NON-FICTION: FOOD FOR THOUGHT

December 08, 2019

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For millennia, man’s urge for spiritual and intellectual welfare awakens in him a desire to shut down — for at least a while — what Will Durant calls “the mart of economic strife and gain” and return to investigate fundamental yet profound questions about himself, his existence and the universe he lives in, for a deeper understanding of life and its meaning. Reading British philosopher A.C. Grayling’s The History of Philosophy makes one feel as if travelling in a time machine; his discussion of pre-Socratic philosophy, medieval and modern thinkers, and Indian, Chinese, Arabic-Persian and African traditions of thought lends it a universal appeal, endorsing Grayling’s missionary zeal of humanism.

When it comes to the beginning of wonder in the history of mankind, Greek thought is the standard point of departure. Credited with being pioneers of understanding the origin and nature of the universe and dismissive of the explanations given by authorities, the pre-Socratic philosophers founded their own universes based on observation and reason. Thales is the fountainhead with whom the inquiry into the nature and origin of the universe begins, and Grayling’s book is no exception. Part one of his book is on ancient philosophy; it includes Pythagoras, Zeno, Democritus, Xenophanes and Parmenides, but their accounts are brief as Grayling admits, “there is a wall standing between us and the antiquity.” Nevertheless, his book tells us that they were precursors to revolutionary scientific theories — such as the theory of evolution anticipated by Anaximander, who thought that humans came originally from fish — as well as 16th and 17th century empiricism and rationalism.

The trinity of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle is dealt with in more detail. Socrates’s method, Plato’s realm of being and Aristotle’s scientific approach are emphasised with all the little socio-political underpinnings so essential to understanding them. We do not have much to read about Socrates because he did not write anything. Grayling argues that we know Socrates only through Plato’s early dialogues where he is the representative of the real Socrates, using his method of elenchus [refutation] which is questioning, challenging and confusing his interlocutors on commonplace beliefs such as justice, beauty, courage etc.

A philosopher’s recounting of philosophical traditions whets the appetite for reflection

Plato covers more pages than his teacher, probably because he wrote and his works survived. The most important part in Plato’s section is where Grayling critiques his idea of immortality of soul — the favourite ground of Grayling’s attack — finding it unsatisfactory on the basis of the assumption that the soul exists. “What, then, is a soul?” Grayling asks. “The Phaedo does not give a clear answer.” Plato’s political theory is discussed through The Republic, in which he propounded his famous idea of the philosopher king for Platonic aristocracy as an ideal form of government. “He was also a vigorous opponent of the concept of democracy itself,” Grayling tells us, but why was he against democracy or what was Athenian democracy like? Grayling does not ask or explain. The last master of the ‘trinity’, Aristotle, whose main interest was in science and logic, has a more technical discussion on him that includes his cosmology, ethics, epistemology and metaphysics. His greatest contribution is to “bring all knowledge into a great system.” Though against his teacher’s transcendent philosophy, Aristotle proposes “the first cause” thesis to reach the “first mover” of the universe. “This first mover must be a mind and to this he gives the name of God.” Grayling does not let it go and calls the argument “circular”, but does not explain how for the lay reader. Aristotle’s robust work in almost all spheres of knowledge require a more detailed treatment than this book has done.

The chapter ‘Philosophy in Medieval Times’ in the second part of the book is a problem area where Grayling seems to be struggling with his criteria of demarcation between theology and philosophy. He writes in the Introduction: “if the starting point for reflection is acceptance of a religious doctrine, then the reflection that follows is theology, or theodicy, or exegesis, or casuistry, or apologetics, or hermeneutics, but it is not philosophy.” It leads to questioning the inclusion of Augustine “offering solutions to philosophical problems that challenged the faith”, to Anselm of Canterbury’s ontological argument, to Thomas Aquinas’s “incorruptible and immortal soul” which was earlier criticised in Plato. Grayling, realising the slippery ground of his demarcation, comes back at it in the chapter ‘Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy’ and makes a clarification for their inclusion: “participants in theological debates of course deployed philosophical ideas, and in their applications of them at times made significant philosophical contributions.”

