Since I shared with you yesterday a very impulsive and rancorous comment on a history of philosophy book, let me counter that with a much lighter analysis, but one as impulsive as the latter. This is actually a great opportunity for me to postpone again my posts on Contemporary Philosophy — my test is already tomorrow, so there is in fact no more pressing need for these posts. My sole aim was to kill two birds with one stone by simultaneously studying and adding to my blog. I am not prepared for Idealism yet — I lack both the academic knowledge and the tolerance right now.
I have read (or listened to) a few histories of philosophy, both in full and in part, but only today (right now, actually) I have made my mind about which is best. In fact, it is the best BY FAR.
First, let me tell you very briefly what I have read (or listened to) and even more briefly what I think about them:
- “The Story of Philosophy”, by Will Durant (single volume): great prose interspersed by fantastic witty comments of a genius, but lacks in scope (e.g., almost nothing on the pre-Socratics);
- “History of Western Philosophy”, by Bertrand Russell (single volume): great prose and breadth, with a lot of historical background, but lacks in getting lost in opinions instead of facts;
- From “The Great Courses” series of audiobooks, “The Great Ideas of Philosophy”, by Daniel N. Robinson: thirty hours of very well-presented lessons of all sorts of philosophical subjects by someone who clearly knows the drill. It is not a history of philosophy course per se, although it follows chronology, so, as expected, it lacks in the historical background;
- From “The Great Courses” series of audiobooks, “Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition”, by various professors: since many professors speak across almost forty-four hours, each lesson should be judged separately. In general, though, it is quite basic and even my ignorant self spotted a few errors (I didn’t finish the course);
- From “The Great Courses” series of audiobooks, “The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida”, by Lawrence Cahoone: considering the impossibility of presenting more contemporary philosophies in an easily understandable and coherent way, Professor Cahoone does a great job of making the most important points clear enough across nineteen hours of smooth presentation;
- “A New History of Western Philosophy“, by Anthony Kenny (four volumes): very well-balanced in terms of history and philosophy and extremely knowledgeable. I particularly don’t like his way of first giving a general chronological account of the period including its history and its philosophers, and then commenting on all philosophers again by categories of ideas. But that’s just me, there is nothing inherently bad about his method;
- “Routledge History of Philosophy“, by diverse authors and editors (nine volumes): It should be judged not only book by book, but chapter by chapter for each is written by a different author. I haven’t read a considerable portion of it, but only used for punctual research. However, my impression is that it is a bit skewed to the “history” side (I don’t mention it in a negative way, but a neutral one), including the “academic history” involved.
Ok, but if none of these is the best, which is?
Well, I have very recently written about how this guy rescued me from a universal ignorance on universals, so after my disappointment yesterday I looked for him again, and again I was rescued. Thank you, Mr. Copleston… again.
“A History of Philosophy”, by Frederick Copleston, in eleven volumes. The guy was a Jesuit priest, historian, philosopher and a Thomist. Based on his strong religious views, my first reaction when I met his books was to refrain from reading them. I expected biased views, and views biased towards religion, which is not my thing.
I was wrong.
He no doubt uses his books also as a sort of “history of Christian philosophy” because he shows when and how certain ideas went in the direction of it or not. But he is not proselytising in any way, nor judging any point of view based on his faith, at least not exclusively so. He is simply exercising his will as author, shaping his work in the way most germane to his inclinations. This, all historians do. But he does it wonderfully well.
By showing his opinions in the appropriate places, he breaks a narrative that could end up too dense and even boring while also helping the reader to better understand. It helps the reader because it entices him or her to form an opinion as well. I compare the “normal” type of history book (you can picture “The History of the World“, by Roberts and Westad”; a fascinating book for its breadth of content, but rather dull — a serious fault for a 1,200 page book) with what Aristotle said of his categories: (paraphrasing) “that which cannot be said to be true or false”. You just accept it as it is. In contrast, Copleston’s books can be argued with (although most of us would for sure lose any argument with Copleston). Moreover, I guess I have another reason to like what he writes: I usually partake of his opinions.
The final test will be when I read what he says about Hegel. If he can make me enjoy it, even if in a minimal way, that guy is a genius!