The Story of Philosophy

by Will Durant. New York: Simon and Shuster. 1926. Large 8vo. xiv+577 pp. Illustrated. $5.00.
IN this book the reader is offered a fair substitute for the impressions he might expect to receive from a general college course in the history of thought. But it is more than likely that an experience of both would leave many readers grateful to Dr. Durant rather than to the college lecturer. For Dr. Durant is vivacious and readable; often he seems most successful as a biographical essayist keeping company with the pundits, one or two of whom he is not above patronizing. His success is considerable, too, in presenting the philosophers by lively and copious quotations of their works. The contemporary reader will be pleased with his attempt to sketch the economic and social milieu of developing thought where it is appropriate to do so. The book springs, indeed, from the author’s personal desire to tell the story of a significant group of philosophers enjoyably and concretely, and with the purposes of living in view. Ethical, political, and social philosophy enjoy his preference; against epistemology he frankly rebels. This preference also will commend him to the general reader, whose admiration will easily be won for a book of philosophy which is neither academic, systematically befuddling, nor a mockery to fullblooded life.
Yet certain reservations ought to be made, in fairness to academic probity, against acceptance of Dr. Durant’s book at its entire face value. The author refers in his preface to his ‘inadequate treatment of the half-legendary pre-Soeratics, the Stoics and the Epicureans, the Scholastics, and the epistemologists. ’ This is a fairly sturdy roll call of inadequate treatment for a book entitled The Story of Philosophy. Short shrift is administered to important schools and figures, and very nearly no shrift at all to others. The reader most apt to enjoy the volume is perhaps not likely to protest what he is not told in it; but a much larger proportion of the actual story of philosophy might be made equally interesting.
Dr. Durant’s criticism of the various philosophies is often anything but philosophic. ‘It is astounding,’ he observes, ‘ that so subtle a thinker and so ethereal a poet as Santayana should tie to his neck the millstone of a philosophy which after centuries of effort is as helpless as ever to explain the growth of a flower or the laughter of a child.’ A sentimentalism so unblushing leads one to ask if Dr. Durant has not sympathized beyond his intellectual good with the revolt against logic. It may be doubted if his confirmed objection to epistemology has made him the best expositor of that part of the history of thought which is the special province of philosophy. He would leave to psychology the problem of knowledge; but psychology has found its bent in the study of behavior. ‘Philosophy,’says Dr. Durant, in a passage consistent with his own views, ‘has withdrawn herself timidly from her own concerns — men and their life in the world — into a crumbling corner called epistemology.’ Men and their life in the world are fair game for the polite essayist, the psychological novelist, the playwright, the reformer, the sociologist, the statesman, the poet, and many others who are philosophers only because any expression of intellect partakes of philosophy. The vast problems of modern society cry aloud for the help of every earnest intellect; but philosophy in its own inner character and delight has its own problems and motives, and its own answers to popular questions—answers which spring from a wisdom which would be impossible if there were not men to detach themselves in some measure from prepossession with existence to behold it under the aspect of eternity. That philosophy has been bewitched by the unreal, ravaged by scholasticism and dogmatism, no one will deny. That it need always suffer from its aberrations, or that it should abandon its problems in favor of the immediate and the practical, only the unphilosophic will assert. Perhaps what is popularized in a book of this sort must necessarily be a little less than philosophy. But Dr. Durant, writing ably and conscientiously, has given the common reader an interesting and enlivening introduction to a variety of thinkers who have profoundly influenced the modern world. His enthusiastic text and footnotes are an encouragement and a guide to a further acquaintance with the great philosophers through their own works.
THEODORE MORRISON