I am looking for a book that would give me a broad overview of western philosophy (something like Sophie's World, but for a more mature audience).

The three books I'm considering right now are:

Also feel free to recommend something completely different.

  • Welcome to philosophy.SE. Keep in mind that the history of philosophy is not philosophy.
    – MmmHmm
    Apr 29, 2017 at 22:05
  • 2
    But also keep in mind that we are more than happy to answer questions about the history of philosophy, as per the help center. Note: I removed some comments here to clean up the comment space.
    – user2953
    May 1, 2017 at 5:20

1 Answer 1


It depends on what exactly you want to get out of your reading. Due to the formatting of this question being pretty subjective, I'll offer an overview of what the different books cover and what you will gain from reading them and you can make the choice of which one to read yourself.

The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers by Will Durant is a book that explores many of the major Western philosophers, putting their work into historical context and then elaborating on their main ideas. Russell's A History of Western Philosophy does much the same thing. However, one of the major differences between the two is their scope. Russell covers much more of the history of philosophy in his book, having sections that are completely omitted from Durant's work. These include a section on the Pre-Socratic philosophers as well as Greek philosophers that came after Aristotle. Durant only covers Plato and Aristotle's work. Durant also skips the Catholic Medieval philosophers and goes directly from Aristotle to Francis Bacon. It would be remiss to say that the scholastics had no influence on Western philosophy.

What Durant trades for in scope he makes up for in detail; while he does not cover as many philosophers as Russell does, Durant goes into much greater detail for most of the philosophers that he does cover. For example, Russell's section on Schopenhauer is around seven or eight pages while Durant's is around forty; Russell's section on Spinoza is around twelve pages while Durant's is around forty; etc.

At their core, Russell's book is about the sequence of ideas and thinkers that ran throughout history leading to where we are now (well, to where we were a hundred years ago when he wrote the book) and Durant's work is about a few of the more major philosophers that participated in that process up until now (or, again, when the book was written). The titles of the books really do reveal what content is inside. The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers is about the lives and the opinions of some of the more important philosophers in Western philosophy while A History of Western Philosophy is a trace of its history.

The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View was saved for last because it is much unlike the other two books. The first two books are reviews or histories of the subject, while Tarnas' work is more like an actual piece of philosophy. He is not only trying to explain the sequence of ideas that lead to modernity and post modernity in Western culture, he is also trying to make arguments about this history of events and how they impacted the world we live in now. Tarnas is a psychologist/cultural historian and he makes his own arguments in his book. This is very different from Durant and Russell's books which for the most part detail and explain the ideas of other philosophers (although there is a small section at the end of A History of Western Philosophy that explains Russell's personal philosophy). Tarnas' book is a history of Western philosophy, but it is more so his argument for how that history is shaping the world today and how people should live accordingly.

If you want to read about the entire history of Western philosophy up to the 1920's you should read Russell. If you want to read a work that focuses more on specific, major philosophers and gives their arguments more detail then you should read Durant. If you want to read Tarnas' views about how the modern world is shaped by the history of philosophy and how our psyche should perceive the cosmos around us then you should read Tarnas.

  • Thanks for the answer @Not_Here. I rephrased the question - if you want you can edit your answer accordingly. Apr 30, 2017 at 11:05

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