How the West and East was one

The Blackwell Guide to the Modern Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche. First Edition - Descartes to Derrida - 1000 Years of Philosophy
June 1, 2001

 

Is there any need for students of philosophy to focus their studies on anything other than the primary sources? How and to what extent may the teaching of philosophy be supplemented by the use of broad historical surveys or by brief surveys of the life and works of particular philosophers? Plato's dialogues, after all, were composed with the presumption that students would study them, not that they would study what someone else had to say about them. Recent volumes from Blackwells provide three unique secondary sources on both eastern and western (both "continental" and "Anglo-American, analytic") philosophy. How well might they supplement a student's studies?

Steven Emmanuel has edited a superb volume, which includes one essay each on the main western philosophers from the early 17th to the late 19th centuries. These essays are presented chronologically by a leading scholar (or scholars) on that philosopher. Most of the essays, with Bentham as the exception, are arranged topically and often according to the philosopher's key contributions - for instance, "The natural world: primary and secondary qualities" (Locke); "Fraternity" (Rousseau); "Christian experience: faith and the paradox" (Kierkegaard) - and sometimes according to the author's wish to discuss a particular work - for instance: "The overall project of the essay" (Locke).

The book is no substitute for studying the primary works and the carefully written essays seem to have this point well in mind. Instead, they each provide an overview of the philosopher's work and major philosophical contributions. In addition, some attempt is made to situate each philosopher in his broader historical context, though not to the extent hinted in the preface.

The philosophers presented are: Descartes (Gary Hatfield), Hobbes (A. P. Martinich), Spinoza (Don Garrett), Malebranche (Steven Nadler), Leibniz (Donald Rutherford), Locke (Martha Brandt Bolton), Berkeley (George Pappas), Hume (Dave Fate Norton), Reid (Ernst Sosa and James Van Cleve), Rousseau (N. J. H. Dent), Kant (Patricia Kitcher), Bentham (Ross Harrison), Hegel (Stephen Houlgate), Kierkegaard (C. Stephen Evans), Schopenhauer (Christopher Janaway), J. S. Mill (Wendy Donner and Richard Fummerton), Marx (Terrell Carver), and Nietzsche (Richard Schacht).

Emmanuel includes a comprehensive index of subjects, persons and titles. He also includes a select bibliography, though my preference would be for a much more thorough one. In many cases, the endnotes for each of the essays mentions some key secondary works. Each essay is written clearly, with most or all jargon carefully explained. Undergraduate students with an at least rudimentary background in philosophy can profit from most essays. They will be challenged by them, but only rarely, if ever, be put off by inaccessibility. By far this book's greatest asset to the student taking, say, an upper-level course in modern philosophy is the extraordinary way in which Emmanuel gets the different authors to provide, as if in concert, a chronological development of the main ideas of the period. For example, what one learns from Bolton about Locke is then developed and challenged by Berkeley as presented by Pappas.

One simply cannot devote serious study to all of the major works of the modern period in one course. Emmanuel's beautiful volume can, I think, very richly supplement a student's exposure to the period for those figures whose works receive little or no space on the syllabus. It may well substantially enhance the study of the primary sources that are the focus of the course.

The finest essay is Patricia Kitcher's on Kant. While I do not agree with all of the details of her account, it is probably the best one-essay account of Kant and his work that I have read.

Rom Harre's very ambitious 1000 Years of Philosophy (compare John Passmore's 1957 work, A Hundred Years of Philosophy ) is a survey of the main philosophical views and philosophers - western and eastern - of the second millennium. Typically, at least in philosophical education in the United States, study of eastern philosophy as philosophy is a virtual terra incognita .

His study is divided into four parts, the first devoted to eastern thought, the other three to western thought. The three devoted to western thought focus on medieval and modern thought, the latter receiving nearly half the book's attention. The beginning chapter, entitled "What is philosophy?", provides a discussion of those concepts, activities and terms basic to the discipline - those things that make a scholarly activity or position philosophy rather than something else. Each chapter ends with a concluding section summarising the chapter's claims and focus.

Among philosophical topics discussed are Vedic philosophy, Buddhism, Confucianism, neo-Confucianism, Islamic philosophy, Jewish philosophy, Christian thought, realism, positivism, rationalism, conventionalism, phenomenology, moral thought and political thought. The bibliography is very helpful, particularly as it is organised according to chapter. But the index is brief, though its selectivity is helpful in reviewing the key figures and ideas for various periods.

