A new history of philosophy makes a brave attempt to fill in gaps in public knowledge, but does it pass the "wikipedia test?"by Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson / September 29, 2014 / Leave a comment
If you study philosophy at a British or American university, your education in the history of the subject will likely be modest. Most universities teach Plato and Aristotle, skip about two millennia to Descartes, zip through the highlights of Empiricism and Rationalism to Kant, and then drop things again until the 20th Century, where Frege and Russell arise from the mists of the previous centuries’ Idealism and call for a new kind of philosophy rooted in formal logic, science, and “common sense.” In most of your courses, you will probably be able to do well without reading a single paper written before the 20th century.
This is peculiar because, unlike science, philosophy is not a discipline in which new theories bury the old ones. Philosophers can resurface long after we think we’ve disposed of them. This tendency of old ideas to rise from the dead has led to some of the most interesting work in contemporary philosophy. The revival of virtue ethics owes much to figures such as Philippa Foot, whose re-evaluation of Plato, Aristotle and Nietzsche, helped her form a theory of normative ethics that offered an alternative to the two dominant schools, Kantian ethics and consequentialism. In epistemology, the celebrated American philosopher, Wilfrid Sellars, was deeply influenced by his close reading of Kant and Hegel. (Sellars also famously stated “philosophy without the history of philosophy is, if not blind, at least dumb.”) David Lewis’s reading of St Anselm and Leibniz led him to thinking about so-called “possible worlds;” now one can’t sit in a metaphysics seminar without talking about them.
Scholarship aimed at increasing our awareness of the history of philosophy is, in short, a good thing. That was my optimistic viewpoint as I began reading Peter Adamson’s Classical Philosophy: a history of philosophy without any gaps (OUP, £20), the first instalment of a series of books aimed at producing a more comprehensive history of philosophy. A professor at King’s College London, specialising in ancient and Arabic philosophy, Adamson laments the spotty education most students receive in the history of philosophy: “My goal in this series of books, then, is to tell the whole history of philosophy in an entertaining but not overly-simplified way,” he writes.