I have not read A. C. Grayling’s new History of Philosophy (Penguin), but Nicholas Stang provides an interesting summary of the work and of the challenges facing similar intellectual pursuits. Stang points out that philosophy is different from technical or scientific disciplines. He echoes the view of Etienne Gilson, French Thomist of the last century: “no man can carry very far his own philosophical reflections unless he first studies the history of philosophy.” We are constantly assessing the views of those who came before us. But where Stang (like Gilson) differs from his peers is his belief that not all systems are on the same level. Ultimately, scholars must provide more than the survey of a lot of clever and contradictory theories.
“Philosophy’s questions,” Stang notes, “seem timeless, but its methods are not. The Greeks were the first to use reason systematically.” Grayling, we are told, is generally agnostic about metaphysical truths though he is (curiously) averse to both Marxist and theistic worldviews. But perhaps it is not so odd after all, since either outlook makes definitive claims about the meaning and purpose of human existence. For this reason some thinkers eschew any sort of doctrinaire system. Yet middle of the road solutions haven’t fared particularly well either, especially in the face of more confident belief systems. As Stang concludes: “narrating the history of philosophy can’t be properly pursued without staking, and defending, philosophical claims in one’s voice about truth, reason, history and teleology.”