I am interested in becoming fluent in general philosophy. I recognize that it is a massive area of study.

I bought a book called Introduction to Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, but I find I'm often sidelined by not understanding the culture, or the geographical makeup of the world, or the general history that goes into the society that is being referenced.

I'm interested to see what people have to say about this. Would it be logical to study basic ancient history before studying ancient philosophers? Does the same argument hold for any part of time?

Obviously, this is a soft question. I just want to make sure I'm not studying in vain.

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    Philosophy is about ideas, concepts and arguments. That is what you should try to extract from any book. E.g. when Aristotle talks about barbarians, think of them as "barbarians" - that's what he meant! Who were they? Well that's nice to know but not really necessary to get his point. If you think, nobody should be viewed as Aristotle viewed the barbarians, then you disagree with him. Still you got his point. Either someone is right or not. His historical environment does not count. – Einer Sep 29 '14 at 16:07
  • FYI, Rumor has it that Russell's history is sketchy, and I have from a Leibniz scholar that he totally misrepresented Leibniz. – labreuer Oct 1 '14 at 5:45

This is definitely a good question.

Bertrand Russell also wrote a little book Understanding History and Other Essays in which he recommended several authors like Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch and Gibbon.

Bertrand Russell is the greatest man mankind ever produced. Unfortunately, Russell's most brilliant books are also notorious for lacking bibliography. You can contact Bertrand Russell Society to find out what sources Russell have used. I'd appreciate it if you can share your findings with us here.

  • Another piece of advice both Russell and I cannot urge too strongly: Do NOT go to school for history. The ultimate reason you study anything is for pleasure; most people had their pleasures ruined as soon as they graduate from school. – George Chen Sep 29 '14 at 21:43
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    Thankfully, I went to school for mathematics and computer science. I am studying philosophy and history out of pure interest. – user9173 Sep 29 '14 at 22:04
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    >Bertrand Russell is the greatest man mankind ever produced. Wow what a claim! I like Bertie R too, but why exactly do you think he's the greatest human being of all time. – user5172 Sep 30 '14 at 13:38
  • @shane: OK. I change to "most likely," because, in order to say he is the greatest, I would have to review all the greats. But Russell did pretty much exactly that in his History. In terms of lucidity, eloquence, comprehensiveness of knowledge and expansiveness of feelings, as far as I know, Russell is the best. – George Chen Sep 30 '14 at 20:30
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    @GeorgeChen Thanks for the suggestion. I'm going to come back to The Art of Philosophizing after I become a little more versed in ancient history. I feel like it will be intellectually satisfying to start there. – user9173 Oct 1 '14 at 2:03

I would say that philosophies very greatly in terms of context dependency. I'm sure every philosophy is best understood with a little historical context around it, but some benefit more from this than others. For instance, I would consider Socrates' work, which is critical of Athenian society, to be less context dependent than Aristotle's work, which heavily draws upon Athenian customs.

Even with Socrates, however, some context helps. You have to understand, for instance, how different the Greek conception of homosexuality was to the modern one in order to understand a number of the dialogs touching on the subject, and if you don't understand that many of the dialogs were gently mocking well-known celebrities of the day, you miss most of the humor.

Similarly, to really understand Confucius, you need to be steeped in Chinese cultural traditions of the period. On the other hand, the Tao Te Ching, which is oriented away from the mundane world and towards a more mystical view of the cosmos, is less context-dependent despite being highly allusive.

I haven't personally read the Russell book you referenced, but you might compare it to the source philosophies it references and see if those are more or less accessible than his work. After all, in order to understand the Russell, you really need two separate historical contexts --the context for the philosophy, and the context for Russell.

  • So in general, it certainly does help. I might have to think critically about how I am going to approach my studies. His book is supposed to serve as an introduction in generality, but so far it has just made me want to learn about philosophers in isolation. Maybe a combination of studying history and using supplementary material about each philosopher as they are mentioned might be a good idea. – user9173 Sep 29 '14 at 22:07

I read this book of Russells twenty years ago on the strength of his reputation; I don't now recall much about it except that this was where I first read of the claim that Thales was the first philosopher on the basis that he said 'that all things are made of water'.

Its generally conceded that situating a philosopher is important, for example the IEP entry on Plato starts with his biography; to know that he came from one of the wealthiest and politically active families is important when one considers his writings on Politics (one uncle was part of the plot to overthrow democracy) and that he defends Socrates who comes from the opposite end of the social spectrum.

The IEP note also the philosophers that have had the biggest impact on him (the Pythagoreans and the Milesian cosmologists). Diogenes Laertius who did a 'gossipy' history of philosophy said about him:

He mixed together in his works the arguments of Heracleitus, the Pythagoreans, and Socrates. Regarding the sensibles, he borrows from Heraclitus; regarding the intelligibles, from Pythagoras; and regarding politics, from Socrates.


A little later, Diogenes makes a series of comparisons intended to show how much Plato owed to the comic poet, Epicharmus

Given Platos antipathy to poetry its interesting to note that he began as a writer of tragedies which in part explains the dramatic structure of his philosophical 'plays'; its well-noted that he stated in his republic no poets would be allowed; and its interesting to speculate why - possibly the connection of speech-making, rhetoric and poetry; and its worth remembering that poetry was a much more valued art in Classical era than now - it being the art of eloquence.

In short, it helps.


Great question. I am specially qualified to answer because I did exactly that. BA in History and then Philosophy. Conclusion: I would go directly for Philosophy unless I had no idea of the history of humanity. You can peruse history while you seriously study philosophy, or spend a much shorter time studying the main historical periods first.

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