📙 Dream of Reason

  Poetry & Prose    Books/People

— A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance
by Anthony Gottlieb (2000)


Gottlieb, A. (2000). The Dream of Reason: a History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

The Dream of Reason takes a contemporary look at the writings of the great thinkers of classic philosophy and questions many pieces of conventional wisdom. this work is said to be comparable to Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. However, as Colin McGinn of the Los Angles Times says, it is less idiosyncratic and is, by virtue of date written, based on more recent scholarship. In this book, Gottlieb combines brief biographical overviews of the key philosophers that he decides to focus on (mostly European), in order to place them (nearly all men) in their social context, with a more in-depth discussion of their cornerstone philosophical arguments.



It has been said that this book and it’s recent second instalment — 📙 Dream The Dream of Enlightenment — is are very much focused on Western philosophy. The Dream of Reason — the 1st volume of two (thus far) — has been deemed to be less of a history of philosophy up ‘to the Renaissance’ as the bi-line states, but more an introduction to Greek thought, with the majority of its time spent on the giants of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The second volume — The Dream of Enlightenment — covers the pre-modern philosophers from Descartes to Hume. As Anthony Skews points out, “the total absence of women or any thinker from outside Western Europe is glaring.”

Selected Extracts

From the book’s ‘Introduction’:

Determined to forget what I thought I knew, I set out to look at the writings of those from the past 2,600 years who are regarded as the great philosophers of the West. My aim (politely described by friends as ‘ambitious’ when they often meant ‘mad’) was to approach the story of philosophy as a journalist ought to: to rely only on primary sources, wherever they still existed; to question everything that had become conventional wisdom; and, above all, to try and explain it all as clearly as I could.
As I ploughed through the diverse cast of characters from the fifth and sixth centuries BC who are traditionally lumped together as philosophers, through Socrates, Plato, Aristotle (often bracketed as a trio, but were there ever three more different men?), on to the intellectual therapists of Hellenistic times, through the mystics and occultists of late antiquity, to the first Christian thinkers, the logic obsessed monks of the early Middle Ages, medieval scientists and theologians, Renaissance magicians, visionaries, grammarians and engineers and on to the beginnings of modern times, the fabric of ‘philosophy’ – supposedly the oldest of subjects – unravelled before my eyes. Traditional histories, which seek to distinguish it from the physical, mathematical and social sciences, and from the humanities, had drastically over-simplified, I concluded. It was just not possible to confine what is usually referred to as ‘philosophy’ to a single subject that can be placed neatly on the academic map.
One reason for this is that the place-names on such maps tend to change. In the Middle Ages, for instance, ‘philosophy’ covered practically every branch of theoretical knowledge that did not come under theology. Newton’s subject was ‘natural philosophy’, a term that was still widely used in the first half of the nineteenth century to cover most of what we now regard as science and some of what we now think of as philosophy. What has been called philosophical thinking is naturally inclined to stray across conventional boundaries. Its wanderlust and insatiable curiosity have often given birth to new areas of thought, which again complicates the task of map-drawing. As we shall see in the first chapter, Western science was created when a few Greek thinkers – those who are known as the first ‘philosophers’ – were perverse enough to ignore the usual talk of gods and to look instead for natural causes of events. Much later on, psychology, sociology and economics came about largely from the work of people who at the time were called philosophers. And the same process of creation continues today. Computer languages, for example, stem from what was long regarded as the most tedious invention of philosophers, namely formal logic. A small but typical example of how ‘philosophy’ sends out new shoots is to be found in the case of Georg Cantor, a nineteenth-century German mathematician. His research on the subject of infinity was at first written off by his scientific colleagues as mere ‘philosophy’ because it seemed so bizarre, abstract and pointless. Now it is taught in schools under the name of set-theory.
The fact is that the history of philosophy is more the history of a sharply inquisitive cast of mind than the history of a sharply defined discipline. The traditional image of it as a sort of meditative science of pure thought, strangely cut off from other subjects, is largely a trick of the historical light. The illusion is created by the way we look at the past, and in particular by the way in which knowledge tends to be labelled, chopped up and relabelled. Philosophical work is regularly spirited away and adopted by other disciplines. Yesterday’s moral philosophy becomes tomorrow’s jurisprudence or welfare economics; yesterday’s philosophy of mind becomes tomorrow’s cognitive science. And the road runs in both directions: new inquiries in other disciplines prompt new questions for the philosophically curious. Tomorrow’s economics will be meat for the moral philosophers of the day after. One effect of these shifting boundaries is that philosophical thinking can easily seem to be unusually useless, even for an intellectual enterprise. This is largely because any corner of it that comes generally to be regarded as useful soon ceases to be called philosophy. Hence the illusory appearance that philosophers never make progress.
The psychologist William James once described philosophy as ‘a peculiarly stubborn effort to think clearly’. This is a rather dry definition, but is more nearly right than any other I know. True, clarity is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of philosophy. There is no denying that philosophers’ attempts to think clearly have often rudely backfired. (Any subject that is responsible for producing Heidegger, for example, owes the world an apology.) Still, William James was right to describe philosophy as he did. Even the darkest of its practitioners are struggling to make sense of things, and it is this effort that makes them philosophers. Sometimes the effort does not pay off, but often it does.
To call philosophical thinking ‘stubborn’ was particularly apt. Bertrand Russell once described it as ‘unusually obstinate’. For the one thing that marks it off from other sorts of thinking is its unwillingness to accept conventional answers, even when it seems perverse not to do so from a practical point of view. That is why philosophers often make such excellent figures of fun. The earliest Greek historians of philosophy understood this better than we do today, for their books were peppered with ludicrous anecdotes, some of which may actually have been true and most of which are very much to the point even if they were made up. To disapprove of such lampoons of the eminently lampoonable is to miss the joke at the heart of philosophy. Philosophers have regularly cocked an eyebrow at what passes for the common sense of the time; the punch line comes later, when it is ‘common sense’ that turns out to have been uncommonly confused. Sometimes the joke goes wrong, of course, and it is the philosopher who ends up looking foolish, but that risk comes with the job.
The attempt to push rational inquiry obstinately to its limits is bound often to fail, and then the dream of reason which motivates philosophical thinking seems merely a mirage. At other times, though, it succeeds magnificently, and the dream is revealed as a fruitful inspiration.

