The Columbia History of Western Philosophy

By Richard H. Popkin | Go to book overview

Introduction

RICHARD H. POPKIN

There have been many histories of philosophies, but few presented in one large volume for the educated layman. Two such ventures that have endured for many decades, The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant and Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy, are eminently readable, but cover only the high spots of the field. Durant, who was a very popular lecturer on philosophy at Columbia University, primarily discusses only a few of the great men. Nevertheless, his popularization has been a gateway into philosophy for a great many readers during much of this century. Russell wrote his book hastily out of financial desperation while jobless in New York City at the beginning of World War II. Since Russell was a scholar of very few of the topics he covered, and uninterested or hostile to others, his opus is most engaging as Russelliana but hardly as history of philosophy. Both Durant's and Russell's works are still in print and are widely available in paperback editions.

This work is not intended to compete with these classics. During the last half century the number of new serious scholarly findings and interpretations concerning various portions of the history of philosophy has increased enormously. Previously unknown materials by and about various major figures in the history of philosophy have been discovered. The manuscripts of important figures from ancient times to the present have been or are being edited, increasing our understanding of the authors. For example, an edition of John Locke's writings based on previously unknown manuscripts has begun to see print; the edition of G. W. Leibniz's unpublished writings started in the 1920s continues to produce new volumes. New historical perspectives are being cast upon the materials, so that they can now be seen in their full intellectual and social contexts instead of as just isolated systems of ideas.

All of this has led to many multivolume histories of different portions of the history of philosophy. The enormous German Überweg history of philosophy, long the standard one for detail, is now in the process of being redone with a substantial

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