Monday, August 11, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Anthony Kenny, Philosophy in the Modern World. A New History of Western Philosophy Volume 4. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. xv, 347. ISBN 978-0-19-875279-0. £25.00.
Reviewed by Sophia M. Connell, Newnham College, University of Cambridge

Table of Contents

This is the fourth and final volume of Anthony Kenny's (hereafter K.) History of Western Philosophy series. It covers modern philosophy, from 1757 to 1975. In the brief introduction, K. divides readers into two classes: those interested in the history of philosophy for the purpose of aiding contemporary philosophical concerns, and those who take a historical or contextual interest only. He connects these interests to the different sections of the book: Chapters 1-3 will be for the historically minded, and Chapters 4-12 for those interested in philosophy proper (xiii).

Chapters 1-3 cover time periods bounded by two thinkers, although as a whole they do not run chronologically: 1. Bentham to Nietzsche; 2. Pierce to Strawson; and 3. Freud to Derrida. Chapters 4-11 follow topic-areas, relating to themes in modern philosophy: 4. Logic; 5. Language; 6. Epistemology; 7. Metaphysics; 8. Philosophy of Mind; 9. Ethics; 10. Aesthetics; 11. Political Philosophy; and 12. God. The themes for the most part carry through all four volumes, providing crucial continuity. This volume, however, leaves out "physics" since, as K. explains, natural philosophy is no longer part of philosophy post-Newton (xiv). This implies, as is the case, that the philosophy of science is largely absent. K. also explains why there is a slight chronological overlap with the last volume in the section on aesthetics (which begins in the early 18th century), which is that the theme has not been included in previous volumes (xiv).

One might wonder why certain themes are chronicled (and certain authors) rather than others. But clearly any work of this type must choose a focus, uniting disparate strands of speculation over a broad chronological and geographical stretch. On the whole, K. does an admirable job when it comes to describing the themes and authors he wishes to emphasize.

K. uses the criterion of influence at various points to explain his choice of philosophers. Influence is taken to occur on three different levels: 1. effects on philosophy departments in Universities; 2. effects on wider intellectual circles (e.g. literature departments); and 3. effects on a broader cross-section of society. (1) is used most regularly, with (2) coming in to explain the inclusion of Derrida, Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer. Occasionally (3) also becomes significant, for instance when explaining why Freud is discussed.

Influence is not, however, the only, or even the most important, factor that has gone into the decision of who and what to include. Indeed, the best discussed theories and ideas are those which are included because they are deemed to be good ones, on the basis of critical analysis. Thus at times this survey is not just descriptive but prescriptive: K. is setting out what he believes we ought to focus on in past philosophy.

When chronicling Russell's life, K. notes that his book on the History of Western Philosophy (1947) was "brilliantly written, if often inaccurate" (54). The implication is that his own book on the history of philosophy will not be susceptible to the same criticism. However, accuracy cannot be all that is aimed for here. If the history of philosophy were to be just accurate, i.e. just to say what others thought, then we might as well read the texts themselves. A book such as this would contribute nothing more.

The history of philosophy usually does not simply tell us what historical figures thought, it also expresses opinions and presents arguments for various points of interpretation and emphasis. Philosophical positions and arguments appear from very early on in this book, starting with a stance on the significance of the history of the subject. In the history section, K. makes a philosophical point in rejecting Marx's historical materialism (23):

[T]he most convincing refutation of the thesis that consciousness is impotent to determine life is provided by Marx's own philosophy. For the history of the world since his death has been enormously influenced, for good or ill, by his own system of ideas, considered not as a scientific theory, but as an inspiration to political activism and a guideline for political regimes.