I was most interested in the following insight:

“The last thing I expected to find when I began work on this book … is that there is no such thing as philosophy. Yet that, more or less, is what I did find, and it explained a lot.”

When ‘Talking to Strangers’: Be Careful

By Anthony Gottlieb for The New York Times (2019)

Perhaps one shouldn’t always feel bad about getting someone utterly wrong. Sometimes one is bested by a master. In November 2004, I went to interview Bernard Madoff for The Economist and was won over. I told friends that I trusted this quiet, thoughtful man more than I trusted any of the dozen Wall Street loudmouths I’d talked to that year. It emerged in 2008 that he had been one of the biggest con men in history.

Madoff is one of the central figures in “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know,” by Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist who turns social science reportage into best sellers. The book’s introduction and final chapter are about Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who was stopped by a white highway patrolman in small-town Texas in 2015 and was found hanged in her cell three days later. She had been arrested because her encounter with the patrolman escalated into a confrontation. Her death, Gladwell writes, “is what happens when a society does not know how to talk to strangers.”

Among the other recent cases of true crime and true innocence Gladwell addresses are those of Jerry Sandusky, a college football coach and abuser of children, whose offenses, like those of Madoff, long escaped exposure; and Amanda Knox, an American student who spent nearly four years in Italian custody after a murder in Perugia because prosecutors mistook youthful American goofiness for guilt. We also read of Cuban double agents, exaggerated confessions under torture, Montezuma’s contact with the conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1519, misunderstandings between drunken students about sexual consent, and misguided British hopes in 1938 that Hitler could be appeased. And we are treated to lashings of nerdish criminological data.

The threads that connect Gladwell’s somewhat rambling material have to do with misreading people — mistaking their intentions, drawing erroneous conclusions from their demeanors and believing their false claims of innocence. Yet despite its title, the book is not really about strangers. True, Bland and the patrolman did not know each other, and some of Gladwell’s stories involve collisions between alien cultures. But the deceptions of Madoff, Sandusky and others discussed here — including Ana Montes, an analyst at the United States Defense Intelligence Agency who spied for Cuba — were practiced not only on strangers, but also on people they knew. Lies, misunderstandings and escalating confrontations have, after all, been known to occur even within marriages.

