A Short History of Modern Philosophy

I’m an engineer, not a philosopher, so this review is of the book “A Short History of Modern Philosophy” by Roger Scruton is from the viewpoint of the lay reader.

This is my first foray into serious philosophical literature and I entered with some basic questions in mind:

  • What is philosophy?
  • Is philosophy a valuable field to study?
  • Are there any aspects of philosophy that will help me to be a better engineer, or a better person?

Scruton is adept at the English language, and uses a number of uncommon words that I was unfamiliar with, such as:

compendious, insuperable, sublunary, consubstantial, syllogisms, profundity, agglomerations, pellucid, substratum, solipsism, vicissitudes, opprobrium, irenic, abrogation, compatibilist, etc.

So, this book taught me much about my first language, as well as a wide overview of philosophy.

The first chapter of the book provides a description of philosophy and its relationship with science and literature. Philosophy attempts to provides answers to many of the questions that science cannot answer.

There are two features of philosophical thought: abstraction, and concern for the truth. Scruton points out that although it sounds obvious, the search for truth is easily forgotten, which can lead to big problems later on as we later see in the book.

Scruton discusses the progress, or lack of it, in philosophy noting that the ancient works of Plato and Aristotle are studied as much today as ever. A scientist would rarely be so interested in the works of scientists from so long ago. He argues that there is philosophical progress, but it is necessarily slower than that of other fields because the subject lies at the limit of human understanding.

Literature in general however, is not generally believed to be a field that makes progress. Scruton gives Homer and Shakespeare as authors that a modern day author should not be expected to surpass.

The book provides an overview of the philosophers that Scruton considers to be the greatest in modern times. The book is divided into 19 chapters and 5 parts

Part 1 — Rationalism
Part 2 — Empiricism
Part 3 — Kant and Idealism
Part 4 — The Political Transformation
Part 5 — Recent Philosophy

Chapter 2 is on the rise of modern philosophy and covers the Ontological argument, free will and human nature, and the rejection of scholasticism.

Portrait of René Descartes

Part 1 begins with Chapter 3. Rationalism began with René Descartes, whom Scruton describes as “a perfect representative of the new scientific spirit” who “prepared the way for Newton.”

Descartes most famous statement ‘Cogito ergo sum’ or ‘I think, therefore I am’ provides a starting point for reasoning, a starting point where the philosopher can be without doubt, since it is a self-verifying proposition.

Roger Scruton discusses Descartes’ arguments for the existence of God, along with some counter-arguments.

Chapter 4 on the Cartesian Revolution includes a discussion of Blaise Pascal’s wager: ‘If God exists He will reward belief in Him: while if He does not exist, such belief leads to no harm. Hence the best bet is to believe in Him.’ It also introduces the work of Nicolas Malebranche.

Descartes inspired the works of Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and the last two chapters of Part 1 explain these philosophies.

The work of Descartes is also described as a “founding force” of another kind of philosophy: empiricism.

In this book, the part on Empiricism begins with Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and then moves onto John Locke (1632–1704). George Berkeley (1685–1753) critiqued his Locke’s work and suggested his own ideas. The idea of a Moral Science came about.

Chapter 9 covers David Hume (1711–1776), the author of the Treatise of Human Nature, published in 1739, cast sceptism on most of what came before.

Immanuel Kant devised what he called “Transcendental Idealism” and his work was hugely influential. One of his followers, Johann Gottlieb Fichte said there were but two philosophies: idealism and dogmatism.

Amongst the description of Fichte’s idea, we see meaningless mumbo-jumbo, such as:

“The self is ‘determined’ or ‘limited’ by the not-self, which in turn is limited by the self. It is as though self-consciousness were traversed by a movable barrier: whatever lies in the not-self has been transferred there from the self.”

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) would later do everyone a favour (in my opinion) by describing Fichte as the:

“father of sham philosophy, of the underhand method that by ambiguity in the use of words, imcomprehensible talk and sophisms, tries to … befool those eager to learn”

G. W. F. Hegel was another philosopher who was inspired by Kant by became hugely influential. Much of his study was metaphysical and more recent philosophers have strongly criticised it. In the words of Scruton:

“Hegel has recently been excreted as the greatest intellectual disaster in the history of mankind. Rightly understood, however, he was the true philosopher of the modern consciousness”

Chapter 13 covers the reactions of the philosophers Schopenhauer (1788–1860), Kiekegaard (1813–1855), Bauer (1809–1882), Strauss (1808–1874) and Nietzche (1844–1900).

Part 4 on the political impact of philosophy begins earlier, revisiting the work of Locke …

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the book is that Scruton gives the lesser known Gottlob Frege significantly more coverage, and perhaps credit, than Bertrand Russell, with Scuton arguing:

“I shall perforce refer to Russell only rarely: as a character he is well enough known, and his copious powers of self-advertisement might perhaps suffice to justify my perfunctory treatment of his philosophy.”

The work of Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein lead to the founding of modern analytical philosophy. Unlike most of the philosophy described in this book, modern analytical philosophy uses mathematical terms, or as Scruton calls it “quasi-mathematical terms”. It is boolean logic applied to language, for the purposes of determining whether statements are truthful or not.

We see the assertion “the King of France is bald” shown to be false, not because of any hair on the head of the King of France, but because France does not have a King!

Scruton says Wittgenstein later renounced modern analytical philosophy and moved his studies into other aspects of philosophy.

A shortcoming of the book, and perhaps an inevitable one for a book of such breadth, is it doesn’t go into enough depth for the reader to come to many conclusions about which philosophers are right and wrong. There is are 16 pages at the back for the bibliography, ordered by chapter, to aid the reader in exploring any particular philosopher in their complete form.

Scruton describes Kant and Wittgenstein as the two greatest modern philosophers, and also gives high praise for Hume.

This book definitely gave me a better idea as to what philosophy is all about.
Whether it Is philosophy a valuable field to study is a more difficult question.

There are many different areas of philosophy, which examine different questions. I don’t think it is realistic for the average person to learn the entire field. However I do think it is realistic to consider some questions that interest you, and whether any philosophers have proposed answers that are agreeable to you.

Stoicism remains my favorite school of philosophy, because the ideas are highly relevant and practical to everyday life. My next book review will investigate that further.