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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Philosophy: General Histories

A Short History of Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Wittgenstein by Roger Scruton (Routledge Classics) is a lucid, challenging and up-to-date survey of the philosophers and philosophies from the founding father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, to the most important and famous philosopher of the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Completely revised and updated, A Short History of Modern Philosophy is an entirely accessible introduction, perfect for the general reader of philosophy. Expanded to include new material about recent philosophical debates, A Short History of Modern Philosophy contains additional chapters on the history of philosophy, tracing philosophy's roots, lineages and impact on the rich history of ideas.
Renowned for his clarity and accessible presentation of the basic principles of philosopher, Roger Scruton has generated a completely new edition of his highly acclaimed book. If you want to discover the pleasures of philosophy, then read Roger Scruton's books. Scruton has a unique ability to convey even the most difficult concepts with clarity and grace. His A Short History of Modern Philosophy is worth reading for two reasons: It is a model of fine expository writing, and it is an accessible overview of modern philosophy that will provide a foundation for further study of the central philosophers.

Contents: Preface to the First Edition, Preface to the Second Edition, Introduction: 1. History of philosophy and history of ideas, 2. The rise of modern philosophy, Part One: Rationalism 3. Descartes, 4. The Cartesian revolution, 5. Spinoza, 6. Leibniz, Part Two: Empiricism 7. Locke and Berkeley, 8. The idea of a moral science, 9. Hume, Part Three: Kant and idealism 10. Kant I: The Critique of Pure Reason, 11. Kant II: Ethics and aesthetics, 12. Hegel, 13. Reactions: Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Part Four: The political transformation 14. Political philosophy from Hobbes to Hegel, 15. Marx, 16. Utilitarianism and after, Part Five: Recent philosophy 17. Frege, 18. Phenomenology and existentialism, 19. Wittgenstein, Bibliography, Index.


The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance by Anthony Gottlieb (Norton) approaches philosophy through its primary sources, questions many pieces of conventional wisdom, and explains his findings with unbridled brilliance and clarity. From the pre-Socratic philosophers, Plato, and Aristotle to Renaissance visionaries like Erasmus, "philosophy" emerges here as a phenomenon unconfined by any one discipline. Indeed, as Gottlieb explains, its most revolutionary breakthroughs in the natural and social sciences were quickly co-opted by other branches of knowledge, leading to the illusion that philosophers never make any progress. From the physics of angels to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, Gottlieb builds through example and anecdote a vivid portrait of the human drive to understanding. After closing The Dream of Reason, readers will be graced with a fresh appreciation of the philosophical quest and its influence on every aspect of life.

My one problem with this romp through philosophic history is that the language and conceptuality is horribly anachronic, using a glib analytic speech and arguments for historical realities much stranger than Gottlieb allows.

An excerpt should show this clearly enough:

The place to begin is Miletus, one of the Ionian city-states on the coast of Asia Minor (now in Turkey). In the sixth century BC, when Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes flourished there, it was a rich sea power with many colonies to the north in Thrace and around the Black Sea, and commercial links with parts of southern Italy, the east and Egypt. It was a cultivated place, giving some people the leisure which Aristotle was later fond of claiming to be a prerequisite for philosophy. Writing two centuries afterwards, Aristotle discussed these three men from Miletus several times. He divided early Greek thinkers into theologi, who saw the world as controlled by impetuous supernatural beings, and physici (naturalists), who tried instead to explain an apparently disordered world in terms of simpler and impersonal principles. He said that the Milesians were the first physici.

    Many of the Presocratics wrote down their thoughts as well as holding forth in public, but you would hardly know it from what is left today. Their writings have been shattered by time and survive, if at all, only in tiny fragments. For some 2,000 years scholars have been poring over passages of little more than a few sentences, picking at a few words here and there, and depending heavily on secondary sources. Some ancient commentaries on these shards can be relied on at least to attempt accuracy. But even the best of them were written generations, or even many hundreds of years, after the Presocratics lived. Other second- and third-hand sources, such as the writings of the often unreliable but most enjoyable biographer, Diogenes Laertius (who lived in the third century AD), need to be read with at least one eyebrow raised. Diogenes was an undiscerning whale of a historian who swallowed every story that floated by.

    With these caveats in mind, consider Thales of Miletus. He was famed in ancient Greece for many things, the most famous of which he did not in fact do, namely predict an eclipse of the sun in 585 BC. The eclipse came during a battle between the Milesians' two neighbours to the east the Lydians and the Medes which added to its dramatic impact. It made Thales' intellectual fortune. The combatants were so impressed by the fact that there was an eclipse while they were fighting that they laid down their weapons and made peace. The Greeks in general were so impressed by the fact that Thales seemed to have predicted it that they later attributed to him an implausible number of wise words, wise deeds and discoveries, from the proofs of various geometrical theorems to the ability to make vast amounts of money. More importantly, they developed a deep respect for his way of thinking.

