Cover of the first edition
|Publisher||Simon & Schuster (US)
George Allen & Unwin Ltd (UK)
A History of Western Philosophy is a 1945 book by philosopher Bertrand Russell. A survey of Western philosophy from the pre-Socratic philosophers to the early 20th century, it was criticised for Russell's over-generalization and omissions, particularly from the post-Cartesian period, but nevertheless became a popular and commercial success, and has remained in print from its first publication. When Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, A History of Western Philosophy was cited as one of the books that won him the award. Its success provided Russell with financial security for the last part of his life.
The book was written during the Second World War, having its origins in a series of lectures on the history of philosophy that Russell gave at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia during 1941 and 1942. Much of the historical research was done by Russell's third wife Patricia. In 1943, Russell received an advance of $3000 from the publishers, and between 1943 and 1944 he wrote the book while living at Bryn Mawr College. The book was published in 1945 in the United States and a year later in the UK. It was re-set as a 'new edition' in 1961, but no new material was added. Corrections and minor revisions were made to printings of the British first edition and for 1961's new edition; no corrections seem to have been transferred to the American edition (even Spinoza's birth year remains wrong).
The work is divided into three books, each of which is subdivided into chapters; each chapter generally deals with a single philosopher, school of philosophy, or period of time.
A History of Western Philosophy received a mixed reception, especially from academic reviewers. Russell was somewhat dismayed at the reaction. Russell himself described the text as a work of social history, asking that it be treated in such a manner. Russell also stated: "I regarded the early part of my History of Western Philosophy as a history of culture, but in the later parts, where science becomes important, it is more difficult to fit into this framework. I did my best, but I am not at all sure that I succeeded. I was sometimes accused by reviewers of writing not a true history but a biased account of the events that I arbitrarily chose to write of. But to my mind, a man without bias cannot write interesting history -- if, indeed, such a man exists."
In the Journal of the History of Ideas, George Boas wrote that, "A History of Western Philosophy errs consistently in this respect. Its author never seems to be able to make up his mind whether he is writing history or polemic.... [Its method] confers on philosophers who are dead and gone a kind of false contemporaneity which may make them seem important to the uninitiate. But nevertheless it is a misreading of history." In Isis, Leo Roberts wrote that while Russell was a deft and witty writer, A History of Western Philosophy was perhaps the worst of Russell's books. In his view, Russell was at his best when dealing with contemporary philosophy, and that in contrast "his treatment of ancient and medieval doctrines is nearly worthless."A History of Western Philosophy was praised by physicists Albert Einstein, and Erwin Schrödinger.
Literary critic George Steiner described A History of Western Philosophy as "vulgar", noting that Russell omits any mention of Martin Heidegger. In Jon Stewart's anthology The Hegel Myths and Legends (1996), Russell's work is listed as a book that has propagated "myths" about Hegel. Stephen Houlgate writes that Russell's claim that Hegel's doctrine of the state justifies any form of tyranny is ignorant.Roger Scruton writes that A History of Western Philosophy is elegantly written and witty, but faults it for Russell's concentration on pre-Cartesian philosophy, lack of understanding of Immanuel Kant, and over-generalization and omissions.A. C. Grayling writes of the work that, "Parts of this famous book are sketchy ... in other respects it is a marvelously readable, magnificently sweeping survey of Western thought, distinctive for placing it informatively into its historical context. Russell enjoyed writing it, and the enjoyment shows; his later remarks about it equally show that he was conscious of its shortcomings."