SBR: Reading this book is a great way to get introduced to the gamut of philosophical thoughts and tradition in the west starting from ancient Greeks to the beginning of twentieth century. What really works is that the author doesn’t feel the need to treat philosophy or philosophers with reverence just for being ancient or famous. He takes us on a journey of understanding and is ruthless in the pursuit. If that means that even the powerful people and ideas of past do not make sense to a modern mind, then they just do not. There is no need to be defensive about it.
Russell is also generous with his opinions, analysis and critique of the philosophers. Because it is clear at most places from the text when he is just narrating the philosophical thought in question and when he is offering his own opinions, it works well. For a novice, modern reader of philosophy, it is important to see those opinions in order to make sense of the ancient and obscure stuff.
Although condensing centuries of philosophical though in one book, even at over eight hundred pages, means that the treatment cannot be exhaustive or most scholarly, this isn’t necessarily a “for dummies” book. Most of the material of the book comes from a series of lecture the author gave, and it seems to talk to the fellow philosophers more than the lay readers.
The chapters of Bergson and Dewey didn’t work for me. They were the contemporaries of the author, and he seemed to have set the detachment of the historical chronicler aside in those chapters. The contemporary rivalries or exchanges dominate there. I needed to go elsewhere to understand what these philosophers really said.
To read or not to read: If you want to start delving into western philosophy, you should pick up this book sometime sooner than later. It might help to have read something beforehand. Story of Philosophy by Will Durant, a very accessible and readable work, worked as a good starting point for me. I picked up Russell after reading that. If you are also just starting on the subject like me, this is the sequence you can follow too. Even then keep Wikipedia, Google search and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy handy for the unfamiliar references that would invariably pop up. (It’s kind of funny that Russell is covered in Durant’s book. Historian becoming a subject of another history!)