Andre Gushurst-Moore argues that much philosophy has descended into niadnls
The Philosophers: Introducing Great Western Thinkers, edited by Ted Honderich, Oxford University Press, £11
THIS BOOK CONSTITUTES an ambitious project. The "28 greatest Western philosophers", from Socrates to Sartre, are each treated by an essay of some six to eight closely-typed pages, which, it is intended, will enable "any reader" to learn about them. The book is handsomely produced, and written by scholars pre-eminent in their field, but is it possible to make such huge figures accessible in so short a space? Especially when, say the publishers, "no previous knowledge of philosophy [is] assumed" on the part of the reader? Extraordinary powers of clarity and concision would be required from the essayists here assembled, were they to render immense complexity of thought in language that the initiate may understand.
In his introduction, Ted Honderich briefly surveys the subjects of these essays, pointing out how the philosophers differ from one another, and asking whether their purpose was (or is) to achieve the delineation of an objective truth about the way things are.
Predictably, it would seem not; rather, we should appreciate the way the philosophers present "sides of truth" from their own particular perspectives. One may read ily agree that knowledge of complete truth is always beyond the compass of one man, but the ways in which philosophers are wrong is also, surely, to be considered. Value judgements are eschewed here, however. In Honderich's terms, we see the philosopher as a solitary creator of his own universe: "Whatever he thought of the world and felt about it, Hobbes's predecessor Aquinas also made a world". Aquinas, however, would have rejected the solipsism that this implies.
Augustine is represented, following the three great minds of the ancient world — Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The importance of Aristotle (and by no means the only one) is that the rational and categorical terms of his philosophy provided the basis of Thomism, that supreme combination of theology and philosophy that represents the greatest intellectual achievement of the medieval Church. It is interesting to read the essays consecutively in order to see the effect that philosophers had upon their successors, and how these successors reacted against their predecessors — what Harold Bloom has called in the literary context "the anxiety of influence".
After Aquinas, philosophy was "liberated" from theology after the disaster of the Protestant Reformation. The private judgement of the autonomous philosopher was then brought to bear on the nature of life, language, morality, logic, history, society, mind, time, and God, all without the burden of Revelation. This is the philosopher as the poor, unaccommodated man of King Lear. Honderich rather gives his own position away by asking: "Should philosophy now begin, at the earliest, with Hobbes?"
From Hobbes to Sartre, we have a fascinating picture of the capacities of the human mind to reflect upon its condition. We have Locke, in the service of the House of Orange, establishing a cult of Reason and so helping the descent of philosophy into different kinds of madness. Berkeley is an engaging thinker, seeing precisely where Locke would lead, but his spirited attack on the former's incipient scientism caused him to swing the other way entirely and deny the existence of matter altogether. Geoffrey Wamock's essay is a model of lucidity, and sympathetic in that it confesses to finding Berkeley baffling in his later writings. (One is reminded of Boswell's account of Dr Johnson's common sense reaction to Berkeley's theory, when he kicked a large stone and said "I refute it thus.") Hegel's idea that there has been a gradual increase in human freedom through history, with a large impetus being given to the process by the Protestant Reformation, is Whiggery writ large, and laid the groundwork for Marx; lest we imagine for one moment that philosophy is the most ineffectual of pursuits, we should reflect on how history would have been different and how much suffering would have been avoided, if this man had not written. Ideas do indeed have consequences.
The same might be said of Nietzsche. Richard Schacht writes of "the shadow cast by the travesty of his appropriation by the Nazis and Fascists", as if to suggest that somehow there is no connection in ideas between them. But he then goes on to say that "Nietzsche was openly and profoundly hostile to most forms of morality and religious thought" and rejected the "God-hypothesis".
Perhaps one speaks with the benefit of hindsight, but what would come of this if not evil? Kierkegaard, another thinker who pointed to the limits of rationalism, is more attractive, if only for the religious framework of his thought. For the most part, however, it i difficult to see that 19thad 20hcentury phlosophrs would be of interest to anyme other than professionalphilosophers ; philosopy new, seems little conceied wth anything but itself and the end of private judennentis spiritual privation., THIS BOO I WOLld. certainly reply study, ands a_imin bringing to wirer audience the ides whits: have shaped our wad is ;a be welconed. Hoe ver, if "no previous laic:pledge if philosophy [is] assnried" a glossary should here: be n provided to expui in tle meaning of stock bens suk as "ontological", "le clog cal", "causation" ,ernpix-: cism", "episternolcy'', at. so on. With oneoir tvn: exceptions, the e sly s ae. not distinguished y ther accessibility; it seer to bei lamentable fact thatte moe introverted a ti bje t becomes, the less ire gart good style and the;nerl reader.
The boobs subtit irrtigl also suggest that thereate: of Western thinkexase a here, but where is lirke c Newman when tire Bentham and Mill? hi lose phers" is mrrowly efinet And speaking of rw. max the editor should notklat, any further editionE thi book is coitempl2dL , tlx title of hit (sure I well known) spiritual atirtitogro phy is Apologia .a Vit Sua, not Apologia ty Vit Mea.