Edward G. Nilges


Where is the Love of Wisdom? 

A review of Richard H. Popkin (ed.): The Columbia History 

of Western Philosophy



The Columbia History of Western Philosophy (2000) narrates western philosophy in a more collective way than traditional histories of philosophy, and, for related reasons, its editor, Richard H. Popkin, has called upon a diverse group of specialists to edit the chapters. 

 This is both Politically Correct and academically conventional, but it means that the Columbia history is not a good introduction to philosophy for the general reader: instead it is an excellent reference book for someone already versed in philosophy.

 In former days, the history of philosophy was biographical, and focused on the thought of the major dead white males.  The 17th century was  narrated as the philosophical biographies of Descartes, Leibnitz, and Spinoza.  The 18th century was Hume and Kant, and so on.  The best example of this is Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.

 The Russellian way of narrating the history of philosophy is nothing special, for like the current Political Correctness, the Dead White Male narrative itself has a history and an archeology: it dates from Hegel’s project, which was, with no false humility and a peasant-like directness that Theodore Adorno has identified, to narrate the history of philosophy culminating in the philosopher narrator himself.  Despite his attractive and English wit and diffidence as contrasted with Hegel’s ponderous self-importance, Lord Russell wrote in this tradition…of the “grand narrative.”

 There are aporias in both styles.  The defining vice of the Hegel and Russell narrative is the way in which it ignores the contribution of groups, women and minorities.  The defining vice of the Politically Correct style found in Popkin is the way in which authoritarianism creeps in unchallenged, and, at worst, the death of laughter and surprise.

 In the interest of fairness and Political Correctness, we can indeed narrate (for example) Spinoza in context rather than as sui generis and sub specie aeternitatis.  The Cambridge History of 17th Century Philosophy, edited by Garber Ayers, does this even more than Popkin’s book, because its very chapter headings are no longer the names of the big guys, they are instead in correspondence with the major intellectual themes and concerns of the 17th century milieu.

 This does not seem “authoritarian.”  But this neglects the fundamental fact about the thought of both ancient and modern philosophers: the anti-authoritarianism that defines philosophy.

 Note that in the modern American university, with its exploited students majoring in what Lawrence Grossberg has called “pre-wealth” out of naked fear of corporate hegemony, to major in philosophy is to be coded as a slacker.  It seems, in this environment, not possible to imagine that despite the contraction in opportunities to teach philosophy that first-tier universities still need to staff their faculties in philosophy.  The pre-wealth major is instead encouraged to imagine herself as a “marketable” (or not) commodity, intrinsically shop-soiled, who must perforce major in computer studies as a “practical” matter.  Gone is any traditional notion of vocation, and a nasty quantitiative spirit (whose ultimate monument is Las Vegas and not Chartres) takes its place.

 But there is a deeper reason why to take an interest in philosophy is to be coded as a slacker.  If philosophy has any core, any essence, any final narrative at all, it is “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  It is Socrates encouraging the young fellows of Athens to think for themselves.  It is Ludwig Wittgenstein writing in an Italian POW camp (at the close of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus) that the reader should use his book not with reverence or with awe, but as a sort of metaphysical toilet paper, to be discarded once the reader has seen the world alright.

 Richard Rorty may characterize the philosopher as a tyrant, with a grand narrative the philosopher would like to ram down our gullet at the point of the gun, and there is some truth in Rorty’s picture.  But Rorty’s picture ignores the ways in which philosophical ideas are distorted in transmission: it now appears, for example, that the entire tragedy of the former Soviet Union may have been based on a failure to read Marx’s incomplete Grundrisse and Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.  Socialism plus electricity may be only electricity if a technocratic narrative discounts the effect of political economy on the human spirit.

