Jonathan Rée introduces his unconventional history of philosophy in the English-speaking world from 1601 to 1950 with a declaration:
Today’s philosophers may like to think of themselves as the culmination of a purposeful tradition going back two and a half millennia, but the record suggests something different: their predecessors were, for the most part, making their way along unmapped forest paths, with various combinations of ingenuity, frustration, anxiety, improvisation, frivolity and braggadocio. Instead of seeing their works as candidates for inclusion in some ultimate compendium of knowledge, we might do better to treat them as individual works of art forming a tradition as intricate and unpredictable as, say, Yoruba sculpture, Chinese poetry or the classical string quartet. In that case the old histories of philosophy with their well-worn plots and set-piece battles will turn out to be systematically misleading—of all forms of history, perhaps the most tiresome, wrong-headed and sad.
It is a remarkable beginning. A book that aims to examine the ideas of philosophers over three and a half centuries needs to consider what they thought they were doing, and one fact that seems clear is that very few of them believed they were chiefly engaged in creating works of art. With only a handful of exceptions, the philosophers of this period believed they were engaged in the pursuit of truth—as, in their view, the philosophers before them had been. Unless works of art claim to capture some matter of fact, they cannot be true or false. Certainly there are traditions in which what we in the West consider to be art objects purport to represent truths about the world. Tibetan iconography was an exercise in cosmology as well as a religious art form and an aid to meditation.1 Similarly, works of fiction can be evaluated by how far they match or depart from human experience.
But recognizing the beauty of Yoruba sculpture does not mean denying that of Tibetan mandalas or Renaissance Italian statuary. By contrast, one cannot accept the philosophy of Epicurus, according to which the soul is material and vanishes when we die, and at the same time accept Plato’s, according to which death means the separation of an immaterial soul from the mortal body. For Epicurus and Plato, these were not simply different representations of the world. They were conflicting answers to questions they had in common, and only one of them could be true.
The problems that come with thinking of philosophy as a discontinuous series of artworks appear when Rée discusses A Treatise of Morall Phylosophie, Contaynyng the Sayinges of the Wyse (1547), a history of the subject—“the first in the English language,” according to Rée—by William Baldwyn, an Oxford graduate. The treatise was largely an abridgment of Lives and Opinions of the Philosophers, written in Greek around 250 ce by Diogenes Laërtius. Rée comments that Lives is “sometimes scurrilous,” as when it describes another Diogenes, one of the founders of Cynicism, masturbating in public in order to demonstrate his indifference to conventional standards of good behavior. More to the point, considering the difficulties of Rée’s view of philosophy, is the fact that the concluding chapter of Laërtius’s text contains
a serious and sympathetic account of the doctrines of Epicurus, covering not only empiricism (the notion that sensations are a criterion of truth) and atomism (the theory that the physical world consists of tiny particles moving in an infinite void), but also mortalism, or the doctrine that there is no escape from the oblivion of death.
Here Rée acknowledges that, for Baldwyn as for Laërtius, philosophy consisted of attempts to answer enduring questions about the world and the place of human beings in it. Mortalism and Plato’s theory that the soul is eternal are rival doctrines for addressing what happens to the human mind when the body dies, not different traditions in art.
Thinking of philosophy as an exercise in artistic creation means that philosophers who believed they were pursuing the truth during the 1,300 years between Laërtius and Baldwyn were deceiving themselves. Imagining they were struggling to establish how things are in the world, they were only shaking up their own intellectual and linguistic practices and those of their contemporaries. Instead of being a search for “truth, goodness and beauty,” Rée avers, philosophy has to do with “offering difficulty, doubt and disorientation to those who are willing to have their intellectual habits rearranged.”
It is a view with some distinguished twentieth-century exponents, including Richard Rorty, who developed an American tradition of pragmatism in philosophy, and one to which I am sympathetic. But it involves a radical rejection of the traditional goals of philosophical inquiry. Rorty’s work has had little impact on how philosophy is taught in universities, and it may not have been wholly accidental that, after twenty-one years as a professor of philosophy at Princeton, the academic positions he subsequently held were not in philosophy but in literature departments.
The belief that philosophy is closer to literature and the arts than to logic or science has long had its supporters. Rée cites the poet John Donne, who studied in the 1580s at Oxford and Cambridge, where he soon wearied of Aristotle. For Donne, philosophy was like music, and should be conducted spontaneously rather than in well-rehearsed performances. A not dissimilar stance was taken by Ludwig Wittgenstein, quoted by Rée as believing that “instead of mimicking the natural sciences philosophy ought to be ‘written like poetry.’” Rée devotes the concluding hundred pages or so of this 750-page book (including about 150 pages of notes and index) to exploring Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy, summarizing it as follows: “A single thread ran through everything he had written: that logic and philosophy are nonsense, but nonsense of a significant kind.”