K. clearly takes it that great men and ideas shape how we think, which explains why the first section on history contains almost no mention of the economic, political or social conditions in which these people worked. Instead it consists mainly of personal histories of philosophers. Occasionally a connection is attempted between an event in the personal life of a philosopher and their subsequent ideas. For instance, we find the speculation that it was due to Nietzsche's failed romantic relationship with a particular woman that he wrote disparaging of women in general (31). But most often the biographical details are left unconnected to philosophy. The fact that "Marx--unusually among great philosophers--enjoyed a happy married life" remains anecdotal. The history chronicled in Chapters 1-3 is therefore not a history of ideas but a history of events in the lives of famous philosophers.1 Thus we can see how ideas can stand apart from that type of history. But the whole book is about history, insofar as it is about how to understand, interpret and assess various philosophical ideas over a 200-year period.

This volume will be of interest to philosophers, both beginners and more advanced students, as a way into an engagement with issues that helped to form the interests of many mainstream Anglo-American academic philosophers. It represents a sort of argument for an emphasis on certain issues in academic philosophy and on certain ideas which are taken to be the most fruitful and enduring. Among these are Newman's epistemology and Wittgenstein's philosophy of mind. The volume finds its heart in Chapters 4, 5 and 8 (Logic, Language, and Mind/Psychology respectively). K. explains clearly the way these topics have become central to academic philosophy in the 20th century, the role that the intellectual drive of Bertrand Russell in particular had in bringing this about, and the depth these problems reached in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

There is no space here to give a summary of each chapter; however, I will run through a couple of key issues in each. Chapter 1 focuses on political philosophy, ethics and theology from Bentham to Nietzsche. K. first details the development of utilitarianism by Bentham and its refinement by Mill, also mentioning Sidgwick. Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard follow. Marx's political philosophy is expounded as well as Darwin's theories. John Henry Newman's interest in epistemology is noted as is Nietzsche's personal history.

Chapter 2 focuses mainly on Anglo-American philosophers (plus the German Frege) interested in logic, language and epistemology. The chapter starts with Pierce, on epistemology, then moves on to Frege, the "inventor of modern mathematical logic" (37). Technical details of his predicate and propositional calculus come fast and furious. Russell's challenge to Frege is detailed before the pragmatism of James, Dewey and Schiller. Some prominent figures in the British Idealist movement, including T. H. Green, Jowett, Bradley and McTaggart are mentioned. These thinkers get little attention in the later chapters. There significance seems to rest in the fact that both Moore and Russell (who inaugurated the new era of analytic philosophy: 51) were students of McTaggart. A brief description of Russell's theories of description, sense-data and acquaintance follow before a detailed description of Wittgenstein's life and work. Finally, we get analytic philosophy after Wittgenstein, including the ideas of Quine, Davidson, Strawson and Grice.

Chapter 3 chiefly chronicles continental philosophy and psychoanalysis from Freud to Derrida. K. notes straight away that this section does not directly connect with the previous chapters because "by the middle of the twentieth century continental and anglophone philosophers went their separate ways, hardly speaking the same language as each other" (72). The interesting inclusion of Freud, despite the fact that he was "not a philosopher at all", is justified by the fact that his influence was the "greatest" of any continental thinker of the time (72-3). His work in psychoanalysis still informs the way we regard interpersonal relationships, according to K. (76). Some details of his life and his work are given in this chapter before discussion turns to Husserl. Heidegger is mentioned next as "the father of existentialism", and K. notes that "[i]t is a matter of dispute whether Heidegger's idiosyncratic vocabulary and convoluted syntax were essential to his project or were an unnecessary piece of self-indulgence" (86), before describing the modifications made by Sartre. Finally, the ideas of Derrida are presented, and here K. faces a dilemma. He includes Derrida on the grounds of his influence, but finds little of philosophical interest, particularly in his later work. K explains thus: "Normally, the historian tries to identify some of the major doctrines of a philosopher, present them as clearly as he can, and then perhaps add a word of evaluation. In the later Derrida there are no doctrines to present" (95). Indeed, it may be difficult to class Derrida as a philosopher at all, according to K.: "It has always been seen as a task of philosophers to draw distinctions between concepts that may be confused with each other, and if necessary to invent or adapt terms to mark these distinctions. Derrida, by contrast, introduced new terms whose effect was to confuse ideas that are perfectly distinct" (93).

