Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy (1946)

January 23, 2007

“A man may be pardoned if logic compels him, regretfully, to reach conclusions which he deplores, but not for departing from logic in order to be free to advocate crimes.”

If you are looking for a crash course in Philosophy, Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy is a excellent place to start. Russell manages to cover everything from the beginnings of Greek Philosophy to the beginning of the twentieth century (you’ll have to turn somewhere else for more modern philosophy, but you’ll have the background at least).

What this book manages to do that is missed in a lot of Philosophy texts is to put the particular discussion into its historical and social perspective. I think that this is particularly important with philosophy, because Philosophy and social/scientific/political thought interweave with each other so much. A full understanding of the circumstances helps to guide the reader towards the “why” of the development of certain thoughts.

While this book by no means follows law as its sole motivation (there is alot of physics and metaphysics and teleology and logic and other lofty ideas that were way above my head), it does cover extensively the philosophies that stand behind the development of law and politics. However, Russell avoids the weak argument that legal and political developments always occured as a result of philosophical developments. The two are much to intertwined for that argument to hold any water; instead, Russell works to display the interconnectedness of the two schools of thought.

I won’t spend much time attempting to summarize the book as it is along and arduous read, which would make my summary ramble. However it might be helpful to point out the major legal themes that are encompassed in each of the three sections of the book.

The first section, “Ancient Philosophy,” mainly traces Greek influences on western philosophy. In this section there is a fairly easy to read discussion of the development of the City-State and of the differing governmental styles in ancient Greece (mainly those of Sparta and Athens). Next, Russell tackles “Catholic Philosophy” in book two. The significant legal discussion in this section of the book is that on the tension between the Pope and Emperor in their battle for supremacy, which had quite a dramatic effect on not only philosophy but also on both canon and civil law. The last section of the book is “Modern Philosophy,” and in this section the reader will be able to trace the roots of liberalism and socialism as the two major competing political forms of the modern world. I would especially commend you to chapter XIV “Locke’s Political Philosophy,” which gives a very concise review of Lockes philosophy and the effect it has had.

As a final note, I might mention that Russell was writing this during WWII so there a numerous references as to how certain philosophies are reflected in the politics of that era.

History of Western Philosophy (Routledge Classics)
Betrand Russell