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Celebrating the completion of The New History of Western Philosophy

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This year has seen the completion of Sir Anthony Kenny’s acclaimed four-volume series A New History of Western Philosophy. To celebrate the occasion we recently held a wonderful party at The Oxford and Cambridge Club in London, and some photos from the night are below. Sir Anthony gave a speech, and has kindly let us reproduce an extract from it below. Here he talks about the challenges, questions, and goals he encountered as he wrote the series.

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The party invitation

During the latter half of the twentieth century two one-man histories of philosophy had dominated the field. One was Bertrand Russell’s one-volume Brief History; the other was the ten-volume history of the Jesuit Father Copleston. Each had its virtues and vices: Russell’s was brilliant but historically unreliable; Copleston’s was impeccably judicious, but rather a dreary read. Ideally, a historian of philosophy should be able to read like Copleston and write like Russell. Sadly, I could do neither: I could not match the exhaustive scholarship of Copleston, nor could I imitate the incomparable style of Russell, which won him the Nobel Prize for literature. I settled on a modest goal: to be more accurate than Russell and more entertaining than Copleston.

People ask me what I have learnt from the years of reading and writing. At the top level, I have not learnt a lot. My judgement of the very greatest philosophers now that I have finished the history is the same as it was when I started. I would list as my six greats Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant and Wittgenstein. However, at a somewhat lower level, my opinion of certain philosophers was significantly altered. There were some philosophers whom I had not previously admired whom I came to appreciate greatly – to mention only four, Plotinus, Abelard, Schopenhauer and Heidegger. I had not expected to admire Heidegger, and I still would not claim to understand him. But I have moved from a position of not understanding him and thinking him not worth understanding, to a position of not understanding him and wishing that I did.

I have also been asked whether any great philosopher went down in my estimation as I got to know him better. The serious answer is no, though I did come away with the impression that Leibniz was rather a smoothy. I also came to realise that some of the things that I and others had thought were original in Descartes were in fact commonplaces of late medieval philosophy. But that did not alter my opinion that he was one of the greatest philosophers: he gave to the world at large what had been the preserve of scholastic elite.

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Anthony Kenny (right) with Ted Honderich, editor of The Oxford Companion to Philosophy

Descartes was, indeed, the first philosopher to write explicitly for women. But this should not make him a hero to feminists. When Princess Elizabeth (King Charles I’s niece) defeated him in intellectual argument about the relationship of mind to body, he was reduced to telling her not to bother her pretty head about the issue. The study of metaphysics, he warned her, was dangerous to female health.

Now that I have written three further volumes after the first one on the ancient world, I continue to think that Plato and Aristotle are the greatest philosophers there have ever been. I have long puzzled over which of them was the greater. I now think I have the solution to the question.

Plato was the greater of the two as a philosopher – indeed the greatest philosopher ever – because he really invented the subject out of whole cloth. His dialogues are still among the finest introductions to the subject because he wrote in ordinary language before any technical philosophical terms had been invented. And he had no real predecessors in what we now think of as philosophy, though there had been inspirational gurus like Heraclitus and madmen of genius like Parmenides.

But if Plato is the greatest philosopher, Aristotle is the greatest all-round genius. He did not invent philosophy, he in vented science. It was not just that he was a great pioneer in biology, zoology, psychology and other sciences: he was the originator of the whole idea of a scientific discipline. If we think of science as a co-operative empirical investigation conducted in research institutes provided with a library, and passed on to later generations through a curriculum of courses, then we are thinking of something that first happened in Aristotle’s circle.

Aristotle is also a comforting figure in a more domestic context. I am very happy to see here tonight my wife and members of my family. But one of the sad things that emerges from a study of twenty-five centuries of history is that at the highest level philosophy and matrimony seem to be incompatible. One could draw up a plausible list of a dozen great philosophers through the ages: Plato, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Kant, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein. All of those were bachelors. Among the great philosophers only Aristotle and Karl Marx stand out as happily married. But the poor Marxes cannot be held up as a paradigm of a happy family, since three of their children starved to death. Aristotle, on the other hand, shows that a philosopher can have not just a happy marriage but also useful children. His son Nicomachus collected together various scraps from his Dad’s Nachlass and gathered them into an all-time best-seller, the Nicomachean Ethics

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Anthony Kenny with British political observer and author Anthony Howard

Of the four volumes of my history the most difficult one to write was the last, because it was the closest. I have been lucky to have known many of the finest philosophers of the last half-century: Gilbert Ryle, John Austin, Peter Strawson, Elizabeth Anscombe, van Quine, Donald Davison. This was a great privilege, but it had its downside. I soon realised that all of these had much finer minds than mine, and I could not hope to compete with them as an original philosopher. I decided that the best use of my talents was to become a historian of philosophy and to do my best to help others to reach up to the great minds of the past.

The four volumes of The New History of Western Philosophy series are Ancient Philosophy, Medieval Philosophy, The Rise of Modern Philosophy, and Philosophy in the Modern World.

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5 Responses to “Celebrating the completion of The New History of Western Philosophy”
  1. John Cowan says:

    “van Quine”? Something went wrong there; of course it should be “Willard van Orman Quine”.

    The remark about Russell and Copleston reminds me of A.E. Housman’s famous remark: “This great college [Trinity], of this ancient university [Cambridge], has seen some strange sights. It has seen Wordsworth drunk and Porson sober. And here am I, a better poet than Porson, and a better scholar than Wordsworth, somewhere betwixt and between.”

  2. The van should be Van, that’s all – I think he was called Van Quine by familiars, Van being the first name.

  3. JOHN GAVIN says:

    Descartes was of course only a bachelor in a technical sense-he had a mistress who bore him a daughter.
    Bertrand Russell was mostly married but perhaps only intermittently happy

  4. [...] sehr geschätzt, insbesondere als Empfehlung oder Geschenk für interessierte Laien. Seine soeben bei OUP erschienene 4-bändige “History of Western Philosophy” scheint das Zeug zum [...]

  5. Hugh E. Gale says:

    To accompany John Gavin’s remarks on Lord Russell:
    “…was mostly married but perhaps only intermittently happy.” And almost always on the prowl.

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