A New History of Western Philosophy: An Exhausting Read

School of Athens

This article reviews A New History of Western Philosophy by Anthony Kenny

While intellectual history is a bird’s eye view of the intellectual landscape, a history of philosophy is a x-ray version of that landscape. A Gothic church has her beautiful stained glass windows, paintings and all other exquisite adornments but they merely suggest or altogether fail to tell us the underlying structure that supports the church itself. The relation between ideas and philosophy is similar. Philosophy reveals what is the underlying flows behind the intellectual ideas. It is, therefore, an x-ray version of the intellectual history.

Books on the history of philosophy are not in short supply. Bertrand Russell‘s History of Western Philosophy is a classic but it is biased and too outdated to include any philosophical views after 1945. A History of Philosophy by Frederick Copleston is more objective and much more exhaustive but it runs more than several thousand pages. There are numerous other philosophy books in the market, with titles like ‘Philosophy for Dummies’ or ‘100 Philosophical Ideas You Must Know’. As their very titles suggest, one cannot hope to get much from them. Anthony Kenny‘s A New History of Western Philosophy provides a viable option.

From Thales in the fifth century BC to Quine in the twentieth century, Kenny introduced us the ideas of all the major philosophers in the Western civilization. He combined his narrative with his earlier four volumes: Ancient Philosophy, Medieval Philosophy, Rise of Modern Philosophy and Modern Philosophy. In each volume, he divided the narrative into two sections. The first section concerns with the intellectual history that gave some brief summaries of and historical background behind the philosophical views. The second section is divided into a number of thematic chapters. Depending on the different periods, some topics were treated extensively, while others disappeared totally. Logic, for example, was briefly absent in Rise of Modern Philosophy but reappear in the later volume. Physics is no longer a stand-alone philosophical subject after Newton and accordingly Kenny was silent on it in Modern Philosophy.

Whether this two-sections approach is appropriate is open to question. Kenny explained that a reader who is concerned with intellectual history can look at the chronological survey in the first section. The second sections are for readers who are interested in specific philosophical issues. However firstly, his account of intellectual history is less than satisfactory. Secondly, his thematic treatments have torn coherent philosophical ideas into pieces. Thirdly, general readers might find it difficult to read specific philosophical issues. Let me explain each in turn.

Kenny’s intellectual history is a little better than ‘who’s who’ in philosophy. He briefly described the lives of the philosophers, and then outlined their ideas. Historical, cultural, social, scientific and a host of other factors are absent from the discussions. This section merely serves to provide a very short summary of the ideas that will be elaborated in the later thematic chapters. Kenny should learn from other masterpieces to learn how to write intellectual history better.

Philosophers’ views may not be so tight-knit as to form a system of thought, but certainly their takes on different issues should form a coherent view that are distinctive to that particular philosopher. For example, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is one closely-argued thesis and is then followed by his two other critiques on practical reason and judgment. Yet the impression that Kenny gave me is that Kant’s philosophical views are torn into different pieces in different thematic chapters, so that terms like a priori, a posteriori, analytic, synthetic, antinomies and mathematical/dynamic sublimity are, to me, loosely connected words with Kant’s views  but their relationships with each other remain obscure to me.

A related problem is that general readers are perhaps less interested in such careful comparisons of philosophers’ view on one topic. General readers are one of Kenny’s target audiences since he hoped to write for people’s ‘own information and entertainment’. In this respect, Bertrand Russell’s treatment of presenting philosophers’ views may be more suitable.

Beside the shortcomings of the two-sections approach, I am also puzzled by Kenny’s selections. He gave equal attention to medieval philosophy as to philosophy from 1500s onward but the former’s impact on the modern world is much less significant. This might be due to Kenny’s own specialities in medieval philosophy. I am also disappointed that after mentioning Heidegger and Sartre in the so-called intellectual history, they received no attention in the subsequent chapters. It would have been recommended to cut down parts of the medieval philosophy to make room for the existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre.

