Book Summaries Philosophy

A History of Western Philosophy Summary (9/10)

A History of Western Philosophy is an excellent book, and one that will teach you not only about philosophy, but about history and politics. And Bertrand Russell is not an impartial commentator, but one of the most respected philosophers in history – which makes this introduction to the best philosophers of the last two millennia particularly interesting.

Throughout the book, you will get a brief summary of the influence that each of these thinkers has had on the word, as well as a discussion about what to make of these ideas. Russell will present the arguments of each philosopher in a lucid, coherent way – a monumental task, especially given the impenetrable, opaque language he has had to contend with. You gradually will get a sense of Russell’s philosophy. By telling you what he does not believe in, you get a sense of what does believe in.

Russell, of course, is not perfect, and many of his arguments are hypocritical and biased, but on the whole, it is difficult to imagine a more generous and comprehensive overview of any of these thinkers. You are guaranteed insights on every page, and while at times, you may feel he has rushed through some concepts, it would be unfair to say that he has presented any strawmen arguments. Below are the chapters with links to their summaries.

Ancient Philosophy

The Ancient Greeks emphasized the importance of temperance, but they were extreme in everything.

The Sources of Plato’s Opinions

Plato held the aristocratic opinion that only those who were relieved of having to worry about their daily subsistence were capable of gaining wisdom.

The Theory of Ideas

A philosopher is the lover of wisdom, not knowledge.

Plato’s Theory of Immortality

Plato argues that anything that distracts man from the pursuit of the vision of truth and philosophy should be avoided, and this includes the pleasures of the senses.


Zeno was a Phoenician, and the founder of the Stoic school – which appealed to rulers.

The Epicureans

The philosophy of Epicurus, like all philosophies at the time with the exception of Scepticism, was designed to secure tranquility.

The Cynics and the Skeptics

Aristotle was the last philosopher to describe the world cheerfully.

Aristotle’s Ethics

There are two kinds of virtues: intellectual and moral, corresponding to the two parts of the soul.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics

Aristotle is similar to Plato, but with more common sense

ST Thomas Aquinas

St Thomas’s most important work was the Summa contra Gentiles (1259–64)


Rousseau’s first literary success came to him rather late in life. The Academy of Dijon offered a prize for the best essay on the question: Have the arts and sciences conferred benefits on mankind?

The Romantic Movement

The romantic movement had a taste for scenery and gothic architecture, they liked what was strange, ghosts, pirates, the occult sciences, mesmerism. 

David Hume

David Hume wrote that faint images in thinking are ideas.


John Locke said that reason consists of two parts.

The Philosophical Tradition

There are two errors when it comes to perceiving philosophical thinkers.


Lebinitz thought, like Voltaire’s Pangloss, that we live in the best of all possible worlds.


Spinoza was the most moral philosopher. He was betrayed by Leibnitz and excommunicated by Jews and Christians.


René Descartes (1596–1650) is rightly considered the founder of modern philosophy.

Thomas Hobbes

Aside from Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes was a pragmatic political philosopher and even more pragmatic than Machiavelli he was an empiricist who also was mathematical.  

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon’s most important book, The Advancement of Learning, is remarkably modern. He is commonly regarded as the originator of the saying ‘Knowledge is power’.


Machiavelli was shocking, but other philosophers would be equally shocking if they were free from bullshit. 


Before discussing Kant’s philosophy, Russell gives an overview of 18th century philosophy.

Currents of Thought in the Nineteenth Century

The intellectual life of the 19th century was more complex than that of previous centuries.


Hegel was one of the most influential philosophers in history. In addition to Protestants and philosophers, Marx borrowed ideas from Hegel. But Russell thinks that Hegel’s doctrines are false.


Nietzsche was the successor of Schopenhauer, but was superior to him in many ways, especially in the consistency and coherence of his doctrine. 

Karl Marx

Karl Marx claimed to have made Socialism scientific, and did more to create the powerful movement that has dominated the recent history of Europe.


There are generally three types of philosophies.


Schopenhauer is peculiar among philosophers because he is a pessimist while almost all of the rest are optimists.

William James

 William James was a psychologist who made important contributions to philosophy.

John Dewey

John Dewey is another proponent of American Pragmatism.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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