Book Review: A Brief History of Thought

Luc Ferry’s A Brief History of Thought recently caught my eye as I wandered through the library. The book promised a brief summary of human thought and its evolution across significant historical epochs within a meager volume of pages. Who wouldn’t wish to entertain such a prospect?

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The book’s strength is in Ferry’s ability to summarize various complicated worldviews with such simplicity, and conciseness. While I can’t call upon an extensive knowledge of philosophy to critique Ferry’s work, I certainly identified my share of agreements and disagreements with the opinions and perspectives proposed in the book. In this review, I will summarize Ferry’s claims and arguments, which while insightful and highly educational, personally, fell short of convincing by the final pages.

Ferry begins by addressing the question at the heart of human existence, a quest for salvation (an answer to the mystery that is death), which he identifies to be the vital aspect of every philosophical system. Characterizing philosophy as more than an act of reasoning and logic, Ferry asserts that philosophy is also a measure of human thought that “claims to save us – if not from death itself, then from the anxiety it causes, and to do so by the exercise of our own resources and our innate faculty of reason.”

From there on, Ferry uses this argument as a guide to expound his views and perspectives on the various philosophical movements that have spanned the history of human thought: Stoicism, Christianity, Humanism, Postmodernism (Nietzsche), and Contemporary philosophy (post-Nietzsche). The book flows smoothly from one time period to another while providing an effective summary of the relevant aspects of each philosophical movement. By the end of each chapter, the reader is able to identify the questions and answers that serve as the foundation for the consecutive movement.

We are first acquainted with the Greeks and their establishment of Stoicism, the representation of the world as a perfect cosmos, an ordered logos where transcendence and immanence are united; a cause that the human strives to be a reflection of.

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Cosmos refers to the explicit complexity, and perfection of the external universe. Logos defines the divine reason implicit in the cosmos, providing it order and meaning.

The impersonal  approach towards death and salvation in Stoicism is rectified by Christianity where the human is the focal point of the argument. Unlike in Stoic reflections, salvation is personalized through the evocative belief  in a Son of God, a motion towards “love in God,” promising fulfillment and an immortality where we maintain our personal identities.

The foundations upon which both Stoicism and Christianity rested soon come crashing down with the advent of science. Modern physics reveals “an infinite chaos devoid of sense; a field of forces and objects jostling for place without harmony.”

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Thus, mankind is once again alone in a cosmos void of a logos or god of any kind. Reality is marked by chaos. The Stoic measure for study or contemplation and the Christian revelation fall flat against the ensuing chaos.

The human is once again the focal point of the argument, but this time, “it was going to require man himself…to introduce some order into a universe which seemed no longer to offer any of its own.” Man’s ability to devise a personal history distinguishes him from his animal brethren resulting in a Humanism that takes the reigns in a movement where humans forge the history of the world through the ideals and laws we invent to judge our actions and their consequences. Nevertheless, humanism stumbles in offering a solution to our quest for salvation, leading to a well-defined struggle that lasts to this day between the various pantheons of human thought.

The cycle doesn’t end here as we alight upon the arrival of Nietzsche and Postmodernism. Nietzsche dismissed both science and religion. His critical deconstruction of the conventional philosophies of the time focused on their inseparable similarity that adhered to a disregarding of the essence of life, and instead building metaphysical constructs/ideals to allow the human to find “salvation” or a purpose.

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“People don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

All of which Nietzsche believed was nothing more than a lie, a negation of life from what it essentially is by supplanting it with transcendental ideas of god, and the ideal human being. Nietzsche’s nihilism would fuel his famous ideas for the “will to power,” an attempt for control in a deconstructed universe by the self physically, emotionally, and also morally.

Ferry concludes his work by providing an assessment of modern day Contemporary philosophy in the wake of the revolutionary movements summarized above. This concerns a world where there is no longer a universal meaning towards human existence, but rather an incessant and a seemingly directionless promotion of progress for the sake of progress, a morose form of materialism.

