There are many ways to read this book, in its way, one of the key works of twentieth century philosophy. It can be used as an encyclopaedia of philosophy, ordered not alphabetically, but chronologically. Many people in fact do use it like that, looking up in the index a particular philosopher (or less often) a theme, and then reading Russell's short, accessible, witty summaries of the great ideas and individuals.
Then it may be used - as Russell asks us too- as a work of social history, comparing and explaining general trends and processes in not only philosophy but in human civilisation. Very few people use it like that.
Then again, it can simply be used as a good read - a chapter a week for one and a half years, for hat is how many chapters there are. Many people, doubtless, buy it with something like this in mind. Rather fewer, I would say, persist in that optimistic belief. For Russell's History of Western Philosophy is simply too long, too episodic, too tiring to be read like that.
As an encyclopaedia it is full of errors and omissions. It's unfortunate that many of these have passed (unchecked) into general use, ill-recalled opinions of Russell repeated as objective fact. Russell himself admits in the foreword to not being an expert on any of the philosophers with the possible exception (he slightly immodestly adds) of Leibniz. He excuses this in his attempt to unify the disparate specialisms, a task reflected in the History's lumping together of philosophers under various headings. So for instance, Descartes leads to liberalism, and Rousseau to Nazism, according to Russell. (click for full review)
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