Time to Karl up and die

The Philosophers
October 8, 1999

This introduction to the history of western philosophy is not arranged thematically. Twenty-eight thinkers are studied separately. There is a danger of a cult of personality; several contributors make hyperbolic claims on behalf of their chosen thinker. How does one decide when to begin the history of a subject in which there seems to be no progress? The editor wonders whether or not "our philosophy should consider shuffling off its past, like science, even historiography. Should philosophy now begin, at the earliest, with Hobbes?" Ted Honderich does not actually begin with Hobbes, a contemporary of Descartes. He begins with Socrates, the Greek conversationalist who loved to talk people into the ground. Since there is nothing on the pre-Socratics, men such as Thales and Pythagoras, Socrates appears out of nowhere. Apart from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, we have the British empiricists: Locke, the Anglican bishop George Berkeley, and the Scottish sceptic Hume. By contrast, we have the Continental rationalist trio of Descartes, Spinoza, the father of critical biblical studies, and Leibniz. These two schools are synthesised in Kant in 18th-century Germany. Two American pragmatists are here with a lucid chapter on C. S. Peirce. G. E. Moore, the philosopher of common sense, is not in, though he is no less influential than, say, the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham or the pragmatist William James, each of whom gets a chapter. No living thinker is included.

Who is chosen is admittedly a matter of judgement. But today Machiavelli is more influential than Marx. Nor will it do to object that Machiavelli is only a political theorist. For Marx was merely a historian and economist who gave us no distinctively philosophical method or view. The philosophical components of Marx's thought are all there in Hegel and Feuerbach. Given the universal collapse of communism, why discuss Marx at all? Why not include Freud instead as a metaphysician who dared to replace the transcendent and the conscious with the local and the subconscious?

Three truly modern and courageous thinkers, each leading an unhappy life for the sake of his philosophy, are Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. The contributor on Kierkegaard makes an intelligent claim about the need for Christian spirituality in an agnostic age: denied a religious outlet, we may seek refuge in utopian politics. Moreover, Kierkegaard himself plausibly argued that the paradox and "absurdity" of Christian faith encourage humility: we are reminded that the certainties sought in faith must not be achievable through human faculties alone.

Nietzsche subtitled one of his books "A Philosophy of the Future". Like his intellectual mentor Schopenhauer, Nietzsche was attracted to eastern faiths extolling Buddhism as "spiritual hygiene", though no Buddhist would approve of his megalomania. His goal was to affirm life's value in a godless world and to reaffirm it without the comforting illusions of Christianity. The chapter on him is the longest, though there is no critique of his opinions. Clearly philosophy gave Nietzsche, as with Socrates, the courage to ignore and condemn what those in authority or majority say. Yet if we see the world sanely, we reject Nietzsche's own views as desperately implausible, belonging properly to the lunatic asylum.

Wittgenstein, that mercurial genius, writing in oracular style, invented a method, the best way to achieve fame in philosophy. The logical positivism of his early days was later repudiated and he invented a second method, a unique philosophical achievement. Philosophy is not a science; it does not compete with other subjects. It merely monitors the limits of sense and nonsense. Language is autonomous; it extends the intellect and the range of the will. We do not solve problems; we dissolve them. We do not seek knowledge; we seek understanding. We do not speculate; we look at the real world. Philosophy leaves everything as it is, concludes Wittgenstein. Yet it is wonderful that such a subject, within which there is no progress, somehow influences developments in many other disciplines.

Shabbir Akhtar holds a PhD in philosophy. He is writing a biography of St Paul.

The Philosophers: Introducing Great Western Thinkers

Editor - Ted Honderich
ISBN - 0 19 823861 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £10.99
Pages - 288

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