Wittgenstein knew his view of the subject was revolutionary. Friends of his at Cambridge, where he studied from 1911 to 1913 and lectured from 1929 to 1948, described the transition from traditional philosophy to his own work as being akin to that “from alchemy to chemistry.” Famously, Wittgenstein produced not one but two philosophies: the “logical atomism” of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) and Philosophical Investigations (the first part of which was published posthumously in 1953), in which philosophy was no longer a discipline producing any kind of doctrine, but an activity.
Without explicitly endorsing it, Rée appears to share Wittgenstein’s view of the nature of philosophy. But he does not seem to realize how fundamentally this view differs from how philosophers themselves understood what they were doing when they practiced their discipline. At the same time, he confuses this shift in the understanding of the nature of philosophy with a changed view of how the history of the subject should be written:
What we look back on as the inert reality of the past was once a myriad of possible futures, to be determined by choices that had not yet been made; and they have since been taken up by historians in fields like structural history, history of mentalities, women’s history, working-class history, history of sexualities, post-colonial history, resistance history and history from below.
No doubt it is right that there can and should be many histories of philosophy, not only the rather stale story that has been taught for so long, in which philosophy begins with the ancient Greeks, becomes subservient to theology after the rise of Christianity, and then gradually evolves into the analytic discipline that exists today. This story leaves out much that should be recognized as philosophy, including Indian, Chinese, and Aztec2 traditions devoted to systematic reflection on what the world is made of and how humans should live—questions that clearly belong to the Western categories of metaphysics and moral philosophy. Philosophical reflection has existed in many societies and has been pursued in the occluded groups that Rée mentions. All of these currents of thought deserve a history.
But how these histories should be written is a different question from whether philosophers have been (contrary to their own view) constructing works of art rather than pursuing truth. One can accept that the history of philosophy has been written in a narrow and at times exclusionary way and still see it as a succession of attempts to answer recurring questions such as whether the world is composed of one or many substances or made up of events and processes, whether the good life for humans comes in one or many different forms, and how answers to these questions might be determined.
A history of philosophy that does not view the subject in this manner needs some other way of telling its story. This need not be a story of an advance toward some grand system of ideas of the sort that Rée attributes to G.W.F. Hegel, who thought that philosophers were designing “a beautifully constructed building.” But there need to be some continuing questions and themes, or else a history of philosophy will not be much more than a miscellaneous collection of anecdotes.
What is notable in Rée’s list of alternative histories quoted above is that each of them deals with the contribution of a group, an area of human experience, or a manner of structuring ideas and events that conventional historians have undervalued or ignored. By contrast, Rée’s book has no unifying subject matter, aside from the period to which it is limited and its focus on the English language. Why does the survey begin at the start of the seventeenth century, rather than earlier or later?
The first section of the book is entitled “1601: Philosophy Learns English” and considers the movement away from the study of classical texts that occurred in England around that time. Rée does not explain why his story should start over a half-century after Baldwyn’s book was published, or how he has selected the writers he goes on to examine. He discusses Cervantes and Spinoza, but it is unclear why these non-English-language figures are included.
Readers will discover much they did not know about the variety of people who practiced philosophy from the early seventeenth to the mid-twentieth century and about the wide range of circumstances in which they did so. A section of the book on Puritans relates how disaffected English ministers of religion crossed the Atlantic with their followers to start a new life in Massachusetts Bay, where they aimed to practice a purer version of their faith. By the middle of the seventeenth century, Rée tells us, New England was home to more than a hundred Cambridge graduates, together with thirty from Oxford. It is salutary to be reminded how these earnest divines saw themselves. Their mission was not only to cultivate their own faith but to “gospellize the Indians.”
For John Eliot, who had studied at Jesus College, Cambridge, teaching his faith to Native Americans involved instructing them in philosophy. In addition to presenting them with a printed version of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and an entire Bible in Algonquin, Eliot taught them logic. In 1672 he printed a thousand copies of a miniature primer on the subject. Logic, he declared, was an “Iron Key” that would open to the Indians “the rich Treasury of the holy Scriptures.”
