Caution, not conviction

A Brief History of Western Philosophy
August 6, 1999

What is the difference between science and magic? In magic, there is no progress." In philosophy too, adds Ludwig Wittgenstein elsewhere, there is no progress. Philosophy get us nowhere. Wittgenstein again: "Philosophers are no nearer to the meaning of 'reality' than Plato got." How remarkable that Plato could get so far! Anthony Kenny, however, does believe in philosophical progress. The 22 chapters of this history are lucidly written and with enough humour in them to cheer up the educated general reader even in the midst of the most arid of philosophical discussions.

Judging by Kenny's excellent chapter on Aristotle, Plato did not get very far. "Plato is a friend; Truth is a greater friend," apologises Aristotle, before advancing eight arguments against Plato's theory of ideas. But Aristotle himself impeded the progress of later thinkers by setting them some needlessly insoluble problems that exhausted their genius. Aristotle pontificated that matter could not have had a beginning. Hence arose the medieval problem of justifying divine creation against the Aristotelian dogma of the

eternity of the world.

Apart from the Greek trio of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, only Descartes, Kant and Wittgenstein get a chapter apiece. Maimonides, the greatest Jewish medieval thinker, gets only a postcard summary. The medieval Arab philosopher-jurist Averroes, who challenged both Islamic and Christian orthodoxy, is dismissed as "unoriginal". Twentieth-century continental philosophy, the work of Sartre and the existentialists, is omitted entirely. No justification for these judgements is offered.

On the other hand, Kenny devotes much space to that trinity of philosopher-saints who shaped the Christian centuries: Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas. An obsession with Christianity gouged out the first one and a half millennia of western philosophical thought. Today, outside Thomist circles, few read this holy trio. Kenny admits that "Augustine is more hated than read", hence the extensive coverage. For balance, however, Kenny should have discussed a pagan work such as Porphyry's fragmentary Against the Christians , a philosophical commentary on the New Testament.

For our century, Kenny outlines clearly the technical contributions of the logicians Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell. Finally, Kenny rejects Wittgenstein's pessimism about philosophy as an ambitious but misguided attempt to contribute to the world's stock of truth and insight. Kenny's largely descriptive volume is intended to replace Russell's more controversial History of Western Philosophy . Unlike Russell, Kenny is guided by Descartes's motto of "caution, not conviction". But Kenny, an authority on Wittgenstein, allows himself nonetheless to remark that Wittgenstein has "decisively refuted" Descartes, the father of modern philosophy.

Shabbir Akhtar holds a doctorate in philosophy and is writing a biography of St Paul.

A Brief History of Western Philosophy

Author - Anthony Kenny
ISBN - 0 631 18791 X and 20132 7
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £50.00 and £12.99
Pages - 365

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