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Anthony Gottlieb

A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance

1. Philosophy—History

The Dream of Reason- A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (New Edition)
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The Dream of Reason- A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (New Edition)
Book Details
 578 p
 File Size 
 1,889 KB
 File Type
 PDF format
 978-0-393-35298-6 pbk
 978-0-393-35422-5 (e-book)
 2016, 2000 by Anthony Gottlieb
 First American edition 2000   

The last thing I expected to find when I began work on this book, many years
ago, is that there is no such thing as philosophy. Yet that, more or less, is what I
did find, and it explained a lot. Determined to forget what I thought I knew, I set
out to look at the writings of those from the past 2,600 years who are regarded as
the great philosophers of the West. My aim (politely described by friends as
‘ambitious’ when they often meant ‘mad’) was to approach the story of
philosophy as a journalist ought to: to rely only on primary sources, wherever
they still existed; to question everything that had become conventional wisdom;
and, above all, to try and explain it all as clearly as I could.
As I ploughed through the diverse cast of characters from the fifth and sixth
centuries BC who are traditionally lumped together as philosophers, through
Socrates, Plato, Aristotle (often bracketed as a trio, but were there ever three
more different men?), on to the intellectual therapists of Hellenistic times,
through the mystics and occultists of late antiquity, to the first Christian thinkers,
the logic-obsessed monks of the early Middle Ages, medieval scientists and
theologians, Renaissance magicians, visionaries, grammarians and engineers and
on to the beginnings of modern times, the fabric of ‘philosophy’—supposedly
the oldest of subjects—unravelled before my eyes. Traditional histories, which
seek to distinguish it from the physical, mathematical and social sciences, and
from the humanities, had drastically over-simplified, I concluded. It was just not
possible to confine what is usually referred to as ‘philosophy’ to a single subject
that can be placed neatly on the academic map.
One reason for this is that the place-names on such maps tend to change. In
the Middle Ages, for instance, ‘philosophy’ covered practically every branch of
theoretical knowledge that did not come under theology. Newton’s subject was
‘natural philosophy’, a term that was still widely used in the first half of the
nineteenth century to cover most of what we now regard as science and some of
what we now think of as philosophy. What has been called philosophical
thinking is naturally inclined to stray across conventional boundaries. Its
wanderlust and insatiable curiosity have often given birth to new areas of
thought, which again complicates the task of map-drawing. As we shall see in
the first chapter, Western science was created when a few Greek thinkers—those
who are known as the first ‘philosophers’—were perverse enough to ignore the
usual talk of gods and to look instead for natural causes of events. Much later on,
psychology, sociology and economics came about largely from the work of
people who at the time were called philosophers. And the same process of
creation continues today. Computer languages, for example, stem from what was
long regarded as the most tedious invention of philosophers, namely formal
logic. A small but typical example of how ‘philosophy’ sends out new shoots is
to be found in the case of Georg Cantor, a nineteenth-century German
mathematician. His research on the subject of infinity was at first written off by
his scientific colleagues as mere ‘philosophy’ because it seemed so bizarre,
abstract and pointless. Now it is taught in schools under the name of set-theory.
The fact is that the history of philosophy is more the history of a sharply
inquisitive cast of mind than the history of a sharply defined discipline. The
traditional image of it as a sort of meditative science of pure thought, strangely
cut off from other subjects, is largely a trick of the historical light. The illusion is
created by the way we look at the past, and in particular by the way in which
knowledge tends to be labelled, chopped up and re-labelled. Philosophical work
is regularly spirited away and adopted by other disciplines. Yesterday’s moral
philosophy becomes tomorrow’s jurisprudence or welfare economics;
yesterday’s philosophy of mind becomes tomorrow’s cognitive science. And the
road runs in both directions: new inquiries in other disciplines prompt new
questions for the philosophically curious. Tomorrow’s economics will be meat
for the moral philosophers of the day after. One effect of these shifting
boundaries is that philosophical thinking can easily seem to be unusually useless,
even for an intellectual enterprise. This is largely because any corner of it that
comes generally to be regarded as useful soon ceases to be called philosophy.
Hence the illusory appearance that philosophers never make progress.
It is said that the psychologist William James once described philosophy as
‘a peculiarly stubborn effort to think clearly’. This is a rather dry definition, but
is more nearly right than any other I know. True, clarity is not exactly the first
thing that comes to mind when most people think of philosophy. There is no
denying that philosophers’ attempts to think clearly have often rudely backfired.
(Any subject that is responsible for producing Heidegger, for example, owes the
world an apology.) Still, William James was right to describe philosophy as he
did. Even the darkest of its practitioners are struggling to make sense of things,
and it is this effort that makes them philosophers. Sometimes the effort does not
pay off, but often it does.
To call philosophical thinking ‘stubborn’ was particularly apt. Bertrand
Russell once described it as ‘unusually obstinate’. For the one thing that marks it
off from other sorts of thinking is its unwillingness to accept conventional
answers, even when it seems perverse not to do so from a practical point of view.
That is why philosophers often make such excellent figures of fun. The earliest
Greek historians of philosophy understood this better than we do today, for their
books were peppered with ludicrous anecdotes, some of which may actually
have been true and most of which are very much to the point even if they were
made up. To disapprove of such lampoons of the eminently lampoonable is to
miss the joke at the heart of philosophy. Philosophers have regularly cocked an
eyebrow at what passes for the common sense of the time; the punch line comes
later, when it is ‘common sense’ that turns out to have been uncommonly
confused. Sometimes the joke goes wrong, of course, and it is the philosopher
who ends up looking foolish, but that risk comes with the job.
The attempt to push rational inquiry obstinately to its limits is bound often to
fail, and then the dream of reason which motivates philosophical thinking seems
merely a mirage. At other times, though, it succeeds magnificently, and the
dream is revealed as a fruitful inspiration. This book tries to show both sides of
the story of this dream of reason, from the sixth century BC to the Renaissance.
A second volume, The Dream of Enlightenment, continues the tale from
Descartes to the French Revolution.

