Bertrand Russell is known for two things, depending upon the tradition from which you approach him: he’s an early and ardent atheist (perhaps the grandfather of the recent “New Atheist” movement popularized by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett), as made clear in Why I Am Not a Christian. Much less controversially, his contributions as a mathematician and logician (for which see his and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica) were perhaps the most important to formal Logic1 since the early Greeks.
But mathematics and logic were not Russell’s only interests; indeed, he was something of a polymath, and studied/published such various topics as political history, social criticism, and, as we shall see, philosophy. This latter item isn’t necessarily a surprise, or at least it shouldn’t be; while it’s easy for modern readers so far removed from the history of philosophy to think of it in terms of the abstracted and generalized primers we got in college, the origins of philosophy are intertwined with physical science and mathematics—indeed, they’re occasionally indistinguishable.
A History of Western Philosophy sprang from this facet of Russell’s learning, and it was not—then or now—the unmitigated success that Russell’s Principia had been. It was a commercial success, certainly, netting Russell not only a $3’000 advance from his publishers, but a steady income from ongoing sales which lasted throughout his life. The critical reception was decidedly chilly, however. Before talking about what fault Russell’s peers found with his book, it would behoove us to skim over the book itself.
The history of philosophy, at least as Russell has it, breaks down into three overarching categories: the ancient Greeks, both Pre-Socratic and those of the later Socratic traditions; the early [Catholic] Church fathers and the members of the tradition of religious scholarship which flourished between the middle of the first millennium and the early days of the Medieval period; finally, the “modern” philosophers, a rather more disparate category which includes everything from Renaissance philosophers like Erasmus or Descartes2 to later political philosophers like Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, and all the other names you’re more likely to hear.
Russell proceeds more less chronologically, devoting a chapter to each philosopher he deems of note. Some receive more words than others; while some of the earliest Greek philosophers make for little more than summaries, despite their relative influence, it is the heavyweights—principally Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—who receive the most attention, for better or worse. Russell is underwhelmed with Aristotle, believing that the subsequent diminishment of original philosophical thought in deference to his authority is his damning legacy. The author’s opinions are oddly interspersed in the text; one may read for quite some time a straightforward recitation of philosophical before being surprised by a sudden influx of Russell’s own opinions—some of which are valid and argued, and some of which are mere dismissals. Russell’s tendency toward arbitrary omission3 is aggravating, and seems insufficiently academic for an intellectual of Russell’s stature.
In my mind, the most interest bits of the book were the early church fathers and religious intellectuals, since it’s a subject which tends to get lost. Christian apologetics is weighted so heavily toward more recent writers, and early church history simply isn’t a sexy enough subject to get popular treatment. But I think Russell does a decent job of handling the history, such as the early conflict between the state (Kings, Emperors) and the initial succession of popes, whose legacies range from appropriately holy to positively debauched. Before the pope sat supreme in the Vatican4, the institution was a rather more turbulent affair than we modern readers are given to assume. It was in this atmosphere, despite mutual condemnations between the canonical Church and various and sundry heretics, that religious intellectuals generated impressive corpus of philosophical consideration. I include in this august collective not just Christian philosophers, but also notable figures like Maimonides (the preeminent Jewish philosopher). Important, too, is that this period also saw the emergence of Islam, and Russell takes care to tease out the influences that Judaism and early Christianity must have had on the burgeoning new Abrahamic religion. Though he always uses the word “Mohammedan” rather than “Islam[ic]”, it’s also refreshing read about the topic outside our current poison of Islamophobia; though Islam owes most of its foundation precepts (and even large swatches of its holy text) to its predecessors, people often forget just how intimately tied it is to the other major monotheisms.
After many centuries of Pre-Cartesians, Russell finally lands gasping on the near side of the dark ages, where he picks up the early Protestants, and Descartes himself, and proceeds through his own era. Unlike his treatment of, say, Aristotle, most “modern” philosophers receive much shorter shrift by Russell, a phenomenon that appears to exist in clear inverse proportion to their antiquity. Though this was one of the most frequent complaints about the book, it does make more than a little sense; though he often peeks out from behind his wall of intellectual dispassion to editorialize about this or that philosophical precept, Russell is writing a social history, and our ability to judge historical merit grows correspondingly with distance. Is it any wonder that Russell can be so profligate with his words about Aristotle (who Russell thinks is overrated) but so sparing with, e.g., Nietzsche, who’d been dead less than 50 years at the time Russell was writing?
Modern readers must be aware of both the author and the context in which he wrote the book. Russell was an avowed and lifelong pacifist, writing a history of philosophy during the throes of the second World War. He was also a mathematician/logician, and a rather stalwart empiricist, and thus when he produces a tome about the entire history of organized thought on our half the globe, the temptation to dismiss philosophy that encourages violence (Machiavelli, for instance) or does not lead inexorably into the sort of Mechanical Materialism to which Russell at least appears to have subscribed. On the whole, however, Russell has created a compelling and fascinating (if incomplete) collation of western philosophy that still remains an important work more than 50 years later.
- I use the term here as a proper noun for the academic study of logic and its applications to mathematics and philosophy[↩]
- Descartes represents something of a division point between the Renaissance and later eras[↩]
- Of particular and most infamous note is the near-complete omission of Søren Kierkegaard[↩]
- Actually, the Vatican is a 20th-century creation[↩]