Thinking ahead

3rd March 1995 at 00:00
Jane O'Grady believes the latest Cambridge Companions on great thinkers are likely to be challenging but valuable to teachers of young people who, newly seduced by philosophy through reading Sophie's World, will be looking for guides in their further explorations.

The Cambridge Companion to Plato Edited by Richard Kraut #163;40.

The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, Edited by N Kretzmann and E Stump #163;42. 50.

The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, Edited by John Cottingham #163;40

The Cambridge Companion to Hume, Edited by by David Fate Norton #163;42.50

The Cambridge Companion to Locke, Edited by Vere Chappell #163;40.

The Cambridge Companion to Kant, Edited by Paul Guyer #163;45.

The Cambridge Companion to Hegel, Edited by Frederick C Beiser #163;42.50.

The Cambridge Companion to Marx, Edited by Terrell Carver #163;45.

The Cambridge Companion to Freud, Edited by Jerome Neu #163;45.

The Cambridge Companion to Sartre, Edited by Christine Howells #163;40.

The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, Edited by Charles Guignon #163;40.

The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, Edited by Gary Gutting #163;40.

Paperbacks #163;13.95 each, except Locke and Foucault #163;12.95.

Cambridge University Press.

The Companions to a general theme - wine, love or villains - have their coffee or bedside-table niche. Companions to academic themes ideally help the reader survey and dissect the vast, otherwise-unassimilable material on epistemology, 20th century social thought, or whatever. But do Companions to particular thinkers merely pander to a lazy craving for the easily digestible? Why not read the thinker's actual thoughts, instead of getting them regurgitated by experts?

With a philosopher like Hegel, notorious for his opaqueness and verbosity,the answer is obvious, and Cambridge University Press, in its series of Companions to individual philosophers, has performed a real service in producing the latest scholarship on him, as it has on other prolix, consequential Germans like Marx and Heidegger. Esoteric or neglected thinkers are also suitable for the series. The forthcoming Companions on William James and Francis Bacon should be useful, as is the existing one on Aquinas, although his editors should have ensured less overlap on the themes of being and essence, substance and accident, and universals, across the various articles.

But with thinkers like Descartes and Freud, it is perhaps unnecessary to add to the glut of guides to their thought, merely providing more distraction from it. To read the Meditations or Discourse, which are short anyway, is to join Descartes in thinking everything through from first principles - actually to learn to think - whereas often to read scholarly comment on Descartes, unless it involves the sort of incisive grappling with the text undertaken by Bernard Williams, is just to accumulate clutter. Among the pieces in the Descartes Companion, that of the editor, John Cottingham, is as usual fluent and scholarly but some, like the one translated from French on Descartes' life and the development of his philosophy, somehow detract from the freshness and immediacy which make Descartes so attractive to first-time philosophy students or jaded teachers.

Companions should surely be companions - closely allied to a philosopher's texts, and above all spirit, and the somewhat jargon-laden volumes on Sartre and Freud also tend to distance rather than familiarise the author they accompany. The excitement I felt as a young student reading Mary Warnock on Sartre inspired me to buy and actually read Being and Nothingness, and I cannot imagine any of the pieces in Christine Howell's Sartre Companion having this effect. Warnock's book is, however, mainly aimed at students, whereas it is clear that these Companions are not intended to present their subjects from scratch in a would-be objective, a-historical way, which would merely recapitulate other introductory books. Instead, they attempt to provide a historical and scholarly survey of each thinker, airing current preoccupations and controversy. And some of the Companions do this excellently, the one on Hegel, for instance, not only covering Hegel's intellectual development and the different areas of his thought, but also Hegelianism till 1846, Hegelianism and Marxism, Hegel's position in analytic philosophy, and the different possible ways of understanding his politics. They are also original in presenting a thinker's contributions to areas of thought for which he is less widely known - Hume as historian, Descartes as mathematician and physicist, for instance.

The historical and scholarly approach that places a text in the context of its author's era and opus can, if mishandled, distract from the reader's conceptual grappling with a philosopher. Often, however, it can vitally assist this. The more immediate and trans-temporal a text, the more easily it is mistakenly interpreted in terms of the reader's own time and culture. Plato's dialogues, for instance, are direct and universal like Descartes, but when reading them it is necessary to go beyond the actual text. Richard Kraut's Plato Companion is excellent at answering the sort of research-demanding questions which ultimately beset the reader - how a particular dialogue fits into the overall development of Plato's thought, how far he really intends his refutation of the physical world, and rejection of poetry and emotion, how far the character of Socrates is expressing his own views or Plato's; and also whether (as recently mooted) Plato voices his views, not just through Socrates, but (partially) through each of his protagonists. Scholarly without being dry, the pieces in this Companion dissect Plato's philosophy from all angles - historical, thematic, textual, political - and it has a satisfyingly thorough bibliography.

Along with advantages of this type the Companion to Locke explicitly evaluates Locke's influence on subsequent philosophy, and (especially in the editor's piece on ideas, and Jonathan Bennett's on Locke's philosophy of mind) illuminates in the light of their aetiology current problems now at the forefront of philosophic debate. The Companions to other 17th and 18th century philosophers, Hume and Kant, are perhaps less successful in this. One would like more of an assessment of Hume's scepticism, and an account of the differing interpretations of it over time; and although the pieces on Kant's science are interesting, a companion on him could surely provide a philosopher of science to tackle the vital question all students ask - of how far the categories can be mapped onto current scientific thinking: not, in fact, what Kant thought and how internally cogent it was, but how far it is externally consistent and true.

It is important that these Companions are not merely histories of ideas, but anchor their subjects' thought in the present, and it is here that the editor of a Companion on a long-dead, well-charted philosopher, on whom both scholarship and student introductions are rife, is likely to be at a disadvantage to someone presenting a more recent philosopher whose ideas are still in currency and perhaps second-generation development. Heidegger died in 1976, Foucault in 1984, and neither has been mainstream in Anglo-American academia, though they have devoted anglophone followings. A collection of analytic, rather than predominantly continental comment on them, is refreshing, especially when it comes from such eclectic, life-involved thinkers, with feet in both camps, as Richard Rorty, Hubert Dreyfus, Christopher Norris and Charles Taylor.

The Companions would be too difficult for most A-level students of philosophy (or psychology and politics in the cases of Freud and Marx), but helpful to A-level teachers. Some would be excellent for undergraduates, and as reference books. All are to be commended for rigorously refusing to dilute their subjects' difficultness. But I would say about most of them what Husserl (I look forward to the forthcoming Companion to him) said: "back to the things themselves" - in this case, the texts.

Jane O'Grady is co-compiler with A J Ayer of A Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations (Blackwell) and extra philosophy teacher at Birkbeck. Sophie's World , is a philosophical novel for teenagers.

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