In this new edition of The Dream of Reason, the last chapter of the original
edition has been extensively revised and divided into two chapters. A handful of
small changes have been made elsewhere.

Table of Contents

1. The Archetypes: the Milesians
2. The Harmony of the World: the Pythagoreans
3. The Man Who Searched for Himself: Heraclitus
4. The Truth About Nothing: Parmenides
5. The Ways of Paradox: Zeno
6. Love and Strife: Empedocles
7. Mind and Matter: Anaxagoras
8. He Who Laughs Last: Democritus
9. Opening Pandora’s Box: the Sophists
10. Philosophy’s Martyr: Socrates and the Socratics
11. The Republic of Reason: Plato
12. The Master of Those Who Know: Aristotle
13. Three Roads to Tranquillity: Epicureans, Stoics and Sceptics
14. The Haven of Piety: Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages
15. Voyages of Rediscovery: the Renaissance

The Dream of Reason- A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (New Edition)

Further Praise for The Dream of Reason
“Delightfully written. . . . Gottlieb’s book deserves to be the standard historical
introduction for students and general readers.”
“Gottlieb’s The Dream of Reason is a delight. It is written with both wit and
scholarship, providing a wonderful overall picture of Western philosophy up to
the Renaissance.”
“The virtues of this compendium are manifest. It is written with brisk humour.
Lewis Carroll turns up next to Parmenides; Flann O’Brien helps illuminate
Hesiod; Umberto Eco hovers in the Aristotelian wings.”
“Every generation is condemned to reinterpret the past, and condemned to
rephrase the same fundamental questions. This excellent book shows why both
exercises are worthwhile, and how to have a little fun in the process.”
“This superb manual for mental travelers delivers inspiration as well as
consolation. . . . It is wonderfully lucid, tactfully instructive and elegantly
written. . . . It ends tantalizingly, with the arrival of Descartes and the advent of
modern philosophy, which Gottlieb will tackle in a second volume. I can’t wait.”
“Here is a journalist’s book about half the history of philosophy, and a lively
thing it is too. Better informed than some philosophers’ books, it’s popular
philosophy but not pop philosophy . . . when his volume two arrives, it will
definitely have me as a reader.”
“When I was young I burrowed for days in an orgy of delight and discovery
through Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. Later on the same
thing happened with A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic. Gottlieb’s
wonderful survey not only extends the horizons of my own present knowledge,
but brings back the excitement of both of those early excursions into the
philosophical world—the world of knowing and of learning.”
“Gottlieb cuts to what is most interesting and rewarding in a philosopher’s
thought. . . . If the second volume is of the same standard, then the two will be
the best history of philosophy since Bertrand Russell’s.”
“A very striking merit of the book is the way in which it is not just a parade of
conclusions, as short histories of philosophy often turn out to be, but an array of
lucidly presented arguments. . . . It takes nothing for granted about its readers’
knowledge and credits them only with literacy and intelligence.”
“Few will fail to be informed and even fewer will be bored.”
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