A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Preface by Author | Summary


The History of Western Philosophy comprises three books. Book 1, Ancient Philosophy, has three parts: The Pre-Socratics; Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; and Ancient Philosophy after Aristotle. Book 2, Catholic Philosophy, has two parts: The Fathers and The Schoolmen. Book 3, Modern Philosophy, has two parts: From the Renaissance to Hume and From Rousseau to the Present Day. Each book also has named chapters. Chapters have been grouped in this study guide for the purpose of analysis.


Bertrand Russell distinguishes his history of philosophy from those that came before by announcing his purpose: "to exhibit philosophy as an integral part of social and political life." He does not wish to isolate philosophical speculation from its milieu but rather to show it as both cause and effect "of the character of the various communities in which different systems flourished." Thus, Russell provides contextual history to help understand the philosophers in relation to their time periods. One consequence of his historical approach is that he sometimes provides a more extensive treatment of a philosopher than his actual philosophy may deserve. Thus, John Locke receives extensive treatment, and Russell includes Jean-Jacques Rousseau and George Gordon Byron (Lord Byron), although neither are philosophers "in the academic sense." He has also omitted most philosophers, who in his view do not "deserve a fairly full treatment."


The author's approach to his survey of Western philosophy is as much history as philosophy, and this viewpoint is also a theme that runs through his work. Bertrand Russell is a Socialist and a student of Karl Marx, as he mentions in a later chapter on the German philosopher. Thus it is not surprising he would see philosophy as embedded in the history of social and political life. Russell's emphasis on history is also his reason for both excluding and including key figures. John Locke is a minor philosopher but important because he influenced the American and French revolutions, and many of his concepts are the basis for key ideas found in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. His liberal philosophical ideas have also helped modern democracies maintain their equilibrium. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a minor philosopher, and George Gordon Byron, a poet, are included because they are key figures in the Romantic movement, and in Russell's view Romanticism has had a profound influence on philosophy and the creation of the German fascist state, as he will explain when he gets to the 19th century.

One puzzle about Russell's history is that he omits Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55), the father of existentialist philosophy and a strong critic of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's philosophy, which Russell also criticizes. Although the existentialist movement that emerged in the 20th century is somewhat new in Russell's time, the author must have been aware of it. Nonetheless, he leaves out French existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) and Albert Camus (1913–60) as well as German Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). Heidegger published his seminal work, Being and Time, in 1927 in German. Sartre's novel Nausea was published in 1938 and Being and Nothingness in 1943 (when Russell was writing his treatise). Camus's famous essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," was published in 1942. Although none of these works were immediately available in English, Russell was fluent in both German and French. Also left out of Russell's survey is the young German who came to study logic with him at Trinity College and whom Russell at one point identified as his heir apparent—Ludwig Wittgenstein.
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