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A Little History of Philosophy

A Little History of Philosophy

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    A Little History of Philosophy
    Book Description:

    Philosophy begins with questions about the nature of reality and how we should live. These were the concerns of Socrates, who spent his days in the ancient Athenian marketplace asking awkward questions, disconcerting the people he met by showing them how little they genuinely understood. This engaging book introduces the great thinkers in Western philosophy and explores their most compelling ideas about the world and how best to live in it.

    In forty brief chapters, Nigel Warburton guides us on a chronological tour of the major ideas in the history of philosophy. He provides interesting and often quirky stories of the lives and deaths of thought-provoking philosophers from Socrates, who chose to die by hemlock poisoning rather than live on without the freedom to think for himself, to Peter Singer, who asks the disquieting philosophical and ethical questions that haunt our own times.

    Warburton not only makes philosophy accessible, he offers inspiration to think, argue, reason, and ask in the tradition of Socrates.A Little History of Philosophypresents the grand sweep of humanity's search for philosophical understanding and invites all to join in the discussion.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17754-1
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. CHAPTER 1 The Man Who Asked Questions
    (pp. 1-8)
    Socrates and Plato

    About 2,400 years ago in Athens a man was put to death for asking too many questions. There were philosophers before him, but it was with Socrates that the subject really took off. If philosophy has a patron saint, it is Socrates.

    Snub-nosed, podgy, shabby and a bit strange, Socrates did not fit in. Although physically ugly and often unwashed, he had great charisma and a brilliant mind. Everyone in Athens agreed that there had never been anyone quite like him and probably wouldn’t be again. He was unique. But he was also extremely annoying. He saw himself as one...

  4. CHAPTER 2 True Happiness
    (pp. 9-14)

    ‘One swallow doesn’t make a summer.’ You might think this phrase comes from William Shakespeare or another great poet. It sounds as if it should. In fact it’s from Aristotle’s bookThe Nicomachean Ethics, so called because he dedicated it to his son Nicomachus. The point he was making was that just as it takes more than the arrival of one swallow to prove that summer has come, and more than a single warm day, so a few moments of pleasure don’t add up to true happiness. Happiness for Aristotle wasn’t a matter of short-term joy. Surprisingly, he thought that...

  5. CHAPTER 3 We Know Nothing
    (pp. 15-21)

    No one knows anything – and even that’s not certain. You shouldn’t rely on what you believe to be true. You might be mistaken. Everything can be questioned, everything doubted. The best option, then, is to keep an open mind. Don’t commit, and you won’t be disappointed. That was the main teaching of Scepticism, a philosophy that was popular for several hundred years in Ancient Greece and later in Rome. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, the most extreme sceptics avoided holding firm opinions on anything whatsoever. The Ancient Greek Pyrrho (c. 365–c. 270 bc) was the most famous and probably...

  6. CHAPTER 4 The Garden Path
    (pp. 22-27)

    Imagine your funeral. What will it be like? Who’ll be there? What will they say? What you are imagining must be from your own perspective. It’s as if you are still there watching events from a particular place, perhaps from above, or from a seat among the mourners. Now, some people do believe that that is a serious possibility, that after death we can survive outside a physical body as a kind of spirit that might even be able to see what’s going on in this world. But for those of us who believe death is final, there is a...

  7. CHAPTER 5 Learning Not to Care
    (pp. 28-33)
    Epictetus, Cicero and Seneca

    If it starts to rain just as you have to leave your house, that is unfortunate. But if you have to go out, apart from putting on a raincoat or getting your umbrella, or cancelling your appointment, there isn’t much you can do about it. You can’t stop the rain no matter how much you want to. Should you be upset about this? Or should you just be philosophical? ‘Being philosophical’ simply means accepting what you can’t change. What about the inevitable process of growing older and the shortness of life? How should you feel about these features of the...

  8. CHAPTER 6 Who Is Pulling Our Strings?
    (pp. 34-39)

    Augustine (354–430) desperately wanted to know the truth. As a Christian, he believed in God. But his belief left many questions unanswered. What did God want him to do? How should he live? What should he believe? He spent most of his waking life thinking and writing about these questions. The stakes were very high. For people who believe in the possibility of spending eternity in hell, making a philosophical mistake can seem to have terrible consequences. As Augustine saw it, he might end up burning in sulphur for ever if he was wrong. One problem he agonized over...

  9. CHAPTER 7 The Consolation of Philosophy
    (pp. 40-45)

    If you were in prison awaiting execution would you spend your last days writing a philosophy book? Boethius did. It turned out to be the most popular book that he wrote.

