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Philosophy & Living by Ralph Blumenau
Roger Caldwell is provoked by Ralph Blumenau’s new history of philosophy.
Ralph Blumenau’s Philosophy and Living inevitably invites comparison with Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (which appeared in 1946). Both are works of enormous scope. Russell begins with the Presocratics and, inevitably, ends with himself. Blumenau takes the story on a little past Russell, through the existentialists, through Popper and Kuhn, and ends with a brief account of the poststructuralists. No living philosophers are included. In both cases no notice is taken of Eastern philosophy, except in passing.
Russell is a hard act to follow. His book no doubt is a pot-boiler, written for money and at high speed, but it is nonetheless the product of a remarkable mind. Frequently glib, superficial, and with no great attempt to be fair towards philosophers he dislikes or to hide his anticlerical bias, it is nonetheless magnificently readable with its incisiveness and caustic wit. Where he is dealing with philosophers to whom he is sympathetic he does so with exemplary clarity.
Blumenau writes not as a professional philosopher, but as a historian, and admits his shortcomings as regards the technicalities of the subject. His book is intended as an introduction for newcomers, and concentrates on those issues which are liable to be of interest to us all rather, say, than the minutiae of epistemology or the philosophy of mathematics. He is strong in the areas where Russell is weak, and includes thinkers who have something of interest to say on theological or political or ethical matters, regardless of whether or not they have an established place in the philosophical canon.
There is an admirable openness in this, though it inevitably makes for an extremely lengthy book. The narrative is broken up by interpolations, reflecting issues that have arisen from discussions with students, together with his own comments or questions attempting to relate what may seem arcane to everyday issues of living. There is also an admirable system of cross-referencing. I have two main areas of concern about the book; the first relates to its reliance on secondary sources, the second to its failure properly to relate philosophy to science.
Clearly, in a work of this length, errors are going to creep in, nor, given its lengthy gestation, is it always going to reflect the latest scholarship. For example, Blumenau tells us that Hobbes was a Deist: in fact, he was a sort of Christian minimalist, propounding the formula “Jesus is the Christ”. Locke, far from being uninterested in theology as Blumenau would have it, was the author of The Reasonableness of Christianity which attempted to bring religion within the requirements of reason, much as Kant (more dramatically) was later to do.
His view of Spinoza is old-fashioned (so, it is fair to say, is Russell’s). For many of us the sometimes startling modernness of Spinoza’s thought lies in how his notion of Natura naturans uncannily presages our present understanding of the working of physical laws. This is in part because, unlike Descartes, he makes the revolutionary break of rejecting the notion of final causes in nature – a notion later reintroduced in a somewhat mystificatory fashion by Kant. Of this there is nothing in Blumenau. He presents us too with a Leibniz without the principle of sufficient reason, and (even more remarkably) a G.E. Moore without the naturalistic fallacy.
In part his difficulties spring from his reliance on secondary sources, to such an extent that one wonders sometimes if he has actually read the philosophers in question. His chapters on Schopenhauer and Popper are excellent – but is this because he relies on Magee’s excellent commentaries? His account of Heidegger is less so – is this because he has unwisely chosen to rely on George Steiner? More seriously, his bibliography is composed solely of secondary sources. I think this sends an unfortunate message to students who should, where possible, be pointed to the best modern editions of primary texts.
One of the worst heritages that Descartes bequeathed us was the quixotic search for certainty whereas all one needs,in living or in philosophy, is high probability. Science can offer the latter but not the former. Blumenau moves uneasily in the area of science; at one point he seems to be a social constructivist, at another a realist. He tells us that Francis Bacon decided that heat was a form of motion, and refers us to “a modern theory that heat is molecular motion”. Well, one would have thought it was a pretty wellattested theory. Russell, in the equivalent place in his history, simply notes that Bacon was right. Why, one wonders, is Blumenau reluctant to do so?
Elsewhere he tells us that the progress of science has rendered Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities redundant. For my own part I would rather have thought that it did exactly the opposite. Elsewhere he seems to think that Darwinian evolution is necessarily progressive – but Darwin himself didn’t think so, though the Social Darwinists clearly did. He makes unnecessarily hard weather of Russell’s observation that mathematics consists of tautologies. This is nothing to do with mathematical proofs, as Blumenau thinks, nor equivalent to saying that mathematics tells us nothing new. Rather, Russell is saying that it tells us nothing at all: it is uninformative in the sense that “1=1” or “A=A” is uninformative.
These are scarcely quibbles, but rather illustrate that it is hard to select out those areas of philosophy which are living from those which are of interest only to specialists: the question of whether a theory is true or not is, after all, rather a basic one. Blumenau’s strengths lie in those areas where debates are liable to continue. Hume on causation, for example, or Wittgenstein’s early picture theory of meaning (which Blumenau badly mangles) scarcely make for living issues. Hume on morality, Wittgenstein on languagegames clearly do. As Wittgenstein himself tells us, the problems of life would remain even if all scientific questions were solved. And it is the problems of life with which Blumenau is primarily concerned.
He sets himself nonetheless an almost superhuman task. I think he would have been wiser to have set himself a more modest one, concentrating on those areas in which he is most at home. Nonetheless, for all my caveats, I found the book an invigorating – if occasionally frustrating – read. For a book that seems to be not so much written as assembled it is remarkably accessible. It is salutary to be reminded of the sheer scope of Western thought – and, for that matter, how the same problems and theories keep recurring in different guises. It is unlikely to supplant Russell’s history, though in some senses it may be said to supplement it. My fear is that its sheer bulk is likely to prove offputting to the neophyte to the subject. It is likely, however, to be a gift to pedagogues everywhere.
© Roger Caldwell 2002
Roger Caldwell is a poet, philosopher and literary critic who lives in Essex. His book of philosophical poetry, This Being Eden, was published by Peterloo Press last year.
• Philosophy and Living by Ralph Blumenau, (Imprint Academic, 2002), £19.95/$32. ISBN 0907845-339.