Ideas Of The Great Philosophers, by William S. Sahakian & Mabel Lewis Sahakian
This is a slim but very technical volume about the basic branches of philosophy. Some explanation of its contents ought to determine if this volume is of interest to potential readers. The book contains six parts: it starts with epistemology and logic (my own favorite branch of philosophy), including criteria for truth, logical errors and fallacies, and the problem of truth. Then the author discusses the ethics and philosophies of life, briefly touching on Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus (Hedonism), Epicetus (Stoicism), Utilitarianism, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhaur’s pessimism, Nietzsche’s Naturalism, Royce’s theory of Loyalty, and the Ethial Realism of George Edward Moore. After this the book examines social, political, and legal philosophy, including Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Hagel, and Karl Marx. Then the book changes tack and examines some of the important parts of philosophy of religion: conceptions of God, the problem of God’s existence (proofs of God), Agnosticism and Atheism, the soul, the mind-body problem, immortality, and the problem of evil (a particularly important question for me). The rather short fifth section examines metaphysics, looking at pre-Cartesian and modern post-Cartesian metaphysics in a rather quick way. Finally, the author examines some “contemporary” types of philosophy, most of which are already pretty dated, including dialectical materialism, pragmatism and instrumentalism, classical positivism, logical positivism and the analytic school, neo-scholaciticism and neo-Thomism, neorealism and critical realism, personalism (which used to be based out of the University of Southern California, apparently), phenomenology and phenomenalism, and existentialism and neo-orthodoxy. If you don’t like a lot of unfamiliar language and discussion about obscure branches of philosophy, this is probably not a book for you. If you do, you’re in luck, as it is a quick read of around 160 pages, if a bit complicated.
There are definitely a few straightforward observations that can be made from this volume. One is that it takes a certain amount of time to sift different schools of philosophy (as it does for literature) to separate those schools of thought that are relatively enduring and important from those who are only of the most ephemeral importance. This is not to say that time will eliminate all erroneous ideas, but that it will at least separate fads from serious ways of thought that need to be urgently addressed by serious thinking people (the presumable audience for such a book). This book slightly errs by paying too much attention to contemporary fads at the time the book was published, though that is perhaps an unavoidable flaw of any book that attempts to be relevant about a subject of such ferocious hostility like philosophy.
Another insight that can be gained from a book like this is that just about any possible intellectual ground that one could stand on has been claimed by some school of thought or some philosopher. This is not a surprising phenomenon, to be sure, but the fact that there is “nothing new under the sun” is a striking revelation of the philosophical truth of revealed scripture. It should be noted that this book has no interest in what is said by revealed scripture, but rather its interest is in the world of ideas that have come from the mind of mankind, and the book takes a somewhat skeptical attitude towards the miraculous even as it defends at least some place for revelation, while also showing a lot of the logical fallacies of evolutionists.
A third insight may be an unintentional one, not meant by the author, but certainly something that I gathered from this book and its understated and dry approach. As someone whose main philosophical interests are in the theory of knowledge, epistemology, and logical fallacies, I try to avoid too great a dogmatism about those areas that are clearly beyond human comprehension, but it would appear as if a major philosophical problem is the need to speculate dogmatically on areas that are far beyond our ability to understand, to the point of making sweeping and rash generalizations for the universe, the relationship of the body and mind (and spirit), and the nature of God and the universe. Most of the time it would appear as if philosophers are prone to engaging in false dilemmas and a striking lack of humility in the face of our obvious limitations.
One caution that I would give to any reader of this book, or anyone who shares my own wary interest in philosophy, is that a philosopher is a rather dangerous sort of person to become. The issue is not that being intellectual is bad, but rather that being a philosopher means being an evaluator of what is good and noble, and being a judge of the right and wrong way to think and behave. In fact, it might be argued that being a philosopher as this book describes the task is to automatically place one’s self up as a god, and to therefore rebel against God by presuming to be an authority of God rather than a subject of God’s authority and a student of His ways. Those of us who share an interest in philosophical matters must be very wary that our development of our God-given intellectual capacity does not lead to an intellectual arrogance that leads us to presume that we can become an authority in deciding right and wrong for ourselves, rather than choosing to obey God or not. The pitfalls of intellectual arrogance are demonstrated in this book in a rather short and understated way, but it bears mention for those who might find this book’s points a bit too subtle. Given that we are man, and that the universe and God are far beyond our grasp, we ought to remain humble in the face of our ignorance. As this short book on philosophy amply demonstrates, such humility has been very rare in Western civilization (which is this book’s sole focus). If there is to be any peace between Athens and Jerusalem, it will have to be the Job-like silence of the self-styled philosopher in the face of God’s greatness and majesty.