Jon Stout's Reviews > The Story of Philosophy

The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant
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Jan 07, 2011

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bookshelves: philosophy
Recommended to Jon by: Bob Nichols
Recommended for: biographers and historians
Read in January, 2011

When Will Durant gives The Story of Philosophy, he really does tell a story. His discussion of a dozen or so great philosophers is biographical and historical more than philosophical. He gives an impressionistic account of what the philosophers were like, rather than taking seriously what they said. In a way, this approach is valuable, because philosophy can be dry, and it helps to have emotional hooks to make us care what the philosopher says. It’s also valuable, for reasons not philosophical, to know the impact a philosopher had on his age historically, and the impact the age had on the philosopher biographically.

An example would be Durant’s portrayal of Aristotle as an aristocrat, a correct portrayal which has nothing to do with the merits of Aristotle’s philosophy. That Aristotle advocated an ethics of moderation, in which courage is midway between cowardice and foolhardiness, is no doubt the attitude of an Athenian aristocrat, but is not better or worse for that. What is ignored is how moderation fits into Aristotle’s more general approach of considering how an organism functions to fulfill its purpose.

Another example would be Durant’s treatment of Voltaire. I had not been much aware of Voltaire as a philosopher, except for his democratic and anti-clerical sentiments. But Durant discusses how he fit into the French Revolution, how he both shaped and was shaped by the ferment of his day. Thus Durant makes Voltaire into a person for me, but without any philosophical position that endures in my mind.

Yet the philosophical groupie in me found stories about which to be excited. When Durand says, “When Bertrand Russell spoke at Columbia University in 1914, he looked like…” and “And then seeing him again, ten years later, …” one realizes that Durant, who studied and taught at Columbia, is reporting his personal experiences. Never mind that he describes Russell’s philosophical efforts as “the rejection of axioms” which is misleading. He describes Russell’s pacifism in the inspiring detail which it deserves.

When Durant describes John Dewey, one footnote refers to “class lectures” of Sept. 29, 1924. It takes a moment to realize that Durant is reporting as a student in one of Dewey’s classes. How exciting it must have been to feel oneself present at the culmination of “the story of philosophy.”

The Story of Philosophy gave me a lot to be enthusiastic about, even when I groused at the details. The story of philosophy is fascinating, even if philosophy is not a story.
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message 1: by Bob (new)

Bob Nichols Good review, except for the statement, "He gives an impressionistic account of what the philosophers were like, rather than taking seriously what they said." In my view, this book is primarily a serious look at the philosophers that he selected for this "story" and the respective pros and cons of their ideas from Durant's perspective. The biographical-type information he provides adds a human interest dimension, but it only performs the role of a supporting cast and, in some cases, may shed some light as to why they thought as they did. For example, Schopenhauer was a negative person and his philosophy is often characterized as such. Are thinkers pure, divorced from their genes and experience? Given that Durant is a historian, he probably tends to see some influence here.

Everyone cuts into philosophy their own way. Durant does it in a way to make this often dense, obtuse, jargon-laden, complex subject matter accessible to those who have had limited or no exposure to philosophy and, therefore, helps those who might look to it for relevance and meaning. The alternative is to confine philosophy to an in-bred intellectual community who communicate only with themselves. Everyone who thinks and writes about philosophy or, as in Durant's case,who writes about what other philosophers have said, has their own story of philosophy. In this regard, "A story of philosophy" would have been a preferred title.

message 2: by Jon (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jon Stout I pretty much agree with everything you said. I think Durant is primarily a historian. In the quote of mine that you didn't like, I think I was trying to draw attention to the fact that Durant doesn't get in there and say, "Gee, is this really true?" Instead he seems more detached, and says something like, "Schopenhauer was too pessimistic for his age." But that's OK. Like you, I think it is important to make philosophy accessible, and also to show that philosophy does not exist in a vacuum but grows out of the lives of real human beings.

message 3: by Bob (new)

Bob Nichols O.k., then, we're good. In his histories, he not only relates events, he also draws "lessons" from history in the form of fairly regular, non-tedious one-liners that are consistent and that, cummulatively I think, provide a "systematic" view of how he sees the world operate. That raises a question whether a historian like that is also a philosopher.

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