Grayling’s The History of Philosophy, for all its partiality, is a powerful reminder that rationality (based, in its most fundamental form, on the logical inference of conclusion from premise) does indeed have its own character, which is quite different from those of other types of thought. It also has a long history – longer, indeed, than those of Christianity and Islam – and its role in shaping what we all value in human culture has been profound. It is good to be reminded of that; indeed, in these unstable times it may prove to be at our peril that we forget it.
In writing what is more accurately described as a history of MEELS, Grayling has done a commendable job; his book stands up well against Russell’s classic. But the history of philosophy, as Grayling well knows, continues to be written and his efforts will inspire others to try to set the record straight.
The philosopher A C Grayling carries off this unwieldy project with wit and grace, deftly juggling its contradictory problems. Inevitably there will be nit-pickers who enumerate the philosophers and parts of philosophy that he has neglected in his history, or complain that it predictably begins with the ancient Greek Thales in about 600BC (Grayling happily admits he is telling the “orthodox story”). But he manages to pack an extraordinary amount of material into 700 pages, and even to include an extremely useful appendix on logic, as well as chapters on areas of philosophy outside the Anglo-American tradition and often excluded from conventional histories – Continental and Indian, Chinese, Arabic-Persian and African philosophy (though, of course, there will be cavils that each is too short).
Once you accept that Grayling has his little tics, just like the rest of us, this is a cerebrally enjoyable survey, written with great clarity and touches of wit. He defines philosophy simply as “rational enquiry”. Religion differs from philosophy in being based upon revelation or supernatural belief, neither being subject to rational investigation. That’s why the first Greek philosophers were such remarkable revolutionaries in human thought. Poor old Thales (who fell down the well) was wrong when he theorised that the essential substance of all things was water, but his approach was novel.