Chapter 4, on logic, begins with Mill, then moves on to Frege as the main innovator of modern logic. After mention of Pierce, K. details how Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica brought Frege's logic to a wider audience. Wittgenstein, and other "logicians in the 1920s and 1930s showed that there were many different ways in which propositional and predicate calculus could be formalized" (114). The chapter ends with the subject of modern modal logic.

In Chapter 5, K. turns to the related field of the philosophy of language and begins by detailing Frege's seminal paper "Sense and Reference". Next, K. very briefly mentions pragmatist approaches in this field (i.e. the view that the meaning of X is related to what would be the practical consequences of considering X to be true), moving onto Russell. Russell's greatest contribution was his 'theory of descriptions' (set out most clearly in his paper "On Denoting"). More than ten pages, the longest sustained account of any individual philosopher so far in the volume, is then devoted to Wittgenstein. In his Tractatus, we are told, Wittgenstein understood the task of philosophy to be to "uncover, by analysis, the naked form of thought beneath the drapery of ordinary language" (133). His picture theory of meaning ("a proposition is a picture") was meant to weed out pseudo-propositions, i.e. meaningless expressions. K. explains the significant changes that occurred when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy in the 1920s and '30s. In his work on private language he tried to establish that meaning is dependent on context and the use of words. The upshot is that there cannot be a language whose words refer to what can only be known to the individual; there can be no private language. K. argues that Wittgenstein's work in this area is of enormous importance and has been recently obscured (142-3).

The chapter on epistemology (Chapter 6) begins with Mill and Newman. Mill is dealt with very swiftly; Newman's stance merits more comment. Newman hoped to explain and justify religious faith by first attacking all supposed certitudes: "[H]ow can I rest in certainty when I know that in the past I have thought myself certain of an untruth? Surely what happened once may happen again" (149). Thus he puts all truths on a par--nothing empirical can prove them, but we can have faith nonetheless. "If sometimes the bell of the intellect...strikes when it should not," this does not mean that we ought to dispense with clocks altogether (150). According to K., Newnam's empiricism has been (perhaps wrongly) neglected in philosophical circles. Pierce's and Frege's views follow. Strikingly Frege held that truths are not mind-dependent and followed Descartes in distinguishing between matter and mind. But K. is adamant that in this regard "Frege was wrong" (160). Russell's foundationalism and his acquaintance theory of knowledge are briefly mentioned. Continental philosophy then makes a reappearance for two pages describing two stages in Husserl's thought. The chapter ends with Wittgenstein, whose work On Certainty addressed Cartesian scepticism head on. Notably, "the argument 'I may be dreaming' is senseless, because if I am dreaming this remark is being dreamt as well, and indeed it is also being dreamt that these words have any meaning" (166). The chapter ends with an attempt to link continental and analytic philosophy, which are both said to have moved from "a concentration on the purely cognitive aspect of experience to an emphasis on its affective and practical element." This served to enrich "a field of philosophy that had initially been cramped by excessive individualism" (168).

Chapter 7, on metaphysics, begins with idealism. Schopenhauer declared that "the world is my idea" and proceeded to explain this in terms of the "will". According to K., this will "is like a magic spell that discloses to us the inmost being of everything in nature" (171). This stance is described but ultimately dismissed on the grounds that "however much they admired his style, or admitted his influence, few philosophers felt able to follow [Schopenhauer] all the way" (174). After a description of Darwin's theory of evolution, the next section covers Frege's realism, which is compared interestingly with Plato's views. Peirce's "surprising" idea that love is the driving force of cosmic history (184) is taken to be out of line with the rest of his philosophy (185). The final two sub-sections attempt to explain why the grand project of metaphysics was largely abandoned in the later 20th Century, with particular reference to Wittgenstein and Quine. The "metaphysics of the explorers of possible worlds" is the only fragment remaining.

