The History of Philosophy by AC Grayling, review: all the way from Aristotle to Zeno

Vatican fresco The School of Athens, 1509-1511, by Raphael
Vatican fresco The School of Athens, 1509-1511, by Raphael Credit: Getty Images

To write a history of philosophy is as thankless a task as cleaning a house. However thorough the cleaner (or author) has been, what will be commented on is the patch of dust they have missed. And whereas what counts as dirt is fairly obvious, what counts as philosophy is itself a philosophical problem.  A history of science can discuss past scientific concepts either as mistaken attempts to fill explanatory gaps (phlogiston, caloric, the ether) or as place-markers that have been subsequently given content (genes, heat, electricity); as superseded stages on a journey, or fads that are now abandoned.

In philosophy, however, ideas now current make little sense without understanding their origins, these being not only the clue to their meaning, but, usually, concepts that must be freshly reinterpreted themselves. A history of philosophy, therefore, is not so much a charting of that discipline’s past as a reliving and rethinking of it. Dead philosophers need to be discussed as if they were still talking to us, perennial speakers in an ongoing conversation. Yet they must also be treated as products of their own particular eras if anachronism is to be avoided.

The philosopher A C Grayling carries off this unwieldy project with wit and grace, deftly juggling its contradictory problems. Inevitably there will be nit-pickers who enumerate the philosophers and parts of philosophy that he has neglected in his history, or complain that it predictably begins with the ancient Greek Thales in about 600BC (Grayling happily admits he is telling the “orthodox story”). But he manages to pack an extraordinary amount of material into 700 pages, and even to include an extremely useful appendix on logic, as well as chapters on areas of philosophy outside the Anglo-American tradition and often excluded from conventional histories – Continental and Indian, Chinese, Arabic-Persian and African philosophy (though, of course, there will be cavils that each is too short). 

In the intricate density of exegesis and argument, the personal is tellingly interwoven with the theoretical, and Grayling somehow finds room for piquant, illuminating titbits (why monks have tonsures; that the manuscript of Principia Mathematica was so heavy that it had to be pushed to the publishers in a pram; how both the philosopher Quine and the poet T S Eliot, when rereading their respective doctoral theses in old age, were totally baffled by them).  Grayling achieves a judicious balance of presenting philosophers both in their past and present contexts.

From Descartes in the 17th century, distinguishing the mind from anything that occupies space, we glide easily to what that distinction, and its accruing problems, later became – the tantalising mind-body problem – and the ways in which subsequent philosophers have tackled it.  We see Hobbes as a Royalist who fled the republican aftermath of the English Civil War, and who defended absolute monarchy by declaring “self-contradictory” those citizens who rebelled against protective tyranny when they had deliberately sacrificed certain freedoms so as to gain it. But we also get Quentin Skinner’s recent thesis, that Hobbes was countering the view of liberty held by republicans in ancient Rome – which made being free inconsistent with being dependent – instead proposing the notion of freedom as “absence of external constraints”, and introducing a distinction between liberty and power.

Grayling’s exegesis is sharp and colloquial. Having outlined the theory of Parmenides and his pupil Zeno (from the fifth century BC) that reality is necessarily an immutable, eternal and indivisible One, Grayling suggests that their contemporary critics, the atomists, “in effect said, ‘Fine; but why can’t there be infinitely many things with the metaphysical properties of… the One?’” The atomists, Grayling pithily observes, “rebutted Zeno’s argument in effect by accepting it”. In explaining Aristotle’s view of sensation and his notion of “form”, Grayling asks us to imagine Aristotle’s take on picking up a ball: “The feeling of a round object consists in having the form of that object carried to my soul from my hands; I am thus informed of (more accurately, by) the shape of the ball.”

He produces a magnificently succinct, if sometimes breathless, account of the convoluted complexities of recent philosophy of language, and of Confucian shu (reciprocity). Often the reader’s potential puzzle or objection is pre-empted in a dexterous footnote – laying out the different provenances of “is”, or explaining that, although “Agatha” means “good”, there is no “meaning” to the name of any particular person called Agatha. Grayling brilliantly pinpoints the tendency to portray Schopenhauer as a dreary old curmudgeon – invariably using a picture that presents “a grim-looking old man with puffs of white hair sticking up like rabbit’s ears from the back of his otherwise bald head” – whereas his works contain much “humour, insight and compassion”.  This refreshingly unorthodox point is, however, overplayed in calling Schopenhauer “liberal and relaxed” about homosexuality, given that he “explained” it as a deflection of sexual instinct arising in men “after about the age of 54” so as to prevent the procreation of defective children, and (with extraordinarily inclusive offensiveness) compared “nature’s ploy” to the way a fly is decoyed by lilies that smell of rotting flesh to lay its eggs on them, rather than, de rigueur, in a corpse.

The section on Heidegger tackles the difficulty of disassociating his theories from his unrepented membership of the Nazi party, and a footnote mentions the vexed debate on how far Sartre resisted or collaborated in occupied France, but Nietzsche’s raw ambivalences are somewhat misleadingly diluted. After quoting a savage passage from The Anti-Christ exalting “the will to power”, Grayling admits that Nietzsche’s sister, who edited the manuscript, “was able to make good use of such passages, which if misread yield a sinister interpretation indeed”.  But, he hastily adds, so long as we read them in the light of Schopenhauer’s desire to detach ourselves from “will”, they can be seen as, in fact, exhorting us “to strive and to desire, to wish to grow and expand, [which] are worthy things”. Why whitewash Nietzsche? It is churlish, though, to object to what is really just an aspect of the book’s virtues. Grayling exudes great love for his subject, and a desire that readers, philosophers or not, should love it too – a desire that is bound to be amply realised.

The History of Philosophy is published by Viking at £26. To order your copy for £21.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop