Tuesday, 28 May 2019

A History of Western Philosophy


Goodness, that was a long one. Jonathan Keeble deserves a medal. Thirty-eight hours of narration, excellently done. 

So much to unpack here, I doubt I can do it justice. It is a history of western philosophy - surprise! - from the ancient Greeks up until 1945, when the book was published. Each chapter is dedicated to a different philosopher, explaining their outlook, influences and main philosophical points. 

The Greek philosophers make up a substantial portion of the book, then the medieval philosophers, with Machiavelli, Descartes, Kant, Marx, Bergson and William James occupying shorter chapters towards the end. 

It was good in that, although I was familiar with most of the names, it condensed each down into manageable highlights which fitted together as a progressive whole. Though, despite Russell's clear respect for women, scant attention was paid to any of history's female philosophers, with the exception of Hypatia, which mostly focused on her gruesome death, and a bit about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein's Monster and what that said about Romanticism. As with all writers of that time, he stuck to Strunk & White's Elements of Style, which, if I recall correctly, advocates he as a gender-neutral pronoun to be used whenever the subject's gender is unknown or unimportant. In contrast, Harari's Sapiens often used the female pronoun she when giving examples and, as a result, I felt more engaged with it. I felt like it included me in its historical narrative rather than assuming that all things of importance belonged to men. A minor style issue, but one that I notice nowadays in a way I probably didn't when younger, and serves to illustrate how culture and societal norms are changing. 

Although the book references Hitler as a contemporary threat a few times, the tone of the book is fairly ageless. Russell presents his own thoughts on individual philosophers sparingly and with good rationale, so it's unlikely to feel outdated any time soon. In fact, I'd love to know what he would have thought, and how he would have updated the book, in the internet era. He'd be on my guest list at a fantasy dinner.

I started this book with a sense of adventure and curiosity about philosophy. I did try to read Sophie's World when I was about thirteen, but didn't get into it. I was ready for A History of Western Philosophy this time, but found myself harbouring a significant sense of disappointment by the end. Not at the book, which was really well written, but at how very much religious thinking retarded intelligence over all those centuries. From that first spark of Socrates, through the slow-dying flames to the dark ages, it all seemed to boil down to:
Intellectually, the effect of mistaken moral considerations upon philosophy has been to impede progress to an extraordinary extent. I do not myself believe that philosophy can either prove or disprove the truth of religious dogmas, but ever since Plato most philosophers have considered it part of their business to produce “proofs” of immortality and the existence of God... In order to make their proofs seem valid, they have had to falsify logic, to make mathematics mystical, and to pretend that deep-seated prejudices were heaven-sent intuitions. 
The sheer enormity of the circles these 'great thinkers' went round in was upsetting when we think what that time could have been used to consider instead. To me, philosophy is about the meaning of existence, whether reality is real, what - if any - the purpose might be. Yet most of it seemed to be about holding up the norms of the Church and gaining political influence. Few of these thinkers appeared to be truly objective in their enquiries. Those who thought themselves to be, as we all do to some extent, can be forgiven, but many of them appeared to be truly aware of their bias and embrace it at the expense of the spirit of philosophy.

Another passage explained the problems of philosophical bias brought about by religious and political motivation:
Philosophy, throughout its history, has consisted of two parts inharmoniously blended. On the one hand a theory as to the nature of the world, on the other an ethical or political doctrine as to the best way of living. The failure to separate these two with sufficient clarity has been a source of much confused thinking. Philosophers, from Plato to William James, have allowed their opinions as to the constitution of the universe to be influenced by the desire for edification: knowing, as they supposed, what beliefs would make men virtuous, they have invented arguments, often very sophistical, to prove that these beliefs are true. For my part I reprobate this kind of bias, both on moral and on intellectual grounds. Morally, a philosopher who uses his professional competency for anything except a disinterested search for truth is guilty of a kind of treachery. And when he assumes, in advance of enquiry, that certain beliefs, whether true or false, are such as to promote good behaviour, he is so limiting the scope of philosophical speculation as to make philosophy trivial; the true philosopher is prepared to examine all preconceptions. When any limits are placed, consciously or unconsciously, upon the pursuit of truth, philosophy becomes paralysed by fear, and the ground is prepared for a government censorship punishing those who utter “dangerous thoughts.” In fact, the philosopher has already placed such a censorship over his own investigations.

Of the lot, I think I most enjoyed Socrates, for who couldn't admire a person who set down their experience of dying for others to learn from, Machiavelli, who, despite certain political influences and whatever you might think of his reputation, remained coldly pragmatic about the human condition, and Bergson, who I hadn't heard of before, but came across as being to philosophy what Dali was to art. 

I took so many notes throughout this book, it would take half-a-dozen posts to get through them all, but suffice to say, it was a veritable tapas of philosophy. Some chapters I thoroughly enjoyed, others I picked at, but it introduced me to a host of flavors I can go off and explore further if I wish to. It really is an extremely impressive achievement and worth a look if philosophy interests you.

1 comment:

  1. Gosh! Takes me back a bit. This was an essential crib book on my first degree course eons ago 📚📖