    But Thales did not make a genuine prediction, just a lucky informed guess. In all likelihood he was so far from understanding the true nature of solar eclipses that he would not even have known that the moon had anything to do with it. Fortunately for him he was a well-travelled man and this explains his guess. From the painstaking records of observant Babylonian star-gazers, he would have learned of a cycle that seemed to be characteristic of eclipses in the past. There were certain years in which eclipses might happen and other years in which they could not. The most that he could reasonably have inferred from this record is that there was a fair chance that an eclipse would be seen from somewhere at some time during 585 BC. If Thales claimed anything more precise than that, he was bluffing.

    The eclipse was a lucky break for the naturalists' view of the world. Clearly they were thinkers to be reckoned with. This may seem odd when one considers the surviving details of their views, because the theories most reliably attributed to Thales are that magnets are alive and that the world is made of water. He probably also said many other less speculative things, which earned him the respect of his peers as a man of practical knowledge. But even these two apparently outrageous ideas deserve some respect when seen in their proper contexts.

    Take water first. One distinguishing feature of what we now call a scientific account of things is that it should aim to be as simple as possible. Thales rather overshot this mark and tried to reduce everything to just one thing, namely water. It seems that he did not actually manage to come up with any watery explanations; these were, after all, early days. But in seeking a natural substance to unify and thus simplify the phenomena of the observable world, instead of making things more complicated by invoking lots of gods, he was at least looking for knowledge in what we now regard as the right sort of place.

    It is not clear whether he really meant to say that everything consisted of water in some sense, or merely that it originally came from water. He may well have meant to say both. It is anachronistic but not necessarily too misleading to interpret him, as Aristotle did, as holding that water was the arche, a term used by some slightly later thinkers to mean not only the origin of things but also the fundamental substance of which everything somehow consists and to which it will ultimately return.

    Either way, water was not a bad candidate for Thales to choose. Unlike the other common elements, such as earth or fire, water can easily be seen to take on different forms, such as that of ice or of steam. It is thus versatile and apparently active. Aristotle, when suggesting reasons why Thales might have favoured water, also noted its intimate connection with life. Food, blood and semen all contain water; plants and animals are nourished by water. Living things tend to be moist, to some extent, and they dry up when they die. Many mythological accounts of the universe also gave water a leading role. The Babylonians and Egyptians both had creation myths in which water played a pre-eminent part. This is hardly surprising since both cultures depended on the rivers around which their people settled. In Homer (eighth century BC), Okeanos, the personified body of water surrounding the circular surface of the earth, is the begetter of all life and possibly of all gods. According to Plutarch (AD c.46-c.120), Egyptian priests liked to claim that both Homer and Thales got their ideas about water from Egypt.

    Thales presumably knew of the Egyptian and Babylonian myths. But this does not mean that he was merely echoing them or even that he first got his ideas from them. It is just as likely that both the myths and his own speculations stemmed in part from an awareness that water is evidently active, many-sided and involved in the processes of life. Besides, Thales made an entirely different use of this awareness. His water is not, like Homer's Okeanos, the brother (and husband) of the goddess, Tethys. Nor is it an amalgam of the three personified types of water in Babylonian cosmology, Apsu, Ti'amat and Mummu, who gave rise to the gods. Nor is it Nun, the primordial water which was father to the sun-god of the morning in Egyptian myth. It is perfectly ordinary water, such as one might swim in or drink. And it is not related to any personified gods, either by birth or by marriage.

    Another difference between Thales and his myth-making precursors is that he seems to have felt the need to give reasons for at least some of what he said. He held that the earth rests upon water, and apparently said this `because it floated like wood and other similar substances, which are so constituted as to rest upon water but not upon air'. The question of what holds up the earth is one that most of the naturalists tried to answer. Instead of dogmatically asserting a solution, Thales thus seems to have tried to reason it out. Water is capable of supporting some things, such as logs; so maybe it supports the earth itself. This reasoning did not impress Aristotle, who pointed out that if the earth needs something to rest on, then so too does the water which allegedly supports it; thus Thales had not really answered the question. And there is another, fatal, objection to Thales' argument: logs may float, but some other things do not. Why assume that the earth would float like a log rather than sink like a stone? Yet even this defeat is a sort of victory for Thales. In order to refute him we have to reason with him, a compliment we would not think of paying the Egyptian priests.

