The happy logic of a just feast

A New History of Western Philosophy
April 8, 2005

This wonderful book takes us from the Milesian philosopher Thales, famous for his geometry and for claiming that everything is made of water, to Augustine, of whom Anthony Kenny says "of all the philosophers in the ancient world, only Aristotle had a greater influence on human thought".

Kenny argues that "any serious history of philosophy must itself be an exercise in philosophy as well as in history". Being mindful of the danger of subordinating philosophy to history and vice versa, his solution is to adopt a blend of historical and topical approaches. There are two chapters that take up just over a third of the book. They recount the basic ideas and biographies of figures from "Pythagoras to Plato" and from "Aristotle to Augustine". The rest is divided into chapters covering: logic, epistemology, physics, metaphysics, soul and mind, ethics and God.

(Augustine's philosophy after his conversion to Christianity will appear at the start of the next volume, so the last chapter is confined to pagan theology.) This works very well, providing a chronological overview, followed by detailed discussion of the fundamental contributions of the ancients.

Bertrand Russell apparently wrote his History of Western Philosophy in a hurry to raise funds. Although this remains a popular work, it is a patchy and unreliable source. By contrast, Kenny has undertaken his project having contributed to our understanding of philosophers (Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Frege and Wittgenstein) in each of the epochs his volumes will cover. His history of philosophy is the product of a lifetime of scholarship and this is manifest on every page. The other celebrated history of philosophy is that of Frederick Copleston, which runs to 12 volumes. Although this contains a wealth of detail and remains a valuable resource, Kenny is by far the better philosopher and writer. This book is not only an authoritative guide to the history of philosophy but also a compelling introduction to every major area of philosophical inquiry.

Professional philosophers will find much of contemporary relevance; for example, Kenny's suggestion that modal logic take account of the difference between the logic of one-way possibilities, such as that fire can burn, and the logic of two-way possibilities, such as someone's ability to walk or not to walk as he or she chooses. On the other hand, general readers in search of an introduction to philosophy will find that no specialist knowledge is presupposed.

Kenny's prose is exceptionally clear and his sentences rarely span more than two lines. He conveys his rich subject matter with a light touch of which only the greatest of writers are capable. Often the text is almost deceptively simple to read as Kenny exercises his great skill at summarising ideas in a pithy phrase. Here he is explaining Plato's view of the relation between justice and happiness in the Republic: "The just man is happier than the unjust, not only because his soul is more in concord, but because it is more delightful to fill the soul with understanding than to feed fat the desires of appetite." This, combined with his breadth and depth of learning and philosophical sophistication, make reading the book hugely rewarding.

It is also worth mentioning that the text is beautifully illustrated with, for instance, Giovanni di Paolo's illustration of Aristotle's cosmology in Dante's Paradiso . One is left eager for the subsequent volumes and convinced that "the intellectual cosmos is, indeed, boundlessly rich".

James Ladyman is senior lecturer in philosophy, Bristol University.

A New History of Western Philosophy: Volume One: Ancient Philosophy

Author - Anthony Kenny
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 341
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 0 19 8753 3

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