“Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom”, states Will Durant in the introduction to this book that chronicles the lives and opinions of Western philosophers from Socrates to John Dewey. The idea behind this book is to make philosophy accessible to the layman, and as one among the intended audience, I can say that it does a fantastic job of it!
There are nine chapters each dedicated to a philosopher, and two additional ones that capture the thoughts (in lesser detail) of three European and three American contemporary philosophers. (the book was published in 1924, so ‘contemporary’ is actually almost a century away) One of the great aspects of this book is how it manages to give the milieu in which the philosophers operated – both the socio-political contexts and the influences of his predecessors.
This gives a wonderful flow to the overall narrative and gives the reader a kind of seamless path of thought. The effect of their personal lives on their thinking has also been well captured.
It isn’t as though the content is not heavy – after all, these are the greatest thinkers of our times, but the author has taken great pains to ensure that most of it is still within the reach of an average reader. The language is also simple and the author has to be as unbiased as possible in his summarising, though he clearly has his favourites. Aristotle, Bacon, Voltaire, whose quotes I have seen on many occasions, suddenly acquire more relevance and context. Though I could instinctively relate to German idealism, the one I found truly difficult was Kant!
The best thing about the book is that it gives the reader an excellent start in the domain. For instance, in my case, I have discovered at least four philosophers whose works I’d like to read in detail. It really helps that the author, in his notes, gives us his recommendations of the books we should explore if we would like to discover more of the thinker’s views. While I might not have become a lot wiser, this entree has given me a wide range of perspectives and thought points, and a desire to explore the field further.