    Thales probably deserves the same compliment for his claim that magnets and amber are alive (or have a soul, psuche, which in those days meant much the same thing). He noticed that they can cause some other objects to move and can move themselves towards them, and he was trying to account for this mystery by proposing that they have a type of animation. Spontaneous motion is, after all, often a sign of life. We would object to Thales that the power to cause motion is not quite enough on its own to justify calling a stone alive; but this does not mean we can dismiss his ruminations as mere craziness. Today there is still no precise definition of life, and in the seventh century BC there was barely even a vague one. Thales' apparently outlandish idea may therefore be seen as the natural result of having an inquiring mind at a time when precious little was understood.

    Before leaving Thales to examine the other Milesians, there is one anecdote about him that is worth retelling, even if it is by Diogenes Laertius:

 It is said that once, when he was taken out of doors by an old woman in order that he might observe the stars, he fell into a ditch, and his cry for help drew from the old woman the retort, `How can you expect to know all about the heavens, Thales, when you cannot even see what is just before your feet?' 

If the story is true, Thales has a claim not only to the title of first philosopher but also to that of first absent-minded professor. At any rate, the story attests to the fact that the connection between philosophy and unworldliness is one that people have long enjoyed making. Socrates tells a version of the same story against Thales in one of Plato's dialogues. And in his play, Clouds, Aristophanes tells a similar but coarser version of it against Socrates himself.


One Thousand Years of Philosophy: From Ramanuja to Wittgenstein by Rom Harr (Blackwell) offers an innovative survey explores the distinctive character of three traditions-Indian, Chinese and Western-that have dominated philosophical thought over the past thousand years. Uniquely comparative and sweeping in scope, One Thousand Years of Philosophy: From Ramanuja to Wittgenstein covers the history of Western thought alongside the Vedic philosophies of India, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, as well as Islamic and Jewish contributions to philosophy. Engaging and accessible, One Thousand Years of Philosophy: From Ramanuja to Wittgenstein follows the transformation of the discipline over the course of the last millennium, from its religious origins to a largely secular enterprise. A wide range of philosophical fields and issues are covered, including metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, existentialism, philosophy of science, and social and political thought The essence and ingenuity of the arguments of the great philosophers are explained in the context of their historical developments, from the founding of the Sung Dynasty in 960 to the collapse of the Soviet Union. One Thousand Years of Philosophy: From Ramanuja to Wittgenstein offers readers a panoramic view of the ideas that have shaped the world, and prompts them to ponder their significance for the next thousand years. The only major reservation about this title is even though it is well conceived most of the information is too sketchy to give an adequate flavor to the various cultural styles of philosophy, also Harre often argues from current conceptions of philosophy which also misinformed an historically sensitive reading of the eras in philosophy.

Author Description: Rom Harr became a Fellow of Linacre College, Oxford in 1962. Since 1978 he has held part-time positions at Binghamton, Georgetown and American University specializing in philosophy of science and linguistic aspects of psychology. His publications include The Discursive Mind (with G. Gillette, 1994), Emotion (1996), and The Singular Self (1998). He holds honorary doctorates from the Universities of Helsinki, Brussels, Aarhus, and Lima.

 Contents: Preface. Acknowledgments. Events Timeline. Historical Chart. Introduction: The Scope of Philosophy. 1. What is Philosophy? Part I: Philosophy in the East. 2. India: The Traditions. 3. Indian Philosophy in the Second Millennium. 4. China: Ancient Sources. 5. Chinese and Japanese Philosophy in the Second Millennium. Part II: Philosophy In The West: Medieval Philosophy. 6. Islamic Philosophy. 7. Philosophy in Medieval Europe. Part III: Philosophy In The West: Modern Philosophy One; Mind And Cosmos. 8. The World Shapes The Mind: Realism and Positivism. 9. Mind and Cosmos: Rationalism and Conventionalism. 10. The Unity of Mind and World: Idealism, Phenomenalism and Phenomenology. Part IV: Philosophy in the West; Modern Philosophy Two; Persons and Their Relations. 11. Human Nature. 12. Relations Among Persons I: Moral Philosophy. 13. Relations Among Persons II: Political Philosophy. Index.

WORLD PHILOSOPHY: An East West Comparative Introduction to Philosophy by H. Gene Blocker ($34.75, paperback, 304 pages, Prentice Hall; ISBN: 0138620121)

Designed specifically to be accessible to today’s first year students, This volume fills a gap by including useful introductory assessments of non-western philosophical traditions. WORLD PHILOSOPHY is the first textbook of its kind to compare western and nonwestern philosophers on specific topics, problems, and issues.

