Saturday, January 7, 2017

Book Review: The Dream of Reason

The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy From the Greeks to the Renaissance
Anthony Gottlieb

The Dream of Reason is a very good, very readable, non-technical overview of the mainstream of Western philosophy. It doesn't contain anything that would surprise a student of the field, and it doesn't really invite the reader to get to grips with the really hard problems. It does, however, provide a very readable (and sometimes very witty) overview over who the main thinkers of antiquity were, what they thought, and especially how their thoughts related to one another. 

It's fairly evident that Gottlieb is more an Aristotelian than a Platonist. He tries to be fair, but he obviously likes Aristotle--with his ideas of carefully observing nature, as opposed to abstract reasoning about the true nature of things--a little bit better. A consequence of this is that he goes out of his way to absolve Aristotle of the various charges leveled against him by later critics. (Really, he's fairly generous to most of his subjects; he focuses more on what they got right, or at least what they did right, than on their numerous mistakes.) That's fine by me.

I wouldn't have minded a little more detail about the post-Aristotelian schools. The Middle Ages, as well, get decidedly (and undeservedly) short shrift; here I think Gottlieb is leaning too much on the conventional view of the Church as suppressor of knowledge. Overall, however, this is a really good read for anyone who wants to learn about the subject. It doesn't demand any specialist knowledge, nor does it descend into the pedantry or tortured prose that characterizes a lot of philosophical writing. If it's not quite the material of a popular best-seller, it's as close as a book of this sort is likely to get.

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