This book's remarkable ambition is perhaps also its most serious flaw. The various philosophical ideas are presented at such an abstract level that it becomes far too difficult to appreciate Harre's discussion of the evolution of those ideas over the period he considers as well as his many comparative insights concerning eastern and western thought. For example, in discussing the various nuances and controversies of the Indian concepts of Atman , Brahman and their purported identity, Harre cites a great deal from the primary sources, such as the Kena Upanishad . But unless one were already a little familiar with such texts and had developed some skill in how to read them, the citations would be of only little help in explaining these remarkable ideas.

In spite of this, Harre's idea - a single, comprehensive discussion of eastern and western philosophy - is most welcome. It would be more effective, though, if he were afforded space to present his treatment in a more elaborate, slower-paced way. There are a few volumes' worth of research crammed into this book and it would have been interesting to have seen all of the work that led Harre to the present text.

In addition, I expect that many readers, like myself, would have benefited from a pronunciation key, as many of the eastern names and concept-words, as well as some of the western ones, more often than not pose an overly distracting challenge. As it stands, the book will be most useful only for those scholars who are already sufficiently advanced, for only then will one be able to dig into Harre's intriguing claims and judge the worthiness of his insights. Harre's work must rank as one of the most unique historical sources available: nevertheless , it provides an account of how particular philosophers and their works fit into the far broader context of a millennium's worth of thought without regard to hemisphere.

One of the most frequently asked questions from my students is: "What is the difference between continental and analytic philosophy?" The brief preface to Peter Sedgwick's offering on European philosophy provides the most intelligent discussion of this issue that I have ever seen in print. Luckily I agree with his own suspicion that the differences, if there really are any, are perhaps far more "institutional" in nature than philosophical.

That said, Sedgwick selects his subjects for their shared suspicion of the view that "philosophical enquiry begins with subjectivity," rather than for their geographic home. The chapters focus on such concepts as knowledge, history and society; ontology; anti-humanism; and ideology, power and justice.

Philosophers receiving the most detailed discussions include Hegel, Nietzsche, Horkheimer, Adorno, Heidegger, Deleuze, Guattari, Levinas, Derrida, Althusser, Foucault and Lyotard.

The opening chapter provides a very thorough, carefully written account of the epistemological contributions of Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant that, for Sedgwick, establishes the philosophical terrain of European thought as his principals enter the scene.

Notes are gathered at the end of each chapter. The section on "further reading" is very thorough and is arranged according to chapters. The index proved very helpful to me and seems comprehensive.

In general, American students find "continental" thought somewhat less accessible than its analytic counterpart. The difficulties they seem to have - real or perceived - gravitate towards the writing being thick, complicated and unnecessarily lavish. John Stuart Mill seems a whole lot easier to read than Hegel, even if, in the end, the ideas of both are equally deep and rich.

In light of this, such an introductory work on European thought is a welcome aid to the reading of the relevant primary sources. But the value of such a text, especially in this case, rests on the clarity of its own presentation. Sedgwick's writing is clear, elegant, well organised and perfectly attuned to the concerns outlined above.

Sedgwick does not seem to presuppose that the reader is "continental literate" - at least not always - and so his discussion will also be of much-needed help to students steeped in the analytic tradition seeking a more genuine and comprehensive education in the discipline.

The discussion on Derrida, perhaps the most notoriously incomprehensible philosopher from the analytic point of view, is very clear and enlightening. I cannot help but mention here another perfect audience for this book: faculty, such as myself, who would like to be able to engage their "continental" colleagues in scholarly discussions about their research, but think they lack sufficient background to do so.

I confess to learning an enormous amount of philosophy from Sedgwick's book, and some of his rich and clear discussions, especially those concerning Hegel and the Frankfurt School, have inspired my own introductory course to become a little more comprehensive.

Patrick Mooney is assistant professor of philosophy, John Carroll University, Cleveland, United States.

The Blackwell Guide to the Modern Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche. First Edition

Editor - Steven M. Emmanuel
ISBN - 0 631 21016 4 and 21017 2
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £60.00 and £16.99
Pages - 423

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