Books: Big Ideas and Minutiae ; Move over Bertrand Russell - a New Introduction to Philosophy Supersedes All the Others, Finds AC Grayling
Grayling, Ac, The Independent (London, England)
The Dream of Reason
By Anthony Gottlieb
ALLEN LANE pounds 20
Philosophy has always been concerned with only a few, but very fundamental, ideas. They can be summarised under two headings: the idea of meaning or value in the universe, and the idea that reality has an ultimate nature. They are linked, in that they supply or at least suggest interpretations of each other. The first idea underlies all our questions about whether there is a transcendent source of value in the world, one that specifies goals for us and tells how we must live and behave.
Questions of deity, morality and aesthetics lie under this heading, and even a negative answer - one that says there are no transcendent grounds of value, and that we must therefore find them within - is vitally important. The second idea might seem now to be the possession of philosophy's daughters, the natural sciences; but these in their own turn generate new forms of the ancient question, and so far have made slow progress with such puzzles as, for example, the nature of mind. The idea of reality prompts questions about knowledge, and truth, and meaning - the relation of mind to the world - and, as with the first idea, it invites us to seek not merely knowledge but understanding of everything comprehended under it.
These ideas have been approached, examined, debated, reformulated, embedded in theories, disentangled again, shaped, used, and endlessly rethought throughout human history, each generation making (and needing to make) its own attempt at understanding them. Philosophers debate with each other about these ideas, and often disagree; but the fact that there have always been more philosophers than schools of philosophy shows that they also very often agree, with much of their debate co-operatively concerning minutiae and nuance.
As Anthony Gottlieb shows in this delightfully written and wonderfully instructive new history of philosophy, their debates are highly consequential, for philosophy is a productive enterprise. Consider what it has directly or indirectly given birth to in modern times: in the 17th century the natural sciences, in the 18th century psychology, in the 19th sociology and empirical linguistics, in the 20th century computing, artificial intelligence and cognitive science. Moreover, all the political changes, fluctuations in moral thinking, debates about religion, and great controversies over matters of society and law stem from philosophy and draw opposing strengths from it.
Gottlieb's book is a history of philosophy from antiquity to the beginning of the modern era, and is intended as the first of two volumes, the second of which will bring the story up to date. …