 To provide equal time in the interest of Political Correctness to the context in which a philosopher must work is to relate in tedious fashion an intellectual climate informed throughout history by fear and repression.  The critics of Baruch Spinoza were not like Spinoza: they were unwilling to forego place and position in 17th century Holland for a mere idea, and they were not in love with wisdom.  It is worthwhile from a purely academic standpoint to show how Spinoza worked in a Rabbinical and Scholastic matrix but (reading Popkin, and also Wolfson 1983) we find that this was a damaged world: the Jews of Holland, courtesy of their expulsion from their ancient place in Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella at the close of the 15th century, had only a dim understanding of their own Talmud.  Spinoza's insights are, if anything can be, the exception that proves the rule.

 Throughout his book, Popkin’s authors provide this Politically Correct equal time and the general reader already well-versed in philosophy can learn much.  But Popkin, in the selfsame interests of Political Correctness, fails to have his team judge, and for that matter, the judgments of a team are almost guaranteed to be a least common denominator.  Adorno's acidic comments on industrial specialization are a reminder of this.

 As a result, the sophisticated and academic reader can be left with more questions than answers, but the general reader is, I think, ultimately confused: did Plato mean what Plato said or was Plato messing with our minds?  Should Spinoza have gotten married and settled down?  Was Theodore Adorno a schnook or a good guy?

 The unread student of philosophy is like Dante who needs a singular guide: Popkin’s stable does not provide this and Popkin himself is no Mantuan.  Our times seem to have seen a deconstruction of the personality in which whatever we are, we are no Jack Kennedy, we are not Prince Hamlet, we are not Virgil: our humility decomposes into low self-esteem.  The students are left to fend for themselves and to form their own views.

 A series of facts without judgment defines boredom.  If it is not possible any more to tell the story of Western philosophy as a triumphal march, it would be better to connect the tale with scandalous details on the ways in which interpretations, and misinterpretations, of Western philosophy have caused human suffering.  Tell us, then, that René Descartes carried with himself a 17th century love doll, a female automaton and tell us if this relates at all to Cartesian dualism. 

 Precisely because corporate hegemony biases the universities toward the right, to be even-handed is to let the retrograde slip through: at one point, The Cambridge History of 17th Century Philosophy (Garber 1998) recounts a syllogism without comment to the effect that because all men are white and Africans are not white, Africans are not men.  Such nonsense does not, fortunately, evade Popkin’s sharp editorial eye, but it remains that failure to judge allows other players to judge.

 A volume could be written on the way in which vernacular Cartesianism creates the personality known in America as the “creep” or in the UK as the "bounder."  People laugh nowadays, here in America, at classes like “the philosophy of sports” (although Bourdieu 1990 has taken this seriously) or the critical  theory of data processing (although I take this seriously), but to me this is the laughter of lost and anxious children who simply do not know that the body of the out of shape is as much constructed by vernacular Cartesianism as by idiot coaches, and who simply haven’t addressed how the agenda of computer science is set by corporate hegemony.

 Andrea Nye of the University of Wisconsin has written Words of Power (Nye 1990), a volume on the way in which male domination of the field of logic has replaced logic with a Nietzschean power struggle that does not speak its name.  This is a political correctness that takes risks but it has been drained out of Popkin’s history.

 The academic anxiety is being wrong on significant new "facts" and more generally not being au fait.  This anxiety leads to a reluctance to engage in "grand" narratives, which is praiseworthy but also a disservice to the next generation.

 Each generation should learn a story, even if it's wrong.  For this reason, the philosophical novel Sophie's World (which I have not read) might be a better starting point. 

 It is said that in today’s university, with its growing corporate domination, its Political Correctness, and its students majoring in pre-wealth, that the students are alienated.  The real alienation is that of the teachers who no longer deliver a coherent narrative.  Why does the truth make us free?  Why not sit back and let kings, priests and now CEOs do all our thinking for us?  Was Theodore Adorno a schnook or a good guy?

 The alienation of the teachers is a clear message in the Columbia history.  This is a growing phenomenon in books and in multivolume series which, primarily to increase sales, use the imprimatur of a respected university as their unifying semiotic.  The alienation is in a reluctance to interfere with another discipline’s rice bowl.

