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.

  • 2
    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
    Commented Sep 29, 2014 at 16:07
  • 2
    FYI, Rumor has it that Russell's history is sketchy, and I have from a Leibniz scholar that he totally misrepresented Leibniz.
    – labreuer
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 5:45

6 Answers 6


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. Commented Sep 29, 2014 at 21:43
  • 1
    Thankfully, I went to school for mathematics and computer science. I am studying philosophy and history out of pure interest.
    – user9173
    Commented Sep 29, 2014 at 22:04
  • 1
    >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
    Commented Sep 30, 2014 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. Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 20:30
  • 1
    @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
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 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
    Commented Sep 29, 2014 at 22:07

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.


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.


The answer is...YES, you should definitely study History, in particular, Ancient History (and perhaps even the Biographies of important Philosophers), beforehand.

There is an old question that has been asked by both Philosophers and Historians; "Does man make the times or do the times make the man?". If the answer is the former, then you should begin with a biographical introduction of that Philosopher, followed by a general historical study. However, if the answer is the latter, then you should begin with a detailed historical analysis, followed by a general biographical study. Either way, an introduction to the life and times-(or if you prefer, the times and life) of a Philosopher, will provide you with a much needed and more realistic understanding of who this Thinker was, his surroundings, his culture, his geography and his overall attitudes-(whether petty or profound).

Was Socrates synonymous with 5th century BC/BCE Athens, or was 5th century BC/BCE Athens synonymous with Socrates? Perhaps it was a little of both. It is almost impossible to discuss Socrates, without discussing Athens in the 400's BC/BCE. And conversely, it is almost impossible to discuss Athens in the 400's BC/BCE, without discussing Socrates. Either way, we see that Socrates, was very much, "the talk of the town" around Athens 2400 plus years ago; while at the same time, the city of Athens and the environs surrounding Socrates-(who never left Athens), had a profound effect and impact on his attitudes and intellectual development.

It is this type of interrelationship between man and the times, or the times and man, that when studied correctly and appropriately, one can view the multidimensional life and mind of a person, such as Socrates, with greater intellectual honesty.


I'm not a fan of Russell's book. His introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus is widely considered to get the book wrong - his own student..! For me, Russell is approaching philosophy to document history, rather than to get at the real drivers of philosophical developments and connections. His Principia Mathematica is very much the stamp collecting end of philosophy, and arguably a failure in it's aims once Godel arrived. In short, Russell was not very insightful, and neither were his books.

I like Vervaeke's Awakening From The Meaning Crisis, which introduces Western philosophy through the lense of understanding wisdom. Discussed here: Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises?

Be curious about history. It can certainly be used towards understanding human variation and development. Eg

Western Empiricism in Eastern Philosophy?

Can one speak unambiguously of "The" Scientific Method?

What are the origins and evolution of mythology/religions?

Weren't there any philosophers from Africa, America or the Middle East before Socrates?

what are the key points of Ubuntu (Humanity) particulary as it relates to poverty?

How do Chinese and Japanese Buddhists perceive people?

Are modern Chinese, Japanese and Korean schools of Buddhism viewed as egocentric presentism?

Why is the emergence of Monotheism a cultural milestone in the development of mankind?

What are some good resources for learning Indian philosophy?

Philosophers on alternatives to capitalism and communism

How is Society shaped?

For me, anthropology, sociology, and history very much intersect with philosophy, but I prefer to focus on the intersections, than become a historian.

Zen Buddhist thought has some very excellent philosophy in it, and needs some extra historical and cultural context to access that. I feel finding very excellent books can make a huge difference, like Heine' 'Opening A Mountain' on the origins of the koan tradition. Find a subject area, & try asking around for really excellent guides. I'm still looking for one on Confucius, I found the Analects surprisingly accessible, but really feel the lack of wider context to see what his work was trying to do.

You must log in to answer this question.