Jonathan Rée's new history turns philosophical history on its headby Alex Dean / June 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
Histories of philosophy are the first thing recommended to newcomers to the discipline. As Jonathan Rée writes in his latest book, without them “no philosophical education would be complete.” But do they actually teach us new things about the great thinkers of the past? For Rée, one of Britain’s best-known living philosophers, the answer has often been “no.”
The problem, as Rée sees it, is that many historians of philosophy tend to “guard over the values of their discipline”—they repeat lessons passed on from the histories they have studied themselves, regurgitating received wisdom. The didactic tone prevents the reader forming their own view.
Rée seeks to do things differently: his book moves through a selection of self-contained episodes, scattered across history, but always with the author’s voice secondary to the actual events that took place.
The focus is on—broadly speaking—English-language philosophy, starting in the 1600s when Latin’s grip on the subject slowly began to loosen. Continental characters are brought in where appropriate, and we move from Hume to Russell, from Kant to Frege and Wittgenstein—plus some unexpected literary figures such as George Eliot who were philosophical in their own way. Rée doesn’t tell you what to think of them so much as show you. He is aiming for “a carnival, not a museum.”
Does it come off? For the most part, yes. One problem is that in seeking to avoid the tone of mainstream histories of philosophy, Rée’s voice is sometimes lost. When you’re in complicated territory, you sometimes feel you could do with a firmer guiding hand.
But the flip side is that readers are left to make up their own minds. As Wittgenstein said about writing, “do not do for your reader what he can do for himself.” In applying this sound rule, Rée has delivered an impressive reimagining of what a history of philosophy ought to be.
Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English by Jonathan Rée (Allen Lane, £30)