Review: A Little History of Philosophy

In A Little History of Philosophy British philosopher Nigel Warburton summarizes, quite succinctly, the history of Western Philosophy. The book is divided into 40 easy to read and digest chapters covering the major figures and ideas in the history of Western philosophy to present day.

The chapter length is great; I do a lot of my reading on the bus during my morning commute. I was able to read a chapter, make some notes and move on, usually covering 2–4 chapters in a 40 minute bus ride. Warburton does an excellent job at summarizing, often complex, concepts and ideas into terms easy to understand. I don’t come from an academic background in philosophy, so this was a very useful feature for me.

Given the focus on Western philosophy there is no surprise that there is an emphasis on Christianity and discussions around the existence of God. Without getting into my personal beliefs, this left me wanting a bit more exposure to Eastern philosophies. My approach to the question of the  existence of God is that it is a fine question to ask and consider, but ultimately my happiness and flourishing doesn’t rely on it. I see no way to prove one way or the other; therefore it is out of my control and not of concern.

For the most part I found Warburton presented individual philosophies factually and objectively, but I did find traces of bias. Perhaps it’s my preference and knowledge ofStoicism, but the first instance of bias I found was when Warburton describes “Stoic indifference.”

“The state of indifference championed by the Stoics may reduce unhappiness in the face of events we can’t control. But the cost might be that we become cold, heartless, and perhaps even less human.”

Nigel Warburton, A Little History of Philosophy

There are a couple other examples within the chapter on Stoicism I consider to be inaccurate, but I can’t really speak to the rest of the book since this was my first exposure to the majority of the philosophers. Warburton goes on discussing the Stoic belief on the role of emotions:

“We should not just control them, but wherever possible remove them altogether.”

From my understanding of Stoicism we are not to remove emotion; in fact they believe that emotions are a natural, often evolutionary, response. We don’t aim to remove emotions, simply recognize them for what they are and to not allow ourselves to be carried away by them.

“The Stoic ideal was to live like a recluse, away from other people.”

I disagree. There is the notion of stoic philanthropy and cosmopolitanism—we should see ourselves as part of a greater whole. All of humanity is our kin and we should feel a closeness to them. Further to that, the ancient Stoics believed in duty, and often they participated in politics where they would voluntarily, and daily, expose themselves to plenty of situations and people that may trigger these so-called “emotions we must remove.” It’s because of these natural events that Stoics believe we should control them, so we can function at our best and carry our our duty without being carried away by emotions.

In summary, I really enjoyed this book. I’m glad to read alternate perspectives on Stoicism, as well as a great number of other philosophies.  I learned a great deal and feel like I have a more well-rounded sense of philosophy as a result. I don’t intend to simply accept Stoicism as is and as I read it; I question it and explore alternatives. Warburton has every right to add his personal opinion to his own book; so my above points in no way are meant to be negative or detract from A Little History of Philosophy. The book I read was loaned to me by a friend and I intend to get my own copy to add to my library; it’s a great way to cross-train my otherwise fairly narrow view on philosophy.

1 Comment

  1. Mac

    February 24, 2015 at 9:48 am

    Yes. It is certain that Warburton’s bias against stoicism is forefront, for if his support for it had been overwhelming, then he should have to declare himself Stoic and live by its principles and thus change the title of the book!!!! This is certainly a daunting task for the thinker and the critic, as Stoicism requires one to take responsibility for their physical, emotional and spiritual happenstance while in the world. I doubt old Warburton is even capable. Aside from that, the other very interesting comment in this summary is the writer’s search for God. Trying to prove the existence of God is the essence of spiritual beliefs the world over and being comfortable with what that means to ‘us’ is a cornerstone in happiness, which leads to flourishment. The proof is anywhere you decide to look inward, as the Eastern philosophies have always declared. When you are ready to find God, he will be waiting for you. That’s a fact.

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