    Ancius Manlius Severinus Boethius (475–525), to give him his full name, was one of the last Roman philosophers. He died just twenty years before Rome fell to the barbarians. But in his lifetime Rome was already going downhill. Like his fellow Romans Cicero and Seneca, he thought of philosophy as a kind of self-help, a practical way of making your life go better as well as a discipline...

  10. CHAPTER 8 The Perfect Island
    (pp. 46-50)
    Anselm and Aquinas

    We all have an idea of God. We understand what ‘God’ means, whether or not we believe that God actually exists. No doubt you are thinking about your idea of God now. That seems very different from saying that God actually exists. Anselm (c.1033–1109), an Italian priest who later became Archbishop of Canterbury, was unusual in that with his Ontological Argument he claimed to show that, as a matter of logic, the fact that we have an idea of God proves that God actually exists.

    Anselm’s argument, which he included in his bookProslogion, starts from the uncontroversial claim...

  11. CHAPTER 9 The Fox and the Lion
    (pp. 51-56)
    Niccolò Machiavelli

    Imagine you are a prince ruling a city-state such as Florence or Naples in sixteenth-century Italy. You have absolute power. You can issue an order and it will be obeyed. If you want to throw someone into jail because he has spoken out against you, or because you suspect him of plotting to kill you, you can do that. You have troops ready to do whatever you tell them. But you are surrounded by other city-states run by ambitious rulers who would love to conquer your territory. How should you behave? Should you be honest, keep your promises, always act...

  12. CHAPTER 10 Nasty, Brutish, and Short
    (pp. 57-61)
    Thomas Hobbes

    Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was one of England’s greatest political thinkers. What’s less well known is that he was also an early fitness fanatic. He would go out for a long walk every morning, striding quickly up hills so as to get out of breath. In case he had any good ideas while out he had a special stick made with an inkwell in the handle. This tall, red-faced, cheerful man with a moustache and a little wispy beard had been a sickly child. But as an adult he was extremely healthy and played real tennis into old age. He...

  13. CHAPTER 11 Could You Be Dreaming?
    (pp. 62-68)
    René Descartes

    You hear the alarm, turn it off, crawl out of bed, get dressed, have breakfast, get ready for the day. But then something unexpected happens: you wake up and realize that it was all just a dream. In your dream you were awake and getting on with life, but in reality you were still curled up under the duvet snoring away. If you’ve had one of these experiences you’ll know what I mean. They’re usually called ‘false awakenings’ and they can be very convincing. The French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) had one and it set him thinking. How could...

  14. CHAPTER 12 Place Your Bets
    (pp. 69-75)
    Blaise Pascal

    If you toss a coin it can come up heads or tails. There is a 50/50 chance of either, unless the coin has a bias. So it doesn’t really matter which side you bet on as it is just as likely each time you toss the coin that heads will come up as tails. If you aren’t sure whether or not God exists, what should you do? Is it like tossing a coin? Should you gamble on God not existing, and live your life as you please? Or would it be more rational to act as if God does exist,...

  15. CHAPTER 13 The Lens Grinder
    (pp. 76-80)
    Baruch Spinoza

    Most religions teach that God exists somewhere outside the world, perhaps in heaven. Baruch Spinoza (1632–77) was unusual in thinking that Godisthe world. He wrote about ‘God or Nature’, to make this point – meaning that the two words refer to the same thing. God and nature are two ways of describing a single thing. God is nature and nature is God. This is a form of pantheism - the belief that God is everything. It was a radical idea that got him into quite a lot of trouble.

    Spinoza was born in Amsterdam, the son of...

  16. CHAPTER 14 The Prince and the Cobbler
    (pp. 81-86)
    John Locke and Thomas Reid

    What were you like as a baby? If you have one, look at a photograph taken at the time. What do you see? Was that really you? You probably look quite different now. Can you remember what it was like being a baby? Most of us can’t. We all change over time. We grow, develop, mature, decline, forget things. Most of us get wrinklier, eventually our hair turns white or falls out, we change our views, our friends, our dress sense, our priorities. In what sense, then, will you be the same person as that baby when you are old?...

  17. CHAPTER 15 The Elephant in the Room
    (pp. 87-92)
    George Berkeley and John Locke

    Have you ever wondered if the light really does go off when you shut the fridge door and no one can see it? How could you tell? Perhaps you could rig up a remote camera. But then what happens when you turn the camera off? What about a tree falling in a forest where no one can hear it? Does it really make a noise? How do you know your bedroom continues to exist unobserved when you aren’t in it? Perhaps it vanishes every time you go out. You could ask someone else to check for you. The difficult question...

