A History of Western Philosophy

From the Pre-Socratics to Postmodernism

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C. Stephen Evans
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , October
     2018.
     600 pages.
     $60.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780830852222.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

C. Stephen Evans’s A History of Western Philosophy: From the Pre-Socratics to Postmodernism is an introductory manual that provides, with masterful clarity, an overview of the basic figures and thoughts of Western philosophy from the Pre-Socratics to Postmodernism. Evans’s readers should pay attention to whether or not he makes any “progress in philosophy” (9) by analyzing arguments that he gathers from the history of Western philosophy, and decide if he successfully arranges the history of Western philosophy as a “valuable tool” (10) for  Christians who wish to better understand their faith.

In the introductory chapter, Evans answers fundamental questions regarding philosophy, and defines key words from the book’s title—history, Western, and philosophy—in connection to each other. He then goes on to narrate the history of philosophy that is delimited in the cultural context of Western society. It is interesting to note that Evans recognizes that speaking of Western philosophy as a “self-contained intellectual movement may be over” (2), as philosophical traditions are now in direct dialogue with each other. Although Evans’s project focuses exclusively as an overview of the history of Western philosophy, he sporadically inserts historical figures and movements from outside of such perimeter. In other words, Evans connects, further explains, and hypothesizes about potential influences on the philosophers and theories of Western society. In this light, any criticism that is aimed at Evans’s treatment of postmodernism—which is marketed in the subtitle—might be justified based on his idea of what Western philosophy means as an independent movement. Does Evans consider figures such as Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jürgen Habermas, and Jacques Derrida as part of a global history of philosophy instead of as part of Western philosophy? This seems to be the case since Evans apparently believes that Friedrich Nietzsche has already departed from the West (580). Whether Evans would answer affirmatively or not, his dealings with figures such as Bertrand Russell, George Edward Moore, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger would have been dealt with better had each been given an independent chapter rather than being included solely in the conclusion. 

Evans’s response to the origins of philosophy is grounded in his explanation of pre-Socratic philosophies. He notices how a preponderance of certain social factors could have been the impetus for the beginning of philosophy. Here Evans introduces Thales as the first philosopher of the West as the basis for that explanation. The key distinguishing factor in philosophy seems to be—according to such response—the use of reason in explaining natural phenomena. Philosophy, for Evans, is not merely a journey from mythos to logos, but the implementation of logos to explain the mythos. In other words, philosophy does not debunk the mythological world but instead explains it with (pseudo-)rational theories (577-80). 

In chapters 2 through 16, Evans includes the standard figures of philosophy: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, Spinoza, Baruch Leibniz, John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. It is suggestive that Evans uses five chapters in explaining the Medieval era. In fact, he disagrees with the identification of the medieval period as the “Dark Ages” (575) and prefers to think of this period as another kind of Enlightenment. Thus, in chapter 11—a transitionary chapter between the medieval and modern period—Evans chooses to include figures such as Meister Eckhart, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Niccolò Machiavelli, Michel de Montaigne, Blaise Pascal, and Thomas Hobbes, among others.

Evans’s choice of including Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid in chapter 16 is not an arbitrary one. By including Reid there, Evans indicates an effort to fulfill his project’s outcomes. Reid is not only a philosopher but also a pastor and theologian who reacts against representationalism and Hume’s skepticism. As Evans explains, Reid’s legacy of commonsense realism and moral philosophy had a significant influence on American theology (387). Even after the increase of secularism in the 20th century, Evans notes that philosophers such as A.A. Campbell, G.E. Moore, and J.L. Austin are indebted to Reid’s influence. 

In chapter 17, Evans introduces a female philosopher—Mary Wollstonecraft—for the first time. This is a welcome inclusion, as Evans himself recognizes the existing bias against female philosophers, and the rise of studies retrieving female philosophers from the overlooked history of philosophy. Nonetheless, the inclusion of Wollstonecraft in this chapter is somehow unfortunate, as she appears to be placed there simply as a preamble to Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. Perhaps in a second edition, Evans could include additional female figures from the history of philosophy, such as Hypatia of Alexandria in the 4th century BCE. Nonetheless, it is true that Evans indicates that Wollstonecraft was not only a female philosopher but one that was recognized even in her time.

From chapters 18 to 23, Evans presents a standard selection of philosophers, such as Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Søren Kierkegaard, John Stuart Mill, and Friedrich Nietzsche. 

In the conclusion, Evans provides a concise survey of the major 20th century philosophical movements and figures and gives some philosophical convictions aimed, primarily, at Christians. Here, Evans introduces movements such as Idealism in a neo-Hegelian form, Positivism as a type of Humean empiricism, and the pragmatism of the early 20th century. He then clarifies some fundamental distinctions between the Analytic and Continental traditions including brief descriptions of Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, Husserl, and Heidegger. Evans mentions others, but only as of secondary importance to contextualize the main figures. Before Evans finishes his book with reflections on Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Richard Rorty on the future of Western philosophy, Evans gives some advice on (a) the affirmative and positive relation between religion and philosophy as a way to understand philosophy more accurately, and (b) the benefits and challenges of postmodernism, and the likelihood of the failure of prolegomena in philosophy. Evans seems to recognize the daunting task of summarizing the philosophical panorama of the 21st century in a single chapter, so here he entertains the idea of writing a second volume.

A History of Western Philosophy is clearly written and is comprehensive enough for those who are beginning their studies in philosophy and are therefore looking for an overview of the history of Western philosophy. Evans successfully shows the progress of philosophical arguments and their relationship with religious ideas. Furthermore, the book is especially helpful for Christians who look to further their understanding of philosophy, and who want assistance in assimilating that philosophical knowledge into their Christian faith.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Josué Caramés is a doctoral student in Religion with a concentration in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
March 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

C. Stephen Evans is Professor of Philosophy and the Humanities at Baylor University. He previously taught in the philosophy departments at Calvin College, St. Olaf College, and Wheaton College. He has published several books, including Kierkegaard: An IntroductionNatural Signs and Knowledge of God: A New Look at Theistic ArgumentsGod and Moral ObligationWhy Christian Faith Still Makes Sense, and Philosophy of Religion.

Comments

C Stephen Evans

As the author, I want to express my gratitude for this review.  I especially appreciate the reviewer's remarks about the clarity and coverage of my book.

A couple of comments about some of the criticisms:  First, the reviewer thinks I should have included complete chapters on such figures as Heidegger and Derrida.  However, it should be noted that the book is already 630 pages long, and adding complete chapters on 20th century figures would simply have required a new volume.  In any case, as I say in the book, I do not believe we have the historical perspective to know which figures from the last century will still be important in the future.  I am confident that Spinoza will still be of interest in 200 years, but I am not confident about which 20th century figures will still be of interest.   So I explicitly chose to end the book with Nietzsche, including only a brief concluding chapter where I sketch some twentieth century developments.

A second comment concerns the role of women in philosophy.  My criteria for selecting philosophers to include included as a major element significant historical influence on other philosophers in their own time.  Sadly, this means that much interesting work by women has not been included.  I am delighted that in our own day, the writings of many women thinkers are being retrieved and examined because of their intrinsic value and interest.  This is to be applauded, but it would be anachronistic to pretend that the actual history of western philosophy was not male dominated. 

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