A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

A Little History of Philosophy is an introduction and survey of Western philosophy through the centuries. I studied philosophy myself in my youth and so was interested to reacquaint myself with some of the ideas I formerly encountered, to see if they were still relevant to me. I always found reading philosophy in primary texts a bit daunting, so this handy summary proved more than enough stimulating reading matter for my sometimes befuddled mind. It follows a chronology from the ancient Greeks through Medieval philosophy, the Enlightenment and on up to the seismic breakthroughs of figures like Nietzsche. It is not entirely traditional as it includes the political philosophy of thinkers like Machiavelli and Marx and revolutionary figures from related disciplines in Freud and Darwin. What stands out about many of these thinkers was that much of their work consisted of ‘thoughts out of season’ and they were often persecuted for their ideas, but as with Socrates drinking the hemlock, they refused to compromise their integrity. In a compendium of forty thinkers, it’s generally only possible to assess a fraction of thought of each philosopher but the author does an admirable job of conveying the kernel of ideas, whether they be age old concerns such as the existence of God or paradigm shifts from the likes of Freud. From a personal perspective, I found some of the early examples such as the Stoics fascinating, and people might find  much there to examine as an influence on the current spate of books on the concept of ‘Happiness’. The author also includes some quirky biographical detail on their lives, which helps humanize figures we may be inclined to perceive as being lost in abstract thought. Altogether, I really enjoyed this book, which eschews the abstruse terminology which can bedevil many philosophy texts and makes available to the general reader, questions and topics which are everyone’s concern. It sits alongside Jostein Gaarder’s ‘Sophie’s World’ as one of the best primers on philosophy for the newbie.

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