Saluting Anthony Gottlieb's new history of philosophy from 600 BC to the Renaissanceby Jane O'Grady / December 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
around 600 bc Thales said that everything is water. Anaximander said that it is the conflict of opposites, Anaximenes air, Heraclitus fire. Democritus and Leucippus claimed that it was invisible particles forever connecting and disconnecting. Were these thinkers, or for that matter were Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics, and the medieval philosophers, doing metaphysics, epistemology, science, psychology, theology or myth? What is so infuriating and delightful about philosophy is that its practitioners are in perpetual disagreement not just about the philosophical issues but about what philosophy actually is.
Any history of western philosophy has to open with an attempted definition of it; Anthony Gottlieb, in this first volume of his history, stresses the multiplicity and slipperiness of the subject. After ten years tackling the period from around 600 BC to the Renaissance, he says he reached the conclusion that there is no such thing as philosophy as a discipline; at any rate that it is characterised by nothing more specific than a “sharply inquisitive cast of mind,” or (quoting William James) “a peculiarly stubborn effort to think clearly.” Not just at its Greek dawning, he reminds us, but for many centuries, “philosophy” covered the whole map of knowledge, and it has both generated new areas of thought and relinquished ones that came to be seen as useful. That the sciences, psychology, jurisprudence, economics, set theory, sociology and cognitive science have split off, been remapped and ceased to be “philosophy” helps to create the unfair illusion that philosophy never progresses.
Gottlieb wants to do for the history of philosophy what Alasdair MacIntyre does for ethics-avoid a definition of his subject that would delimit the scope of inquiry, or insulate philosophical from historical analysis. This is easier said than done. It seems that the minimum criterion for inclusion in his history is, by his own admission, that of having been traditionally called a philosopher. Gottlieb tries to do what Heidegger rightly praises the Presocratics for having done: “thinking without headings.” He aims to avoid the great men of history style. But in the end is he so different from his predecessors?
Unusually, Gottlieb is not a professional philosopher. His stated aim is to approach his data “as a journalist ought to,” using primary sources wherever possible, querying accepted views and explaining lucidly. (He is in fact a high-calibre journalist-once science editor, now executive editor, of The Economist). Presumably this is meant to contrast his history with Bertrand Russell’s, which notoriously was written at breakneck speed, relying on secondary sources and memory, therefore often inaccurate, and which was designed to promote a philosophical technique (empiricism) and political stance (liberalism). In many ways it is Russell who more recognisably behaves like a journalist does, even if not as a journalist should.
But it is less Gottlieb’s expertise as a journalist than his scientific knowledge that gives him an edge on purely philosophical historians of philosophy. As he says, Thales and his immediate successors were conducting a “joint project” in science and philosophy, and it is a moot point when the break between them occurred. In the 6th century BC with Pythagoras? A century later with Parmenides? In the third century BC when “scientific” breakthroughs no longer occurred in Athens? In Galileo’s time? With Kant? Or even in the 19th century, when William Whewell coined the the term “scientist”? The problem with this demarcation is that to distinguish science as dealing with the physical as opposed to metaphysical or conceptual investigation of reality presupposes that there are such physical/mental, empirical/conceptual divides.
Russell’s and other histories of philosophy assume this distinction and tend to present the beliefs of the Presocratic philosophers as a set of quaint, if valiant, curiosities. Gottlieb, however, unpatronisingly seeks to detect the rationale that led to each postulation, and to see what scientific as well as philosophical ideas stem, even if fortuitously, from it. Anaximander (Thales’ pupil) declared that reality is a conflict of opposites seeking harmony, and that the earth rested, not as previous notions had it, on some support (water or whatever), but at the centre of a spherical universe, held in place by everything else circling round it. Gottlieb glosses this as Anaximander lighting on a universal principle which forgoes dependence on the supernatural, and is not visible or personal, but mathematical. He compares Anaximander to a trapeze artist leaping into empty space “beyond the realm of material support and trusting in a mathematical idea to catch the earth.” Anaximenes, he says, grasps that differences of quantity can engender differences in quality, Pythagoreanism is, “albeit accidentally,” the starting point for modern astronomy, Empedocles anticipates Darwin’s principle of natural selection, Zeno’s paradoxes point us “unintentionally” towards the right theory of motion, and the ur-atomic theories of Democritus, Leucippus, Epicurus and Lucretius are the bones which modern science has merely put flesh on.
