Review: A.C. Grayling's "History of Philosophy"

A.C. Grayling’s “History of Philosophy” is a recent entry into the genre of “History of Philosophy” books. There are already several well-made accounts in this genre, such as Russel’s “History of Western Philosophy” and Will Durant’s “History of Philosophy”. Grayling’s book is different from those other accounts, however.

First and most obviously, this book is far newer than either Russel’s or Durant’s account. Grayling’s account was released last year in 2019, while Russel and Durant wrote in the early 20th century. Philosophy has expanded quite a bit since those times.

Secondly, Grayling is more comprehensive than Durant or Russel. Grayling’s account covers the usual figures like Aristotle and Kant, but he also covers traditions other than those in Western Philosophy. Grayling discusses Chinese, Arabic, and African philosophy as well. These sections are at the back of the book, as the focus is still on the rich traditions of Western Philosophy, but their inclusion is certainly welcomed, especially in a book that claims to detail the history of philosophy.

Grayling also clearly states what he considers to be “philosophy”. He excludes theological concerns, providing that they do not relate to questions of metaphysics, ethics, etc. Grayling recognizes the line between the two, but also recognizes that the boundaries are occasionally blurred as well. He does cover Aquinas in his more philosophical thought, but does not his more theological writings.

As an introduction to the field of philosophy as a whole, this book does well. Grayling is a lucid writer, and can clearly summarize complex ideas. There are occasional sections where I found myself wishing that a particular concept is explained more thoroughly, especially when it is part of a series of ideas that build on each other, but these occurrences are sparse.

Even for readers that are knowledgeable in the field of philosophy, this book is still worth a read. Grayling covers such a vast array of thinkers that anyone who is not an expert will have their knowledge increased. This is especially true in the chapters on Chinese and Arabic philosophy, as these sections are generally not well known to most.

Grayling is also very adapt at giving small tidbits of interesting information about different philosophers all throughout the book that help give some flavor to the accounts. An example of this is a fact from the life of Thales of Miletus. Grayling states that one year, Thales predicted that there would be a large crop of olives, so he rented out all the local olive presses in anticipation of this crop. Sure enough, the crop was abnormally large, and Thales turned a large profit by renting these presses back out to farmers. Grayling tells us that Aristotle pointed to this as an example of Philosophers being able to be rich if they wished, but decide not to. The book has many of these intriguing historical facts.

There is very little criticism that I can give. The main issue I encountered while reading is that the book is very dense. It can be difficult to get through several chapters in one sitting, especially if you are taking notes. This is not a strike against Grayling necessarily, but rather, a result of condensing thousands of years’ worth of thought into several hundred pages.

A.C. Grayling’s “History of Philosophy” is, in a word, excellent. I believe this to be the new gold standard when it comes to books of this kind and philosophy textbooks. To anyone looking to start learning more about the field of philosophy, I can think of no better place to start.

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