On our bookshelves (Pt 1)

hsitory of philosophy

Booking under: Keith

In case you wondered, we also read other books besides Designing Your Life and The Happiness Project. As amateur bookworms, we enjoy diving into a good book and digesting ideas from great writers and thinkers.

This week, we’re taking a break from DYL and taking a look at one of my favorite books, A New History of Western Philosophy by Sir Anthony Kenny.

What’s the book about?

humanism and reform

The book places philosophical developments within historical context. Also: the Vatican frescoes are beautiful!

As the title suggests, the book is a chronological and topical history of western philosophy, from Thales of Miletus (c. 620 B.C.E.—c. 546 B.C.E.) to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Comprising of four parts, the book covers philosophy in the ancient world, the middle ages, the late 15th-18th centuries, and the 20th century.

While that may sound pretty dry and uninteresting to most people, I love how the book shows philosophy is central to other disciplines. Indeed, the book can be viewed as an intellectual history and not just a “pure” history of philosophy.

How did philosophy begin? How did the natural sciences branch off from philosophy? And from what time did economics and psychology emerge to become independent subjects? The book expertly addresses these questions and more.

What are your favorite parts of the book?

ancient map

Another useful feature of the book is the maps of the ancient world. Can you tell what the modern countries are?

Covering a span of 2500 years, it’s natural that some parts of the book will appeal to me more than others. In particular, I love the bits on David Hume (my favorite philosopher) and also enjoy reading about the philosophers who preceded and followed him (e.g. Isaac Newton and Immanuel Kant, respectively). Reading about these thinkers chronologically allows me to understand the context of Hume’s thought better, helps me see the bigger picture of how science and philosophy developed as related fields, and lets me trace the development of important philosophical questions through time.

But aside from “pure” philosophy, I also value the parts of the book that explain other key religious/intellectual movements throughout history. In Part 1 of the book, I read about how ancient Greek philosophy came to influence ideas in Christianity, and how many of the teachings of Jesus echoed the beliefs of earlier thinkers. For example, Jesus taught his followers not to return an eye for an eye, but so did Socrates centuries before him. Jesus believed in treating others the way you want them to treat you, which, to use a non-western example, was similar to Confucius’ principle of not treating others the way you don’t want to be treated.

Moving to Part 2, I explored the development of Muslim philosophy through sages like al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and al-Ghazali. These overviews have sparked my interest in learning more about Islam, and in an age when it has been manipulated for terror and intimidation, I hope others will learn the truth about this important religion. In Part 3, I revisited some high school physics and economics by reading brief summaries of the work of Newton and Adam Smith (the former an influence and the latter a friend of Hume’s). And in Part 4, I learned about Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which governs the way the animal kingdom has developed through the centuries, and Marx and Engel’s Communism, which many contemporary governments remain committed to (in name but not in practice).


open book

While the length of the book (almost 1,000 pages) and the subject matter may appear intimidating, I believe readers from all walks of life will benefit from reading A New History of Western Philosophy. If you’ve ever wondered “What makes something morally good?”, “Does God exist?”, or any other fundamental question that humans have asked, this book will show you how thinkers throughout time have explored these questions and help you develop your own answers.

Even for those not interested in pure abstract thinking, taking in two-and-a-half-thousand years of human thought from the comfort of your own armchair is a worthwhile endeavour on its own. Sir Anthony Kenny deserves credit for condensing (almost) all of western intellectual thought into an authoritative and readable history. Most recommended!


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