Review | A. C. Grayling’s ‘The History of Philosophy’

Author Offers Thoughtful, Clear-Sighted Book

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It’s surprisingly fun to immerse oneself in the tradition of Western philosophy, especially when the guide proves to be as thoughtful and clear-sighted as Oxford professor A. C. Grayling is in his new book, The History of Philosophy. Grayling makes pre-Socratic philosophers such as Anaximander, Parmenides, and Anaxagoras feel unexpectedly relevant, and he concisely covers the Greek trinity of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, each of whom receives his own chapter. While the book is long — 600 pages, not including notes — philosophy itself is even longer, so the thinkers speed by. Boethius has his turn, as does William of Ockham, and later, Spinoza, Locke, and Hume. Grayling may find a particular philosopher less than satisfactory, but he never fails to point out what is worth considering in each person’s work. Of course, no real philosopher is going to think 12 pages on Kant, no matter how lucid, are sufficient for an understanding of his work, but this book is more for the intelligent beginner than the seasoned expert.

Alas, ideas become more difficult to follow the closer we get to the present. In a chapter on Analytic Philosophy, for instance, Grayling writes: “If a sentence is composed of expressions that ‘mean’ meant entities then the sentence ‘Plato is thinking of the Forms’ requires each element of the sentence to ‘mean’ (respectively) a human being, a mental activity, an abstraction — and in each case a particular instance of the thing ‘meant’ — and further, the expressions that ‘mean’ them must so combine as to ‘mean’ that Plato is thinking of the forms.” Granted, this sentence is taken from the middle of a paragraph-long explanation of Donald Davidson’s theory of meaning, and Grayling is clearly trying to do his best to convey a complex idea, but light bedtime reading it is not.

Readers looking for a book highlighting gender and racial diversity will be largely disappointed, as white men rule the pages of The History of Philosophy. Yes, there is a very short section on feminist philosophy, and Part V is devoted to “Indian, Chinese, Arabic-Persian and African Philosophy.” Here again, though, the focus is on men, and while the chapter on Chinese philosophy is lively, Grayling struggles to find much to say about African philosophy because “the worldviews identifiable in African traditions” don’t necessarily fit into a book such as his, where “more definite work is required for the word ‘philosophy’ to do.” Still, he lauds the African concept of Ubuntu — the “humanity-forming interconnectedness of persons to each other, arguing that it is “appropriate that as humankind itself came out of Africa,” it is fitting that such a concept “should emanate from there too.” 

Above all, Grayling is an enthusiast for his discipline, which he argues is “the refusal to be lazy about the great questions.” If readers are moved to read more deeply, or differently, and challenge the author’s view of philosophy, no doubt that would make him pleased. 

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