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*The* Story of Philosophy?

First appeared
Tuesday, 18 September 2012


The Story of Philosophy: A History of Western Thought 

James Garvey and Jeremy Stangroom

(Quercus, 2012)


If you’re a denizen of that vague economic, political and geographical entity known as “the global South”, you may take affront at the notion implied by the combination of this book’s title and subtitle. Philosophy is not the sole preserve of the West, and its story cannot be adequately narrated from an exclusively Western perspective. What about Confucius and Lao-Tzu? What about Zoroaster and the Buddha and Rabindranath Tagore? What about Frantz Fanon and Leopold Senghor?

Indeed, “Western thought” is itself something of a dubious category, as Garvey and Stangroom’s account bears out. Aristotle, for one, would have been entirely forgotten were it not for his interpreters in central Asia: Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd. These two Islamic philosophers were given Latinate names, Avicenna and Averroes, and appropriated into “Western” traditions. Or take St Augustine, who was born and spent most of his life in present-day Algeria; accounts of this central figure in Christian theology tend to stress the incorporation of north Africa into the Roman Empire, but neglect his Berber forebears.

Even if one sets aside such qualms, there are bound to be readers of this book who feel that it lacks a certain thoroughness. In the chapter dedicated to Idealism, for instance, Kant and Hegel feature prominently – but there is no place for one of their boldest critics, Schopenhauer, who also drew heavily on Buddhist and Hindu philosophers. Nor is the response to Hegel by anti-colonial or post-colonial writers and thinkers given any consideration.

Fair enough, insofar as the book is presented as a (limited) history of Western thought; Garvey and Stangroom do not claim to be comprehensive. This volume should not, however, be called The story of philosophy.

Enough griping. It seems pedantic, even churlish, to fuss about the title and about what is not included when the actual contents are rich and eminently readable. The authors are skilled narrators – and the tale they tell is an engaging, complex and intellectually nuanced one. It is presented in novelistic terms: “To get a handle on the story of philosophy,” we read in the introduction, “you need at least a little character development, a few plot twists, a murder, philosophers fleeing for their lives, others dying in obscurity, great projects doomed to failure, unlikely triumphs, accidental discoveries, disastrous love affairs, geniuses, idiots, monks, vagabonds and a demented German or two.”

A promise is made, and kept: this is no dry account. It comprises episodes both inspiring and mundane, both earth-shattering and quite ordinary, both sublime and ridiculous – a fair summary, after all, of the philosophical project over the course of three or four millennia. Garvey and Stangroom are keen not to sound too didactic or condescending in presenting this body of knowledge. At times the tone is casual, almost chatty, even when elucidating complicated philosophical arguments.

In making the material accessible, the authors are by no means attempting something radical; they do not wish to revise the history of philosophy, to challenge its orthodoxies or undermine the established canon of philosophical figures and schools. In fact, these are reinscribed, occasionally through unfortunate cliché: the ancient “Greek miracle”, for example, is attributed to the “mysterious flash of genius” in “a handful of thinkers” who commenced “humanity’s long stumble out of darkness into the light of reason”.

Such indulgences notwithstanding, this is an accomplished, carefully structured and beautifully packaged story. It manages to combine chronological survey and thematic overview; it incorporates insightful digressions and biographical-historical embellishments; it entertains the reader’s eye with bold design and striking images. Perhaps, then, the title can be forgiven.



Comments (1)

  • 19 October 2012 at 14:15 |

    A neat review, as usual, and one that’s eminently readable: tight, terse and tactful. I always glean something new from your opinions, not to mention the content, and this time you’ve nudged me into buying the book too. Thank you.

    Meanwhile, please, allow a brief indulgence. To my mind "western thought" refers to the ideas that shaped transatlantic societies (predominantly in Europe and America) and not, per se, to the sources from which these ideas may have sprung (pagan, classical or oriental). "Western thought" is merely a descriptive term, not an analytical reference, and therefore doesn’t preclude the inspiration and infiltration of ideas from other cultures—including thinkers and writers from below the tropics.

    However, the notion of “the global South” is somewhat more troublesome. For me there is no shared cultural or philosophical tradition; no overlapping history; no shared “miracle” or “flash of genius” to write home about. Except for a burly rugby tradition. Perhaps, then, this sport should be forgiven too?

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