The Dream of Enlightenment

Jonathan Ree in The Guardian:

UntitledThere was a time when every self-respecting egghead had to keep up with the latest developments in philosophy; not any more. Today’s intellectuals, if they do not ignore philosophy entirely, can content themselves with reading one or two books about its past. Hundreds of histories of philosophy are available, and they are all much the same: they tell the same basic story, with the same cast of leading characters. Act one: ancient Greek philosophy, where Socrates postulates an ideal world of which our own reality is but a shadow. Act two: modern European philosophy, which begins in the 17th century when René Descartes tried to cast doubt on everything, thus precipitating a civil war between rationalists who thought that knowledge is based on reason, and empiricists who said that it depends on experience. Act three: professional philosophy, in which Immanuel Kant’s investigations into the logic of philosophical disagreement set it on the path to becoming an introverted technical specialism, increasingly subservient to the natural sciences. The details of the plot may be vague but the message is clear: philosophers are very clever, but very stupid too, promising much and delivering little. Philosophy is history, LOL.

Anthony Gottlieb will have none of this. He is on a mission to show that the great dead philosophers have been misunderstood and that they deserve to be taken seriously. “It is because they still have something to say to us,” he says, “that we can easily get these philosophers wrong.” In 2000 he published The Dream of Reason, a brilliant retelling of the story of ancient Greek philosophy which brought out the lasting relevance of Plato’s idea that truth, happiness and virtue are inseparable, while vindicating Aristotle as a serious thinker about nature, art and society. The Dream of Reason is now joined by this much-anticipated sequel, which picks up the story with Descartes and carries it forward to the beginnings of the French Revolution.

More here.