  18. CHAPTER 16 The Best of All Possible Worlds?
    (pp. 93-98)
    Voltaire and Gottfried Leibniz

    If you were designing the world would you have done it this way? Probably not. But in the eighteenth century some people argued that theirs was the best of all possible worlds. ‘Whatever is, is right,’ declared the English poet Alexander Pope (1688–1744). Everything in the world is the way it is for a reason: it’s all God’s work and God is good and all-powerful. So even if things seem to be going badly, they’re not. Disease, floods, earthquakes, forest fires, drought - they’re all just part of God’s plan. Our mistake is to focus close up on individual...

  19. CHAPTER 17 The Imaginary Watchmaker
    (pp. 99-104)
    David Hume

    Take a look in the mirror at one of your eyes. It has a lens that focuses the image, an iris that adapts to changing light, and eyelids and eyelashes to protect it. If you look to one side, the eyeball swivels in its socket. It’s also quite beautiful. How did that happen? It’s an amazing bit of engineering. How could an eye have turned out this way just by chance?

    Imagine stumbling through a jungle on a deserted island, and coming to a clearing. You clamber over the tumbled remains of a palace with walls, stairs, pathways and courtyards....

  20. CHAPTER 18 Born Free
    (pp. 105-109)
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau

    In 1766 a small dark-eyed man in a long fur coat went to see a play at the Drury Lane theatre in London. Most of the people there, including the king, George III, were more interested in this foreign visitor than in the play being performed on stage.Heseemed uncomfortable and was worried about his Alsatian dog, which he’d had to leave locked in his room. This man didn’t enjoy the sort of attention he got in the theatre and would have been far happier out in the country somewhere on his own looking for wild flowers. But who...

  21. CHAPTER 19 Rose-Tinted Reality
    (pp. 110-114)
    Immanuel Kant

    If you are wearing rose-tinted spectacles they will colour every aspect of your visual experience. You may forget that you are wearing them, but they will still affect what you see. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) believed that we are all walking around understanding the world through a filter like this. The filter is the human mind. It determines how we experience everything and imposes a certain shape on that experience. Everything we perceive takes place in time and space, and every change has a cause. But according to Kant, that is not because of the way reality ultimately is: it...

  22. CHAPTER 20 What if Everyone Did That?
    (pp. 115-120)
    Immanuel Kant

    There’s a knock at your door. Standing in front of you is a young man who obviously needs help. He’s injured and is bleeding. You take him in and help him, make him feel comfortable and safe and phone for an ambulance. This is obviously the right thing to do. But if you help him just because you feel sorry for him, according to Immanuel Kant, that wouldn’t be amoralaction at all. Your sympathy is irrelevant to the morality of your action. That’s part of your character, but nothing to do with right and wrong. Morality for Kant...

  23. CHAPTER 21 Practical Bliss
    (pp. 121-125)
    Jeremy Bentham

    If you visit University College London you may be surprised to find Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), or rather what’s left of his body, in a glass case. He is sitting looking out at you, with his favourite walking cane that he nicknamed ‘Dapple’ resting across his knees. His head is made of wax. The real one is mummified and kept in a wooden box, though it used to be on display. Bentham thought that his actual body - he called it an auto-icon - would make a better memorial than a statue. So when he died in 1832 he left...

  24. CHAPTER 22 The Owl of Minerva
    (pp. 126-131)
    Georg W.F. Hegel

    ‘The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk.’ This was the view of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831). But what does it mean? Actually, that question ‘What does it mean?’ is one that readers of Hegel’s works ask themselves a lot. His writing is fiendishly difficult, partly because, like Kant’s, it is mostly expressed in very abstract language and often uses terms that he has himself invented. No one, perhaps not even Hegel, has understood all of it. The statement about the owl is one of the easier parts to decipher. This is his way of telling us that...

  25. CHAPTER 23 Glimpses of Reality
    (pp. 132-137)
    Arthur Schopenhauer

    Life is painful and it would be better not to have been born. Few people have such a pessimistic outlook, but Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) did. According to him, we are all caught up in a hopeless cycle of wanting things, getting them, and then wanting more things. It doesn’t stop until we die. Whenever we seem to get what we want, we start wanting something else. You might think you would be content if you were a millionaire, but you wouldn’t be for long. You’d want something you hadn’t got. Human beings are like that. We’re never satisfied, never...

  26. CHAPTER 24 Space to Grow
    (pp. 138-144)
    John Stuart Mill

    Imagine that you had been kept away from other children for most of your childhood. Instead of spending time playing, you would have been learning Greek and algebra, taught by a private tutor, or you’d be in conversation with highly intelligent adults. How would you have turned out?

