Witcraft complicates the familiar narrative of philosophy. Rather than whisking us from one prominent philosophical peak to another, it spends a lot of time wandering the fertile valleys between them... The book maps the way in which the different conceptual currents of a period intermingle, so that one of the finest literary critics ever to write in English, William Hazlitt, sits cheek-by-jowl with Edmund Burke, Jeremy Bentham and William Godwin. David Hume rubs shoulders with the 18th-century Ulsterman Francis Hutcheson, who championed the rights of women, children, servants, slaves and animals. He even put in a good word for aliens. The history of philosophy usually tells us how one set of ideas gave birth to another. What it tends to overlook are the political forces and social upheavals that shaped them. Witcraft, by contrast, sees philosophy itself as a historical practice... Rée’s book is stylish and entertaining.
Rée undertakes to show that “philosophy in English contains far more variety, invention, originality and oddity” than we usually think. That is not as revolutionary as it sounds... [Rée enlivens his story with anecdotes, and with descriptions of how the philosophers talked, dressed and behaved or misbehaved in private. Shadowy figures become human when he supplies details of their early lives and extra-philosophical interests... People who are just names, if that, to most readers are fitted out by Rée’s research with memorable identities... With all this colourful material, Rée’s book should be a joy to read. But it is not. It is rambling and diffuse. The narrative keeps plunging down side turnings that lead to other side turnings in a seemingly endless maze. New names keep appearing like the jumbled contents of a biographical dictionary. The lack of any sense of direction is bewildering, and might be deliberate... Readers should also be warned that unless they can take philosophical language (“Kantian transcendentalism”, for example) in their stride, some sections will pass them by in a fog. For non-specialists, a wise preliminary to tackling Witcraft would be to read one of the short introductions to philosophy that teenage Rée despised.
I suspect that Witcraft is not best read as its reviewers are likely to read it, all in one go. Its chapters are to be savoured, interspersed with trips to the library to follow up on their allusions. It is a long book, but I found myself wishing it just a little bit longer, to allow Rée to take the story all the way up to 1991, where we might have seen something of the upshot of it all. That was the year when Michael Dummett, holder of the illustrious Wykeham Chair in Logic at Oxford, published his daunting The Logical Basis of Metaphysics, while a little way down the M40, Alain de Botton was working on Essays in Love.
Witcraft may, or may not, please academic philosophers. Others should enjoy its riches slowly, and savour every generous, erudite and undogmatic page. Rée delivers no doctrine, although his tale does have heroes: mostly, those thinkers who put “common humanity at the centre of the philosophical stage”... Rée shares that candour, clarity and eclectic warmth. As for Wittgenstein, another beloved giant of the awkward squad, he took from Kierkegaard the chillier notion that “we are not here in order to have a good time”. Witcraft, curiously enough, will give open-minded readers exactly that.
Witcraft is a new sort of history of philosophy... Another writer not usually included in histories of philosophy is George Eliot, though disappointingly Rée limits his discussion here to her voyage from Christianity to doubt while translating the writings of such foreign heretics as Strauss, Feuerbach and Spinoza, and does not examine the way she philosophises in her novels. George Eliot (or Mary Ann Evans, as Rée pointedly insists on calling her) was briefly editor of the Westminster Review, previously edited by John Stuart Mill, whom she knew – just one of many of the acquaintanceships between cultural figures that Rée presents, some of them unlikely... It seemed in the 1920s as if Basic English, the simplified version of the language developed by C K Ogden, using only 850 words and the slimmest of grammatical rules, might easily take off. That it proved to be a cul-de-sac is of course largely a result of the essential slipperiness of words, something that Rée brilliantly conveys in a book that matches the verve and vivacity of its title.
Jonathan Rée’s beguiling history of philosophy in English, from Hamlet reproving Horatio for his imaginative limitations in 1603 to the publication of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations 450 years later, seethes with such potty vignettes. There’s Bertrand Russell searching under his desk in Cambridge to prove there is no rhinoceros in the room. There’s the sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, pseudonymous American author Ragnar Redbeard, whose 1890 book Might is Right or the Survival of the Fittest, both misconstrued Nietzsche’s will to power and applied Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism....Despite the disarming glee of this intellectual romp, Rée doesn’t quite banish the thought that, for the English, philosophy is what history was to Henry Ford, bunk — a notion clinched by T.S. Eliot’s portrait of Bertrand Russell as Mr Apollinax, wittering incomprehensibly and laughing like an irresponsible foetus at his own wit.