I finished reading A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell a while ago. Not being an expert by any stretch I thought it was very good (informative, accessible, enjoyable etc..). But I have read in a number of different places that it isn't actually accurate. Most recently Anthony Kenny noted that it wasn't overburdened by accuracy (but it was a great introduction just to enthuse students) and Peter Adamson in his History of Philosophy podcast noted the same in a brief aside. The reviews section in wikipedia points to the same.

So the question is - is there sections of it (chapters) that are particular inaccurate so should be read with a pinch or salt. Or is it a more general mood to the work (e.g. is it Whiggish - for instance his own area pf interest logical analysis is at the end - does this represent his interpretation of the end of philopsophy). Is it possible give a high level summary of corrections to the work or is that too big a task?

Just to add clarity - i'm only interested in the accuracy of the philosophy chapters not the more historical chapters.

  • 2
    It is worth pointing out that Russell was a practising philosopher and a proponent of the rift between Continental and Anglo-American Analytic philosophy, so presumably his "History of Philosophy" would have political spin in that sense (we tend to simplify and dismiss the predecessors of ostensibly opposing schools in pursuit of "one ring to bind them all" -- isn't that what "A History of Western Philosophy" implies?). – selfConceivedAsEvil Apr 22 '14 at 21:34
  • From my very amateur perspective that was my feeling about it - that he was essentially 'talking his own book' at the end to use a business school phrase. Also he seem to spend a lot of time on pragmatism which seemed overweight - i believe he wasn't keen on that philosophy. So my feeling was that it lacked objectivity towards the end. Could be hugely mistaken of course. – Crab Bucket Apr 23 '14 at 10:01
up vote 10 down vote accepted

Russell's history is a classic, but it's dated. Especially don't take anything he says about medieval philosophy that seriously. He was not only personally unsympathetic to the figures, the state of scholarly research on medieval philosophy at the time was atrocious. If you want a somewhat better history of the medieval period, I recommend the book by Armand Maurer (2nd ed 1982).

I think Russell is at his best talking about Spinoza actually.

From Bertrand Russell's autobiography, page 444:

I was pleased to be writing this history because I had always believed that history should be written in the large. I had always held, for example, that the subject matter of which Gibbon treats could not be adequately treated in a shorter book or several books. I regarded the early part of my History of Western Philosophy as a history of culture, but in the later parts, where science becomes important, it is more difficult to fit into this framework.

I did my best, but I am not at all sure that I succeeded. I was sometimes accused by reviewers of writing not a true history but a biased account of the events that I arbitrarily chose to write of. But to my mind, a man without a bias cannot write interesting history – if, indeed, such a man exists. I regard it as mere humbug to pretend to lack of bias. Moreoever, a book, like any other work, should be held together by its point of view. This is why a book made up of essays by various authors is apt to be less interesting as an entity than a book by one man. Since I do not admit that a person without bias exists, I think the best that can be done with a large-scale history is to admit one’s bias and for dissatisfied readers to look for other writers to express an opposite bias. Which bias is nearer to the truth must be left to posterity.

This point of view on the writing of history makes me prefer my History of Western Philosophy to the Wisdom of the West which was taken from the former, but ironed out and tamed – although I like the illustrations of Wisdom of the West.

It's what an introductory survey & history ought to be. I read it pretty quickly the summer between 8th & 9th grade when I wanted a map of where to go next. It's flawed in a way it ought to be. It's compellingly written, and of course has bias & errors; as any work of a single person, time & place is. If there's a better starter book, I don't know it. If you continue in philosophy or the history of ideas, his bias will become apparent, if not, the errors are trivial.

He isn't terribly useful on early Greek philosophy, for example the Pre-Socratics or the Sophists.

The IEP is much better.

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.