A. C. Grayling’s The History of Philosophy. Book Review

In Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s The Grand Design, the authors take aim at that most seemingly irrelevant of fields: philosophy. They pose some of the big questions about the universe and existence and dismissively write: “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.”

Have I, then, just wasted a great deal of my time in reading A. C. Grayling’s new book The History of Philosophy? The answer is an unequivocal no. Grayling’s book shows us the enduring value and relevance of philosophy—so, while I agree with Hawking and Mlodinow on the importance of science in answering questions, I reject their view that philosophy has nothing left to say.

As Grayling points out, modern science is a result of philosophy asking the right questions about metaphysics and epistemology, and philosophy also contributed to the creation of the social sciences and cognitive science. Philosophical debates on concepts in ethics, morality, epistemology, methodology, politics, aesthetics and even science are still important, for it is through philosophical conversation that progress has been made in these fields and it is through philosophy that clarity in concepts is achieved and relevant questions are asked.

Science is the surest way to knowledge about the universe and has much to say about traditionally philosophical concerns, but this does not mean that philosophy is dead: on the contrary, areas outside of science, such as ethics, still require the philosophical touch, and science itself is at its best when working in partnership with the concerns and methods of philosophical questioning (until quite recently natural philosophy meant what we now call science). The writings of Daniel Dennett, for one, are exemplars of philosophy and science working together for mutual enrichment.

The enduring value of philosophy is one of the central themes of Grayling’s exceptional new book. In the tradition of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, Grayling takes us through the field from its beginnings to the present day, throwing in a comparative study of Indian, Arabic-Persian, Chinese and African philosophy along the way. The book is a triumph—”a philosopher’s magnum opus” as the Edinburgh International Book Festival has described it.

The history of philosophy is a big field and it takes a steady and expert hand to guide a reader through it. Grayling, a longtime proponent of philosophy in public life, achieves this. The general reader, the student and even the scholar will come away from the book having learned a great deal. It is comprehensive yet concise, complex yet clear. Ranging through everything from ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, the scholastics of the Middle Ages and the humanists of the Renaissance to twentieth-century analytic and Continental philosophy, Grayling takes us on an intellectual adventure, expertly explaining the concepts and debates which have been most salient through the centuries: from Lockean political theory to Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, via Hume’s moral philosophy, Kantian epistemology and metaphysics and much else besides.

Grayling likens this story to a on-going conversation. We humans, he argues, find ourselves in a tiny point of light surrounded by darkness and ignorance. Each discipline has its own special spotlight as it peers out into the dark. Philosophy “patrols the circumference” of these spots of illumination: in each case extending the little bit of light just that bit further. It tries to posit the right questions to aid this goal, focusing especially on areas in which there are as yet no special disciplines, thus helping us progress towards finding reasonable answers and reducing our ignorance.

The story of philosophy is also likened to case law: the thinkers of the past are our touchstones in present enquiries. We read and study them to provide inspiration and clarity in dealing with current concerns. Plato, Aristotle and Kant, Grayling writes, are the three greatest philosophers in terms of their intellectual powers, even if their work is often disagreed with. That too is why we look back—we formulate rebuttals of certain strands of thinking in order to provide context and ballast for our preferred ones: it is all dialectic, a concept for which we have the pre-Socratic thinker Zeno to thank, according to Aristotle.

One thing in particular marks out this book from other such histories: theology is explicitly excluded. For, Grayling says, “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.” Philosophy is agriculture and theology is gardening, as Grayling puts it: “[philosophy] is a very much bigger, broader, and more varied enterprise than the particular, localized and focused one of ‘talking or theorizing about a god.’” Thus, the Church Fathers and the religious aspects of, say, Augustine, are omitted and theology is only discussed as it relates to philosophy proper, such as when it tries to posit philosophical arguments for the existence of a deity or impinges on ideas about free will, determinism and society.

This will no doubt cause some heads to explode, but it is correct. The long, dull and dreary debates of theology are irrelevant to philosophical enquiry because they take as given the truth of religion and focus on concepts within that tradition, rather than asking the bigger and more important questions in which philosophy deals.

Grayling is a critic of religion, but he deals impartially with the medieval religious thinkers and expresses admiration at their progress in fields such as logic. He takes seriously, too, some of the more esoteric of the Continental philosophers, though he takes great care to explain why some of them, such as Michel Foucault, do not merit full inclusion in the philosophical canon—essentially, their contributions are in sociology, cultural criticism and the like, rather than philosophy as such—he briefly considers these excluded thinkers in a section called “Un Salon des Refusés.”

There is one rather amusing—and understandable—lapse of impartiality when Grayling deals with Jacques Derrida’s prodigious literary output: “it is hard to see how to avoid the charge that if he is right [about deconstructing philosophy etc.], forty books about it would be thirty-nine (perhaps even forty) too many.” Grayling also discusses the differences between analytic and Continental philosophy; the former, he says, sometimes sees the latter as consisting of pseudo-profundity and fraudulent thinkers. But Grayling deals with these thinkers impartially (for the most part) and finds great value in the ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and Paul Ricoeur.

