Jonathan B's Reviews > The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance

The Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb
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May 17, 2010

it was ok
bookshelves: philosophy
Read from May 14 to 25, 2010 — I own a copy

He makes some shallow and, I think, unnecessary criticisms of religion throughout the book, even when it seems like a side track.

For example, the implication that Milesian philosophers are somehow more rational for trying to explain things via naturalism seems absurd. Why should the reader think a naturalistic explanation is more rational than an agential one? This criticism seems more poignant since the Milesian theories often seem even more absurd than some of the agential theories they would have had access to.

Gottlieb also implies that these naturalistic explanations are superior than the overly complex and mysterious godidit explanations. But how is "waterdidit" simpler and less mysterious? Or how about undefined-substance-did-it??

These sort of quick surface-level criticisms of religion and, specifically, Christianity, are present throughout the book.

His treatment of the Greeks is pretty good. It would be great, but his bias against any form of supernaturalism leads him to take a revisionist approach towards the supernaturalism that was present in Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and virtually every other thinker he covers.

Of course, according to Gottlieb, respectable minds like Socrates and Plato couldn't have seriously entertained ideas about gods and being commissioned by gods. After all, that would mean they were superstitious "goddidit" types, and we know they were too smart for that sort of thing. So when we read anything in their writings about gods or the supernatural, we have to realize that they didn't really mean any of that. Of course, that's absurd and one could apply Gottlieb's methodology to also try and prove that Moses or any of the other biblical authors didn't really believe in God.

His treatment of Medieval philosophy is horrible. His attitude towards it is summed up in the following: "Given limited time and space, most medieval philosophy is best left to slumber in its arguably dark and undeniably thorny forrest" (348). Although he does admit that "to imply that the best minds of the medieval West had produced nothing of any 'substance or profit' was going too far" (ibid; said in references to other criticisms of medieval philosophy).

Basically, I think Gottlieb sees the "dream of reason" dying in the medieval era. It was only fully alive with those Greeks who took a naturalistic view of the world, but this is partly just wishful thinking on Gottlieb's part. There was no naturalism in any of the thinkers that he covers, at least not in the modern sense of the word. And why did philosophy start to die off? Well because virtually all of the prominent philosophers from then on were Christian, supernaturalist godidit types. For example, "In one sense, Augustine turned back the clock of intellectual history" (383). Why? Because he believed in stories about God (384).

One begins to suspect that for Gottlieb the history of "the dream of reason" is a history of the battle between faith and reason. But this wouldn't be too fair. Gottlieb doesn't seem to consciously set out to write the book in this way. He's no Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens. Rather, he simply has a prejudice against religion and he lets that come out clearly in his evaluative remarks throughout the book.

I guess I can't fault him too much for that. He has every right to give his evaluations of the matters and if he thinks religion is the bane of reason he has every right to say so. But I disagree and I don't think his criticisms were very reasonable.

I also didn't like the note format. There were not endnote markings in the book (and I prefer footnotes) and aside from his block-quotes, it was very hard to tell when he was paraphrasing something a philosopher said or whether this was just his own spin on the philosopher's words. And given his clear bias, it would be nice to distinguish the two.

If he treated the medieval philosophers with the same respect that he treated the Greeks and if he had toned down the surface level shots at religion, I would have given the book at least 4 stars. I would like to give it at least 2 1/2, since I thought it was more than just "okay," but that option isn't available.
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John Martindale Yup, I noticed the same thing. I thought his treatment of the Greek to be excellent, but he sure did not make any effort to hide his atheistic bias.

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