A New History of Western ­Philosophy

by Anthony Kenny

Oxford University Press, 4 volumes in one, 1,456 pages, $120

If those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it, those ignorant of the history of philosophy are even less fortunate: They’re likely to do no more than struggle to make trails through territory where roads were built long before.

Such was a crucial weakness of the dominant tradition in twentieth-­century English-language philosophy. Things have improved in recent decades, however, and there is now a lot of historical research published by scholars informed by analytic philosophy. Not that more traditional-minded historians of philosophy have always been satisfied; in their view, the analysts are sometimes so impatient with the slow work of ­exegesis, so eager to get to the interesting ideas, that they end up finding in classic texts little more than early versions of their own thoughts. The analysts have a retort, of course: In their view, traditional-minded historians of philosophy sometimes get so wrapped up in text and context that they end up producing little more than paraphrases of old books, as if the ideas contained therein were too important for us nongeniuses to actually think about.

The four volumes of Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy try to steer a middle course. He starts with the pre-Socratic philosophers and ends about thirty years ago (although his coverage of philosophy after Wittgenstein lacks detail on most topics). Each volume has two main divisions. One gives a historical narrative that sets the philosophers in their historical contexts and provides overviews of their lives, works, and most important ideas; the other goes through key areas of philosophy”logic, say, or ethics, or political philosophy”and discusses contributions from the period in more detail.

Kenny’s prose is lucid and witty. He often deploys literary and historical references to make his points, and the volumes contain charming illustrations, not only of the great philosophers themselves but also of the ideas they grappled with. Overall the effect is to set philosophical thinking in a context of humane learning at once historical and artistic. For example, in the first volume, Kenny explains some of Aristotle’s ideas about potentiality by quoting, in his own translation, a sonnet by Michelangelo; in the third volume, he mentions the surprising fact that after his condemnation Galileo was offered a visiting professorship at Harvard.

Jacques Barzun once lamented the desire to cut the great thinkers down to size, to show that they’re really Just Folks After All, and he claimed that this desire resulted from the “attitude”derisive, suspicious, faintly hostile”which characterizes the democratic ego when faced with Intellect.” Kenny has no such vulgar fear. Thus, for example, he describes Augustine’s Confessions as “a portrait, by a biographer nearly as gifted as Boswell, of a mind more capacious than Johnson’s.” The major exception to his respectful and sometimes even reverential tone is his discussion of Jacques Derrida, whose fame, Kenny says, “has been less in philosophy departments than in departments of literature, whose members have had less practice in discerning genuine from counterfeit philosophy.”

An Oxford tutor and a fellow and later master of Balliol College, Kenny has published studies across the entire history of philosophy. He is free of what he calls “the Whiggish illusion that the current state of philosophy represents the highest point of philosophical endeavour yet reached.” Sometimes older ideas are better. And he rightly sees that any good history of philosophy must ask not only what past thinkers tried to accomplish but also how successful they were.

As Kenny himself points out, no one could be an authority on all the great philosophers. His justification for the project is that there’s value in a history that’s truly a single narrative. The hero of his narrative turns out to be Aristotle, and one of the main plotlines is the development, use, loss, and recovery of key Aristotelian ideas. In fact, the most sustained argument in the work, found in the third volume, is Kenny’s critique of early modern empiricism and early modern rationalism”traditional rivals that he portrays as deriving from a common failure to grasp certain Aristotelian truths. Two of his tale’s lesser heroes are Thomas Aquinas, an obvious Aristotelian, and Wittgenstein, a perhaps not-so-obvious quasi-Aristotelian. The antiheroes”although Kenny is at pains to insist that we can learn much from studying them”are the great anti-Aristotelians, perhaps Descartes above all.

This history’s viewpoint is thus a certain kind of Aristotelianism, one willing to learn from post-Aristotelian developments. It’s also, on theological matters, an agnostic Aristotelianism: An apostate Catholic priest, Kenny devotes ample space to past discussions of the existence and nature of God, all the while making it clear that he finds such lines of thought inconclusive at best. Only occasionally does he appear to be going out of his way to attack religion. The final topic of the fourth ­volume is recent attempts to revive St. Anselm’s ontological argument, declared utterly dead by Bertrand Russell, and Kenny’s very last word is this: “Plantinga’s restatement of the argument, using logical techniques more modern than any available to Russell, serves as a salutary warning of the danger that awaits any historian of logic who declares a philosophical issue definitively closed.”

Philosophy’s story isn’t homogeneous. Not all periods give equal emphasis to every branch of the field. Kenny’s history reflects this fact, but not always in the best way. For example, there is no separate chapter on political philosophy until the third volume, and it’s troubling to hear that this is because ancient and medieval political institutions were so different from ours that premodern political philosophy has little relevance for us. One needn’t harbor a longing for Greek city-states or feudal monarchies to suspect that figures like Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas might have raised ideas ­crucial for our political life.

Kenny desires, quite sensibly, to translate past terminology into contemporary English, but his choices carry risks he ought to have been more sensitive to. For example, he uses the word wisdom for Aristotle’s phronesis . It may well be that wisdom in contemporary English is closer to what Aristotle is getting at than the more traditional prudence , but a reader who chanced to turn from Kenny to standard translations might be led very far afield: Wisdom is the traditional translation of the Greek sophia , a virtue very different from phronesis .

His interpretations are occasionally doubtful as well. Sometimes this happens when he treats philosophers in whom he isn’t well versed, but not always. It’s a happy irony that the brevity demanded by the task of discussing so much philosophy in fewer than 1,500 pages means that some of the problematic things he has said elsewhere about, say, Thomas Aquinas simply don’t appear in these volumes.

Another point of concern is that there is in spots a disproportion between the confident tone of Kenny’s critical judgments and the slender support he provides for them. The risk is that of giving the impression that an issue is definitively and obviously closed when, in fact, it is not. It cannot be said that this is unavoidable in a short history; all that’s needed is to express one’s ­criticisms more cautiously.

Problems aside, however, Kenny is often successful. He addresses a wide range of topics, and he takes care to steer the reader away from tempting but inaccurate interpretations. He strikes a nice balance between presenting each philosopher’s system on its own terms and bringing out the similarities and chains of influence that link system to system. His work will serve as a helpful guide, especially for those unafraid to raise a skeptical eyebrow at some of his remarks. He wouldn’t want it any other way.

Michael Gorman is associate professor of philosophy at Catholic University of America.

Articles by Michael Gorman