I’m unsure of the consequences for admitting that I graduated college with an abundance of credits and not a single one was a philosophy course, though I did more than half-faithfully audit a great one on metaphysics. Leaving aside the study of logic, the kind of abstract thinking I associate with philosophy is incredibly useful for critical thinking, but it ties my thoughts in knots. I have to quickly weigh and settle the moral and practical options presented in its questions and move on. I don’t care to debate it.
Whereas the foundations of the university were built upon philosophy and its methods of inquiry, most would argue that its centrality has been replaced by disciplines like history or even a number of social sciences. But each of these, of course, has its own philosophy. It structures our very approach to thinking. All throughout my education, I have acknowledged philosophy’s existence, its applications, and its great thinkers, but even while studying literature, science, and history, I kept my distance from Aristotle, Hume, and Sartre. I remember their contributions in mostly accurate descriptions, without digging much deeper, and more often than not I confuse one philosopher’s ideas for another’s. And yet, philosophy is always written into the choices of the present, which inevitably become our past. It is a problem—hypocritical, even—for me to profess a love of history and historical figures without respecting the philosophical and deeply human questions presented by their respective ages.
There is a cure for the addle-brained like myself. Next month, Yale University Press will publish Nigel Warburton’s A Little History of Philosophy. We’ll have more from Warburton himself, who is Senior Lecturer at the Open University and host on the Philosophy Bites podcast, later in the season, but by means of introduction, the book is already a fast favorite of mine, least of all for reminding me that someone has asked these life questions before, and to greater universal effect.
Fashioned in the style of E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World and David Crystal’s A Little Book of Language, Warburton’s survey of Western philosophy makes it easy to follow the development of ideas from Socrates to the present. The foundational questions from the abstract—What is reality like?—to the practical—What is happiness?—are addressed by Greco-Roman, ecclesiastical, Enlightenment, and modern thinkers. The changes in human thought, and the historical moments when certain questions become increasingly relevant, form a contour that feels too familiar to be mistaken for anything but a remarkable story, one that is expertly told with no room for my usual confusion.
I found that I am sympathetic with the Stoics. I like both John Stuart Mills and, paradoxically, Arthur Schopenhauer, for something must be said for filling the space between birth and death with the arts. Thomas Hobbes had an inspiring fitness regiment, and Karl Marx and I share an affinity for the British Museum; I may not have a gadfly co-worker like Peter Singer, but I’m sure some of my colleagues could make that complimentary complaint. What A Little History of Philosophy accomplishes in its 40 short chapters is to draw out the major questions that have faced humanity over the years, tracing how philosophers have dealt with them and how we continue to wrestle with their thinking today. These are at the heart of our moral society, and indeed, the very understanding of the self. Creating a profile of philosophers that you identify with is only one of the ways Warburton’s book gets you to puzzle through your own thinking and approaches to every day life.
In fact, the book is already out in the UK, and you can follow on the Little History of Philosophy Facebook page, and Nigel Warburton is @philosophybites on Twitter. For information on all of YUP’s “Little Histories” visit www.littlehistory.org. I’ll be lucky if I can shake Hegel’s ghost from my thoughts, but it takes more than a stone to knock an owl from its perch.
Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Coordinator for Yale University Press.