A Little History of Philosophy

Will a new series from Yale University Press aimed at young readers (and the occasional grown-up) catch fire? Scott McLemee takes a look.

October 5, 2011

Six years ago, Yale University Press published A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich, which appeared to much acclaim and has by now sold 500,000 copies -- impressive for a trade publisher, and epochal for a university press. The great art historian had written it, his first book, in Austria during the Depression, mainly to pay the bills. It enjoyed some popularity in Europe over the years, though nothing like the success of his classic The Story of Art (1950). While “ostensibly written for teenagers,” says the entry on Gombrich in The Dictionary of Art Historians, it had “a huge impact on the general post-war populace.” According to an article in ArtNews, it had by 2006 sold more than 8 million copies in at least 30 languages. The Story of Art is one of the rare examples of a textbook that not only outlives its author but proves genuinely beloved by readers. “I never believed that books for young people should differ from books for adults,” Gombrich wrote in its preface, “except for the fact that they must reckon with the most exacting class of critics, critics who are quick to detect and resent any trace of jargon or bogus sentiment.”

A Little History of the World is, in anything, an even more deft feat of popularization, since its target audience is about 10 years old. Exact data are not at hand, but quite a few of the half-million copies it's sold so far were almost certainly purchased for adult consumption. And no shame in that. Better to know A Little History than to know none at all. At least Gombrich respects his public enough not to call them dummies.

Later this month, Yale is bringing out A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton -- published in a format that mimics the earlier volume in every particular, from cover design and length to the woodblock-like artwork appearing at the head of each chapter.

The word for this sort of thing is “branding.” My initial response to it was something less than joyous. In 2005, I reviewed Gombrich’s book for a newspaper, and put down additional thoughts on it for this column; and a few people have indicated they were encouraged to look for the book on the basis of my ardent tub-thumping on its behalf, which was as heartfelt as it could possibly be. But that was based on admiration for the singular generosity of Gombrich’s style. (The author was translating and revising the book himself when he died in 2001, and it reflects decades of finesse in his adopted language.) The odds of lightning striking twice did not seem good.

The dust jacket says that the author, Nigel Warburton, lectures on philosophy at The Open University and the Tate Modern, both in England, and “hosts a weekly podcast and an integrated philosophy website.” Writing for The Guardian, Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine, says that Warburton “has quietly become quite one of the most-read popular philosophers of our time. Over nearly two decades his Philosophy: The Basics has sold in excess of 100,000 copies, with no gimmicks, no literary flourishes, just admirable clarity, concision and accuracy.”

That said, I must admit that name rang no bells. My initial, spontaneous response to A Little History of Philosophy was simply that the the author faced an impossible task. And in Gombrich, he also had an impossible act to follow.

And yet, the book is pretty good. Warburton has many of the Gombrichian virtues. While reading A Little History of Philosophy, I jotted down notes in an effort to characterize it -- only to realize that they were, point for point, things I'd said about A Little History of the World, six years ago. For example: “Concise but substantial, without condescension, somewhat limited in its purview (focus is on the West) but written with just enough wryness to be charming.”

That about covers it. Each book surveys a vast array of vast topics while presupposing as little as possible about the background of the audience. That would be no small trick even with long chapters. As it is, each is roughly six pages long. Not 60, but six. Aristotle gets six pages. Hegel gets six pages. Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn are roommates in a single chapter, which runs to the exceptional length of eight pages. Immanuel Kant, clearly the guest of honor, is permitted two chapters adding up to a total of 11 pages. All of French existentialism is covered by having Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus set up a philosophical ménage à trois in the usual six pages. (Not that Warburton puts it that way, as I should make clear to children's librarians everywhere.)

Machiavelli, Darwin, Freud, and Alan Turing are all covered, although none of them was a philosopher, exactly. At the same time, Martin Heidegger makes only a very brief appearance, in a chapter on his one-time girlfriend Hannah Arendt. This would undoubtedly have bothered both of them.

Warburton's survey covers strictly European and (to a smaller extent) American philosophy. A handful of thinkers from elsewhere do turn up, but very much in passing. The Buddha gets a nod in the chapter on Schopenhauer, for example. Jewish and Arabic philosophy flourished during centuries when Christendom was anything but reflective. But the only trace of them here is the names (and only the names) of Maimonides and Avicenna.

The selection, then, is debatable, and the task itself almost unimaginable (at least by the standards of academe, where it is permissible to write a 500-page monograph containing the phrase “space does not permit me to consider….” in each chapter); but the book has a certain quality that comes from accepting a challenge under severe conditions, then taking it on without making a big deal of the whole thing. And the word for that quality is grace.

It requires more than a knack for brevity. The question of what role biography ought to play in writing the history of philosophy is not a simple one. Heidegger’s treatment of the life and times of Aristotle at the start of a lecture (“He was born. He thought. He died.”) is legendary, but not, perhaps, the final word on the matter. At the same time, reducing complex ideas to personal or social factors – as with sensationalistic treatments of Heidegger himself – is no real service to anyone trying to get some bearings on the history of philosophy.

A Little History untangles that Gordian knot in tried and true manner, because saying anything in six pages means cutting through things without hesitation. To stick with the example of Aristotle, this means discussing a single text (in this case, the Nichomachean Ethics) and just enough context to connect him with the previous chapter (on Socrates and Plato) while setting up the next (on Pyrrho, the extreme skeptic, whose work stands in a nice contrast to the authoritarian dogmatism around Aristotle in later centuries).

Warburton zeroes in on the concept of eudaimonia -- meaning “happiness” or, better, “flourishing” -- and explains that it is “pronounced ‘you-die-monia’ but mean[s] the opposite” (a fitting and even helpful play on words). He sketches the psychological, moral, and social implications of eudaimonia.

And that’s that – time to move along. Of course, it means reducing the Peripatetic’s thought to the size of postage stamp. But no better approach seems obvious, given the circumstances. (It's not as if covering the logical or metaphysical writings in six pages is an option.) The focus on eudaimonia also helps to set up the later chapter on Kant’s very different understanding of ethics. When exhaustiveness is not an option, efficiency counts for something.

Yale University Press has more Little History titles on the way. (So I am told by a publicist, who kept their titles close to the vest.) The public should hold them to the standard set by the first two volumes. In the preface to The Story of Art, Gombrich spelled out the duties and the benefits of this kind of work: “It may serve to show newcomers the lay of the land without confusing them with details; to enable them to bring some intelligible order into the wealth of names, periods, and styles which crowd the pages of more ambitious works, and so equip them for consulting more specialized books.” A creditable ambition, and a demanding one. The only easy thing about it is how it looks.


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