The Story of Philosophy by James Garvey, Jeremy Stangroom

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Using simple language and a dash of contextual wit, James Garvey and Jeremy Stangroom take the reader on a whirlwind tour of the evolution, development and future of Western philosophy. It sure is an arduous endeavour to traverse back 2000 years in time to flesh out the origins, premise and causes that triggered the thinking membranes of and induced the trait of curiosity in a few extremely enthusiastic and optimistic individuals. That beacon of curiosity has been passed down in a remarkably unbroken chain where on the way it has been refined, altered, remodeled and resurrected in a myriad number of ways. The book is neatly divided into chronological sections with each section highlighting a phase of thought in sequential fashion. However the reader is not constrained or compelled to read the book in the order of its contents. Any Chapter can be read in preference to any other.

While the philosophical musings of the quintessential Socrates, the ubiquitous Plato and the inevitable Aristotle are the usual and invariable suspects, we are also treated to a philosophical diet of more abstruse and obscure concepts and conundrums pioneered by Hegel, Derrida, Kant, Russell and the like. While some of the messages are easily to comprehend, there are a few notions which are so esoteric that they represent a test of both patience and sanity. For example the ontological arguments of Anselm of Canterbury defending the existence of God are so convoluted that one comes perilously close to tearing one’s hair out in sheer frustration and exasperation. Consider the following astounding sentence:

“[Even a] fool, when he hears of … a being than which nothing greater can be conceived … understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding.… And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.… Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.”

If you feel that the aforementioned passage is a mistaken or a sadistic agglomeration of balderdash and malarkey, you will be surprised to note that there are equally esoteric criticisms also against its logic! However Garvey and Stangroom, (thankfully for a reader who is not either an intentional or accidental initiate into philosophy) handhold the perplexed soul through some stormy waters onto the safer confines of dry land.

While the innumerable theories, arguments and counter arguments might seem a real handful and pose a veritable challenge in so far as assimilation and absorption is concerned, on the whole for a person who is very keen to get a whiff of what philosophy is all about, “The Story of Philosophy” provides a refreshing and riveting flavour.

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