In defense of Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy

In the comments on my Give me your philosophical questions! post, Vladimir Nesov said:

I’d appreciate recommendations of sane first textbooks in any of the main topics, including history.

Vladimir is a moderator at LessWrong, where Luke Muehlhauser has promoted textbooks as the best way to learn about any given subject. In fact, there’s a thread there dedicated to the best textbooks on every subject. So Vladimir’s question isn’t surprising.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for me to think of good philosophy textbooks, largely because philosophy isn’t mainly taught through textbooks. There are exceptions. Richard Feldman’s Epistemology textbook is widely-used, though so short it barely qualifies as a “textbook” by the standards of most fields. I summarized the first four chapters on LessWrong.

Often, the role of “textbook” in philosophy classes ends up getting played by anthologies. These range from very general, like Reason and Responsibility (which we used in the first philosophy class I ever took), to dealing with very specific topics, like Feldman and Warfield’s Disagreement anthology. If you want to know what’s up in a specific sub-field of philosophy, poking around for what anthology people recommend may be your best bet.

But since Vladimir asked about history specifically, I’m going to go out on a limb here and recommend people read Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy. This is going out on a limb, because nowadays the book is widely criticized for being inaccurate. But I’m going to argue you should read Russell anyways.

Luke recommends a textbook called The Great Conversation as a more alternative to Russell’s history. I own a copy of the book, bought hoping to be able to second his recommendation, and perhaps use as the basis for an informal online course or something. Yet it’s sitting on my shelf, mostly unread, because I found it dreadfully boring.

I’m sorry, but that matters. And Russell, by contrast, is a wonderfully entertaining writer. As I’ve mentioned before, he was a great prose stylist—one of my two favorite English prose stylists, in fact, along with David Hume. Furthermore, Russell’s opinionated approach to the history of philosophy doesn’t just make the book easier to get through—it will actually give you a more accurate picture of how real philosophers actually think about the history of philosophy.

In the history of modern philosophy course I took in my sophomore year of college, the professor emphasized that the course was not “history of philosophy” but “history of philosophy.” When he said it, he almost shouted the words I put in bold. Point being, the course wouldn’t be about teaching us historical facts, but doing philosophy. Evaluating arguments, much as we would in any other philosophy course, only with the arguments coming from much older sources.

In my experience, people with PhDs in philosophy almost always take the history of philosophy approach. If you want the history of philosophy, you have to go to someone like Jonathan Israel, who’s great, but not a philosopher. And it’s not just that philosophers are interested in judging the arguments when they do history of philosophy—they do so in a highly opinionated way, with little agreement about anything.

This—as you’ll know if you’ve been reading me for awhile—is exactly how philosophers do contemporary philosophy. Except that history of philosophy comes with a lot more arguments over what the various authors involved meant in the first place. (People often carry out those hermeneutic arguments in an axe-grinding way, as if their favored interpretation of famous historical philosopher X will give them ammunition in some contemporary debate.)

This means that yes, you should be somewhat wary of the accuracy of Russell’s history… but honestly, if what you’re reading isn’t of dubious accuracy qua history, it won’t be an accurate reflection of how actual philosophers do history of philosophy. In many cases, I don’t even think there’s a right answer as to what a philosopher really thought. Famous philosophers are just as capable as anyone else of being unclear (cf. Eric Schwitzgebel’s “Against the One True Kant”).

You might be wondering what the point of reading about history of philosophy is, then, or if you’d be better off reading Jonathan Israel. Regarding Israel, I think his tendency to gloss over the details of his subjects’ views has its own problems. More importantly, though, understanding the history of philosophy as perceived by contemporary philosophers will help you understand contemporary philosophy better.

In many cases, Russell’s opinions, though arguable, are still widely held today. For example, Russell’s attitude towards Locke’s empiricism is, roughly, that Locke’s heart was in the right place, but at the end of the day he was hopelessly inconsistent. This appears to have been a popular opinion in Russell’s time—Gilbert Ryle once said that, “nearly every youthful student of philosophy both can and does in about his second essay refute Locke’s entire Theory of Knowledge.”

Many philosophers today have a similar dismissiveness towards Locke (often minus the belief that Locke’s heart was in the right place). In grad school, I took a course that was advertised as being on Locke and Leibniz, but it ended up mainly being about Leibniz, and towards the end the professor admitted she thought Locke was a bad philosopher. I’m not saying this attitude towards Locke is justified (I find Russell’s criticisms of Locke unconvincing), but it’s the kind of thing that’s worth being aware of, if you want to understand contemporary philosophy.

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