Tasting the Pierian spring

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

– from “An Essay on Man” by Alexander Pope

That’s all very well, Mr Pope, but have you any idea just how much there is to learn?

There’s nothing like walking into a well-stocked bookshop to make one feel inadequate. Everything from Byzantine architecture to microbiology, from macro-economic theory to Icelandic sagas, from theories of linguistics to statistical analysis … well, statistical analysis I do happen to know a bit about: that’s my job after all. But on just about everything else, I am so ignorant that it really is quite embarrassing. It isn’t just a single Pierian spring, it’s many – and there just aren’t enough years in a lifetime to drink deeply out of all these Pierian springs. Dammit, there isn’t even enough time to take a sip from each.

So, against Mr Pope’s excellent advice, I am trying to learn a bit, just a bit, about philosophy. Nothing particularly deep as such: I don’t have that lifetime to spend on it that is required for a deep understanding. But a smattering, at least, so I don’t feel a complete idiot. So next time I come across a mention of Kant’s categorical imperative or whatever, I’ll have at least something of an idea what it means.


So I started recently Sir Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy. Although an introduction to the subject for a layman like myself, it runs to over 1000 pages, but it’s in four self-contained parts – which had previously been published separately – making it quite easy to split the reading into four less intimidating chunks.

I’ll not attempt a review of this: how can I review a book written by an acknowledged expert on a matter on which I am so very ignorant? I mean, I’m hardly in a position to offer a critique Sir Anthony’s interpretation of Aristotelian epistemology, am I? I’m lucky if I know what “epistemology” means, if it comes to that! But I can, at least, report that the very clear, precise and elegant prose is a delight to read. It does, admittedly, exercise the old intellect a bit, but that’s only to be expected given the subject; and given, further, that the author refuses to patronise the reader.

The four parts of the book are: “Ancient Philosophy”, “Medieval Philosophy”, “The Rise of Modern Philosophy”, and “Philosophy in the Modern World”. In each, we are presented with sketches of some of the major philosophers of that era, and of their contributions; and then, chapters dealing with specific themes – e.g. “logic and language”, “physics”, “metaphysics”, and so on. The last chapter of each of the four parts is called “God”, and deals – presumably – with ideas about the divine. I am nearly at the end of the first of these four parts, and the journey so far, though challenging to a novice such as myself, has proved fascinating and enlightening. Rarely have I come across so lucid and so elegantly expressed an exposition of ideas of such complexity.

Of course, it is a question of what one is used to: I am not used to reading on this topic. When I came to the chapter on logic, I found it initially difficult to follow the necessarily precise wording of the various arguments; but after a while, I hit upon the expedient of translating what I was reading into mathematical terminology, and then, everything fell naturally into place. This shouldn’t perhaps be too surprising given my own academic background, but I hadn’t realised till now how much better I understand certain things in the language of mathematics than in even the clearest of English. But where the argument cannot be translated into mathematical terms, I do, I confess, find myself struggling to absorb the arguments, or even the concepts. I can’t remember when was the last time I read a book quite so slowly as this. I should stress, though that the difficulties I am encountering are the difficulties inherent in the subject, and in no way a reflection on the quality of the writing.

I’ll give this book a rest after finishing the first part, and move on to a few other things before returning to the next part – “Medieval Philosophy”. But return to this I certainly shall. Although I am in no position to offer a review of it, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who, like me, needs an introduction to the subject, but who does not like the idea of being patronised. Anthony Kenny’s writing is a model of lucidity, and an object lesson in how even the most abstruse of ideas can be expressed clearly, with charm and with elegance.


8 responses to this post.

  1. With four big parts this looks to be a little more then a basic introduction!

    As someone who sometimes bumbles through philosophical works and even attempts some backyard interpretation of sorts I would do really well to read something like this.


    • Hello Brian, given thatthere has bene more commentary on Aristotle alone than can be read within a single lifetime, covering all of classical philosophy – the pre-Socratics,Socrates & Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics & the Epicuearns, etc etc – in a mere 250 pages can’t be anything other than relatively basic! However – this is just teh right level for me, I think!


  2. Really good review. I want to get this book now. I’m like you. I’ve downloaded (for free-yay!) onto my Kindle books by Kant, Descartes, and Pope because I hear them referred to so often. I’m currently reading Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. I have to admit that it’s pretty interesting although I have to concentrate to realize what he’s getting at.


    • Hello Sharon, I’m afraid I tend to get intimidated by the primary texts of the likes of Kant, Hume, etc. I did read Plato’s Republic some years ago, but, unaware as I was of the background of the work, I think I missed out on much. Every now and then, I go to the bookshops and see the impressive volumes of the Complete Dialogues of Plato, or of the works of Aristotle, and I think to myself that surely, as an educated person, I should now at least something of all this? It really is quite shameful that I don’t!

      I’d certainly recommend this book. It is just what an introduction to a complex subject should be!
      All the best, Himadri


  3. Posted by Erika W. on March 11, 2013 at 9:11 am

    I recommend, with reservations, Jostein Gaarder’s “Sophie’s World”. Reservations because it is very quirky and also the combination of a young adult’s novel with the history of philosophy irritated a great many readers, although not me.

    I have read it twice now and have more and more respect for it.


    • Hello Erika, I have seen this book and have browsed through it. From what I have seen of this, the criticisms made of this book do seem off the mark. Inevitably, when complex ideas are introduced to children, there needs to be some level of simplification, but this book seemed to do it very well. And its quirkiness seems an attractive feature rather than otherwise.


  4. Posted by alan on March 24, 2013 at 12:35 am

    My limited acquaintance with anglophone philosophers suggests to me that a lot of them would resist the notion that there was any history to ideas, and, for extreme example, would take the view that Aristotle’s views on women were still worth discussing. Not because of the argument from authority that Aristotle had these views, but because they would argue that current social norms are irrelevant to your evaluation of them.
    So, I reckon that the more austere of them would resist projects like Anthony Kenny’s.
    Personally, I’m not capable of that kind of detachment.


    • Surely it is worth knowing what Aristotle thought irrespective of whether or not they are consistent with current social norms.

      Kenny is presenting thought from different eras, but I don’t think he is necessarily suggesting that the work of later philosophers necessarily supersee the work of earlier. Indeed, he says quite the opposite. Of course, few would subsribe to Aristotle’s views on women or on slaves (or, for that matter, to many of his ideas on physics); nonetheless, Western philosophy would be incomprehensible without at least some understanding of teh likes of Plato or of Aristotle.


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