Saturday, November 14, 2020

Review of The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance by Anthony Gottlieb

This review was written by Eugene Kernes

Book can be found in:
Genre = Philosophy

Elaborate Description

When something in philosophy becomes useful, it stops being considered philosophy. Philosophy is a mindset aimed at questioning anything and everything. Philosophers come in various forms from questioning everything to making grand dictates of certainty. Particular philosophers gained support for their views which facilitated divisions between different groups. Many philosophers simplified and made grotesque caricatures of other schools of thought which greatly influenced the way each school is perceived. Philosophy tends to be encumbered with many prevailing views of the day in order to be accepted, such as theories and observations needed to be reconciled with the regional religion. The range of philosophy covered in this book comes from different regions and eras. Starting with Greek philosophy from roughly late seventh century B.C.E., then unto Roman philosophy from roughly late fourth century B.C.E. and last to philosophy characterized by Christianity from roughly mid sixth century C.E. until early fifteenth century. The center of philosophy changed due to regional power struggles.

Many ideas from the past about motion and matter were wrong, but some are really close to how we understand the ideas today. The basis for the periodic table and many ideas from physics are successors of early philosophers. Nature facilitated some philosophical ideas such as meteor strike or salt crystals extracted from sea. These events were taken to generalizations, trying to fit these natural events with everyday life. Along with observations, there was experimentation in early philosophy but it was not systematic. Certain philosophers and some of their successors did experiment, but it was sporadic and not ubiquitous.

Philosophers came all over to Athens as it welcomed inquiry. Philosophers basing their ideas on observations were usually from Ionia. The other philosophers are now considered idealists as they were searching for the perfect such as the Platonic Form. Even though senses may not represent what is actually true, the idealists tended to dismiss senses and base their ideas on reason. Even some philosophies, it was their way of thinking about the world which caused the individual to understand and then behave in a moral and ethical way.

There are many early philosophers like Pythagoras. For the Pythagoreans, numbers were everything that made life. As Gottlieb mentions, the motivation for mathematical inquiries was moral and spiritual. Another early philosopher was Heraclitus whose philosophy sees a world of opposites. Opposites means opposition and war. Harmony is brought about by their interactions.

The term Sophist has a derogatory meaning because of the attacks of Plato and Aristotle. They are seen as having a goal to win by any means rather than seek truth. Gottlieb explains that sophist was a term for people who taught for money which would be many professions. The Sophists wanted to reinstate human experience into the complex reality, which was in opposition to Plato who wanted to move beyond everyday experience. An example of Sophists philosophy sees morality as a human construction.

Much of what is known about Socrates comes from Plato’s writing, which is tricky because Plato attributed much to Socrates which was not part of Socrates’s philosophy. Although Socrates stated that he held no firm opinions, Plato credits Socrates with many firm opinions. Socrates did not write anything down because writing does not properly portray the collaborative process of discussion and argument which leads to individual realizations. Gottlieb references Socrates dialectic as the elimination of error by debate, as a way of attaining wisdom. Within this philosophy, inefficient and immoral behavior was caused by ignorance, so knowledge became the cure. Although Gottlieb does not reference this, from the dialogue of Socrates, it seems that many of Socrates questions were anchoring questions rather than neutral questions, as in a question with an implied right answer rather than an open answer. This anchoring seems to be more of what Plato was attacking in the Sophists.

Plato’s philosophy holds that genuine knowledge as something unchanging and stable such a Form. Everything else tries to mimic these Forms. The senses provided a distorting view opinion of knowledge. Reason was the key to understanding what the senses told. Plato tried to design a seemingly perfect system within the Republic. Even within a system meant to produce the best outcomes had problems for which Plato tried to reason out. Another of Plato’s philosophical strands is proper judgment. Such as to judge something as more appropriate, a person needed to experience the potential alternatives.

Aristotle is the founder of formal logic known as syllogisms which was expanded by later philosophers with propositional logic. Intellectual debate was thought to be resolved with logic. Logic was a system which used rationality to defeat blind faith. Besides logic, Aristotle did experiments and wanted experiments to be kept from external pressure. Artificial experiments changed the subject’s behavior and made the situation more confusing.

Many schools of thought flourished after the three well known philosophers. Three schools of thought in particular held for years which were Epicureans, Stoics, and Sceptics. Epicureans thought physics and logical exercise could prevent irrational fear thereby having no obstacle to happiness. For them, inquiry was meant to end dangerously false beliefs. Epicureans philosophy was trying to live in accordance with nature, which meant the solution to problems was the need to understand nature.

The Stoics saw conventional societies values as irrelevant distractions. Their key ingredient was learning to live with the inevitable. A resigned acceptance to what will happen. The Sceptics were seen as denying reality for they questioned every observation and theory. Sceptics themselves did not really oppose observations and theories, they described alternatives for argument. Sceptics philosophy is based on the understanding that there was still much to learn. A cautionary approach to ideas as to reduce dogma.

During the medieval period of Western history, philosophy was not prolific. With the fewer philosophers, their philosophy was subject to Christian theology. The church tried to stifle alternatives, but could not prevent it. Rediscovered texts coming from the East helped facilitate the production of new ideas. Philosophy was hindered, but did not end. Many later scientists and philosophers have roots in the medieval period.

An issue with this book is that most of it is about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Within the discussion of other philosophers, Gottlieb portrays these three philosophers in them. This makes it confusing to extract what a particular philosopher though as it is tied to an explanation of another who came later. As these later philosophers have space dedicated to them later in the book, certain information should have been detailed later. Other times, there are explanations for past philosophers that are attached to future philosophers, which the explanations would have been more helpful earlier. Sometimes it was partly necessary to use future philosophers claims to express the prior philosophers’ ideas as more of their work survived in translation or original. Some philosophers survive only in the accounts of others making it hard to untangle who thought what such as with Plato using Socrates as a mouthpiece when Socrates himself would have actually disagreed with Plato’s ideas.

Gottlieb does a wonderful job at not only explaining various philosophies, but also at not going to the extremes of what is said about the philosophies from the opposition’s perspective. Some parts were more tedious to read partly because the topic itself was more convoluted. Philosophy is a general approach to trying to understand how life works. Some philosophers used it for therapy, others for political purpose. What matters is that philosophy helps ideas grow. Over time, no matter how wrong or right the idea is, the ideas influence the creation of other ideas which impact everyday life.

Book Details

Edition ISBN:  9780393049510
Pages to read:   452
Publication:     2016
1st Edition:      2000
Format:            Paperback

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall           5