A Little History of Philosophy

September 22, 2011

The continuing success of the slow food movement - the ethical, nutritional and aesthetic reaction to the meteoric rise of junk food during the 20th century - sadly appears to be accompanied by an increased interest in instant, bite-sized food for thought. Our few remaining bookshops are replete with brief histories, very short introductions and manuals for dummies and beginners, while blog posts have largely given way to tweets and podcasts. Histories of philosophy, once the domain of weighty, controversial volumes by the likes of Bertrand Russell, are now being dispensed in micro-bites of bare facts.

Nigel Warburton is a leading light of the back-to-basics approach, which he undertakes with considerable ease and panache in this introductory presentation of about 60 philosophical ideas, accompanied by some brief biographical remarks about the thinker behind each one, from Socrates to Peter Singer. But do we really need another book reminding us that the word "philosophy" means "love of wisdom", that Socrates never ceased to ask questions, or that philosophers used to conduct their exchanges in the marketplace?

Warburton himself appears to have covered much of the same ground before, with many of the philosophers and ideas presented here having already been introduced in earlier works including Philosophy: The Classics (2001) and Philosophy: The Basics (2004). Of course, a history of philosophy is a different undertaking, but it is far from clear that this is what Warburton has produced. Indeed, a better title for the book might have been Some Philosophical Ideas from the West, for there is little in it that is historical in nature. The reader is offered no sense of the subject's historical development (least of all through the arbitrary way in which the topic of any given chapter is connected to that of the next) and almost nothing about Chinese, Indian or African philosophy (save for a brief remark about the influence of Buddhism on Arthur Schopenhauer).

The selection of thinkers presented is largely standard, although biologist Charles Darwin, mathematician Alan Turing and psychologist Sigmund Freud have oddly earned places in a volume that ignores Confucius, Francisco Suarez, Mary Wollstonecraft, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Franz Brentano, Martin Heidegger, Gottlob Frege, Rudolf Carnap, R.G. Collingwood, Willard Van Orman Quine, Jacques Derrida, Donald Davidson, Elizabeth Anscombe and others.

Warburton makes a case for Darwin to be included on the grounds that "his theory of evolution and its modern versions have had a profound impact on how philosophers - as well as scientists - think about humanity". Ironically, the only figure of the 20 included after the Darwin entry whose philosophy was influenced by him is Friedrich Nietzsche, whose complex response was a largely negative one, his rejection of religion having nothing to do with Darwinian theory.

Alas, Warburton himself never engages with the arguments, and readers would get a much better grasp of exegetical issues by surfing the web, not to mention proper citations, cross-references and bibliographies. There is, of course, the online danger of factual error to consider, but Warburton's oversimplified and frequently anecdotal summaries are hardly immune from it.

For example, he claims that Thomas Hobbes maintained that we are all basically selfish (whereas Hobbes' considerably more complicated outlook explicitly acknowledged human benevolence, good will and charity); attributes to Turing the view that computers can think (when in fact he took the philosophical question of whether or not they can think to be a misguided one); and offers the (at best misleading) definition of analyticity as the property of being true by definition. A chapter on Frege, Carnap and Quine would have shown that there is no single analytic/synthetic distinction, let alone one based on definitional truths.

Overall, one is left with the false impression that over the ages philosophers have come up with some interesting ideas worth thinking about, but have made little attempt to engage with the history of their own subject.

A Little History of Philosophy

By Nigel Warburton. Yale University Press. 288pp, £14.99. ISBN 9780300152081. Published 14 September 2011.

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