    This is more or less what happened to John Stuart Mill (1806–73). He was an educational experiment. His father, James Mill, a friend of Jeremy Bentham, shared John Locke’s view that a young child’s mind was empty, like a blank slate. James Mill was convinced that if you brought a child...

  27. CHAPTER 25 Unintelligent Design
    (pp. 145-151)
    Charles Darwin

    ‘Are you related to monkeys on your grandmother’s or your grandfather’s side?’ This was Bishop Samuel Wilberforce’s cheeky question in a famous debate with Thomas Henry Huxley in Oxford’s Museum of Natural History in 1860. Huxley was defending the views of Charles Darwin (1809–82). Wilberforce’s question was meant to be both an insult and a joke. But it back­fired. Huxley muttered under his breath, ‘Thank you God for delivering him into my hands’, and replied that he would rather be related to an ape than to a human being who held back debate by making fun of scientific ideas....

  28. CHAPTER 26 Life’s Sacrifices
    (pp. 152-157)
    Søren Kierkegaard

    Abraham has a message from God. It is a truly awful one: he must sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Abraham is in emotional torment. He loves his son, but he is also a devout man and knows he has to obey God. In this story from Genesis in the Old Testament, Abraham takes his son up to the top of a mountain, Mount Moriah, ties him to a stone altar and is about to kill him with a knife, as God has instructed. At the very last second, though, God sends an angel who stops the slaughter. Instead, Abraham sacrifices...

  29. CHAPTER 27 Workers of the World Unite
    (pp. 158-163)
    Karl Marx

    In the nineteenth century there were thousands of cotton mills in the north of England. Dark smoke poured from their tall chimneys, polluting the streets and covering everything in soot. Inside men, women and children worked very long hours - often 14-hour days - to keep the spinning machines going. They weren’t quite slaves, but their wages were very low, and the conditions were tough and often dangerous. If they lost concentration they could get caught up in the machinery and lose limbs or even be killed. Medical treatment in these circumstances was basic. They had little choice, though: if...

  30. CHAPTER 28 So What?
    (pp. 164-170)
    C.S. Peirce and William James

    A squirrel is clinging tightly to the trunk of a large tree. On the other side of the tree, close up against the trunk is a hunter. Every time the hunter moves to his left, the squirrel moves quickly to its left too, scurrying further round the trunk, hanging on with its claws. The hunter keeps trying to find the squirrel, but it manages to keep just out of his sight. This goes on for hours, and the hunter never gets a glimpse of the squirrel. Would it be true to say that the hunter iscirclingthe squirrel? Think...

  31. CHAPTER 29 The Death of God
    (pp. 171-175)
    Friedrich Nietzsche

    ‘God is dead’. These are the most famous words that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) wrote. But how could God die? God is supposed to be immortal. Immortal beings don’t die. They live for ever. In a way, though, that’s the point. That’s why God’s death sounds so odd: it’s meant to. Nietzsche was deliberately playing on the idea that God couldn’t die. He wasn’t literally saying that God had been alive at one time and now wasn’t; rather that belief in God had stopped being reasonable. In his bookJoyful Wisdom(1882) Nietzsche put the line ‘God...

  32. CHAPTER 30 Thoughts in Disguise
    (pp. 176-182)
    Sigmund Freud

    Can you really know yourself? The Ancient philosophers believed that you could. But what if they were wrong? What if there are parts of your mind that you can never reach directly, like rooms that are permanently locked so that you can never enter them?

    Appearances can be deceptive. When you watch the sun in the early morning it seems to come up from beyond the horizon. During the day it moves across the sky and then finally sets. It is tempting to think that it travels around the earth. For many centuries people were convinced it did. But it...

  33. CHAPTER 31 Is the Present King of France Bald?
    (pp. 183-189)
    Bertrand Russell

    Bertrand Russell’s main interests as a teenager were sex, religion and mathematics – all at a theoretical level. In his very long life (he died in 1970, aged 97) he ended up being controversial about the first, attacking the second, and making important contributions to the third.

    Russell’s views on sex got him into trouble. In 1929 he publishedMarriage and Morals. In that book he questioned Christian views about the importance of being faithful to your partner. He didn’t think you had to be. This raised a few eyebrows at the time. Not that that bothered Russell much. He’d...

  34. CHAPTER 32 Boo!/Hooray!
    (pp. 190-195)
    Alfred Jules Ayer

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had a way of knowing when someone was talking nonsense? You’d never need to be fooled again. You could divide everything that you heard or read into statements which made sense and statements which were just nonsense and not worth your time. A.J. Ayer (1910–89) believed he’d discovered one. He called it the Verification Principle.

