Book Rec #5

Philosophy

I think all the history of philosophy books are at best useless. It’s ultimately a futile project. It’s much better to go straight to the primary sources.

With that being said, you work a job for a living. You only have a few hours left in the day to read. And then in the few hours of free time there is competition from tons of other things, like social media, youtube, films, tv shows and maybe video games.

And on top of that, there is thousands if not millions of philosophy books being published every year. So you can’t even “keep up” if you try.

So you’re left with an impossible situation.

Let’s say you want to read philosophy but don’t have the time for philosophy?

Gottlieb

I’ve had the pleasure to read the first two volumes in Anthony Gottlieb’s history of Western Philosophy, “The Dream of Reason” (published in 2000) & “The Dream of Enlightenment” (published in 2016). Gottlieb, a former editor of The Economist, is a superb writer and his prose is light, economical and easy to parse. For anyone looking for a high-quality introduction to the field, I can recommend these books.

Gottlieb combines brief biographical sketches of each thinker, to put them in their social context, with an in-depth discussion of two or three of their main philosophical arguments. Each subject is well-described.

The first volume, “The Dream of Reason” is an introduction to Greek thought, with the majority of its time spent on the giants of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It is a brilliant retelling of the story of ancient Greek philosophy which brought out the lasting relevance of Plato’s idea that truth, happiness and virtue are inseparable, while vindicating Aristotle as a serious thinker about nature, art and society. 

The second, “The Dream of Enlightenment” covers the pre-modern philosophers from Descartes to Hume. If rationality was the theme of the earlier volume, the second one focuses on novelty.

In the 17th century Philosophy started to be dominated by “the new idea that all old ideas are suspect”. Descartes is famous for trying to make a fresh start with his slogan “I think therefore I am”, but no one is sure what he meant, and according to Gottlieb he has been “widely misunderstood”.

and a third volume covering Kant and beyond is reportedly on its way.

Who Were These People?

Gottlieb’s biographical sketches demonstrate a point: very few of the heroes of the Western canon had a firm grasp on what Reason or the Enlightenment even were. The degree to which these founders of Western philosophy constituted a collections of weirdos, prophets and sages cannot be underestimated. Only very few participated in formal education or empirical research, and most spent their time focused on questions of what we might think of today as theology and mysticism. Gottlieb notes how much of later Christian thought is infused with the mysticism of earlier Greek thinkers such as the numerology of the Pythagoreans, the Orphic belief in souls and Plato’s music of the spheres

Descartes and Leibniz were also similar to this style. Descartes, of course, is largely responsible for the metaphysical tendency in Western thinking that sees the mind and body as separate entities; two centuries later, Leibniz constructed an elaborate system of ‘monads’ in which material entities are merely imperfect reflections of abstracted pure entities. For these thinkers, Ideas were not only real entities but in some way more real than the material world which could be observed, sensed and experienced.

Reason was not merely a tool, but a fragment of divinity that provided the only source of True knowledge, including about moral and ethical subjects. In these terms, many of Gottlieb’s subjects were effectively panpsychics - an absurd modern revival of such beliefs.

In contrast, empiricists such as Democritus, Epicurus and Hume come across as eminently sensible. We see that the later thinkers were much more bizarre.

Science and Philosophy

Many of Gottlieb’s pre-modern subjects were obsessed with geometry, logic and the potential of the new ‘mechanical’ sciences (in much that same way of some modern analytic philosophers) - and he is fond of calling out the flaws of treating all knowledge this way. The ‘great’ philosophers tend to be such committed synthesizers of ideas that they embraced conclusions that appear absurd, monstrous or unintelligible.

This includes Hobbes and Locke, two figures whom modern students of social science are most likely to know from their political philosophy. Hobbes was so committed to materialism that he believed, like the ancient Greeks Democritus and Epicurus, in a material God. And as anyone who has read Locke knows, his prose is so dense with definitions and exceptions that his work is less theory and more encyclopedia.

Spinoza

Spinoza was a European Jew, and one of the few uncritical supporters of liberal democracy in pre-nineteenth century philosophy. Positive traits and behaviours tended to increase the happiness of individuals and societies, but they are merely guideposts, not divine commands. For Spinoza, the mind and the body were one, and the body was subject to natural laws of cause and effect. Human beings are free to the extent that they can sometimes - but not always - understand the constraints imposed on them by natural laws. Spinoza was therefore something of a modern Stoic, resigned to the study of a world that was difficult, if not impossible to change.

Conclusion

For all our modern sophistication, much of modern Western philosophy is built upon a foundation that was first fixed in place more than 2500 years ago. What is remarkable in reading Gottlieb, quite frankly, is how little the moderns added to the diversity of opinions held by the ancient Greeks. For all their modernity, they were human beings just the same and ran up against the same limits to their imagination. The value of intellectual histories such as these therefore lies not in parsing how the ancients answered the big questions, but the way in which they highlight that some questions can never have satisfactory answers at all.