A graduate student in philosophy asks about histories of philosophy:
Suppose I wanted, over time, to work through a text or series of texts. Which ones are worthy of consideration? I've heard good things about Copleston's 11 volumes. There's also Russell's history of western philosophy and Anthony Kenny has done a history as well. Do you recommend any of those (or perhaps another)? I should say that any history text will not supplant primary sources; it would be an addition to them.
While Bertrand Russell is entertaining, I can't recommend his history. He wrote it for money, or rather he dictated it for money. (When he was asked why he wrote a blurb for a certain book, he said that he had a hundred good reasons: the author paid him $100.) For a taste, consider the following passage from Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1945), p. 427. I found it here, but without a link and without a reference. So, exploiting the resources of my well-stocked library, I located the passage, and verified that it had been properly transcribed. Whether Russell is being entirely fair to the Arabs is a further question. In fact, I am pretty sure that he is not being fair to Avicenna (Ibn Sina) who played a key role in the development of the metaphysics of essence and existence.
Arabic philosophy is not important as original thought. Men like Avicenna and Averroes are essentially commentators. Speaking generally, the views of the more scientific philosophers come from Aristotle and the Neoplatonists in logic and metaphysics, from Galen in medicine, from Greek and Indian sources in mathematics and astronomy, and among mystics religious philosophy has also an admixture of old Persian beliefs. Writers in Arabic showed some originality in mathematics and in chemistry; in the latter case, as an incidental result of alchemical researches. Mohammedan civilization in its great days was admirable in the arts and in many technical ways, but it showed no capacity for independent speculation in theoretical matters. Its importance, which must not be underrated, is as a transmitter. Between ancient and modern European civilization, the dark ages intervened. The Mohammedans and the Byzantines, while lacking the intellectual energy required for innovation, preserved the apparatus of civilization, books, and learned leisure. Both stimulated the West when it emerged from barbarism; the Mohammedans chiefly in the thirteenth century, the Byzantines chiefly in the fifteenth. In each case the stimulus produced new thought better than that produced by the transmitters -- in the one case scholasticism, in the other the Renaissance (which however had other causes also).
Copleston is good, and you might also consider Hegel. He will broaden you and counteract the probably excessively analytic atmosphere which you now breathe. But the Swabian genius is quirky and opinionated just like Lord Russell. When he comes to the medieval period in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, he puts on his “seven-league boots” the better to pass over this thousand year period without sullying his fine trousers. (Vol. III, 1)
Summing up the “General Standpoint of the Scholastics,” he has this to say: “...this Scholasticism on the whole is a barbarous philosophy of the finite understanding, without real content, which awakens no true interest in us, and to which we cannot return.” “Barren,” and “rubbishy” are other terms with which he describes it. (Vol. III, 94-95) The politically correct may wish to consider whether the descendants of Hegel should pay reparations to the descendants of Thomas Aquinas, et al.
ComBox open for anyone with recommendations.