A Short History of Philosophy

“A Short History of Philosophy” By Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins.
305 pages
Oxford University Press 1996

Some weeks ago I began preparing a high school level course in philosophy. I’m enjoying it greatly. That is, I am learning a lot by teaching. Now something has happened which will shape the part of the course left to prepare, and – indeed – will lead me to rework what I’ve done. I had assumed that I was working in something of a void. I did not suspect that any books existed which took anything like the approach to a history of philosophy that I considered to be badly needed. I had recently read the Norwegian novel “Sophie’s World,” which is a short history of philosophy thinly disguised as a novel. I still recommend that book to kids who want to know something about philosophy. It has its moments. But on the whole it’s the same as dozens of histories of philosophy written in the first part of this century . . . or AS IF in the first part of this century. Under the pretense of “taking no position,” it takes the position that all of Western philosophy from Plato onward remains alive today as current thought. Of course one wouldn’t much want to read a rejection of Plato as an introduction to him. But oughtn’t it to be possible to read an appreciative summary of Plato by someone who recognizes past greatness while aware that some greatness is past? Shouldn’t it be possible for someone in tune to current thought in the 1990s, someone who has read such people as Derrida and Rorty, to write an unpolemical history of thought, highlighting the good and the bad and the once-good-but-no-longer-so, and to do so not from some point at “the end of thinking,” but from an insignificant point in the story at which we happen to find ourselves, a point at which many long-lasted ideas are dying, but from which neglected aspects of the tradition(s) can be brought forward as stimuli to future thinking (or, as thinking will perhaps continue to be called, to future PHILOSOPHY)?

What happened, as you’ve guessed, is that I read “A Short History of Philosophy.” I did so with that peculiar joy one has in finding a book one would like to have written (which is no indication that one COULD have written it). Solomon and Higgins, who write with a single and masterful voice, have here painted a loving portrait of a long series of beliefs, the vast majority of which Solomon and Higgins probably do not share. They are able to convey the significance, at the time, of disputes that are now dead, and also the importance of appreciating those disputes now, not only in order to diagnose vestigial remains of them in current culture(s), and not only for the benefit of future thought, but for their own sake as beautiful, if abandoned, human creations.

To take one small example, Solomon and Higgins almost certainly agree more with Voltaire than with Rousseau. This is not to say that they think Voltaire did more good for people, alleviated the greater amount of human suffering. Rather, I want to suggest that they can today speak something closer to Voltaire’s language than to that of Rousseau, can find less in Voltaire that seems, on their terms, meaningless. And yet they stress that Rousseau was the “more subtle and complex thinker.” And so he was. Of course we know Rousseau because he was current in his day. Someone writing roughly like Rousseau today – and for all I know there are hundreds doing so – could, by taking some path history did not take, achieve the same degree of subtlety and complexity, and we wouldn’t know it. And that would be our loss.

Most histories of philosophy present a series of philosophers as isolated individuals, one passing a torch neatly to the next. At most the reader is informed of the nationality of each. Solomon and Higgins correct for this by placing philosophers in their cultural and political contexts. But they do not go to the opposite extreme and make the mistake of thinking that philosophy does not in its turn have a great effect on the rest of culture. Similarly, they strike a good and sophisticated balance between emphasizing individuals and minimizing them as parts of general trends. More importantly – and this is an obvious reason why I could not have written this book, though I learned from other parts of it as well – the authors include non-Western (mostly Eastern) philosophy. They address what has been influential, but also what they hope will be more influential, drawing out elements of Western thought that they see as badly neglected, and pointing to non-Western notions that they see as good antidotes (or correctives, not places to rest but useful tools for change) to Western ones. The book points out both actual points of contact between historic cultures, and similarities between them regardless of any known influence. This is helped by the method of interweaving numerous stories as required by chronological order. But I should note that similarities are mentioned as an aid to understanding, not at all as an attempt to hint at any a-cultural “truth.”

Also helpful is the refusal to distinguish between religion and philosophy, and the consequent inclusion of a Short History of Religion scattered through the book. As the authors point out, the idea of such a distinction is a very recent one, and is thus not helpful in describing past traditions. Various thinkers not always labeled philosophers are included as well. There are some excellent passages on Montaigne. In fact, almost all of the summaries of individual topics in the book are excellent, as are the linkages between them. Also included, at least with a brief mention, are Meister Eckart, Marsilio Ficino, Johann Faust, Teresa of Avila, Mulla Sadra, Sir Isaac Newton, Giambattista Vico, Israel ben Aliezer, Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Johann Herder, Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, W. E. B. DuBois, Mahatma Gandhi, Nishida Kitaro, Ghose Aurobindo, Max Sheler, Nikolai Berdyayev, Albert Einstein, Teilhard de Chardin, Mao Tse-tung, Nishitani Keiji, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Albert Camus, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.

