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by Ralph Blumenau
Imprint Academic, 2002
Review by Ben Mulvey, Ph.D. on Feb 5th 2003

Philosophy and Living

In the last decade or so philosophy seems to have experienced somewhat of a renaissance in terms of its new-found popularity among an intelligent lay public.  There have been a number of books published recently that target not academic philosophers, but the lay public, which their authors believe can benefit from the application of important philosophical ideas to people’s own lives.  Consider The Relevance of Philosophy to Life, by Lachs; The Art of Living, by Nehamas; What is Ancient Philosophy, and Philosophy as a Way of Life by Hadot; to mention but a few recent titles; as well as the rapid growth of what my be called the philosophical counseling movement.

Given these developments, I was somewhat disappointed with Philosophy and Living.  My disappointment perhaps is due to my unfair projection of my own meaning onto the title of the book, Philosophy and Living.  This book is not so much concerned with the contemporary usefulness of philosophical thinking in terms of its application to people’s lives as it is an historical discussion of how various philosophical and theological ideas took shape within and helped to shape the various historical epochs within which they developed.  It fits squarely into the genre known as the history of ideas.  Perhaps this should not be surprising given that the author describes himself “as an amateur rather than a professional philosopher….” (1).

According to Blumenau, “the title of title of this book is intended to show that it concerns itself mainly with those aspects of philosophy that have influenced people’s attitudes towards their lives, toward each other and their society, towards their Gods, and toward the ethical problems that confront them” (1).  His target audience required a prose style which is not, as he says, so “highly technical and so abstruse that only specialists could understand” (1) it.   Certainly Blumeanau achieves his aim in this regard.  The book is written in a lively, casual, and engaging style with which a lay audience can easily connect.

This lengthy book (630 pages), divided into seven parts, presents a chronological exposition of major (and sometimes minor) philosophical developments and thinkers from the pre-Socratics to the post-structuralists.  Part One: Greece and Rome (98 pages), covers the Greek cosmologists through the Gnostic theologian Marcian (100-165 a.d.), devoting most of the discussion to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  Part Two: The Middle Ages (68 pages), starts with the early Christians and ends in the pre-Reformation fifteenth century, and includes discussions of Augustine, Aquinas, Roger Bacon, and William of Ockham.  Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation (52 pages), begins with Petrarch and the humanist renaissance, covers Luther, Calvin, and the Reformation, and ends with Francis Bacon and the scientific revolution.  Part Four: The Seventeenth Century (56 pages), includes rationalism, beginning with Descartes, devotes a few pages to Pascal, and concludes with a discussion of seventeenth century political thought ending with Locke.  Part Five: The Eighteenth Century (86 pages), begins with what Blumenau labels, the “British Pragmatists” Locke, Berkeley, and Hume.  This part also includes discussions of the Enlightenment, romanticism, and eighteenth-century philosophers of history, such as Vico.  Part Six: The Nineteenth Century (124 pages), begins with a discussion of Kant, includes Kierkegaard, utilitarianism, a discussion of the notion of progress, philosophies of history, and ends with Nietzsche and Bergson.  Finally, Part Seven: The Twentieth Century (87 pages), covers the existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre; pragmatism; analytic philosophy in Russell, Wittgenstein, and logical positivism; the philosophy of science of Popper and Kuhn; Isaiah Berlin; Freud and Jung; and structuralism and post-structuralism, ending with Foucault.

Earlier I said that sometimes minor figures in the history of ideas included in the discussions of Philosophy and Living.  Since Blumenau offers no overarching criteria of inclusion (there is only a brief two-page introduction, with no introductions or conclusions to the various parts and chapters), it’s not always clear why some thinkers are being included in this book.  This is one reason why philosophy instructors may not find this the most useful text for their introductory history of philosophy courses.  On the other hand, because of its very readable prose, this may make a useful supplement in such courses.  Aside from its overall readability, there are other attractive features.  The exposition of the major philosophical and theological ideas are interspersed with references to contemporary literature and history and there are many footnotes that refer to other parts of the book for further exposition, related ideas, or reinforcement.  Also, the author inserts at many places in the expositions his own reflections and those of his past students, set in from the margin and in a different type, to offer some connections, probing questions, and perspectives on the sometimes difficult ideas under discussion.

Finally, Philosophy and Living includes no overall conclusion.  After struggling through twenty-five hundred years of philosophical and theological ideas one wonders what the point of it all was.  Again, the title seems to indicate something important, but it is never quite stated what that something is.  Clinicians, therapists, and mental health professionals in general will not find much guidance here.

 

© 2003 Ben Mulvey

 

Ben Mulvey, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Division of Humanities of the College of Arts and Sciences at Nova Southeastern University.  He received his doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State University with a specialization in political theory and applied ethics.  He teaches ethics at NSU and is a member of the board of advisors of the Florida Bioethics Network.