Letting the Third World sneak in

26th January 1996 at 00:00
World Philosophies: An Historical Introduction, By David Cooper, Blackwell Pounds 60, Pounds 14.99

Jonathan Ree finds a history of philosophy that reaches the parts that other collections cannot find.

The first general histories of philosophy, written in the 17th century, started a slow intellectual revolution. By placing ancient pagans like Plato and monkish scholastics like Aquinas in the same storyline as modern inventors like Hobbes and Descartes, they bred an open eclecticism - an aversion to self-enclosed dogma - which was to alter philosophy irrevocably.

By the end of the 18th century, however, the historical tail was beginning to wag the theoretical dog. Academic philosophy got so hung up on its past (or rather its version of it) that it sank into nostalgic melancholy, mournfully tracing and retracing the outlines of the systems of the great dead philosophers.

But bookshelves needed to be stocked, and histories of philosophy have duly proliferated. Essentially they are not works of historical research, of course, but recycled digests of philosophical doctrines, summarising several hundred thinkers from the pre-Socratics to the present, with cruel shortcuts. Though they sell well enough for the publishers, they have never brought much glory to their authors: however conscientiously they labour, they have always been ridiculed as philosophy's train-spotters, who watch all the great thinkers thundering past without ever taking any intellectual trips of their own.

The prestige of the synoptic historians has declined even further in the past 40 years. If they are to cover the traditional canon, they cannot possibly make room for newer topics like women and minorities, or technologies, institutions and social structures, or literary forms or scientific theories. They are implicitly committed, furthermore, to an image of intellectual influences sparking directly from one great man to the next, which no one outside a philosophy department will take seriously.Even the philosophers are slowly waking up to the fact that if interpretation is always open, then the all-seeing point of view of the histories of philosophy must be an illusion.

Under the circumstances, Blackwell was lucky in persuading David Cooper to undertake a new history for them. Despite affectations of fogeydom - he holds views on sociology departments, political correctness, leftists and Gallic pretentiousness - he is a philosopher of very broad sympathies. And he brings a new approach to the task, aiming to cover "philosophies from around the world" as well as the standard Western repertory.

Thus he devotes chapters to India and China, before reaching the usual starting point in Ancient Greece; he compares the European Renaissance with revivals of antiquity in India, China and Japan; and in a further chapter he surveys modern thought in Asia, the Islamic world and Africa. His geographical ambition is a breath of fresh air, to be sure.

But by far the larger part of Cooper's survey is dedicated to the usual great men of the West. As in all histories of philosophy, the narrative has the effect of diminishing them: they come across not as brave explorers, but as DIY duffers, obediently assembling their celebrated systems out of kits delivered to their door by historians of philosophy. Nietzsche, for instance, is reduced to "superimposing upon Hume's and Kant's claims a Schopenhauerian emphasis on the will and a robust nominalist view of the importance of language" - which makes it sound like the sort of household routine that a free spirit would leave to the servants, rather than the superhuman challenge Nietzsche took it to be.

Like other historians of philosophy, Cooper colours his narrative with personal details - Nietzsche is "hopeless in relations with women". But Cooper's anecdotes contain a fair smattering of second-hand error, and his expositions occasionally embody breathtaking misunderstandings (of Marx's theory of value, for instance).

Moreover the inclusion of non-Western thinkers threatens to upset the whole construction. No doubt Cooper's cosmopolitanism springs from generous motives, but when he discovers "empiricism" in the "philosophical stance" of the Buddha, or identifies "humanism" as "the main thrust of Chinese philosophy", it risks turning into backhanded imperial patronage. By what right does our Western recruiting sergeant press these exotic thinkers into the regiment of "systematic philosophers"? To what purpose does he subject them to interrogations devised for European thinkers, and of questionable appropriateness even to them?

Cooper catches a glimpse of the problem when he summarises an argument against "African Philosophy" mounted in 1980 by Paulin Hountondji. The missionaries and anthropologists who presented traditional African beliefs as "a philosophy", Hountondji suggested, may have thought they were being pro-African, but effectively they were trying to bar African thinkers from Western philosophical debates. The argument makes Cooper uneasy: he has to admit, for example, that British philosophy as he conceives it is not the highest common factor in the metaphysical opinions of the British population.

But then, how can he justify his samplings of philosophy from different traditions? He may be right to treat Mao Tse-tung and Ayatollah Khomeini as leading representatives of modern philosophy in China and the Islamic world; but in that case W V Quine is a quixotic nomination as the "most influential postwar American thinker", and the European team should probably have featured Enver Hoxha and J B Priestley as well as Edmund Husserl and Karl Popper.

The ways of philosophy have always been too erratic and diverse to be comprehended in general histories. But by opening the door to cross-cultural comparison, Cooper has let in a draught that may blow away the whole house of cards, and uncover the parts of philosophy that the histories never reached.

Jonathan Ree teaches philosophy at Middlesex University

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