In conclusion, Ferry provides a wonderful and enlightening primer on the various philosophical attitudes that span the history of human thought. I would certainly recommend this book for any philosophy enthusiast. The reader gets a taste of the major aspects of Western philosophy over the vast vista of time. Nevertheless, the  fact that the book is a philosophical overview for a mass audience makes it a tough prospect in accurately capturing the more subtle facets of the various philosophies discussed. While this can be seen as a weakness, it is also a strength, as it will drive the interested reader to learn more about the topics involved (it did for me). Though Ferry himself stumbles in deriving a clear answer to the human quest for “salvation,” his work succeeds in emphasizing the significance of said journey in that it is defining of our very humanity, and individual spirit. In that vein, A Brief History of Thought is a wonderful journey in itself.

 

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The Dragons of Eden – Chapter 1 – The Cosmic Calendar

“What seest thou else in the dark backward and abysm of time?” – William Shakespeare

Time is a component quantity of our daily lives. It is symbolic of the indefinite progress of existence, and events that are generally considered to occur in an apparently irreversible sequence from the past, to the present, and onto the future.

The concept of time has been central to the growth, and evolution of human civilizations. It has also served as an important facet of knowledge that has been studied to a great effect in religion, philosophy, and science. But, to this day, an absolute definition of time still evades scholars.

In The Dragons of Eden, Sagan does not extend his arguments toward an extensive discussion on the concept of time, but rather focuses on its use as a metaphor to describe humanity’s place in the cosmos. To infer the future, it is necessary for us to understand our origins. This is the basis of Sagan’s approach.

Now, it is argued that the predecessors of modern-day human beings, the Homo sapiens¸ evolved somewhere between 250,000, and 400,000 years ago. This number pales in comparison to the appearance of the first primitive humans, such as the Australopithecines, which happened somewhere between 8-9 million years ago. But, even these events, are preceded by an even greater “vista of time” reaching far back into the history of our planet, the solar system, and the universe. Very little is known about these periods of time, and even with the numbers mentioned earlier, we still struggle to grasp the immensity of these time intervals (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Humanity is yet to define its existence amidst the vast cosmos.

Nevertheless, science has found success in the establishment of specific methods that have allowed us to date events from the remote past, such as geological stratification (Figure 2), and radioactive dating (Figure 3).

Figure 2. Geological stratification, bluntly said, involves the study of rock layers, and layering.
Figure 3. Radioactive dating is a technique involving the tracing of radioactive materials in select objects, carbon dating is one such method that is limited to the dating of organic (carbon-based) organisms.

These two methods have provided information on archaeological, paleontological, and geological events. Astrophysical theory has provided for the same on a grander scale involving the dating of stars, planetary surfaces, galaxies, and the even the age of the universe (Sagan states this to be 15 billion years old, though recent results from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) puts the number somewhere at 14 billion years old). The earliest event known in record is called the Big Bang, an intense explosion from the universe is said to have formed, but rather than a beginning, the Big Bang is generally considered to be a discontinuity in time where the earlier history of the universe was destroyed.

To put this further into perspective, Sagan introduces the Cosmic Calendar, where he compresses the 14-billion-year-old chronology of the universe, into the span of a single earth year. In this manner, one billion years of Earth history is the equivalent of twenty-four days of our cosmic year, and one second of the cosmic year is the same as 475 real revolutions of the Earth about the sun. The Cosmic Calendar is a humbling account of humanity’s place in the universe, with all our recorded history occupying the last few seconds of December 31.

Though a short chapter, Sagan’s use of the Cosmic Calendar is quite analogous to a common argument used in astronomy to provide a picture of our place in the universe (Figure 4).

 

Figure 4. Our place in the universe. The planet Earth is smaller than a speck among the greater part of the observable universe.

While the major premise of Sagan’s book focuses on discussions on the evolution of human intelligence, this introductory chapter is a necessary prelude that helps to symbolize the significance of the subject matter. While it may be true that humanity occupies an insignificant instance in the face of cosmic time, we are now embarking on a new cosmic year, one which is highly dependent on our ability as a species to come together, use our wisdom, and unique sensitivity to the world for our survival, and a greater future.

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