A SHORT HISTORY OF WESTERN THOUGHT
By Stephen Trombley,
Atlantic Books, 277pp.
Reviewed: 5 May 2012
A Short History of Western Thought is blurbed as “an entertaining crash course in Western philosophy”, but also offers help to “the reader who has lain awake fretting over his tenuous grasp of the Aristotelian syllogism”. Lest any feel discouraged, let me suggest that anyone who peruses book reviews can comfortably absorb this summary, in comparatively few pages, of a vast intellectual scope.
When I was young, most family bookshelves carried a few hardback volumes from the Everyman imprint of the British publishers J. M Dent. The prefaced intent of the series was to bring knowledge and the experience of literary classics within the reach of “the common man”. They were favourites of those seeking to broaden their minds beyond formal education.
In this generation, the earnest Everyman approach gave way to louder self-improvement title claims like Get Rich Now without Risk or Quantum Theory for Dummies. With its hardback heft and retro cover design, this volume feels and looks like a return to the Everyman bookshelf.
For this reader, with no formal training in philosophy, Trombley succeeds in mapping out who said what and when along the 2500-year timeline that has led to what the title identifies as Western Thought. Philosophy works by argument, so I hope others will disagree with me as to whether Trombley succeeds. The essence of philosophy is not the parade of names and -isms, but the questions that are raised and the answers explored.
So let’s deconstruct the title. “Short” is a relative term, so we can let it lie. “History” is a term itself violently contested by philosophers of the modern period. Marxists posited History as an inexorable determinative force beyond human control, whereas continental deconstructionists hold history to exist only as a retrospective construct invented by the present. To avoid mental chaos, let’s assume that “A History” here denotes the attempt to identify relationships between a range of connected ideas developed over a period of time.
“Western” used to be applied with more confidence than today, now that Euro-American dominance of the global agenda is challenged, and cultural change can be rapid. Trombley seems to mean those societies defined by European traditions of Christianity, based upon the ancient Greek and Judaic origins of that religious philosophy. He recognizes the significant contributions of Islamic scholarship during centuries of enlightenment, but seems reluctant to look beyond the Peoples of the Book. He offers the bald assertion that “Judaism was the first monotheistic belief system”, when it is thoroughly documented that the Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaten promoted monotheism centuries before the Hebrews, asserting claims to the land of Canaan, constructed a history to explain that they were the chosen people of the only valid God.
Trembley also barely mentions the influence of Indian philosophy on the West via Persia, Egypt and the Buddhist missions sent by Asoka (3rd century BC ) to Syria, Egypt and Greece. There is good evidence for the influence of Buddhism on Plato and, indeed, on the teachings of Jesus.
Now what is “Thought”? In this book, thought means philosophy, which in turn implies something systematic or at least deliberate. Most of my thoughts are not like that. For the purposes of this book, I like best what was proposed first, by Aristotle: that philosophy (literally “love of wisdom”) begins with wonder.
Trombley’s philosophical canon is limited to those who sought to discover system in the apparent chaos of human consciousness. Socrates is the original benchmark, not because he was the first, but because despite his avowed mistrust of the written word ( he thought writing corrupted the memory) Socrates’ own words were systematically recorded by his pupil Plato. Trembley says the first philosophers, centuries before Socrates, “were called pre-Socratics”, presumably not by their contemporaries unless they were all remarkable prophets.
The short history concludes with a few still-living philosophers, apparently divided by irreconcilable differences between “analyticals” trying to discern logic and system in human thought and, on the other hand, “continentals” deconstructing all verbal expression of thought as ephemeral and unreliable. I think they are both correct, but I’m not a modern philosopher.
The closer we come to the present, the more diverse and complex is the range of philosophical positions to be summarized. The earlier philosophers sought to explain all human experience, from perception of the material world to ethics and political science. What was considered by Aristotle to be the business of “philosophy” has now fragmented into many different disciplines with their own vocabularies and genealogies: political science, ethics, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, psychology, psychoanalysis, linguistics, theology, and even the natural sciences.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, mainstream philosophy was concerned with the relation between the individual and society. Issues of responsibility, ethics and morals underpinned social change and fed into the structures and values we now call “Western”. When Henry David Thoreau, dawdling safely by Walden Pond in New England, wrote “That government is best that governs not at all”, he would not have forseen today’s Republican Tea Party types, funded by laissez-faire billionaires to oppose social welfare.
Trombley, keeping it short, has no space to put political philosophy in its economic context, except when noting that the most ancient Greek centres of philosophy were also centres of international trade.
Are “how we behave” and “how we think” closely connected? Many philosophers have thought so, and some still do. How do we know what is real? A glance at any news page reminds us that belief is as remote from reason as ever, and no less powerful for the accumulated knowledge and philosophy of the centuries.
Even if contemporary philosophy, hemmed in by competing disciplines, confines itself to studying the process of thought and the nature of reason, it now must account for the findings of the neurosciences as well as to the accumulated history of abstract reasoning.
Getting back to basics – if you have a love of wisdom, you will probably find this canter through centuries of hard thinking a pleasure and, at times, a challenge.
Richard Thwaites acknowledges clear thinking as an elusive concept, rewarding to pursue.