Nevertheless, I would stress that these are relative minor criticisms in comparison to the task that Kenny has set for himself and has, to certain extent, succeeded. Kenny can write in lucid prose and supplied his own examples to concretise the abstract ideas. He did not attempt to ‘dumb down’ his materials to suit the tastes of some casual readers. Very substantively, he outlined the philosophical concepts that one might encounter in a philosophy course, albeit in a much more interesting and readable prose.

More importantly, he presented the materials under very critical scrutiny, so that the narrative is filled with shrewd observations. He criticized Descartes to have made himself handicapped by radically abandoning Aristotelean notions. He was also not afraid to present Derrida as a pseudo-philosopher. Opinions and observations of such kind are littered in many places in his narrative and are a particular boon for a general reader.

It should be reminded, however, that one should be prepared to read this work with patience and diligence. As said, Kenny introduced substantial philosophical concepts and so it can be very academic at times. His logic chapters are, for example, very difficult to understand for a general reader who has never undertaken any formal logic course. I myself relied extensively on other secondary materials (e.g. Very Short Introduction series and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) to make sense some of the ideas.

As a result, the work can be in an embarrassed position. An academic scholar will find the work too simplistic while a casual reader will find it much too difficult to handle. A general reader well-versed in philosophy or a senior philosophy student already specialized in one branch of the philosophy will find the work welcoming for presenting philosophy in a panoramic picture.

The issue remains: whether Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy provides a x-ray version of intellectual history. The verdict will be a qualified yes. Although his two-sections treatment may not be the most desirable approach, his concrete introduction surely gives readers a very solid understanding on the Western philosophy. His learnt opinions in many instances are special gems. Anyone who read it from cover to cover will find it deeply rewarding.

Extended readings: The history of philosophy – an obituary? (Review by Stephen Dunne)

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4 thoughts on “A New History of Western Philosophy: An Exhausting Read

  1. lesclaypool says:

    Quite good text, You are catching good details of Kenny’s writing methods. But I find it difficult in understanding why would Bertrand Russell‘s “History of Western Philosophy” be biased and too outdated to include any philosophical views after 1945. Can you be more precise and explain your thoughts on that ?

    • mrtso1989 says:

      Thanks for your comment. Bertrand Russell obviously wrote an erudite narrative of the Western Philosophy but the problem is that philosophy keeps developing after his death. There is existentialism, pragmatism, post-modernism, and etc of which Russell could not have heard, despite his long life. Furthermore, Russell himself was a forceful proponent of analytic philosophy which scorns the questions raised by metaphysics. As a result, Russell showed inadequate attention to giants like Kant.

      • lesclaypool says:

        Thanks for the answer. It ease my views on understanding Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy” because I have not read that book yet. Also, I’d be very grateful if you could explain why would historical, cultural, social, scientific and a host of other factors be needed in writing any history of philosophy ? I am a beginner in philosophy and reading various critics is helping me to develop my critical thinking and understand certain approach on history of philosophy. Thanks again and have a nice day.

      • mrtso1989 says:

        Thanks for the comment again. Historical, cultural, social, scientific and other factors would be important for writing philosophy as an intellectual history. Philosophers will disguise philosophical ideas as something perennial and transcend all ages, but the fact is that a particular idea is rooted in historical circumstances. For example, Plato’s philosophy on art cannot be understood without considering the increasing dominance of writing over speech (e.g. how writing made reflection possible, so that the discipline of logic can arise). His philosophy on religion also bore strong influence from the Eastern mysticism. Descartes’ radical abandoning of Aristotelian notions was only made possible by the weakening hold of the Church and his ideas should be understood as the precursor to Enlightenment. Without these historical and social backgrounds, an intellectual history would be narrow and weak.

        Of course, a history of philosophy could stick to discussions of philosophical development but that would not do for philosophy as intellectual history.

        No worry, I am not a specialist of anything. I am just an avid reader of everything, so that I am good at nothing.

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