The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance, by Anthony Gottlieb (Norton), 2000, pp. 469.
This book proves that an introduction to the history of Western philosophy does not have to be dull or badly written. The Dream of Reason is a sprawling book, written in an accessible pre-postmodern narrative style. With very few exceptions, we are introduced one by one to male philosophers, long dead, in a time line stretching from the 600's B.C.E. to the beginnings of modern science and philosophy. It has a strong cast of characters, excellent quotations, and a compelling tale to tell of the origins and adventures of reason. The dream is that the universe is intelligible and that we can, finally, make sense of everything.
The history of philosophy is never complete. A single author is limited to connecting some of the dots together, and not all the dots can be connected in one story. A book like this is a sampling from the history of philosophy. The samples show us the birth of reason from a radical questioning of religious and mythical accounts of natural processes, followed by a critical examination of morality and cultural values, in which reason turns within and questions itself. Those early thinkers open up a new world of philosophical reflection on the physical universe, the self and the gods.
The structure is simple. We simply stroll down a time-line meeting noted philosophers, starting with the reputed originator of philosophy, Thales, and moving through history up to Galileo and Descartes. At first, they speak to us in poetry, later, in prose. From the beginning, philosophical ideas had a disconcerting tendency to turn the world upside down, to put things in a perspective different from the ordinary ones of everyday life and mythical understanding. Out of these philosophical ideas and the commentaries on them comes the subject matter of philosophy. Out of techniques for dealing with ideas, such as dialectic and logic, come new questions and innovations in thinking. Key to this development is a persistent inquisitive bent that does not shy away if the argument overturns conventional wisdom or appeals to authority. There is something very bracing and optimistic about this story of the emergence of independent thought in a world bound up with accepting and unreflective tribal life. This is despite the fact that philosophers who try to grasp the real behind the veil of appearances often make themselves look foolish or dangerous in the eyes of others.
As Gottlieb tells it, philosophy bravely sets out with the Pre-Socratics to look for natural causes at work in the physical world. It develops inwardness with Socrates and Plato, and is systematized by Aristotle. Later, philosophy began to decline, slowly at first, but faster toward the end, when the schools of philosophy were closed in 529 A.D. We learn that even before this, the rational and dialectical side of philosophy had been replaced by a yearning for salvation and an embrace of obscure assumptions and doctrines. What philosophy texts were written tended to be in the form of commentaries. I found this part most intriguing since I know least about the thousand years from the closing of the philosophical schools to the 16th century. This book helped me to grasp the entirety of this obscure period in the history of philosophy.
The story of reason is one of advance and retreat. Sometimes the dream of reason seems to be close to realization, while at other times it looks like an impossible ideal at best, and a pernicious aberration of the human will to power, at worst. Having been dreamed in the first place, reason has continued to trouble the sleep of the human mind. Even if, as happens from time to time, reason is suppressed, it has never ceased to demand an answer and has always kept coming back for more. The freedom of the human mind to think for itself cannot be taken away.
The Dream of Reason is none the worse because it is an old-fashioned history of philosophy. True, it is always already deconstructed by anyone who wishes to criticize, but for its target audience of interested nonprofessionals, this book is likely to do more for the general understanding of Western philosophical history than many a more tedious tome. The writing is lively, the tale well told, and even if it is open to the objections of the learned, what history of philosophy is not?