Philosophy, notoriously, can be abstract and obscure. Yet philosophy is also a noble effort to grapple with some of the most difficult and pressing questions humans can face. What is the good? What is real? How can we know and be certain?
In A History of Western Philosophy C. Stephen Evans provides a model of conciseness and clarity in telling the story of Western philosophy from the days before Socrates to the present. As much as is possible Evans uses plain language to briefly tell the story of each key figure and of their ideas. Obviously, some passages can be hard but that is due to the difficulty of the material not the style of the author.
than merely presenting each person in isolation, Evans shows how each one built on and often reacted against those who came before. Key turning points and emphases are highlighted as well. Socrates shifted the conversation from “What is real?” to “What is the good?” Descartes inaugurates modern philosophy by seeking to start from ground zero and focus on “How can I know?” And “modern philosophy may begin with doubt, but ancient philosophy clearly began with wonder” (p. 577).
He rounds up the usual suspects for major attention (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, Marx, Neitzsche). Yet Evans gives good consideration to Philo, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Hegel, Mill, and many other lesser known figures.
Another virtue is the even coverage he gives. The Middle Ages, for example, are not ignored. Not only does Aquinas get his due but so also do Bonaventure, Scotus, and Ockham. While some would separate religion from philosophy, Evans argues that these concerns have always intertwined whether Greek, Christian, or atheist. So throughout he tells that story as well. Besides even coverage, he is evenhanded–never disparaging while showing strengths and weakness of each person and viewpoint.
Evans shows where his own thinking leans by devoting chapters each to Thomas Reid and Soren Kierkegaard. While they are quite different they overlap substantially in that they recognize the limits of reason while also having a certain confidence in what can be known.
Okay, now time for some true confession. I invited Evans to write this volume for IVP Academic. But I had retired before the volume was completed and was not involved in its development, revision, or final form. Honestly, I still think this is a dandy book.
One final bit of praise: The last chapter offers a number of helpful summaries and evaluations of the whole philosophical enterprise, especially in the last hundred years. While we must give up the quest for absolute, objective certainty, this need not lead to despair or skepticism. As with Reid and Kierkegaard, hope for drawing close to truth remains.