I’d be incoherent with myself if I didn’t begin studying philosophy by its history. The trouble is to select among so many sources. In the end, I made an unlikely choice.
I probably started with the two most popular single-volume books: “The Story of Philosophy” by Will Durant and “History of Western Philosophy” by Bertrand Russell. Both are excellent, but while the former lacked in scope, the latter lacked by getting lost in opinions instead of facts.
Because I drive a lot, I checked “The Great Courses” series of audiobooks. Of all I experimented, the best and most encompassing was “The Great Ideas of Philosophy” by Daniel N. Robinson: thirty hours of very well-presented lessons by someone who clearly owns the subject. Highly recommended.
With renewed interest, I began reading “A History of Philosophy” by Frederick Copleston, who, besides being an Oxford jesuit, does a great job of clearly distinguishing between descriptive explanation and opinionative commentary. However, his grand nine-volume work was a bit too much for me, and I ended up trying a last online course — I didn’t regret it.
ThIs course was “History of Philosophy”, taught by Leonard Peikoff and available for free on Ayn Rand Institute. Both Ayn Rand and Peikoff have a flaw: they are very partial, given to ad hominem attacks. This is bad, because it confounds the validity of an idea with its consequences or with the caracter of its proponent. However, I admire the way they problematise philosophy, not afraid to show the ulterior motives that spawned each idea or its potential nefarious results. This approach demands extra work from the student, who must know well how to discern fact from opinion. On the other hand, a fully impartial exposition ends up being too vague on causes and consequences, presenting philosophical systems like food on a menu. In any case, it’s always on the client to trust or not the recommendations of the chef. I’ve made my choice. You make yours.
The course is not fully comprehensive, reaching up only to Immanuel Kant, probably because Leonard Peikoff considers him (even if very unwillingly) the last great philosopher necessary for the understanding of the world today. In fact, after Kant orchestrated his “inversion”, “the rest is history”.
That said, the great virtue I found in Peikoff’s exposition was to emphasise the connexion among ideas across the centuries and millennia. Much more important than the intricacies of a given philosophy is its role in advancing — or receding — the flow of ideas that run through history until reaching us.
Today, we regurgitate what is bombarded onto us from all sides as if these were our own ideas. We don’t realise almost all of it one day came from the pen of a philosopher tucked away in his table (or from the stylus of a scribe). Yes, we have original thoughts, but their hallmark is effort — and who is willing to spend it today?
This is just “post zero” about the course. A lot more will follow.
1. As “inversion”, I refer to what Kant himself called his “Copernican revolution”. When we get to Kant, it will become clearer, but I don’t like to use his term for two reasons: (i) what he did was really an inversion of 180 degrees to epistemology, and (ii) I find it unfair to Nicolaus Copernicus to associate his great discovery with the great destruction effected by Kant.