WORLD PHILOSOPHY is unlike other comparative treatments, which seek to associate western philosophy with nonwestern religious and mystical writing. Not only does the book compare equals to equals, logicians to logicians, metaphysicians to metaphysicians, ethicists to ethicists, but it also contrasts the different cultural contexts in which they lived and wrote.

Topics include:
Introduction: What is Philosophy?
Logic and Language
Social and Political Philosophy

Additional features include:
Comparative timeline of Chinese, Indian, and Western philosophers
Glossary of terms

THE COLUMBIA HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY edited by Richard H. Popkin ($59.95, hardcover, 836 pages, Columbia University Press, ISBN: 0231101287)

This is a vital, interesting general reference for readers in Western philosophy. Most of the essays offer fine historical situations for themes, schools, epochs and individual philosophers. As a general reference work it is invaluable.

"The history of philosophy," writes Richard Popkin in his introduction to THE COLUMBIA HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY, "needs to be written and rewritten by every generation." This new history of philosophy, designed to be approachable by the lay reader, does just that. Popkin has assembled sixty-three leading historians of philosophy to document the evolution of Western philosophic thought. From Plato to Nicolas Malebranche to Heidegger and beyond, this volume provides lively, in-depth, and up-to-date historical summaries of all the key figures, schools, and movements of Western philosophy, including philosophers and philosophical movements that have been neglected by previous histories.

THE COLUMBIA HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY significantly broadens the scope of Western philosophy to reveal the influence of Middle Eastern thought, the vital contributions of Jewish and Islamic philosophers, and the role of women within the tradition. A chapter dedicated to Jewish and Muslim philosophical development during the Middle Ages, for example, focuses on the critical role of figures such as Averroes and Moses Maimonides in introducing Christian thinkers to classical philosophy.

This comprehensive work also illuminates new connections in the history of Western philosophy. Sections on Aristotle and Plato are followed by a detailed presentation on Hellenic philosophy and its influence on the modem developments of materialism and skepticism. Another chapter considers Renaissance philosophy and its seminal influence on the development of modern humanism and science. Turning to the modem era, contributors consider the importance of the Kaballah to Spinoza, Leibniz, and Newton and the influence of popular philosophers like Moses Mendelssohn upon the work of Kant. THE COLUMBIA HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY also considers recently discovered works in 17th and 18th century philosophy, such as previously unpublished pieces by Locke that inspire a new assessment of the evolution of his ideas.

Each chapter includes an introductory essay, and Popkin provides notes that draw connections between the separate articles. Rich bibliographic information and indexes of names and subjects further help to guide readers through the complexities of Western philosophy.

Combining a broad scope and penetrating analysis with a keen sense of what is relevant for the modem reader, THE COLUMBIA HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY provides a comprehensive, accurate, accessible picture of Western philosophy through the ages.

ABOUT THE EDITOR: RICHARD H. POPKIN is professor emeritus, Washington University, St. Louis, and adjunct professor of philosophy and history at UCLA. He is founding director of the International Archives of the History of Ideas, and president emeritus and founding editor of the Journal of the History of Philosophy. Among his many books are The Third Force in Seventeenth Century Thought; The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (University of California Press); Introduction to Philosophy (with Avrum Stroll), The High Road to Pyrrhonism (Hackett); and the forthcoming Messianic Revolution: Radical Religious Politics to the End of the Second Millennium (with David Katz)(Hill & Wang).

A BRIEF HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY by Anthony John Patrick Kenny   ($24.95, paperback, 400 pages, Blackwell Publishing; ISBN: 0631201327) HARDCOVER

Not only has Kenny a exceptional grasp of the general range of philosophical issues but also has participated in his own right in many of the central debates. The flow and polish of the style is only matched by by his incisive wit and a sympathy for the cultural and historical contexts. This work provides an important survey and introduction for general readers in the field.

Spanning 2,500 years of thought, this superb volume provides essential coverage of the most influential thinkers of the Western world, including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Berkeley, Hume, Rousseau Hegel, Marx, Mill, Nietzsche, Darwin, Freud, Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein, amongst many others. In its authority and range, the book is ideal for anyone with an interest in the history of philosophical thought.

Anthony Kenny is Warden of Rhodes House, Oxford. For many years he was a philosophy tutor at Balliol College, of which he became Master. A former President of the British Academy, he was until recently Chairman of the Board of the British Library. Kenny has written a number of influential books on the history of philosophy and the philosophy of religion, and is editor of The Wittgenstein Reader (PAPERBACK, HARDCOVER)(Blackwell 1994).

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