first on Ancient Philosophy, the second on Catholic Philosophy (which he more or less equates with the Dark Ages), and the third on Modern Philosophy up to and including himself (that is concluding with himself).  

A majority of the book feels not as if Russell wanted to provide his readers with a wealth of historical information, but as a stage upon which he makes fun of and pokes at everyone else’s ideas.  This attitude seems to be justified by his occasional assertion that everyone else isn’t scientific enough and they are religiously holding on to ancient dogmas which he is lucky to be enlightened enough to let go of.  He describes other philosophies as inferior to his own in that they are not on an “indifferent quest for truth”.  His attitude is reminiscent of (and likely informed) popular contemporary intellectuals like Bill Nye, Sam Harris, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson.  It seems as if he does a disservice in writing the book by interjecting every few pages to include his own opinions, and gets especially worse by the end of the book.  Especially his chapters on Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and the pragmatists he shows great dislike and contempt for their philosophies (not to mention that he wholly emits existentialists like Kierkegaard and Heidegger).  I can’t help but think that his vitriol is leftover from arguments he had in graduate school.  

Economist Deirdre McCloskey calls Bertrand Russell a paragon of our current phase of modernism or a dogmatism that claims we have finally found the correct way of doing things.  His chapter on Hume brings up many contentions to the foundation of his own reason, and he even mentions that many of Hume’s problems haven’t yet been solved.  However, he conveniently forgets these when he reaches his own philosophy.  

In spite, of my complaints, I think that the book is well worth reading by any interested in a general picture of Western Philosophy.  Though be warned that what you are reading is nowhere near a consensus, no matter how it is presented.

Ultimately, I give it a 6.5 out of 10 with a big Bias sticker.