Chapter 8, which discusses the philosophy of mind, contains some of the most interesting discussion to be found in this volume. The chapter begins with a brief summary of Bentham. The next two sections give the accounts of Schopenhauer and James. Schopenhauer's idealism creates a somewhat antiquated conception of the mind. James' theories, in contrast, are modern enough to be classed within the innovative field of psychology. But unlike scientific experimental psychologists, James "retains the picture of consciousness as an object of introspection" (201-2). K. thinks that at this time experimental psychology was only seriously challenged by Freud's idea of the unconscious, which he explains succinctly. But the most important thinker in this chapter is clearly taken to be Wittgenstein. In the Tractatus, his distinction between the metaphysical "I" and the self studied by introspective psychology is only an unsteady starting point. In his later, more sophisticated philosophy of mind, Wittgenstein argued against dualism on the grounds that the "self is a piece of philosopher's nonsense produced by misunderstanding of the reflexive pronoun" (213). Modern materialist philosophers of mind go wrong also, however, when they look for a correlation between mental states and brain processes. Wittgenstein's analysis of the words "think" and "understand" served to show that mental states are not processes at all. This theory, then, manages to avoid the unfortunate consequences of both dualism and behaviourism (216) and has much in common with Aristotle's theory of mind, thinks K. (218-19). It is then noted that "oddly enough, developments in the philosophy of mind since Wittgenstein have shown that it is possible to combine the errors of materialism with those of dualism" (217).

In Chapter 9, after noting the improvements Mill made to Bentham's position, K. argues that Schopenhauer's idea that there is "no great hope of contentment" (230) is unconvincing: "From the alternation between desire and satisfaction, Schopenhauer decided that life was a history of suffering and boredom; from the same premise he might with equal justification have concluded that it was a history of excitement and contentment" (233). Kierkegaard's views are also criticised before K. declares it probable that Nietzsche was "a completely amoral person" (241). But it seems impossible to say for certain since his writing was "wilfully chaotic" (241). The last section on "Analytic Ethics" details some of the developments in Oxbridge philosophy in the last century. Moore's Principia Ethica (1903) proposed that goodness is a non-natural property. Although the arguments employed are deemed "flimsy", the work had an important broad influence (243). In philosophy departments, however, A. J. Ayer's denial that goodness was any sort of property held more sway. Hare concentrated on the logic of imperatives, distinguishing between prescriptive and descriptive meanings. His "prescriptivism" was later rejected by virtue ethicists such as Philippa Foot, Peter Geach and Elizabeth Anscombe. A striking photograph of the later two (who were a married couple) appears here as one of the best placed images in the book. Anscombe's 1958 paper "Modern Moral Philosophy" managed to attack the whole of Anglophone moral philosophy since the time of Sidgwick. Many of the lines of inquiry she proposed were to be taken up by Bernard Williams, whose moral thinking continues to shape the study of ethics in academia today.

The chapter on aesthetics is a delight. K. does a fine job of inspiring the reader to investigate further in this field. Baumgarten, Burke, and then Kant, appear first; a comparison to the English Romantic poets ensues. Next, we are given Schopenhauer's realignment of the Platonic ideal with the artist's vision. The section on Kierkegaard is very brief, detailing the first part of his Either/Or, which consists of a meditation on Mozart's opera Don Giovanni (260). Nietzsche's remarks on tragedy are given a very swift airing, before the very different views of Ruskin and Tolstoy (who do not occur in the first three chapters at all) are expounded. Both thinkers concur that a crucial relationship exists between art and morality. Finally, K. notes that moralising views soon became unfashionable. Collingwood, an Oxford don, translated and imbibed some of the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce's ideas, and argued that art "should not be seen as the activity of arousing emotion" but rather as a linguistic act which expresses emotion in the artist himself (267).

