THE DEVELOPMENT of philosophy into a separate academic discipline has been a disaster. An inevitable disaster, maybe, but a disaster none the less. It is one example, paralleled across the humanities, of a process of fragmentation that has impoverished academics and the public alike. It has turned the impassioned study of how we should live into a collection of "positions" to be studied. Philosophy may have been taken to the seminar room in order to safeguard its survival; but now that survival is threatened by lack of ventilation.
Graham Higgin's appealing anthology is a welcome attempt to let in some fresh air. More than 90 writers are included, spanning 25 centuries from Thales to Derrida. On the right-hand pages, under the writer's name, is a representative brief statement - a "porcupine", in Schlegel's phrase - having a spiky self-sufficiency: "The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge" (Russell). On the left-hand pages these quotations are put into context with a few related paragraphs from the same writer.
Naturally, the method has disadvantages, chiefly the lack of a broader context. But contexts are remembered, and often first noticed, by remarks that sum them up. And it is Higgin's aim to lead us out by letting the philosophers draw us in.
His book enables readers to form an impression of what a great many philosophers were like. Misconceptions will occur; but the cost of making the book more scholarly would have been to make it more forbidding.
Before the early 19th century a good philosopher was someone who investigated important areas of human experience and wrote about them in ways that readers generally might find enlightening. Though some great philosophers (Kant, Hegel) wrote difficult prose, the consensus was that obscurity should, where possible, be avoided. And there were great philosophers (such as St Thomas Aquinas) whose audiences were predetermined by the subject-matter.
None the less, the reputations of Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Pascal, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Schlegel, Mill, Russell and Wittgenstein were sustained by the strength of their appeal beyond any specialised community. …