The section on twentieth-century philosophy is the busiest. Grayling marshals a veritable cavalcade of thinkers and movements, which are discussed over many pages. He argues that that era is too recent to narrow all the thinkers down to a few of the greats—perhaps, in a couple of hundred years, the Kants and Aristotles of the twentieth century will have been identified, but it is impossible to tell who they are now (and increases in access to higher education and advances in communications mean that more people than ever have had the opportunity to think and write). Grayling compares philosophers to mountains and foothills: the thinkers he chooses to write about in the book represent the highest peaks of philosophical thought, and they are surrounded by other thinkers, who may be important but have to be excluded in order to deal with the most influential.

Unusually, for a single volume history of philosophy, Grayling also covers eastern traditions. The book focuses on western philosophy, in which he is more of an expert, but he has a great interest in other traditions. The Indian, Chinese, Arabic-Persian and African traditions are briefly covered in the book’s final section, which, though not as comprehensive, is as lucid and informative as the rest.

Grayling enthuses about the complexity and sophistication of ancient Indian epistemology, logic and metaphysics, and incisively compares Indian and other traditions to western ideas. Philosophy flourished in China, India and the Greek world at around the same time: Socrates, Buddha and Confucius were approximate contemporaries, and the traditions that flowed from them exerted enormous influence on subsequent discourse in their respective cultures.

But we must be wary of such iconic figures: many of their ideas come down to us from text written many years after their time, and much legend and superstition has sprung up around some, particularly the Buddha. These thinkers were lucky, Grayling says—it was their followers who tended to be more original. Perhaps their ideas were intrinsically good, or perhaps they were simply easier for the populace to understand and that was why they were adopted— after all these thinkers were only a few of the many roving teachers and preachers of the era. Alluding to Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Grayling wonders how many geniuses of antiquity have been forgotten, their words never written down.

Discussing Arabic-Persian philosophy (a label used in place of the misnomer Islamic philosophy) Grayling wonders how history might have turned out had more humanistic Classical philosophy survived in the Islamic world—might something similar to the European Renaissance have occurred? This is merely an aside but, as with so much else in this book, it prompts a great deal of thought.

This section of the book is a lament: for the Islamic world experienced a golden age of philosophy for a few centuries in the Middle Ages, before religious orthodoxy exerted its grip and choked free enquiry. What would have become of that world if Islam had allowed more Averroes to flourish—instead of al-Ghazalis? Even the Shia branch of Islam, more conducive to philosophy than the Sunni, has not produced many great philosophers since that time—a true shame. In this, west and east converge, for early Christians burned pagan philosophy and Christianity rejected those Classical ideas that conflicted with its theology. It was through transmissions from the Islamic world that Europe rediscovered many lost works from antiquity (though, of course, medieval Christians, like medieval Muslims, did not reject Classical thought tout court: Aquinas reconciled Aristotelian philosophy with theology in Thomism, which became, and remains, the official philosophical doctrine of the Catholic Church).

African philosophy is only dealt with briefly. This is because there is no identifiable written African philosophical tradition, and to take an ethnophilosophical approach would be to loosen the definition of philosophy too much. Such approaches have been critiqued by some African philosophers, such as Kwasi Wiredu, themselves. Grayling takes care, however, to show that this is not a denigration of Africa, for it has diverse cultural, historical, social and linguistic traditions of great beauty and importance. With further study, philosophical doctrines concerning epistemology and metaphysics may be mined from African traditions—but “it does however need not to be ethnography masquerading as philosophy.”

There is, however, one great philosophical idea that has arisen from Africa: the ethical doctrine of Ubuntu, an essentially humanist viewpoint, emphasising our interconnectedness with each other—“I am, because of you” is how Grayling sums it up. Such realist ethics are superior to the unachievable universal love doctrines of, say, Mohism and Christianity. Grayling writes: “It is appropriate that as humankind itself came out of Africa, so one of the best ideas about how it can flourish—the idea of Ubuntu—should emanate from there too.”

Some critics may find Grayling’s book too narrow, focusing overmuch on the west, and feel that its treatment of non-western traditions is too thin. However, Grayling explicitly acknowledges his expertise in western philosophy and the reader is given to understand that his brief overview of other philosophical traditions and concepts does not represent a comprehensive examination of them.

Then there is the lack of women thinkers in the book. This is a more understandable criticism, but it too does not quite stand up. As Grayling says, the book is a study of the case law of philosophy, the thinkers and schools who have exerted the most influence on its big themes and questions. While there have been many women philosophers, none have achieved the status of the most important thinkers who address the core questions of philosophy. Grayling laments that Simone de Beauvoir, for example, is overshadowed by Sartre (she is discussed in the section devoted to him)—but attributes this to the historical exclusion of women, and adds that hopefully this will change and her influence in her own right will be appreciated more fully in time.

There is also a brief but sympathetic discussion of feminist philosophy in the twentieth century and Grayling is unequivocal  that, in the history of twenty-first century philosophy, the feminist schools will be among the most important. Criticisms of Grayling’s book as anti-feminist therefore fall wide of the mark.