The 16th and 17th centuries mark the paradigm shift in the history of systematic thought. However, its underlying socio-economic and political causes are not detailed in the prologue to the section on modern philosophy. There appears to be a brief effort to fill in the gap with Lutheran Reformation to contextualise the arrival of intellectual giants who were to ask new questions and use new methods that were radically different from their predecessors. What influences the developments in the field of science, at least, had on the thought of modern philosophy could have complemented the following rivalry between empiricism and rationalism. The epistemological turn of philosophy brought with it two different approaches of observation and reason to find out what we know and how we know what we know “has led to a conventional grouping of the philosophers who came after them in the 17th and 18th centuries into two camps: the empiricists — whose leading figures are John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume — and the rationalists, whose leading figures after Descartes are Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz,” Grayling argues.

The galaxy of the 20th century philosophers and the Indian, Chinese, Arabic-Persian and African traditions is the most striking feature of this book.

Twentieth century philosophy in Britain saw mathematics and logic take centre stage, as analytic philosophy pursued precise and accurate answers to the perennial questions, whereas continental philosophy witnessed the growth of various schools of thought, mainly in Germany and France, deriving their resources from past movements. The discussion in ‘Analytic Philosophy’ — part four of the book — is based on the application of logic mainly on language, with Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege as its chief proponents, believing that “the logical analysis of language would be the royal road to solving the fundamental problems of philosophy.”

The chapter covers the logical analysis of language that started from Russell and Frege, and later on engaged Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolph Carnap, Alfred Ayer and Moritz Schlick. The search for truth had become the search for meaning by the third part of the 20th century with John Austin, John Searle and Paul Grice taking over the Russell project where he ended his History of Western Philosophy with Frege, hardly mentioning his own role in his own book. ‘20th Century Philosophy’ has the most number of philosophers in the book, and it would be unfair to name the few names missing in Grayling’s list. However, the mention of psychoanalysis in the opening part of this section as a recognised movement of thought makes one wish, though unfulfilled, to see discussion on Sigmund Freud.

The inclusion of Eastern traditions of philosophy from India, China, Arabic-Persian to Africa stands out as a sign of impartiality on part of the author. He brings up interlocutors of “the great conversation” whose originality added to, and had deep impact on, Western philosophy, and remarks in his Introduction: “An oddity of histories of philosophy which include theologians among the philosophers is that there is no better reason to include Christian theologians while excluding Jewish and/or Islamic ones.” The discussion is brief on all four traditions, with the African being the shortest.

For Indian and Chinese thought, Grayling gives an overview of the major themes, concepts and variants within them from the Upanishads, Buddhism and Charvaka-Lokoyata in the Indian, and from Confucianism, Daoism and Legalism in the Chinese tradition dating back to the eighth century BCE, making it older than Thales who is known as “one of the seven sages of Greece.” But why did the book not begin with the oldest traditions? Grayling chooses geographical and ethnic names for them, rather than the historical period. For Arabic-Persian, “I have chosen Arabic-Persian, this time relating to the languages in which the philosophy was written,” he explains.

While Russell in his History of Western Philosophy considers Mohammedans to be “transmitters” of classical and Hellenistic thought to the West, Grayling acknowledges them not only as preservers of the antiquity, but also original thinkers in their own right. One finds Muslim thinkers clearly standing on the side of philosophy, in contrast to medieval thinkers, using the same yardstick provided by the author. He writes in part five, “the work of these thinkers is emphatically an aspect of the wider history of philosophy.” One finds Al Kindi “interested in more than applying Greek thought to theology. He was eager to learn from the entire range of what was on offer”; Al Farabi of the view that “philosophy is superior to theology as a way of arriving at truth”; Avicenna holding that “valid reasoning leads to knowledge, invalid reasoning leads to falsehood”; prompting Al Ghazali to Incoherence of the Philosophers followed by Averroes’s Incoherence of Incoherence against it.

Grayling’s book is an unconventional history of philosophy with it its global range of thinkers and philosophies, simplicity of style and intellectual depth. However, it would have been more coherent had the author put each philosophy in relation to its environment, besides giving biographical details of the philosophers. The galaxy of the 20th century philosophers and the Indian, Chinese, Arabic-Persian and African traditions is the most striking feature of this book that might turn it into a benchmark for future books on the history of philosophy.

Lay readers might not get answers to perennial questions, but will certainly have more questions and have their appetite for reflection grown. As Grayling puts it, “philosophy is the refusal to be lazy about the great questions.”

The writer teaches English literature and linguistics at Greenwich University

The History of Philosophy
By A.C. Grayling
Viking, UK
ISBN: 978-0241304532
704pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 8th, 2019