 I long for a somewhat earlier point in time when individual genius slipped through the cracks in hegemony.  In the 1950s, books were already coming out in series or with the name of a respected university in part as a marketing tool: East Jesus Technical School can’t publish books, but Columbia and Princeton can, and by releasing books in series with a consistent look and feel the marketing costs are amortized.  All this was benign, but not when it infected editing.  However, in the 1950s, some writers were able to slip through the closing door.

 An out of print volume in The Cambridge History of English Literature on 16th Century Literature (excluding Drama) was written by Clive Staples Lewis, and every page is a joy to read…precisely because Lewis swam against the tide and foregrounded his favorite Celts (such as William Dunbar of Lament for the Makarys and “Timor Mors Conturbat Me” fame.)  Lewis did not do so to be Politically Correct in an alienated fashion, he did so because he liked the jingle jangle of the verse.  None of the author’s in Popkin’s stable seems to have fallen in love with wisdom. 

 Anhedonia seems to be a meal ticket in academe.  C. S. Lewis very appreciation of verse is now the sign of the not-serious, the naïve.  Recently, Stanley Fish (on his accession to an overpaid administrative position at the University of Illinois) said “I won’t read a poem unless I’m paid.”

 Wystan Hugh Auden, years ago, exhibited unfashionable hedonia when he wrote an introduction to the Portable Greek Reader.  Auden may have been wrong on the details but he left the reader with an insight: that the Greeks were probably as crazy as we are today.  Popkin’s authors on the Greeks do not leave us with this positive insight they leave us instead with more questions.  That is, Auden clearly thought it was a good thing that the Greeks were not as the Germans fancied them during the German Biedermeyer period, serene and above it all as the Germans wanted to be.  Writing in the immediate postwar context Auden was concerned to make an anti-Fascist value judgment, did so in his introduction, and got paid for it: this probably couldn’t happened today unless authorized top-down.  And, the contemporary problem with strong anti-Fascism is precisely its questioning of non-Fascist authority.

 Merely because the history of philosophy was in former times Eurocentric and male chauvinist should not make teachers of philosophy reluctant to make value judgments, and making value judgments is a key to telling a story.  Refusing to judge is not fairness:  it can be a form of cowardice.  Hegel produced much evil by subordinating the individual to the collective: Hegel also can be opened, more or less at random, to find sentences that speak directly to our loneliness when it is based on our failure to acknowledge another’s subjectivity.  Marx produced much more evil but Marx shows precisely the hypocrisy of English mill-owners who decried government regulation of hours but used those selfsame regulations as incentive to automate, and grow wealthy beyond the dreams of the older mill owners.  West African philosophers, we learn from being multiculturally correct, generalized the thin Eurocentric concept of “truth” to one of life-force which overcomes dualism, and could ground a philosophy of sports were we to overcome both our racism (silenced but not eradicated by the Politically Correct.) 

We can spark the student’s interest by relating philosophy to human freedom, but this Popkin does not do.  We can tell the student that the best philosophy, like the best music, has at times been made in times of war, whether it was Hegel writing the last words of the Phenomenology of Mind as Bonaparte’s guns spoke at Jena, Descartes’ service in the Thirty Years War, or Wittgenstein in camp: but this would not be politically correct because this speaks to the needs of the boys (although contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum has spoke to the boys at West Point.) 

 To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, and if this history is evidence of the soul of the modern university, gone is the capacity for laughter and surprise.




 Bourdieu 1990: Pierre Bourdieu, In Other Words : Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology.  Palo Alto, CA, Stanford University Press.

Garber et al. 1998: Daniel Garber and Michael Ayers, ed., The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Nye 1990: Andrea Nye, Words of Power: a Feminist Reading of the History of Logic.  London: Routledge.

Popkin 2000: Richard H. Popkin, ed., The Columbia History of Western Philosophy.  New York: Columbia University Press

Wolfson 1983: Harry Austryn Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza: Unfolding the Latent Processes of his Reasoning.  Cambridge, MA, 1983: Harvard University Press.