The Story tried to salt itself with a seasoning of humor, not only because wisdom is not wise if it scares away merriment, but because a sense of humor, being born of perspective, bears a near kinship to philosophy; each is the soul of the other.
A long time ago, as I began to set about learning philosophy, I bought a used copy of this book, which sat, unread, on my shelves for a few years, its yellowed pages only growing more yellow, and its already cracked and broken spine castigating me from my bookshelf every time I passed by. Thus, about four or five months ago, I finally decided to read this book; but I quickly lost interest. Every time I put the book down, I waited a long time before picking it up again; and it was only when I downloaded an audiobook, last month that I was able to finish Durant’s popular history of philosophy.
This difficulty in finishing is the clearest indication of how I felt about it: I was unimpressed. Though by no means a bad book, and one with many good qualities, I can’t say I would recommend this book to anyone, for I believe Durant does an injustice to his topic. Simply put, this is both a poor history of and introduction to philosophy; it fails to convey adequately what philosophy is, what philosophers do, and how philosophy developed. There is little of intellectual or academic interest in these pages, and despite its eloquence I often managed to find it quite dull.
The trouble comes early on, when Durant makes this announcement:
The author believes that epistemology has kidnapped modern philosophy, and well nigh ruined it; he hopes for the time when the study of the knowledge-process will be recognized as the business of psychology, and when philosophy will again be understood as the synthetic interpretation of all experience rather than the analytic description of the mode and process of experience itself.
The absurdity of the above paragraph is obvious to anyone who has read a fair share of philosophy. Writing a history of philosophy while omitting epistemology is like writing a history of chemistry while refusing to talk about chemical bonds. Epistemology is a central part of philosophy, and, besides, a central concern of the greatest modern philosophers; so any treatment of the subject lacking epistemology is doomed to miss the mark. Besides this, I would also like to point out that the above paragraph reveals an intellectual weakness as well. How could epistemology be the subject of psychology, a science? Epistemology asks “What is knowledge?” This is clearly not a subject that can be investigated empirically or decided scientifically, for scientific investigation already presupposes that knowledge is empirical in nature. So already Durant is showing himself to be a poor philosopher, as well as a poor historian.
When we get into the thick of Durant’s book, we encounter an even more general problem. Durant’s modus operandi throughout this work is to treat the ideas of philosophers as byproducts of their experiences and their personalities. Not only does this often leads him into cheap psychoanalyzing (such as speculating about how Nietzsche’s father and mother influenced his outlook) as well as broad and often ridiculous generalizations about peoples and places (the Germans do this, the Jews do that), but, more damningly, turns systems of philosophy into mere quirks of personality and whims of fancy. In this book, philosophers are artists, not thinkers. Although Durant would have you believe that this is the wise and cosmopolitan perspective on the matter, this fails completely to do justice to these men.
Philosophy is, among other things, the art of argumentation. Philosophers, at least good philosophers, are extremely focused on the logical reasons for their beliefs. This is embodied in that great creation-myth of Western philosophy, Plato’s tales of Socrates, wherein that old sage wanders from citizen to citizen, perpetually demanding to know the reasons why they believe what they do. Plato’s Socrates is always asking, What do you mean by this word? And why do you mean it that way? The final goal of the philosopher is to harbor no dogmatic opinions—and by dogmatic I mean opinions that are accepted without scrutiny—but rather to probe and investigate every assumption, idea, and goal in life.
Durant’s treatment of philosophers does exactly the opposite. In Durant’s hands, philosophers are mere pundits, who spout theories left and right without taking the time to justify them. Durant’s chapters on their ideas are mere liturgies of opinions; and the final impression is that philosophy is just the art of having pompous and high-sounding views about grandiose subjects. It is absolutely worthless to know that Plato believed in a world of ideal forms without knowing why he did so; and the same goes for every other philosopher’s view. This emphasis on reason and argument is what separates philosophy from philosophizing; but you will find almost exclusively the latter in this book.
I would be being unfair if I didn’t acknowledge that many of this book’s faults are due to its genesis. This book was originally published as a series of pamphlets for the Blue Book series, which were inexpensive paperbacks for worker education. This origin largely explains why this book contains such a huge chronological leap, from Aristotle all the way to Francis Bacon, and also why Durant continually emphasizes the practical over the theoretical, the biographical over the intellectual.
Less excusable, perhaps, was Durant’s choice to write a chapter on Voltaire, who wasn’t even a philosopher, and Herbert Spencer, who was obsolecent even back when this book was written. Much better would have been a chapter on John Locke, who formulated many of the ideas later endorsed by Voltaire, and John Stuart Mill, a contemporary of Herbert Spencer who has had a much more lasting effect on the subsequent history of philosophy. While I’m at it, I think a chapter on Descartes would have been much better than a chapter on Francis Bacon (who is a fairly minor figure in the history of philosophy), for Descartes was also a pioneer of science, as well as a great mathematician, not to mention the father of modern philosophy.
For these reason, I would much more highly recommend Russell’s History of Western Philosophy over this book, as Russell, being himself a philosopher, at least does his best to reconstruct the reasons for other philosophers’ views, even if Russell sometimes falls short in this task. (I also want to note, in passing, that Durant considers Russell’s early work in logic and mathematics to be pure hogwash, whereas most philosophers today consider that to be Russell’s most enduring work.)
The only place that Durant surpasses Russell is in his chapter on Kant, which I think is a truly excellent piece of work, and a good place to start for any students seeking to understand that obscure German metaphysician. Other than this brief flash of sunlight, the rest of this book is nothing but passing storm clouds, rumbling ominously, constantly threatening to rain, and yet passing overhead with nary a drop, leaving us as parched as they found us.