This discussion of A History of Western Philosophy complains about its errors and omissions, but doesn't give examples of the former. A previous question asked "how inaccurate" Russell's book was, and the answers indicated the primary areas where it errs are in early Greek and Mediaeval philosophy. But what are the main specific errors, on these topics or any others? For instance, did he exaggerate the extent to which Mediaeval theodicies were panglossian? (That's just an example I invented to illustrate why this question isn't a duplicate.)

2 Answers 2


I can offer one example, which I take from Isaiah Berlin concerning Russell's treatment of Kant's doctrine of space and time. This treatment, Berlin suggests, profoundly miscontrues the central doctrine of the Critique of Pure Reason:

Kant is treated in greater detail [than Hume], and once more Russell follows his preferred and somewhat Napoleonic method of concentrating his fire against the position on which he regards the enemy as strongest, leaving the rest to collapse and vanish of itself. In this case the doctrines of space and time are selected as the principal target, and after complaining that Kant gives no adequate explanation to account for the particular order or characteristics in time and space of particular material objects (which Kant might have regarded as a metaphysical, i.e., in some sense illegitimate question), Russell seems to assume that in Kant's system space and time must either be subjective, i.e., in some sense be empirically given, or, if not, that they must in some sense derive from, or belong to, Things in Themselves. This does not so much refute as ignore the central doctrine of the Critique of Pure Reason, according to which material objects (in Space and Time) are neither Things in Themselves (which according to Russell in the end would amount to a metaphysical transcendentalism of a neo-Platonist type), nor yet a set of (or logical constructions out of) sense-data, at any rate not in the ordinary phenomenalist sense. (Isaiah Berlin, 'A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell', Mind, Vol. 56, No. 222 (Apr., 1947), pp. 151-166 : 163.)

'Sense-data' is not the best term, reflecting as it does theories of perception prevalent at the time of writing (1947) rather than the intellectual world of the Critique. But if we replace it with 'sensory perceptions', Berlin does appear to convict Russell of a significant misunderstanding of Kant.

  • 1
    +1. I won't select the answer just yet in case it discourages more examples from other people, but I'll read Berlin's full review in case there are more examples.
    – J.G.
    Sep 15, 2018 at 14:41
  • Fine by me, just the right thing to do. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Sep 15, 2018 at 15:19
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    Russell was bit dense when it came to unfamiliar ideas, especially if they were a bit 'mystical'. Or, as his colleague Spencer Brown bluntly puts it, 'Bertie was a fool'.
    – user20253
    Sep 15, 2018 at 17:11
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    Russell had great intelligence but (a) he lacked intellectual empathy when ideas veered towards the metaphysical or the mystical and (b) he would have needed to study many of the philosophers he wrote on far more intensively if he wanted to give a reliable first view of their ideas and arguments. Scholars spend a lifetime studying Kant but Russell thinks Kant is open to easy criticism. Nice comment.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Sep 15, 2018 at 17:40
  • @J.G. He was a great philosopher and a glorious and thorough rascal. Sorry for all the erasing, but I better stay safe with just this.
    – Gordon
    Sep 16, 2018 at 18:09

Something I happened to read today in Russell's "The Scientific Outlook", may be relevant to the above comment about Russell having no sympathy for philosophers like Kant:

Hume, nearly two hundred years ago, threw doubt upon induction, as, indeed, upon most other things. The philosophers were indignant, and invented refutations of Hume which passed muster on account of their extreme obscurity. Indeed, for a long time philosophers took care to be unintelligible, since otherwise everybody would have perceived that they had been unsuccessful in answering Hume. (part 1, chapter 3)

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