The Short History is written in ordinary American English loaded with turns of phrase the authors may themselves find questionable: “the very nature of,” “objectivity,” “subjectivism,” “reality itself,” “essential,” “rationally,” “irrationality.” The origins and dubitability of many of these notions are discussed in the book (early comments on the expression “natural” set the tone), and yet elsewhere they are used as if we are all agreed upon their comprehensibility and usefulness. One can find on one page a good discussion of problems with the notion of rationality, and on another the word “irrationality” used without explanation to refer to the Nazi Holocaust. The book is thus, in a very broad sense, written, as Derrida would put it, “under erasure.” Words are used because they are part of the language of the book’s intended audience, despite the fact that the authors might prefer to abandon (or change the meaning of) those words. In only two cases do I find this troublesome. On the whole it seems to me both wise and unavoidable. The most troublesome case is the phrase “commonsense.” Numerous discussions of the misuse and abuse of this phrase are here published together with numerous uses of it, some of them rather unhelpfully scare-quoted and others not. The other case that bothers me is a single instance of the phrase “from a philosophical point of view,” in a work that seems largely devoted to opening up the question of what thing or things that has meant and can mean.

In the preface Solomon and Higgins state their intention to “keep our own biases out of the text.” But I credit them with near-recognition of the near-meaninglessness of that statement. They go on to say that they have not always been successful. The last sections of the book, dealing with the interaction of diverse cultures, point out the all-too-common danger of taking one’s own point of view for an absence of bias. This book would offend a great many philosophy professors, especially in the English speaking world. Various beliefs, from Gorgias’ to Pascal’s, are described as so absurd that the philosopher must have been joking. Other ideas are lamented for the damage they’ve done. Take this from a discussion of the pre-Socratics (p. 39):

“Back we go to Parmenides and his argument to the effect that we can never know the world. What, then, can we know? And what can we do with philosophy if it brings us to that abrupt and final conclusion? One possibility: spend the next two thousand years attacking the premises, criticizing and refining the logic, clarifying and extrapolating the terms ‘existence’ and ‘is,’ reinterpreting the conclusion, reaffirming the conclusion, reconstructing the argument, translating the argument into theology, converting the theology into ontology, redefining ontology and reducing it to semantics, redefining semantics and returning it to the language of common sense [common sense?] once again, then challenging or ridiculing common sense and turning it back into paradox, further refining the logic, generating new and even more puzzling paradoxes. . . . Or,”

One will not find this sort of comment under “Parmenides” in the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, for instance. It ends, as I have ended it, with the word “Or.” It is meant to be “unbiased.” But what this means is that the authors are very sure of it. They cannot be unaware that many of their colleagues will object to it.

I am not complaining. I share the authors’ biases, and imagine that a great many other people do too. The book is excellently written, clear, rich, dense. A good bibliography is provided. And, like all books, this one is not “definitive.” Any number of short histories of philosophy can and should be written.

The ending of the book is marred slightly, I think, by the authors’ well-intended refusal to discuss living philosophers, though they certainly do discuss them, just not thoroughly and not by name. Otherwise it ends well, with encouragement for the future. A new thinker, a new Marx or Freud, if not a new Descartes or Russell, will come along. There is no reason to doubt that.

Some complaints are included about the current state of philosophical education, and rightly so. This book would make a terrific outline for an education in philosophy. But compare it with the education (excellent on its own terms) that I recently received from the University of Virginia. With the exception of Professor Rorty, who is not technically a part of the philosophy department, UVA teaches ancient and medieval philosophy as live concerns, not as intellectual history; does not touch in the slightest on Eastern thought; looks back to Kant, never Hegel; and seems perfectly oblivious to the existence not only of such Europeans as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida, but (incredibly, if all too typically) also of such Americans as James, Dewey, and – indeed – Rorty. Solomon and Higgins complain about confusions caused by the common distinction between analytic and continental philosophy, both of which are analytic and can be found on and off the continent. But it is perfectly useful to distinguish between schools that are still searching for ahistorical extrahuman “truth” and those that are not. As far as I know all philosophy departments in the U.S., presumably including the University of Texas at Austin, where Solomon and Higgins teach, fall into the former category. Our academic culture outside of philosophy departments, and this book, are largely in the latter.