Rée features some delightful images of pages of Algonquin text from Eliot’s Logick Primer for the Indians. A few years later, Eliot’s Algonquin Bibles and logic primers were consumed in flames when his settlement for “praying Indians” at Natick, fifteen miles west of Boston, was destroyed in a raid. The millenarian mission of which he dreamed—“the Kingdom of Jesus Christ upon Earth…is now beginning to be set up where it never was before”—lost momentum. But his understanding of philosophy remained clear: the truths of religion could be revealed by applying a branch of philosophy to biblical texts.
Rée discusses the “Quixo-Philosophy” satirized in Miguel de Cervantes’s History of Don Quixote—published in Spanish in 1605 and 1615 and translated into English in 1620—in which the “witty knight- errant” appears to embody “the fatuity of philosophizing.” Rée goes on to consider the view of Thomas Hobbes, the author of Leviathan (1651), that what distinguished human beings from “all other Animals” was not attributes such as freedom or reason but “the privilege of absurdity,” a capacity for talking nonsense that was nowhere more developed than in “old Philosophers” such as Aristotle. Rée explores the complex interactions of philosophy with religion in the work of Spinoza—Rée reports that he kept a copy of the Koran on the same shelf as his Bible—and the defense of Christianity mounted by René Descartes by reference to “innate notions and ideas” rather than holy scriptures.
Many lesser-known figures appear in the book, including the learned rural rector and member of the Royal Society Joseph Glanvill, who, in order to defend the popular belief in witchcraft, deployed a radical version of skepticism about the ability of human beings to gain knowledge of cause and effect. (Rée might have noted that a quote claiming to be from Glanvill’s writings was used as the epigraph to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Ligeia,” though its exact source has not been found.) Rée discusses the “way of ideas” of John Locke, noting Locke’s difficulties in providing an account of personal identity that allowed the possibility of the mind surviving the death of the body (as his Christian beliefs required) in a philosophy that focused on continuity in sensations and memories rather than immaterial substances.
Later, the philosopher and novelist William Godwin used Locke’s belief that the human mind does not come into the world with preexisting ideas to argue that humankind is “essentially progressive.” The perfectibility of the human species, he argued, is not a mere hope but a rational necessity. Part of this perfectibility, as Godwin saw it, would be the abolition of sleep, and then of death, at which point the survival of the species would no longer require either posthumous existence or further generations of humans. We would become “a people of men and not of children.”
Godwin omitted the involvement of women in this process. He wrote a memoir of his marriage to the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, who died of septicemia after the birth of their daughter, Mary, but the memoir focuses on her life more than her ideas. It would have been useful if Rée had told us more of Wollstonecraft, whose contributions to philosophy were not defined by her relationship with Godwin.3 He notes that her Vindication of the Rights of Men contained a strong criticism of Edmund Burke’s “romantic spirit” and a defense of “common sense” in his celebrated Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). But Rée does not explore how Wollstonecraft’s defense of reason against feeling may have differed from Godwin’s more utopian visions.
Rée moves on to Scotland, where in October 1751 a young man named Adam Smith started work as professor of logic in the arts faculty of the University of Glasgow. Smith had spent six unhappy years at Oxford, where Aristotle was still taught, while—in the famous words of the historian Edward Gibbon, which Rée quotes—most of the masters had “absolved their conscience” of “the toil of reading or thinking, or writing” and passed their days in eating, drinking, and gossip. Smith was a central figure in moving Scottish philosophy from the study of Greek and Latin texts to a more “experimental” discourse in English. Exercising this new way of writing, philosophers in Scotland found themselves in conflict with the churches; the skeptic David Hume was repeatedly attacked as an unbeliever.
Rée goes on to examine the rise of a new style of English philosophizing developed by James Mill, an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland who rejected the Christian faith and in 1802 moved to London, where he became a writer and editor. After meeting the philosopher and legal reformer Jeremy Bentham, Mill became a promoter of the resolutely secular moral philosophy of utilitarianism, which Bentham had founded. But it was his son John Stuart Mill who became notorious as an enemy of the Christian religion. Writing in On Liberty (1859), the younger Mill defended “Pagan self-assertion” over “Christian self-denial,” while at the same time accusing Christian morality of being “essentially selfish” because it promised rewards for virtue in a future life. Rée cites the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy, who was studying architecture in London at the time Mill’s book was published, as recalling that “‘we students of that date’ knew On Liberty ‘almost by heart.’”
