Monday, May 22, 2006

Amazon book review: The Story of Thought

I wrote this some time ago, maybe a couple of years after I'd received Bryan Magee's The Story of Thought for Christmas.

The Story of Thought: (The Essential Guide To The History of Western Philosophy)
by Bryan Magee

Publisher: DK Publishing / QPB edition; 1st edition (1998)
Language: English
ISBN: 0789444550

The author, Bryan Magee, is best known -- at least in England -- for his television series on philosophy, "Men of Ideas," "Thinking Aloud," and "The Great Philosophers." I knew nothing about them when I was given "The Story of Thought" for Christmas. I only know that this is a wonderful book.

In highly readable and lively text accompanied by beautiful pictures, Magee describes the development of Western philosophy by examining and sampling the works of its main proponents, from Socrates to Sartre.

In each vignette Magee highlights the philosopher's main ideas... Don't worry, Magee takes the main philosophical theme apart and reassembles it in modern (and understandable) language.

That's one of the two greatest features about this book: Magee's ability to explain what these great philosophers had to say. It's pretty widely accepted that if you delve into philosophy you rapidly become hip-deep in obscure and difficult language and definitions. Magee points out the philosophers who were most guilty of writing in dense and undigestible prose: most of Fichte's writings, for example, "were extremely obscure," and Immanuel Kant, called by many the most outstanding philosopher since the Greeks, "was not an attractive writer."

However Magee reveals that many philosophers wrote beautifully: Thomas Hobbes was "trenchant and agressive;" Rene Descartes was "a superlative writer;" William James had "an exceptionally pleasing style."

"The Story of Thought" makes you believe that you'd like to study philosophy yourself. Magee makes it attractive and relevant to the way we live. In his hands it becomes much more than a tortured explanation of why we exist or what thought really is. Magee shows us that, "Philosophy begins when human beings start trying to understand the world, not through religion or by accepting authority but through the use of reason."

The second great feature of the book is based on the fact that Magee is obviously an art lover. "The Story of Thought" is beautifully illustrated and, frankly, I keep coming back to it because of the pictures. There are close to 400 illustrations: paintings, sculpture, photographs, book covers, and diagrams in this 240 page book. But the pictures support the text in the best way, by conveying difficult ideas in visual terms and by putting faces to these deep thinkers.

Magee illustrates the power of the ideas in his examination of each philosopher. For example John Locke influenced the American and the French revolutions; Rousseau argued that feelings should replace reason; and, of course, Galileo and Newton whose experiments and scientific ideas shape everything in modern life.

Magee reserves some of his most piercing analysis for Karl Marx. The largest revolutions in history, in Russia and China, were sparked by Marxist theory. Many intellectuals in Third World countries were attracted to Marx's concepts of central planning and modernization. By the mid-20th century about a third of the world's people was under the sway of Marxist government.

The power of Marxism is not in doubt; but Magee details how it proved to be fundamentally unsound... Today the most serious Marxist ideas are found only in art as social criticism.

  • "What is justice?" – Socrates
  • "Man is by nature a political animal" – Aristotle
  • "Lord make me chaste, but not yet" – Saint Augustine
  • "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily" – William of Ockham
  • "But it still moves, just the same" – Galileo
  • "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants" – Newton
  • "It is much safer for a prince to be feared than loved" – Machiavelli
  • "...the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" – Hobbes
  • "I think therefore I am" – Descartes
  • "The true aim of government is liberty" – Spinoza
  • "The soul is the mirror of an indestructible universe" – Leibniz
  • "Reason is the slave of the passions" – Hume
  • "Man was born free, and everywhere is in chains" – Rousseau
  • "Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can ever be made" – Kant
  • "Architecture is frozen music" – Schelling
  • "Man owes his entire existence to the state" – Hegel
  • "Religion is the opium of the people" – Marx
  • "God is dead" – Nietzsche
  • "The secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible" – Russell
  • "The supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt to discover somthing that thought cannot think" – Kierkegaard
  • "Hell is other people" – Sartre
  • "How can we be sure we are not impostors?" – Lacan

"The Story of Thought" shows us the origins of the ideas we now take for granted and helps us to understand why all of these people thought the way they did.

Voltaire gave us a wonderful reason for studying philosophy: "Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them." Bryan Magee in "The Story of Thought" reveals not only the source of the flames but how vital and refreshing it can be to quench them.

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