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The History of Philosophy: AC Grayling’s insightful but blinkered view

Review: AC Grayling is a superb communicator of complex concepts but there are absent voices: women and Irish philosophers for starters

Ac Grayling largely concentrates on male, white and western philosophy
The History of Philosophy
The History of Philosophy
Author: AC Grayling
ISBN-13: 978-0241304532
Publisher: Viking
Guideline Price: £25

Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy looms over his academic successors in the same way James Joyce’s Ulysses overshadows novelists. The book is rarely read from cover to cover and it’s full of head-spinning digressions but Russell won a Nobel Prize in Literature partly on the strength of it, and it remains de rigueur on the shelves of any respectable intellectual.

Trying to outdo Russell, then, requires not just considerable brainpower and a way with words but also a bit of an ego. AC Grayling appears well qualified under all three headings.

The 70-year-old academic, who scandalised his peers by setting up an independent undergraduate college in London a few years ago, has a masterly appreciation of the currents of western philosophical thought, especially the Anglo-American tradition. He is a superb communicator of complex concepts with an eye for the arresting fact. Who knew Plato required knowledge of mathematics for entry to his academy? Or that John Locke introduced “consciousness” into English? Or that John Rawls was politicised by his feminist mother?

Familiar texts throw up fresh insights in Grayling’s hands, and he skilfully highlights the role chance plays in the history of ideas. Most of Aristotle’s dialogues were lost and the rest of his work sat in a cellar for decades “where they were attacked by damp, mould, insects and mice” until eventually recovered.


The book demonstrates how philosophical ideas rarely have a single creator

Engaging in a wonderful line of historical speculation, Grayling notes that Descartes’ famous “cogito, ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) had been articulated in a more long-winded fashion by the Frenchman’s contemporary Jean de Silhon at least five years earlier. And while he may not have pinched it from there, Descartes “almost certainly learnt” of Augustine’s idea – “fallor ergo sum” (If I am deceived, I exist) – as a schoolboy with the Jesuits.

Indeed, the book demonstrates how philosophical ideas rarely have a single creator; hypotheses bounce back and forth between protagonists and across generations. Grayling also draws attention to the different motives that lie behind reasoning. In an excellent chapter on George Berkeley, the Church of Ireland bishop is understood as having a twin-track mind – the first aimed at “defending common sense” and eradicating scientific error, the second aimed at “defending religion”.


Grayling’s most appealing characteristic as a teacher is his fair-mindedness. He is generous in expounding the ideas of thinkers with whom he would personally disagree. While some philosophers were a little harshly treated – Socrates being one example (in this reviewer’s opinion, Grayling seemed to miss the point entirely of Socrates’s claim that nobody does wrong knowingly) – this seems to be driven more by a desire to keep the word-count down than a deliberate attempt to misrepresent.

AC Grayling is generous in expounding the ideas of thinkers with whom he would personally disagree. Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Grayling’s tolerance does run out, however, when religion rubs up against reason. While Russell described philosophy as “something intermediate between theology and science”, Grayling argues that it is by definition opposed to the former. As you’d expect from a very public defender of new atheism, Grayling declares “religious doctrine is not hospitable to philosophical refection”.

He proceeds to make short work of Buddha, Confucius, Jesus and Muhammad – all of whom he lumps together with Socrates – as "lucky" thinkers in that they all had a cult following. "Be original. Be profound. None of these figures were either of these things…"

All this would be quite defensible were the book not called The History of Philosophy, and were it not billed as “the first truly authoritative and accessible history of philosophy to cover both Western and Eastern traditions”. Not even Russell dared deploy the definite article to his book title, and using it here is laughable when non-western thought accounts for barely one-eighth of the book and is presented in a rather tokenistic fashion. In a threadbare chapter on African philosophy, for example, Grayling spends most of the time arguing that African philosophy does not exist.

Grounds for breach of the trade descriptions act does not end there, as certain philosophical disciplines, as well as categories of philosopher, are greatly underrepresented in the book.

Female philosophers

One can’t fabricate the past but it’s extraordinary that the first female philosopher Grayling deigns to mention is on page 304 and then Harriet Taylor is referenced primarily in the context of her marriage to John Stuart Mill. A total of 64 marquee philosophers are listed in the contents: all are men. Of 18 contemporary thinkers in moral and political philosophy who are described as “significant”, only one – Martha Nussbaum – is a woman.

(From a parochial view, one might add Irish philosophers hardly get a mention – outside of Berkeley. It’s as though Thomas Duddy’s A History of Irish Thought was never written.)

The discipline has historically had problems with gender balance and ethnocentricism but Grayling can’t be unaware of recent attempts to reclaim the voices of women in philosophy, nor of efforts to expand thinking beyond the Oxbridge vortex.

Grayling suggests philosophy might be better described as 'metaphysical, epistemological, ethical and logical studies', or what he calls MEELS for short

Grayling tells the history of philosophy through its “big names”, which is fine if you’re looking for a traditional reference book – this is how the subject has been taught for decades. A more dynamic approach would have been to trace the evolution of ideas thematically – and indeed we get a glimpse of the book Grayling could have written when he breaks out of the biographical format to deliver wonderful mini-essays on, for example, enlightenment thinking versus romanticism, or the way analytic philosophy is not a doctrine but “a style of philosophising”.

Grayling’s decision to skim over the evolution of ethics is particularly puzzling. One can only assume we are meant to read one of his other books to fill the gap, or turn elsewhere (indeed Kenan Malik’s The Question for a Moral Compass would be hard to beat for the general reader).

Towards the end of the book, Grayling defends the idea of setting a “high bar” for philosophy. He suggests it might be better described as “metaphysical, epistemological, ethical and logical studies”, or what he calls “MEELS” for short. Yet a history of philosophy should surely explore why some questions have commanded thinkers’ attention more than others, or whether certain questions have been suppressed by intellectuals and, if so, why.

In writing what is more accurately described as a history of MEELS, Grayling has done a commendable job; his book stands up well against Russell’s classic. But the history of philosophy, as Grayling well knows, continues to be written and his efforts will inspire others to try to set the record straight.

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column