A Little History of Philosophy, Nigel Warburton

I suppose this seems to be the year of philosophy and history for me. After reviewing Douglas Groothuis’, “Seven Sentences” and others, I’ve been bitten by the philosophy bug. I could resist when I saw this little book that I thought might provide a different perspective.

Last year, I read R.C. Sproul’s “The Consequences of Ideas” which is essentially what this book is about: a history of philosophy. In addition, Francis Schaeffer’s “How Should We Then Live” largely examines similiar themes. But both of these histories of philosophy come from the Christian tradition, worldview, and bias. What I appreciate about Nigel Warburton’s work is that it does come from a different perspective. And although I disagree with a good amount of his conclusions, I can appreciate the evenness of this particular work for its objectivity.

The history of philosophy is not an easy task. Particularly for a book of this size. Warburton examines a philosopher at every chapter, and there are 40 chapters in the book. Therefore, there is not a whole lot of room to get wordy. The typical chapter goes like this: a introductory question or statement; a brief biographical sketch of the philosopher; some of his main ideas, his contributions to philosophy; a conclusion demonstrating on how his philosophy was built on by the next philosopher.

What follows then is a cohesive narrative of philosophy through the ages. I feel as if this book is particularly aimed at those who want to cut their teeth on philosophy but are somewhat confused as to where to start or who to read.

A few notes about philosophy: Warburton makes clear that philosophy, directly translated, is the love of wisdom. But it’s much more than this. From Ancient Greece we have the views of Socrates (the “Gadfly of Athens”), Plato, and Aristotle who thought deeply about life, cosmology, and reality. The views of these men would be built upon by almost every philosopher post their time. In fact, most of the philosophers between Socrates and the 19th century were eminently concerned about theology in relationship to philosophy. It was almost universal that a philosopher believed in a transcendent being; an “uncaused first cause” that set the universe in motion comes from Plato and Aristotle. Augustine of Hippo, the famous theologian, philosopher, and historian whom I wrote about here, absorbed some of the platonic sophism in his own philosophical musings. Other prominent philosophers of the medieval time include Boethius who wrote “the Consolation of Philosophy” (the book in which Ignatius Riley is obsessed with in “The Confederacy of Dunces”) in which he posited that the world is like a wheel of fortune which spins and gives good luck to the fortunate. The trio of thinkers that heavily impacted our own Republic were that of Rene Descarte (I think, therefore I am; more thoughts here), John Locke (blank slate theory), and Blaise Pascal (Pascal’s wager was if Christianity is not true, you just waste time at church during your life; if it is true, then the consequences outweigh the time wasted in church). It isn’t until Darwin, not a true philosopher, that the shift of philosophy takes place. Darwin’s ideas gave sufficient credence to thinkers to usurp the position of God. If the existence of man could be proved to have taken place outside of a divine creator, then there is no reason to suggest that God exists at all. We see this transition in Frederick Nietzsche (who was purported to have said that “God is dead”), the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud and others. The rational school of thought predated modernism in this time (see Kierkegaard) well. The next major shift in philosophy occurred at the end of World War II, where post-modernism, the idea that truth is relative to the beholder and the community, came to full force. The last chapters of the book deal with philosophy in the last 20 years. Warburton asks the question, “Are computers living beings?”

All of this is very interesting and this is a particularly useful book to get an overview of philosophical thought in a condensed form. Not every issue is taken up with these philosophers but this book would be massive if it was. A great volume on an important topic.

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