Madoff and Knox had something in common with Hitler, according to Gladwell, in that they all were what he calls “mismatched”: either a liar acting like an honest person (Madoff, Adolf) or an honest one acting like a liar (Knox). Drawing on the work of Tim Levine, a professor of communication studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Gladwell argues that it is when we come into contact with mismatched people that our usual ability to spot truthfulness fails. It is doubtful whether this notion adds much to our understanding of the cases he discusses. In his treatment of Hitler, it subtracts from it.

Gladwell contends that the reason Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s newish prime minister, apparently believed Hitler’s prewar claim to have no territorial ambitions beyond a German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia is that Chamberlain was fooled by Hitler’s manner and body language. Gladwell notes that Chamberlain wrote to his sister about the dictator’s “double handshake that he reserves for specially friendly demonstrations,” and reported to her that “I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” Since some other appeasing British politicians who’d met Hitler agreed that he was no warmonger, while others who hadn’t — including Winston Churchill — insisted that he was, Gladwell jumps to the conclusion that, in general, “the people who were right about Hitler were those who knew the least about him personally,” and “the people who were wrong about Hitler were the ones who had talked with him for hours.” Hitler’s “mismatched” demeanor skewed their judgment of evil.

This is a narrow and unconvincing take on the matter. Chamberlain and his political allies were desperate to avoid another war. They did not want to believe that Hitler was a danger, and they tended to keep any doubts about him to themselves while they worked toward maintaining peace. Plenty of people were in favor of appeasing Hitler even though they had never met him, and plenty of people who did meet him were not fooled.

In addition to misreading people by failing to spot their “mismatched” behavior, another main source of misunderstanding, according to Gladwell, “has to do with our inability to make sense of the stranger as an individual.” Background information, sometimes in the form of statistical data, may shed some unexpected light. To illustrate this reasonable point, Gladwell cites an article published in 1988 by two criminologists about the link between carbon monoxide in domestic gas and suicide in England and Wales. The paper argued persuasively that the phasing out of lethal “town gas” in Britain in the 1960s and ’70s caused a decline in suicides. When cooking stoves no longer provided an easy way to kill oneself, many who might thus have ended their lives did not pursue alternative methods. Gladwell thinks this historical context ought to affect our view of the poet Sylvia Plath, who was unfortunate enough to have town gas in her London home, and killed herself with it in 1963.

Failure to know about such contingencies as the role Plath’s gas supply played in her death, Gladwell writes, “leads us to misunderstand some of our greatest poets.” He does not say much about how we ought to understand Plath instead, but presumably he sees her as unlucky rather than doomed by her demons. Yet that was the conclusion reached by her friend, the poet and critic Alfred Alvarez, in his 1971 book, “The Savage God: A Study of Suicide.” Alvarez argued that Plath’s attempt was a gamble, “‘a cry for help’ which fatally misfired,” and he did so without drawing on any information about the British gas industry. The gas-and-suicide study is valuable in showing that the incidence of suicide can be reduced — but it does not shed new light on Plath.

Summarising the lessons to be learned from the diverse tales in his book, Gladwell’s main conclusions are that it would be disastrous if we stopped trusting people, that we should “accept the limits of our ability to decipher strangers,” and that it behooves us to be thoughtful, humble and mindful of context when trying to understand people’s actions.

Readers will have expected rather more of a denouement. Throughout the book, Gladwell works to build an air of suspense, zigzagging between cases and portentously promising lush vistas of insight just over the next hill (ending a chapter with: “But we are getting ahead of ourselves”). There is much use of italics for emphasis, to remind us that what we are reading is interesting and important. It would, of course, be too much to ask for effective tips on how to spot the next Madoff, but a little more substance would have been nice.


Eldridge, R. T. (Ed.). (2009). The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gottlieb, A. (2016). The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy. London: Penguin.

Grayling, A. C. (2019). The History of Philosophy. London: Penguin.

Kenny, A. (1998). An Illustrated Brief History of Western Philosophy. New York: John Wiley & Sons

Russell, B. (1945). A History of Western Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.


§ — Non-fiction § — Fiction
§ — Writers
§ — Thinkers
PhilosophersPsychologistsPolitical figures
%d bloggers like this: