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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Department of Book Reports: A History of Western Philosophy

A History of Western Philosophy
Bertrand Russell, 1945, Simon & Schuster, NY, New York
A book report by jcricket

A good many years ago, an essay entitled "Why I Am Not a Christian" immediately got my attention. That was my introduction to the expressed thoughts of Bertrand Russell.

The same mind has produced many great works, including our selection for today, A History of Western Philosophy. Russell, a twentieth century philosopher, logician and social critic, gives us one of the best one-volume tomes ever produced of our reverence for the human mind. It's one of the best perhaps, because Russell, of all people, understood that blathering on and on in multiple volumes about how much he knows would bore a thinking person to tears. Or, at least into closing the book in exasperation and then using it as a conspicuous prop to impress visitors.

Instead Russell, as he does in all his work, uses that famous British sense of understatement and his dry wit to give us human insight to the Western Philosophical Greats and the institutions whose foundations were built by them. That he knows when to shut up and move on makes this an unusually entertaining history of ancient, catholic, and modern philosophy.

At the time of publication the book was panned by many of his contemporaries as being biased towards philosophers with whom he had an affinity, as being vulgar, and of being not historical enough. Russell himself said "I did my best but am not sure at all if I succeeded. I was sometimes accused by reviewers of not writing a true history, but a biased account of the events that I arbitrarily chose to write about. But to my mind, a man without bias cannot write interesting history - if indeed, such a man exists."

And in the capable hands of Bertrand Russell, an interesting history it is:

Of Plato and Aristotle,
"Aristotle's metaphysics, roughly speaking, may be described as Plato diluted by common sense. He is difficult because Plato and common sense do not mix easily."

and of Gregory VII,
"After he became Pope, he believed himself to be the mouthpiece of St. Peter. This gave him a degree of self confidence which, on a mundane calculation, was not justified."

While it definitely qualifies as a scholarly work, A History of Western Philosophy cannot be accused of being "dry" reading. As a matter of fact, Russell's style is THE centerpiece of any of his works. If you can't lay your hands on a copy of AHoWP, then really anything written by Bertrand Russell would bring the same smile to your lips at the turn of a phrase or the candid humanity with which he interprets of the lives of history's Larger-Than-Life characters.

And of course, it is always recommended that you peruse your favorite Indie bookstore for your literary passions (in this case, the works of Bertrand Russell).

Order books from Jackson Street Books and other fine Independent bookstores.As always, books ordered here will have a freebie publishers Advance Reading Copy included as a thank you to our blogosphere friends.