Philosophy and philosophers are often seen as boring and dreary: another misconception. The ideas, while complex, are anything but boring, as the book shows. But Grayling also reminds us that philosophers themselves have often been involved in politics and wider society and lived tumultuous lives. Boethius was executed for suspected conspiracy and Bertrand Russell was imprisoned twice for his political principles, to give but two examples.

The History of Philosophy is an excellent overview of great philosophical thought by an insightful practitioner of the field. It is a credit to Grayling’s abilities that he has penned such a perspicuous book on some very difficult subjects—giving the a reader a clear overview of the complexities of Scholastic logic, Analytic philosophies of language and mind, and much else besides is no easy feat, but Grayling has achieved it. This is a book to be treasured, both as a guide to the subject and as a beautiful piece of writing in itself, containing great insight and wisdom. It is a testament to the continuing importance and value of philosophy.

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  1. ”Science is the surest way to knowledge about the universe and has much to say about traditionally philosophical concerns, but this does not mean that philosophy is dead: on the contrary, areas outside of science, such as ethics, still require the philosophical touch, and science itself is at its best when working in partnership with the concerns and methods of philosophical questioning (until quite recently natural philosophy meant what we now call science). The writings of Daniel Dennett, for one, are exemplars of philosophy and science working together for mutual enrichment.”

    You have no idea what you are talking about… Reading the above was depressing.

  2. Grayling is an important philosopher and this is an helpful work worth reading. Philosophy has one foot in the past, but it’s through learning about earlier ways of looking at the world that we can improve our understanding of the present. As Dennett said, “The history of philosophy is the history of very tempting mistakes made by very smart people, and if you don’t learn that history you’ll make those mistakes again and again and again.”


  4. “It was through transmissions from the Islamic world that Europe rediscovered many lost works from antiquity”

    No one has ever been able to explain to me how it is that Christendom learned of the work of the classical thinkers via the Arabs when in fact the Byzantine empire survived to the Renaissance and spoke Greek continuously going back to those ancient times. How is it that the Greeks learn of the Greeks from the Arabs? And the West, tho Catholic, was in constant trade with the Orthodox East, so even there, I just don’t see how the works of the ancients could ever have been lost to Christendom.

    1. If I am correct, much of the late(r) Western Roman population, if literate, was not so in Greek, and a number of Greek texts were later re-translated to Latin from Arabic, though some did indeed get translated from the Greek. Consider also that many translations of famous works like those of Aristotle are known to us today only from the Latin texts.

      1. Thanks Timothy. Still tho, the Greek culture in the East was unbroken. I can see that the West would translate some things from Arabic but why would the East have any need to translate anything? Had the East fallen way back in, say, 800, one could see how the inquisitive Arabs might have become the preservers of their knowledge, but the East didn’t fall then. It is as if the East repressed it’s own heritage such that there was more of it in Baghdad than in Constantinople. Or the wall between the East and the West was less permeable than the wall between the Muslims and the West, which seems strange. Dunno, I’ve never understood it.

    2. Ray,

      Part of your confusion stems from the (usually intentional) conflation of historical facts by certain people in order to elevate a certain religion and its founding people. Here is a smattering of leads to run down for a better picture:

      Much of the glow of the “Islamic Golden Age” comes out of a rhetorical trope used to shame Christendom (later the Catholic Church and the West generally) by comparing it unfavourably to an idealized Islamic world. The first round began after the Reconquista with Maimonides, the second during the Reformation with Luther, the third during the Enlightenment with Voltaire, and the fourth in our own times with such luminaries as Barack Obama and Karen Armstrong.

      The line you quoted is a typical gloss of the history that exaggerates their contributions. It leaves out, for example, (1) how much of the ancient world (and thus its books) were destroyed in the Islamic conquests, (2) how the translators who did the transmitting were mostly Syriac Nestorian Christians and Jews who come under Islamic rule, (3) how many of the Greek texts use by these translators in al-Mamun’s “House of Wisdom” in Bagdad were bought from or copied in Constantinople in the first place, and (4) the fact that much of what we have today actually came from scribes and scholars escaping the Eastern Roman Empire (“Byzantium”) after the fall of Constantinople.

      None of this is to say they did nothing—they did contribute some to science, medicine, mathematics, and other learning—only that they’re not as central as they’re made out to be (and, frankly, they probably destroyed more than they transmitted). As research goes on, moreover, we’re learning that some of what was originally attributed to Islamic thinkers by Christian contemporaries was more likely or more strongly Greek and in some cases Indian and even Chinese.

      1. Thanks very much. You support my doubts about the orthodox view of this and I appreciate your deep knowledge of the subject. I particularly trust what you say because you do not try to deprecate the Muslim contribution entirely, but merely to rebalance the scales. It always seemed believable to me that there would have been an injection of scholarship into the far West via Spain, but I’d expect most of Greek thought to have been preserved by the Greek-Romans themselves. And yes, I know something of how much various Muslim fanatics burned.

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