Gottlieb is also charitable to those Presocratics who are less proto-scientific than logical and linguistic, like Parmenides, whose unintended reductio ad absurdum progresses from the impossibility of meaningfully thinking or speaking about “what is not” to there necessarily being only one unchanging monolithic reality of which we can say “it is.” Where Russell tetchily dismisses Parmenides’ argument as “superficial” and a salient lesson in the drawing of fallacious metaphysical conclusions from language, Gottlieb sees it as revolutionarily posing “a question that nobody else had even thought of asking: how do words and thoughts in your head come to refer to and describe things outside?”
He affords less generosity, and space, to the medievals. He doesn’t even give a separate section to Aquinas. He could claim that, by his own criterion, the medievals, not generally having a “sharply inquisitive cast of mind,” do not qualify as philosophers. But surely Gottlieb is here merely reflecting the prejudices of his age-ascribing too much cogency to the Presocratics’ philosophical fumblings, because they aspire to science, and too little cogency to the medievals because they are theologically inclined.
History is, of course, the view from here. Since Gottlieb is doing philosophy too, it is inevitably philosophy from here as well. This doesn’t matter with premature moderns like Aristotle, whose scientific ideas Gottlieb admirably expounds, scotching the misconceptions spread by Bacon and other medievals that Aristotle was tendentious and insufficiently empirical. It is actually an advantage when expounding overviews or recurrent issues (he gives an excellent summary of Aristotle’s and later logic, and a wonderfully lucid critique of relativism in connection with the Sophists, and of determinism while discussing Epicurus). But a contemporary, analytic type of philosophising is not suited to all of philosophy’s protean capaciousness, and it can sometimes generate its own form of bias and anachronism. Russell was so blatantly, enjoyably polemical that his partisanship could be discounted. Gottlieb’s cool, urbane approach sometimes airbrushes out a past thinker’s essential quirkiness and quiddity, as where he makes almost too much sense of what is bizarre and unpalatable in Plato. Explaining the theory of Forms, he outlines accounts in the Republic and the Symposium which claim that in order for there to be beautiful things, Beauty itself must exist for them to partake of, and he mentions that Plato elsewhere extends this model to more prosaic particulars-not only is there a Form of Justice as well as of Beauty, but also a Form of Rivers, of Tables, and presumably a Form of Guinea Pigs. Reacting against the “transcendent,” mystical approach to Plato’s Forms that has been taken by medieval Christians and neo-Platonists right up to contemporary mathematicians like Roger Penrose, Gottlieb claims that finding a Form is “no more baffling an enterprise than investigating a concept.” Thus “even the most ordinary man in the street… insofar as he can say clearly and truly what a river is… [and] give a general account of what all rivers essentially have in common… thereby has some apprehension of the Form of River.” This commonsensical account is perhaps feasible, but since it is at odds with what many scholars have said about Plato’s elitism, as well as his metaphysics, surely Gottlieb needs to examine more than two dialogues to see how the Forms are portrayed, and to look at Plato’s criticisms of his own theory in the later dialogues.
As for the contentious issue of Plato’s utopia, Gottlieb questions whether his republic is intended as a utopia at all, rather than at most the second best option, the best being that people succeed in properly ruling themselves. Plato turns out to be a democrat manqu?. The philosopher kings, rather than being the precursors of Hitler and Stalin that Karl Popper (and, surely, sometimes Plato’s text) suggests, turn out to be “particularly wise, able, balanced and virtuous military” rulers. Gottlieb admits that Plato failed to foresee the sort of evils his city would inevitably bring forth, but the harsh, philanthropic elitist, becomes, in Gottlieb’s account, a liberal Anglo-American philosopher sagely analysing concepts.
Gottlieb’s history is wonderfully enjoyable, including anecdotes and character sketches as well as exegetical philosophising-combining sinuous flexibility and ironclad stringency-of the best contemporary sort. But ultimately he is no less category-bound than previous chroniclers. The Dream of Reason suggests a two-fold portrayal of philosophy, in which reason is sometimes successfully aspired to, sometimes merely a mirage. Gottlieb is perhaps too much on the side of rationality to do justice to its shadow.