The Dream of Enlightenment by Anthony Gottlieb

Standard histories of philosophy treat the subject in a methodical and scholarly fashion, attempting to encapsulate the whole business in a short number of volumes. Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, Freddie Copleston’s ‘A History of Philosophy’ (11 vols.), and Anthony Kenny’s ‘A New History of Western Philosophy (originally 3 volumes) have been ready to hand for generations of students. The tone in these is pretty high minded and professorial. They present the canonical story.

In presenting his own alternative, Anthony Gottlieb uses a more journalistic and casual tone without compromising the seriousness of the content. Gottlieb has spent most of his career on the editorial staff of The Economist from 1984-2006, including being its Executive Editor. He is able to deploy a wide range of  cultural reference in re-telling the tale of all the great thinkers of the past.

Gottlieb takes the view that in the 2,500 years of western thought there have been long stretches of stagnation and short bursts of creativity. Naturally, he seeks to present the game changing phases, doing so with panache, insight and humour. His first title was ‘The Dream of Reason’ (2000) covering the period from the early Greeks to the Renaissance. As a follow up he offers us ‘The Dream of Enlightenment’ (2016) in which he covers the period from the early 1640s to the eve of the French Revolution. Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, and Hume are the major figures whose¬†thought opened up the whole new world of modern philosophy. We are all children of these Enlightenment figures. Sadly, there are now plenty of dark forces eager to snuff out the candle with their guns, bombs, torture,¬†creeds, dogma, mumbo-jumbo and ‘post-truth’ gibberish.

Because Gottlieb is not bewitched by reason, he is able to put the achievements of the thinkers in this book in their place, neither exaggerating nor diminishing them. He is as crisp in his criticism of the thinkers he admires as he is of their shallow opponents. Descartes, he writes, ‘tried to work out too much in his head’ and his ‘theological arguments are flimsy’. The Enlightenment philosophers made mistakes. Nevertheless, the author makes a convincing case that in the battles for scientific progress, against religion, and against injustice, they fought on the right side. We have to remember that they lived in a time when Hobbes‚Äôs materialism earned him the nickname the ‘Monster of Malmesbury’, and when ‘denying that there was such a thing as a witch was as bad as being one.’ In helping us to understand these pioneers, Gottlieb has continued their work of making ours, if not the ‘best of all possible worlds’, then ‘an intellectually adventurous, and a less ignorant one’.¬† Amen to that.

Gottlieb has begun work on the final volume in his trilogy which will cover Kant to the present day. The first two volumes are already good enough to be on your shelves.

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320 pages in Allen Lane

First published 2016

ISBN  978-0713995442

Anthony Gottlieb


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