A Short History of Philosophy

A Short History of Philosophy

A Short History of Philosophy

A Short History of Philosophy

Synopsis

Philosophy is a singularly expansive enterprise, a fascinating outgrowth of a human nature that demands we question who and why we are. In A Short History of Philosophy, the most accessible concise portrait of philosophy in seventy years, Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins meet the challenge of accurately and engagingly describing it all, revelling in philosophy as "the art of wonder," the search for meaning, a gripping, dramatic endeavor. Here is the entire history of philosophy--ancient, medieval, and modern, from cultures both East and West--described in its historical and cultural context. "The concepts that lie at the heart of philosophy antedate history by thousands of years," the authors write in their introduction, noting that the ancient concept of immortality, prehistorical ideas about magic, and the complex set of beliefs implied by the practice of human sacrifice all exhibit philosophic underpinnings. Solomon and Higgins chart the profound development of philosophical thought around the world and through the centuries from the first stirrings of speculation and wonder to the rise of distinct (and often antithetical) philosophical traditions, moral constructs, and religious practices. From the early Greek and Asian philosophers and the mythological traditions that preceded them, to the great Greek, Indic, and Chinese philosophers, to the drama of the great religious philosophies, the authors have spun a marvelous tale that leads to the development and decline of modernity. Along with the major characters, such as Aristotle, Kant, and Confucius, Solomon and Higgins draw engaging portraits of less well-known alchemists, mystics, rebels, eccentrics of all sorts, including figures often ignored in philosophy--figures such as Teresa of Avila, who contributed to the mystical traditions of Catholicism; al-Razi, a contrarian Persian philosopher within the Arabic tradition who described the philosophical life as "godlike;" and Erasmus, the Dutch philosopher who parodied the foolishness of man in his praise of folly. With a clear, witty style and a flair for making complex ideas accessible, the authors also convincingly demonstrate the relevance of philosophy to our times, emphasizing the legacy of the revolutions wrought by science, industry, colonialism, and sectarian warfare, and the philosophical responses to the traumas of the twentieth century (including two world wars and the Holocaust): existentialism, positivism, postmodernism, feminism, and multiculturalism among them. But Solomon and Higgins go beyond merely retelling the rich history of philosophy; the authors provide their own twists and interpretations of events, resulting in a story that reveals the continuing complexity and diversity of a richly textured and nuanced intellectual tradition. All who are "lovers of wisdom" will find much to reward them in this book.

Excerpt

The concepts that lie at the heart of philosophy antedate historical record by thousands of years. The concept of immortality, in one form or another, probably extends back at least to the Neanderthals some tens of thousands of years ago. They seem to have developed some notion of an afterlife, as is evident in their burial sites and symbolism. In prehistory, magic also displays unmistakable philosophical underpinnings: it appeals to causes unseen and not yet understood. Abstraction and idealized forms can be traced back to the Cro-Magnon, who lived more than ten thousand years ago. The ghastly practice of human sacrifice, which already indicates some complex set of beliefs about the world, can be traced back at least this far.

When did people first envision gods and goddesses who must be appeased? When did they first believe in forces behind the scenes and mysteries in the very stuff of life? When did they begin to speculate about the creation of the world, and in what terms? When did they move beyond the "facts" of nature to speculation, to spirituality, to wonder? When did these beliefs and speculations begin to consolidate into that cantankerous discipline that the Greeks called philosophy? How did the numerous gods and goddesses of the early ancient world become one? In 1370 B.C.E., the Egyptian pharoah Akhenaton (Amenhotep IV) proclaimed belief in one God, centuries before the birth of Moses. Abraham, we are told, had such a belief in a single God five hundred years earlier. How much of philosophy is an effort to come to terms with that demand for unity and concern for that which is "beyond" us?

In the pages that follow, we have tried to write a short history of philosophy that is simple and straightforward but captures the complexity and diversity of the subject. The reader may rightly wonder how we can justify calling "short" a book of roughly 300 pages. No doubt it could have been shorter, with broader brush strokes, omitting some figures and leaving out non-Western traditions altogether. But when we tried to cut, it was not our authorial egos that were bruised but our history. What is sufficiently inessential to omit? Of course, we have made such decisions, thousands of them, but, nevertheless, the richness of the subject was persuasive. At the risk of massive oversimplification, we have tried for inclusiveness. And we took heart as we read our . . .

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