Tuesday, May 8, 2012

How Short can be Western Thought?

By Stephen Trombley
Atlantic Books, 277pp

I'd like to master the history of Western thought in under 300 pages, but it seems a pretty steep challenge.

Stephen Trombley's publisher offered him the challenge, and he seems to have risen to it pretty well.

By "Thought" he means philosophy, and by "Western" he means the shared lineage from Greek and Judeo-Christian cultures.  By "history" he seems to mean a chronicle, setting aside as many personal prejudices as possible.

He does a pretty good job, considering the scope of the task.  I got a picture of who said what and when along the 2500-year timeline of  "Western Thought". This delivers an overview of what you might be taught in a formal study of Western philosophy, in some Western university.  We begin before Socrates when "philosophy" embraced all disciplines, from speculation on the physical world to religion and ethics.  We end with Philosophy as a relatively dry academic discipline concerned with the language-based processes of the human mind, and even there challenged for authority by the neurosciences and the persistence of faith-based teleologies.

Should we be surprised that the history is Eurocentric? I quarrel with his assertion “Judaism was the first monotheistic belief system”. The Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaten is known to have promoted monotheism centuries before the Hebrews wrote a history asserting that they were the chosen people of the only valid God. We Westerners have been amplifying that political convenience ever since we embraced Judeo-Christianity, and wondering why others don't like us.

I would have liked to find reference to the influence of Indian philosophy on the West via Persia, Egypt and the Buddhist missions sent by Asoka (3rd century BC) to Syria, Egypt and Greece. There is good evidence for the influence of Buddhism on Plato and, indeed, on the teachings of Jesus.

Trombley's philosophical canon is limited to those who sought to discover system in the apparent chaos of human consciousness.  The closer we come to the present, the more diverse and complex is the range of philosophical positions to be summarized.  Are “how we behave” and “how we think” closely connected? Many philosophers have thought so, and some still do. How do we know what is real? A glance at any news page reminds us that belief is as remote from reason as ever, and no less powerful for the accumulated knowledge and philosophy of the centuries.

This is not hard to read. If you like the idea of wisdom, you will probably find this quick tour through centuries of hard thinking a pleasure and, at times, a challenge.

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