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Weekly Alibi They Thought, Therefore They Were

Introducing Great Western Thinkers

By Steven Robert Allen

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999: 

The Philosophers: Introducing Great Western Thinkers edited by Ted Honderich (Oxford), hardcover, $24

Is there a God? Are we even capable of finding out if there is a God? Why are we here? Are we here? Or is this all just a dream? How does language work? Can we know anything? If so, how is our knowledge developed? What is the proper way to act? How should society be organized? Do people have natural, inalienable rights like those apparently bestowed on us by our Constitution, or is the idea of natural rights -- as English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham most famously put it -- "nonsense on stilts?"

These are a few of the myriad questions you might ask yourself in your darkest hours locked alone inside the windowless, padded cell of your cowering body. Thankfully, there are people who have spent their whole lives trying to come up with logical, defensible answers to these questions. Many of their answers are highly original and thought provoking. Some of them, believe it or not, even have practical application in the real world.

Unfortunately, if you're interested in digging into the intellectual history of Western civilization, you could probably learn as much about the so-called Great Thinkers by reading a bunch of entries straight out of the Encyclopedia Britannica as you can reading this book. The Philosophers, edited by Ted Honderich, covers the lives and ideas of 28 greats from Socrates to Sartre in 28 terse chapters. The longest entry is about 12 pages, so there isn't a lot of time or space for depth.

Grip the handles of your golden time machine and hold on for dear life because this is a whirlwind tour through the development of Western thought. Even the most subtle and complicated of concepts -- like Kant's categorical imperative ("Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to be a universal law") or Wittgenstein's earth-shattering proposal that the limits of human thought are determined by the limits of language and grammar -- don't get more than a page or two.

The other big problem with this book is that each philosopher is analyzed by a different scholarly specialist. In this case, brief does not always equal concise -- or even, for that matter, comprehensible. The clarity and effectiveness of each chapter varies wildly. Several articles are jumbled and clunky, written in dense, confusing prose. Sometimes it can get downright ugly. One particularly hideous example comes from T.L.S. Sprigge as he attempts to explain Spinoza's pantheism. Sprigge writes:

"In part I Spinoza proves (understand henceforth: or intends to prove) that there is only one substance (in the sense of genuinely individual thing with an intelligibility not derivative from that of other things), and this answers both to the traditional meanings of "God" (for example, its existence follows from its essence) and of "nature" (that of which the laws of nature are the operations)."

Yikes! By this Sprigge apparently means to say, "Spinoza equates nature with God." Wouldn't it have been nice if he'd just said so?

Actually, some of the original books written by the featured philosophers are substantially clearer than the abstracts found in this book. John Stuart Mill's work is a fine example. His treatises Representative Government and On Liberty are models of prosaic clarity. When John Skorupski starts summarizing their contents, though, the reader is left with an inarticulate, confusing mess.

Still, there are other chapters that are finely composed and manage to lucidly illuminate the radical ideas of their subjects. Among these are Geoffrey Warnock's succinct description of Berkeley's attempt to deny the existence of matter, Allen Wood's entertaining essay on Marx's political theory, and Richard Schacht's shallow yet touching ode to Nietzsche.

Despite some ghastly low points, The Philosophers does at times succeed in elucidating these thinkers. It's even occasionally enjoyable to read. You should remember, though, that a lot has happened in the world of Western ideas since Sartre let his Existentialism loose on the world. There've been structuralists, post-structuralists, deconstructionists, post-colonialists, critical theorists and a whole slew of other ideas and philosophical systems of varying utility and interest. It's difficult to determine which of them will earn a lasting place in intellectual history.

I guess only time will tell -- if there is such a thing as time, which I doubt.

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