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A magnificent recapping of the history of philosophy, as it stands apart from theology, in the classic model of Bertrand Russell, as “an invitation and an entrance.”

In the hands of British scholar and journalist Grayling (Master/New Coll. of the Humanities; Democracy and Its Crisis, 2018, etc.), it is a delight to engage in this sweeping history of the great thinkers throughout the ages, from pre-Socratics to the present. Moreover, in the last section of the book, the author offers a considerably shorter yet fair introduction to Indian, Chinese, Arabic-Persian, and African philosophy (hindered only by the “veil” of language, yet he ends with a challenge to readers to address this surmountable difficulty). The attempt to “make sense of things” has plagued humanity for centuries and has also led to its great advances, especially the “rise of modern thought” in terms of empiricism and rationalism as they gained momentum from the 17th century. These great forces unharnessed philosophy from the strictures of religion, culminating in the essential concept, particularly by Immanuel Kant and his fellow Enlightenment thinkers, that the “autonomy” of man meant “self-government, independence of thought, and possession of the right and the responsibility to make choices about one’s own life.” As Grayling notes, this is “essential to the life worth living,” a matter dear to the very “first” philosophers: Thales, who relied on observation and reason to “know thyself,” and Socrates, for whom the first great question was how to live. As he moves into the more recondite reaches of “analytic” and language philosophy of the 20th century, the author mostly keeps the narrative from becoming overly academic. Unfortunately, there is a disturbing lack of women philosophers across Grayling’s 2,500-year survey, even under the cursory rubric of “feminist philosophy.” The author’s approach is especially refreshing due to his acknowledgement that few philosophers were truly unique (even Buddha or Confucius); often what was required for lasting significance was a kind of luck and a stable of devoted followers.

Despite its glaring absence of women philosophers, Grayling’s accessible omnibus will provide a steppingstone for the student or novice.

Pub Date: Nov. 5th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-9848-7874-8
Page count: 640pp
Publisher: Penguin Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2019


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