Many people sometimes ask me what a good secondary introduction to philosophy is. Many people are familiar with Will Durant or Bertrand Russell. Yet, these two writers, for what it’s worth, are not worth reading. Few serious philosophers take Durant or Russell seriously. So who would I recommend besides, of course, reading the primary sources? It is Frederick Coplestone’s History of Philosophy.
Why is Will Durant insufficient?
Durant is insufficient because it is simply hyper-popular to the point of just being pleasant reading from Durant but there is little substance in Durant. Durant is a great story-teller and some of his comments are abstract but brilliant. However, Durant is someone that one should not read if you want to learn about the philosophers and philosophy in question.
Why is Russell insufficient?
Russell is generally cited by lower writers and journalists as someone to read. Why? Russell’s style is pleasing and easy to read. In many ways, Russell is like Edward Gibbon. While Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire set the cornerstone for popular Roman history, no one takes Gibbon’s work seriously today. There is too much Gibbon and not enough good history. Yet, Gibbon’s prose is worth reading just for aesthetic purposes. In much the same way this is true of Russell.
Stylistically and linguistically, Russell is superb. Where Durant tells stories, Russell’s writing style is so fluid, easy-going, and pleasant to read, that one gets lost in Russell’s prose rather than in the substance of Russell’s philosophy. Unlike Durant, Russell’s book was the first more serious attempt to popularize philosophy which is why it has stuck. As such, his book has had lasting staying power. The problem with Russell is that you receive the philosophers whom he does cover through him. This is especially true when he deals with Thomas Aquinas and Hegel. Russell not only doesn’t understand Aquinas or Hegel, he viciously attacks Aquinas and Hegel in his attempts to explain them. In fact, he is not explaining them. He is allowing his emotions dictate his presentation of the philosophers whom he dislikes. The same is true for the philosopher whom he loves: Baruch Spinoza.
If you want a good book stylistically, read Russell. If you want to be an imitator of Russell’s style and prose, which would not be a bad thing, read Russell. If you want to learn anything of substance, leave Russell on the shelf.
This brings us to Frederick Coplestone. Many people may recoil toward Coplestone because he was a Catholic Jesuit priest. They think, unfairly and ignorantly, that just because he was Catholic that he will not be honest in his presentation. On the contrary, it was the atheist Russell who unfairly and ignorantly lashed out at those whom he despised. Coplestone wrote wonderfully on the philosophers he covered and he fairly and honestly presented them in a manner rarely seen in secondary works. Moreover, Coplestone’s multivolume work offers far more substance than the single-volume works of Durant or Russell ever could.
The problem with Coplestone, in comparison to Durant or Russell, is that he is more verbose and technical than the others. Coplestone has many passages in Greek and Latin that he never translated. This is because when he wrote in the 1940s-1960s, knowledge of Greek and Latin was still widespread. There was no reason to translate what readers already knew. This speaks volumes of how pathetic our educational and intellectual standards and institutions have become.
Coplestone is the best secondary resource for an introduction into philosophy. It is substantial and meaty unlike Durant. It is accurate and open with understandable presentations of the philosophers qua philosophers; the same is not true for Russell. While I would always recommend the primary sources first, if one needs a helpful guide, Coplestone is the source to go to.