The History of Philosophy

704PP.; $35.00

If A.C. Grayling’s The History of Philo­sophy were a river, it would be shallow with a strong current. Traveling down it, you’d have little to see and little time to see it. Because the water is shallow, your legs would always be bumping up against the debris (a stand-in for academic jargon). Or, to change metaphors, the book is a bullet train rather than a car ride. It offers no moment or incentive to stop, meander, or backtrack, the goal being not to enjoy the journey but to reach the end. Even these metaphors don’t really capture the difficulty in reading it. It takes effort. If anything, you’re traveling against the river’s current. If anything, you’d be working in the train’s engine room. A few people will read the book once; I can’t imagine anyone will read it twice.

Grayling’s tome is exactly what it says it is: the history of philosophy. It starts with the pre-Socratic philosophers and ends with today’s academic philosophy. Already you can see what the primary dilemma of such a project is: how to make such an expansive history with so many characters orderly in composition yet alive to the reader. Grayling says the book is “an invitation and an entrance” for the philosophically curious but philosophically ignorant, however, I can’t imagine someone vaguely curious about something they vaguely understand as “philosophy” will get much out of the book—or even get past the first few pages. The writing is encyclopedic rather than engaging. There are a few sections later on that aren’t bad—the ones on Jean Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, and Friedrich Nietzsche, for example—but the first two hundred pages are flat: uninspired and therefore uninspiring. Many sections read not as summaries of ideas but as summaries of summaries, all with the enthusiasm and lucidity of a mortician’s report.

The dilemma is that the book’s intention and its form are at odds. That is, you can either write a book that actually invites and draws people to philosophy (or, more specifically, the philosophical canon; most people are already attracted to philosophy as a practice of deeper thinking) or you can write a history of philosophy that covers all the canonized philosophers (many of whom aren’t worth covering anyway). Grayling’s confessed intention is the former, but The History of Philosophy only seems to try for the latter.

To get people interested in the philosophical canon (again, different than philosophy itself), a popularizer would be better off focusing on just a few canonized philosophers (like what Will Durant did in The Story of Philosophy) or taking a subject that almost any reader will be interested in and finding out what the canonized philosophers had to say about it (like what Simon Critchley did with death and dying in The Book of Dead Philosophers). Both these books succeed at being invitations and entrances to the philosophical canon. If neither succeeded at getting anyone to rush out to read Plato and Aristotle, they at least succeeded in getting people excited to think about what Plato and Aristotle thought about.

I don’t normally focus on representation, but I’m really at a loss trying to understand how Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur each got their own sections but Hannah Arendt gets just a paragraph, and the only mention of Simone Weil is in a list. I didn’t know who Gadamer and Ricoeur were before I read The History of Philosophy and still have no idea why Grayling thinks I should after reading it. And why is Simone de Beauvoir not given her own section but instead relegated to sidekick in Jean Paul Sartre’s? Why am I told that she liked to have sex with students and colleagues but not what’s in The Ethics of Ambiguity?
If French existentialism has any masterpieces, that has to be one of them. Why is there a section on “feminist philosophy” that includes no biography or summary of a single feminist philosopher? Grayling’s handling of representation is the worst of both worlds: pandering yet still exclusionary.

And this exclusion problem isn’t just with female philosophers. The History of Philosophy plays it too safe and too conventional with whom it includes. Where are the radicals, the mystics, the Catholics, the Social Darwinists, the Marxists, the wisdom writers? Where is W.E.B. Du Bois or G.K. Chesterton or Ralph Waldo Emerson or George Santayana? Where are the dead who still speak to the living? Grayling introduces Michel Foucault as “indispensable to any understanding of modernity,” then devotes two whole paragraphs to him; meanwhile Anaximenes, Anaximander, and Thales all get their own sections for basically the same thing: being pre-Socratic philosophers who based their philosophies on experimentation rather than abstract thinking.

Philosophers like to say that the philosophers people actually read aren’t really philosophers, and histories of philosophy seem written to codify and reinforce who counts as a philosopher and who doesn’t. “The history of philosophy,” Gilles Deleuze said, “has always been the agent of power in philosophy…A formidable school of intimidation…An image of thought called philosophy has been formed historically and it effectively stops people from thinking.” The dilemma of Grayling’s The History of Philosophy is that most of the philosophers that draw people to philosophy aren’t in the philosophical canon. The philosophy that invites and entrances is the philosophy that speaks to the ego’s cry for understanding rather than the mind’s cry for clarity. In Will Durant’s words, it’s the philosophy that speaks on the “problems like good and evil, beauty and ugliness, order and freedom, life and death,” not the philosophy that leads to sentences like, “The rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction is a consequence of [Willard Van Orman] Quine’s extensionalism, because the idea of analyticity essentially turns on the intensional notion of meanings.”

The History of Philosophy feels like something Grayling wanted not to write but to have written. There is no authorial impulse to it; no sparks of joy or excitement. There are a few attempts at humor; Grayling, for example, repeats the same jokey aside about St. Augustine “as he is known in ecclesiastical circles” and St. Aquinas “as he is known in religious circles.”

Much of the philosophical canon is as dull as that joke, and no one should feel discouraged if they aren’t completely enthralled by Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz’s Monadology or Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. As Deleuze said, the philosophical canon seems designed to be a barrier rather than a doorway. For those who read Grayling’s The History of Philosophy and feel like giving up on the entire subject, please try one of the alternatives mentioned earlier (or Durant’s The Pleasures of Philosophy). And know that, if the philosophical canon doesn’t do it for you, there’s still plenty of philosophy outside of it.