Chapter 11 takes on political philosophy and begins with Bentham's utilitarianism and Mill's liberalism. K. speculates that Mill recommended "experiments in living" because he himself did not conform to convention in his relations with Harriet Taylor (the woman he was eventually to marry) (274).2 This comment leads on to a short description of Mill's views on women's liberation, which are contrasted with the sexist views of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Feminists might find this section slightly worrying, since it suggests that their subject is now defunct: "On the Subjection of Women has become antiquated as a result of its success: "The battle of which it was an early salvo has long been all matters of law women are now treated as in every respect the equals of men...The issues discussed in Mill's On Liberty, by contrast, remain of the highest importance..." (279). Marx's communism is then described as "one of liberalism's greatest enemies" (280), and can be defeated (it is claimed here) by empirical fact (285). Popper argued for open societies in which citizens have the right to discuss and criticise rulers and change them without violence. He claimed two main enemies: Marx and Plato. When it came to Marx in particular, the view of the inevitability of the future must be abandoned so that free, contingent, unpredictable human choices prevail.

The final chapter concerns theology, which is not a topic that concerned many analytic philosophers and so seems to be included both for the sake of continuity and as part of the author's interests. On the continent, Feuerbach criticised religion, while Kierkegaard "placed faith at the summit of human progress" (292), above science, politics and even ethics. K. questions his account of a "leap of faith taken in blindness" in a time when religious fundamentalism is rife (296). When mentioning theoretical biology, K.'s discussion here wanders into the present, in arguing briefly that natural selection and intelligent design are not incompatible. For Newman, faith had a precise meaning: "belief in a proposition on the word of God", this being an operation of intellect rather than the will or emotions (305). The section includes some nicely articulated analysis of how religious belief fits into Newman's more general epistemological ideas. Nietzsche and James follow in a section entitled "The Death of God and the Survival of Religion". James' The Varieties of Religious Experience is described as "like a Kama Sutra guide to the experiences of those who have sought release and satisfaction in religion" (310). Freud maintained that religion was an illusion (314) and connected religious belief with psychoanalysis in his Totem and Taboo (1913) which proposed that religious morality is based on an historical murder. Collective guilt of this act continues such that religion becomes "the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity." K. lets this view speak for itself. The final section of the book enters the realm of analytic philosophy, starting with Wittgenstein, who viewed religion as reasonable, and then detailing Alvin Plantinga's famous restatement of the ontological argument which still appears to work.

The appendix contains a neat chronology of the main works cited in the volume (from 1757 to 1971), abbreviations of some of the other works cited, a useful bibliography (listed by author), a list of the illustrations, and a brief index. All of this is nicely done and the whole book very handsomely produced. The final impression of the volume comes from the last paragraph. Here it is said that Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy, maintained that there were instances where philosophy had reached definitive answers to central questions. He gave as one example the ontological argument (History of Western Philosophy 752): "This as we have seen was invented by Anselm, rejected by Thomas Aquinas, accepted by Descartes, refuted by Kant, and reinstated by Hegel. I think it may be said quite decisively that as a result of the analysis of the concept 'existence' modern logic has proved this argument invalid." K. disagrees, explaining that Plantinga's reinstatement of the argument, using logical techniques unavailable to Russell, serves as a salutary warning of the danger that awaits any historian of logic who declares a philosophical issue definitively closed.

The idea that every philosophical issue is open to revision is appealing. However, a philosopher cannot operate with this particular thought in mind most of the time. A book such as this must take a stand. K. does not, and should not, keep an open mind--he is rightly opinionated and defends his many points of view on what we ought to concentrate on in the history of modern philosophy, which makes this book an interesting part of that history itself. The open-mindedness can apply, however, to the reader, who is then invited to revise or disagree with the ideas and arguments here presented.


1.   The book is not clearly divided into history and philosophy even along these lines. The interesting and important details such as the fact that Russell was John Stuart Mill's godson and that Anscombe was married to Geach are included only when their ideas are being discussed in later chapters. Indeed, within the first three chapters, those thinkers that are marked out as especially important to the development of modern analytic philosophy often have only their philosophical ideas and not personal details included in their "biography". Thus we learn in Chapter 3 that "Frege's philosophical legacy was enormous" and that he "made innovations in logic and advances in philosophy that permanently changed the whole map of both subjects" (43), but we hear nothing about Frege's family life or personal relationships except the mention of his son, who inherited his philosophical papers.
2.   This seems to be an unjustified inference and, at the very least, to belong to the personal history section of the book.

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