A New History of Western Philosophy

by Anthony Kenny


Ancient Philosophy

If you're like me, then you probably have a vague grasp of ancient philosophy. You know of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. You might even recall some of their biography, or tentative outlines of portions of their philosophy from half-remembered reading assignments. You know of Zeno, but mostly just his paradoxes. A moment's thought and you might recall the name of Cicero, or Lucretius, or Democritus, but you might struggle to articulate something specific to associate with them.

The obvious remedy to the deficit is to read the works of these philosophers. However, these are no easy task. They are voluminous, abstract, often incomprehensible, and sometimes just utterly wrong. Even if you were to attempt it, you'd need some kind of guide to even keep you straight about who goes where, who is worth reading, and what the major pitfalls are in trying to read any translation of the works of ancient philosophers.

Anthony Kenny could be that guide. This New History of Western Philosophy is a great idea, so far well executed by an engaging author. There are two major strokes. Firstly, a chronology covering philosophy at a high level from Thales to Augustine, diving into some detail at points to explain the connection between influences and to stress significant developments. This is presented in the first two chapters, from which I extracted the most value. The remaining eight are topical treatments of e.g. logic, ethics, metaphysics, going into more detail about the nuances of arguments put forward by major contributors, accompanied by Kenny's own challenges and clarifications.

There were a few examples of the typical problem with philosophical texts -- cases where the author says something obviously is or isn't something else without explanation, where the student is left to frown in puzzlement. Thankfully, these were mostly rare and non-central. The use of a consistent single voice, rather than an assortment of experts with clashing styles and terminology, makes for a smooth and pleasant reading experience, and Kenny's quiet humour is something to be appreciated.

Medieval Philosophy

Something of a mixed review, here. I found the second book in Kenny's ambitious series to be less impressive than the first, certainly, but I can't rule out that the main reasons for this were largely out of the author's control. The philosophy of the medieval period itself seems to be at fault, more than anything else, for how uninteresting I find vast portions of the book.

Kenny does anticipate some of this in his introduction, although he makes what I think are finally unjustified efforts to defend the period. The majority of the philosophy expounded upon does seem to be an offshoot of theology or apologetics for the Christian faith, and what thought there is of value amongst that seems to be fundamentally bankrupted by having to share its space with dogma. The one area where this might not be said to apply is that of logic, where scholastic thinkers made some strides to pull apart purely linguistic confusions inherent in the still confused systems of deduction -- but this topic was painful to read for another reason, in that so much of the analysis seems to flounder painfully on the shores of clarity, and without the charm similar flaws had in the texts of the ancients. Other areas were hopeless. The less said about the ethics of the Christian philosophers, the better.

Moving the problems with the content aside, with some difficulty, I think there is still a justified criticism of the way Kenny reports on it, in comparison to the first volume. The chronological section of the first volume seemed like an edifying trip through the history of philosophy, but the same section of this volume felt less rewarding -- too crowded with argumentative figures who did not flourish with the same detail as the ancients. Several times I felt I was told that some development was important, without being given an opportunity to understand the significance for myself. However, I cannot charge that the book was not informative, opening up at least an overview of the period that lets me situate some shards from other reading.

I am conflicted now in my expectations for the further volumes. On one hand, the modern philosophers probably escape the worst of the apologetics and theology, and so my problems with content might be alleviated, but on the other I suspect the cast of characters is going to get much larger, and if Kenny hopes to cover the figures with the same pagecount I might find the descriptions becoming intolerably short and crowded.

The Rise of Modern Philosophy

My concerns from the end of the second volume, that Kenny might struggle with the growing cast of notable historic philosophers, turn out to be unfounded. His history has here zoomed out to some degree, talking at times of general critical reception, but on the whole the story still hangs together. The change in material from the scholastics is extremely welcome, too, and makes the reading a lot more interesting. The arrival of modern political philosophy is particularly appreciated, as it is one of my favourite areas.

My favourite subject appears to be Hobbes, somewhat unexpectedly. I know of him almost entirely for Leviathan, and had never previously realised that he was the originator of the compatabilist solution to the free will debate, which has always seemed so clear a solution since I first heard it explained. Kenny covers his attitude on a few other topics, where he sounds shockingly modern. In fact, I found myself quite impressed by all the British philosophers of this period -- Hobbes, Locke and Hume -- in a way that a lot of the continentals left me cold. Possibly the best of the latter was Spinoza, whose metaphysics seems to be wrong, but in an appealingly consistent manner. Hume is also tortured, but Kenny makes the case that he was working in an impoverished background. I would much rather salute Hume than Kant, who so relied on him.

The early modern period seems to be the exciting bit of philosophy's history, with God no longer being threaded into every consideration, and some genuinely novel thoughts being developed. On this grounding, I am cautiously optimistic about the final volume.

Philosophy in the Modern World

Not a resounding finish to Kenny's series, but nonetheless maintains the valuable rate of compression which I was looking for in reading this history of philosophy. Here, more than in his earlier sections, I think it can be said that Kenny's survey feels incomplete. The major characters discussed in the first three chapters are not by themselves enough to cover the cast of the 20th century, and we see Kenny reaching out in the topical chapters to reference important modern commentators who are otherwise unacknowledged. The author admitted to uncertainty about where to draw the line for inclusion, and I think some of that uncertainty shows.

This final title changes the tense of the discussion from historical to current, but the tone of the book itself makes no such shift. We do not see any real movement in Kenny for the discussion of what is current in philosophy, or how the field operates -- a few footnotes and allusions here and there are all he spares for truly 'modern' philosophy. I can appreciate keeping the focus on what is historical in 'modern' philosophy, but then the title change is a puzzle. Presumably unrelatedly, in this volume I encountered for the first time some arguments from Kenny himself which seemed highly flawed.