# 394: BOOK OF THE WEEK — “History of Western Philosophy”

Russell, Bertrand (1991/1946). History of Western Philosophy.

Story behind the Book Choice

Last week I passionately declared that I would stop the weekly book blog. Now I am continuing. What the hell is wrong with me? I can give an answer straight away: Sometimes I stop doing things because I dislike the judgment or opinion related to this very activity by others. As soon as I get over this frustration, I question what exactly it is that makes me think about something in a negative way. Yes, my decision last week was mostly caused by the fact that something had come to an end — inside of me. This is not altogether wrong, I still support it. I also hold on to the notion that I will somehow change the weekly book blog format. But right now, I just do not feel like it. In addition, I like writing about what I read. And I do need the discipline that is connected with this inner contract of blogging each Sunday.

Discipline is a very dangerous thing. For people like me, discipline can kill you because you indeed strictly hold on to it. This means, you actually implement your goals — your will. The only solution would be stop willing altogether, as Schopenhauer would support. And this brings us directly to the heart of the book and the reason why I finally read many chapters of it (reading the whole thing at once does not make sense because it has more than 800 pages): I have gone through a long transformation process in the past years. When I say past years, we are almost talking about a decade. Nobody has been able to witness this from outside, neither have I been able to record the process from inside. What remains now is a self-declaration, an intellectual outing if you want, that reading and thinking form the center of my life. Behind this in an insight, a finding, and probably also a decision which is conscious in one way or the other.

Before this is getting too complicated or altogether insane, I want to turn to the book. It is a beautiful book and it was recommended to me by someone who loves books and recommended it with the words: “It is a beautifully written book.” I could not agree more. Russell writes unlike any other. And hardly any Germans write as Anglophone authors do. I am sorry to say this. Or maybe I am not. Maybe this serves as motivation. For me, this book has taught me who I am again. This is because I allowed it to do so. Somehow healing takes a long time. And the fact that I was finally able to open my heart and brain to what this book can teach its readers is a wonderful testimony to the fact that I have reached a new chapter. Maybe the quote at the beginning of my last book is about to turn into reality.

Maybe a scholar is about to be born.

1. Philosophy

Russell 13

If you ever want to give a concise and simple explanation of what philosophy is — look at this beautiful passage from the introduction. I do not even know what to add here. All my words would only distort the beauty and clarity of what Russell is saying. And even if you have no idea about philosophy and no immediate longing to get into it, just allow yourself to sit with this definition of what philosophy is or can be for a moment. It might not help you fill your fridge. But if your mind feels like an empty and dark cell because you are constantly acting in the outside world of daily trouble and competition, allow yourself to think that there is more in this world. And this treasure is hidden on pages like these. You do not need to pay a fortune or make some other sacrifice to access it. Peace of mind is the reward.

2. Happiness

Russell 192

This is the most personal passage today. You only learn what it means if you realized how unhappy you have been. But it takes courage and time to admit this.

3. Central ideas and details

Russell 354

This is a remarkable passage because it is really key to the way the book was written. Russell’s own voice is not dominant but sometimes it appears in the form of short comments and judgements. Here, this comment is about his writing style or rather approach. Passages like these appear throughout the book. He carefully reveals how consciously he has crafted the different chapters. And this in and of itself can only be done by a master of the philosophies described and summarized in the book. Hardly any chapter is longer than 10 pages but most authors discussed on these pages produced massive amounts of writing. The fact that Russell is able to boil all of this down in such a concise manner is almost unbelievable.

Part of this unbelievable capacity is exactly what he talks about above — writing about the big picture while not omitting the details. This might sound quite simple but it is not. In fact, I believe, Russell here describes the most difficult but also magical thing of writing as such. It is the secret to any great text — not just scholarly texts, all good writing. If scholarly texts are written like this, they are good writing. And the latter aspect is more important than the former. Quite interestingly, Russell often mentions the academic or non-academic focus of the philosophers discussed in the book. Some obviously (only) wrote for academic readers. Some cared about a more open and diverse audience. Whoever they wrote for, Russell is able to make them accessible to anyone who wants to gain from them.

And this gain can only be described in an Aristotelian way: happiness.

Reflection Questions

1) What is the relationship between theology and science according to you?

2) How do you think about Aristotle’s thesis that happiness lies in contemplation?

3) What do you prefer in a book — more big picture writing or many details?