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Reviewed by:
  • The Columbia History of Western Philosophy ed. by Richard H. Popkin
  • Richard E. Aquila
Richard H. Popkin, editor. The Columbia History of Western Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Pp. xxvi + 836. Cloth, $59.95.

This volume aims to “… revise the general prevailing understanding of the history of philosophy among present-day academics.” It aims to do so by emphasizing the “full intellectual and social contexts” of the ideas in question, with particular emphasis on developments in religion and science. Unsurprisingly, the theme of scepticism not only looms large in the sections devoted to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophers, but also, in the light of its more explicit and detailed connection to the context of religious controversy, its presentation is fuller than what might be expected under the “prevailing understanding.” (Both that theme, and also the influence of the Kaballah, are touched on twice in the general introduction. I take the occasion to note that the index, though extensive, is sometimes less useful than it might be, leaving to the reader’s own eventual discovery, for example, the often neglected connection of the latter with Spinoza.)

Popkin also takes pain to lament the common attitude “that the history of philosophy is nothing but footnotes to Plato and Aristotle” (xviii). As if to underscore his point, the first chapter—going from the Pre-Socratics through early Christian philosophy—is not even presented as a chapter on “Ancient Philosophy”: what is in question is simply the “Origins of Western Philosophic Thinking.” In any case, although introduced by him, the chapter is apparently not edited by Popkin himself, who lays such claim only to the chapters on medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophy and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (Popkin’s introduction effectively emphasizes the three-fold background of “Asian,” Biblical, and Egyptian influence, with the last of its four pages devoted to Bernal’s Black Athena. I confess to not having read Bernai previously. But Popkin’s reflections were effective; I immediately contacted Each of the other chapters is said to have an overall “editor or editors,” but their identity is not revealed. However, presuming that, except for the first, the editor is the author of the corresponding introduction, we might guess: Stephen Brown for medieval Christian, Brian Copenhaver for the Renaissance, Rudolf Makkreel for the nineteenth century, Avrum Stroll for twentieth-century analytic. There is no general introduction to the twentieth-century continental chapter.

Each section of a chapter is followed by a bibliography, though with no overarching format: some are restricted to secondary sources, others not, and there is no clear pattern regarding inclusion of non-English materials. The Medieval Christian and Renaissance chapters conclude with general bibliographies by their (apparent) editors. In any case, the bibliographies should serve eminently well for the editor’s view of the volume as a [End Page 669] “launching pad” to further study. It is in fact a most effective launching pad. However, there are some possible eyebrow-raisers. For example, apart from anthologies, the only books listed on Spinoza are Popkin’s own on the history of scepticism, Strauss’s Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, andWolfson’s The Philosophy of Spinoza; the secondary references for the Kabbala denudata are about the same in number as those for Descartes and Spinoza together; those for Thomasius and Wolff outnumber those for Kant, and there is no reference, for example, to Heidegger among the latter (and for that matter virtually none in the indexes of the books cited for Kant).

In addition to the main sections of each chapter, there are occasional mini-sections, sometimes less than a page, by Popkin and others. Besides facilitating continuity, they provide additional references. On at least one occasion (cf. his brief comment following Plato), they give Popkin the opportunity to suggest that there are also other ways to look at the philosopher in question. In fact Popkin takes pains to note that no effort has been made to “force the different authors into a common expository style or into a common point of view,” and that they often in fact differ with each other (xviii). This seems to me not always felicitous, e.g...


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