Full of color and arresting detail, this is a rich account of the variety of Anglophone philosophy during the period discussed. What is unclear throughout, however, is why some figures are included and others omitted. The only programmatic statements Rée makes on the objectives and methods of his book concern the affinities of philosophy with the arts and the need to avoid the view that the subject culminates in some grand system. But he does not tell us how philosophies might be compared aesthetically, or why rejecting grand systems means denying that philosophers have struggled with similar questions for centuries.
Some questions do in fact recur in Rée’s account, chiefly concerning the connections between philosophy and religion, but are not pursued. Locke’s concern with personal identity is echoed in Rée’s discussion of Hume and James, for example, but the Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick, now widely recognized as having probed into the foundations of ethics more deeply than any other nineteenth-century English-speaking philosopher, is not mentioned. Sidgwick questioned personal identity, both as a psychological fact and as an element in morality, arguing that the true dichotomy in ethics is not between pursuing long-term self-interest and serving universal good but between the latter and pursuing the immediate satisfaction of one’s desires. If this is so, it is a profound contribution to philosophical inquiry. It is puzzling, then, that Sidgwick does not appear in Witcraft.
The explanation must be Rée’s rejection of a thematic history of philosophy. Rather than trace a range of recurring questions, he insists that philosophers have been engaged in disrupting the discourse of their time and place. The work of Friedrich Nietzsche, which Rée considers by way of its influence on semi-forgotten writers in English such as the theorist of “degeneration” Max Nordau and the sexologist Havelock Ellis, fits that description. But philosophers who thought of themselves as disrupting prevailing ways of thinking and speaking had different views of why they did so. Nietzsche believed he was promoting a revolutionary shift in human values, whereas Wittgenstein more modestly claimed only to be freeing thinking from the undue influence of past philosophies. Rée does not spell out his own view of the purposes served by the disruptive inquiry he thinks is central to philosophy.
On top of lacking any clear criteria for examining some philosophers and not others, Rée’s nonthematic history can blunt perception of the philosophers who are selected for inclusion. Rightly, he features Bertrand Russell as one of the last century’s most interesting and influential philosophers. But he says little of Russell’s deep engagement with mysticism in the period leading up to his encounter with Wittgenstein. Not only did Russell produce the well-known volume of essays Mysticism and Logic (1914), cited in passing by Rée; he wrote an unpublished short novel, The Perplexities of John Forstice (1912), clearly autobiographical in inspiration, about the search for mystical illumination. Perhaps more damagingly, Rée omits to consider how Russell’s views on ethics changed fundamentally as he turned away from this quest.
Under the influence of G.E. Moore, Russell had come to regard mathematics as Plato did: as a discipline dealing with timeless realities. In Rée’s description of Russell’s view, the study of mathematics “liberates its votaries from ‘real life,’ ‘human passions’ and ‘the pitiful facts of nature’ and leads them into a realm of ‘pure reason.’” Also under Moore’s influence, Russell viewed ethics in a Platonic fashion, as being concerned with “non-natural qualities” of goodness and rightness that exist independently of human judgment. However, Russell was persuaded by the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, who, commenting on Russell’s “new scholasticism” in Winds of Doctrine (1913), wrote that values were not timeless Platonic verities but the needs and wants of living organisms, and in that sense subjective. This was a reversal on a question that had occupied philosophers since the late fifth century bc, when Socrates rejected arguments, put forth by Callicles and Thrasymachus in Plato’s dialogues, that morality serves self-interest and is ultimately a matter of subjective preference. But Rée does not discuss Russell’s change of mind, and Santayana does not appear in the book.
A nonthematic history of philosophy is hard to sustain. Philosophers—not only in Western traditions, but wherever the questions with which they deal have been asked—have nearly always presented their answers by referencing other philosophers. Rée is resistant to the idea of perennial philosophical questions because he associates it with the Hegelian notion that philosophers are architects engaged in the construction of a grand edifice of ideas. But one can recognize enduring questions in philosophy without thinking they are ever conclusively resolved. Hegel’s beautifully constructed building is a systematically misleading ideal. Yet without some recognition of philosophy as having a definite subject matter, a history of the subject can only resemble a folly, full of unexpected doors and labyrinthine passageways, leading nowhere.
March 25, 2021
A Gift for the Long Game
The Emergency Everywhere
On Tibetan cosmography, see David Shulman, “Buddhist Baedekers,” The New York Review, March 24, 2020. ↩
See James Maffie’s seminal study Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion (University Press of Colorado, 2014). ↩
For more on Wollstonecraft, see Miranda Seymour, “Promethean Women,” The New York Review, February 25, 2021. ↩