Bertrand Russell: History of Western Philosophy

This book is vintage Russell: exceptionally written yet cheerfully oblivious to his own blind spots. As far as one volume summaries of philosophy go, this is probably the best–not because he faithfully explicates opposing viewpoints from an objective position; he does no such thing. Rather, he *tells* a story and tells it well. Most reviewers will urge a reader to buy (or not buy) a book based on its merits (or not buy based on its flaws). I take the opposite position–buy the book because of the parts with which you will disagree.

Russell’s book is a snapshot in some ways of the waning debate between the Anglo-Analytic school of philosophy and the Continental European school. Russell’s rejection of most Continental philosophers can be seen in his (admittedly charitable) rejection of Spinoza, “The whole of this metaphysic is impossible to accept; it is contradicted by modern logic and with scientific method. Facts have to be discovered by observation, not with reason” (578). The problem is that final sentence itself, which Russell takes to be axiomatic (note the irony!!!), is itself unverifiable by the scientific method.

I think Russell is sort of aware of this critique when he interacts with E. A. Burk’s critique of scientism. Russell tries to respond, “It is not what the man of science believes that distinguishes him, but the how and why he he believes. His beliefs are tentative, not dogmatic; they are based on evidence” (527). We should note two things by way of response: 1) Russell misunderstands the charge. We are not critiquing Copernicus’s scientific methods simply because he had open mathematical errors in his formulations. That’s not the issue at stake; rather, 2) the claim that Russell advances–scientists are not dogmatic but simply follow the “evidence” is itself a claim that is not verifiable by observation and evidence. It is accepted a priori.

Anyway, the book ends with a stunning conclusion that the history of philosophy has climaxed, not with Hegel, but with…you guessed it…Russell! Okay, that might be a bit much. Russell is in fact arguing that modern logical analysis is superior to all other systems because of various reasons which the getting into would make this review way too long. In this chapter Russell finally seems aware that most of his ability to think and write is based off of presuppositions which are beyond the realm of sense experience (thus negate about 600 pages of this book). He then proposes that modern logical analysis seeks to dethrone mathematics from its pedestal of Platonic ideals and place it more in the realm of sense experience, except he admits this can’t be done. In order to salvage his project, he says that mathematical knowledge is “verbal knowledge” (832). That’s interesting because it places the argument into the “communal ethics” school ala Alasdair MacIntyre.

There is a good section on George Cantor and actual/possible infinites.


It’s a fine book and used copies can be found literally for a few dollars. In order to really appreciate this book, though, one needs to read a few short bios on Russell. The best one is by Paul Johnson, who admittedly has an axe to grind. For example, Russell was a pacifist yet after WWII he urged the Allied leaders to nuke Moscow, thus preventing a nuclear arms race! That makes sense…I guess. If you don’t think about it. Anyway, a fun rea


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