    After spending some months in Austria in the early 1930s attending meetings of a group of brilliant scientists and philosophers known as the Vienna Circle, Ayer returned to Oxford where he was working as a lecturer. At the...

  35. CHAPTER 33 The Anguish of Freedom
    (pp. 196-201)
    Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus

    If you could travel back in time to 1945 and to a café in Paris called Les Deux Magots (‘The Two Wise Men’), you would find yourself sitting near a small man with goggly eyes. He is smoking a pipe and writing in a notebook. This man is Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80), the most famous existentialist philosopher. He was also a novelist, playwright and biographer. He lived most of his life in hotels and did most of his writing in cafés. He didn’t look like a cult figure, but within a few years that’s what he would become.

    Quite often...

  36. CHAPTER 34 Bewitched by Language
    (pp. 202-207)
    Ludwig Wittgenstein

    If you found yourself at one of the seminars Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) held in Cambridge in 1940 you would very quickly realize that you were in the presence of someone very unusual. Most people who met him thought he was a genius. Bertrand Russell described him as ‘passionate, profound, intense and dominating’. This small Viennese man with bright blue eyes and a deep seriousness about him would pace up and down, asking students questions, or pause lost in thought for minutes at a time. No one dared interrupt. He didn’t lecture from prepared notes, but thought through the issues...

  37. CHAPTER 35 The Man Who Didn’t Ask Questions
    (pp. 208-213)
    Hannah Arendt

    The Nazi Adolf Eichmann was a hard-working administrator. From 1942 he was in charge of transporting the Jews of Europe to concentration camps in Poland, including Auschwitz. This was part of Adolf Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’: his plan to kill all Jews living in land occupied by the German forces. Eichmann wasn’t responsible for the policy of systematic killing – it was not his idea. But he was heavily involved in organizing the railway system that made it possible.

    Since the 1930s the Nazis had been introducing laws that took away the rights of Jewish people. Hitler blamed almost everything that...

  38. CHAPTER 36 Learning from Mistakes
    (pp. 214-221)
    Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn

    In 1666 a young scientist was sitting in a garden when an apple fell to the ground. This made him wonder why apples fall straight down, rather than going off to the side or upwards. The scientist was Isaac Newton, and the incident inspired him to come up with his theory of gravity, a theory that explained the movements of planets as well as apples. But what happened next? Do you think that Newton then gathered evidence thatprovedbeyond all doubt that his theory was true? Not according to Karl Popper (1902–94).

    Scientists, like all of us, learn...

  39. CHAPTER 37 The Runaway Train and the Unwanted Violinist
    (pp. 222-227)
    Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thomson

    You are out for a walk one day and see a runaway train hurtling down the tracks towards five workers. The driver is unconscious, possibly as the result of a heart attack. If nothing is done, all will die. The train will squash them. It’s travelling much too fast for them to get out of the way. There is, however, one hope. There is a fork in the tracks just before the five men, and on the other line there is only one worker. You are close enough to the points to flick the switch and make the train veer...

  40. CHAPTER 38 Fairness through Ignorance
    (pp. 228-233)
    John Rawls

    Perhaps you’re wealthy. Perhaps you’re super-rich. But most of us aren’t, and some people are very poor, so poor that they spend most of their short lives hungry and sick. This doesn’t seem fair or right - and it surely isn’t. If there were true justice in the world no children would starve while others have so much money that they don’t know what to do with it. Everyone who is sick would have access to good medical treatment. The poor of Africa wouldn’t be so much worse off than the poor in the USA and Britain. The rich of...

  41. CHAPTER 39 Can Computers Think?
    (pp. 234-238)
    Alan Turing and John Searle

    You’re sitting in a room. There is a door into the room with a letterbox. Every now and then a piece of card with a squiggle shape drawn on it comes through the door and drops on your doormat. Your task is to look up the squiggle in a book that is on the table in the room. Each squiggle is paired with another symbol in the book. You have to find your squiggle in the book, look at the symbol it is paired with, and then find a bit of card with a symbol that matches it from a...

  42. CHAPTER 40 A Modern Gadfly
    (pp. 239-245)
    Peter Singer

    You’re in a garden where you know there is a pond. There’s a splash and some shouting. You realize that a young child has fallen in and may be drowning. What do you do? Do you walk by? Even if you’d promised to meet a friend and stopping would make you late, you’d surely treat the child’s life as more important than being on time. The pond is quite shallow, but very muddy. You’ll ruin your best shoes if you help. But don’t expect other people to understand if you don’t jump in. This is about being human and valuing...

  43. Index
    (pp. 246-252)