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.