- The Cambridge History of Moral Philosophy ed. by Sacha Golob and Jens Timmermann
Given its scope and the size of many Cambridge Histories, this volume is short. It is 751 pages long. The main text consist of 54 chapters of between 12 and 14 pages each (including bibliographies). For comparison, The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy is 968 pages long. One might ask why the present volume could not be allowed a similar length. 200 more pages could have made for a much more useful book, as I will suggest below.
The brevity of the chapters makes room for a large cast of characters, and avoids concentration on the best-known texts in the history of ethics. The chapters cover not only Aristotle, Hume, and Kant, but also medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophers, Descartes, Pascal, Bayle, Freud, and contemporary French philosophers. This wide scope is welcome.
The editors say that they have sought to ensure "that all chapters are accessible without specific prior knowledge of the philosopher's terminology or technical apparatus," and they intend the chapters to offer "an overview of each figure or school" (1). An "overview" might be expected to survey an author's main contributions to ethics, and some chapters meet this expectation. Some do not. The chapter on Aristotle says it has avoided the standard tour through the highlights of his theory (52). The chapter on Rousseau barely mentions his Social Contract, even though social contract theory is mentioned earlier and later in the book (e.g. 434, 503, and 719). The chapter entitled "Marxism" confines itself to some disputes about Marx in Anglophone moral philosophy (495). Though this chapter follows a chapter on Hegel (which mentions Marx ), it does not discuss Hegel or Hegelians, or any other aspect of Marx's historical context, or Marx's successors. The chapter on Rawls mostly attacks the view that his position is genuinely Kantian; this aspect of Rawls is worth discussing, but it leaves out quite a lot that one might expect from an overview.
The volume as a whole is certainly worth reading (perhaps not all at one go), and will be found useful by many types of readers. Most chapters are useful and informative rather than stimulating. In the chapters that have conformed to the editors' intention to provide an overview, this task has used up most of an author's limited space, and not much is left for reflection, or critical discussion, or for comparison with predecessors or successors. In some cases, the demands of brevity conflict with clarity. While one may be able to give an overview in a dozen pages, it is more difficult to give an overview that makes a philosopher's position clear or interesting, and still more difficult to sketch a reasoned case for or against someone's views. If one also tries to trace B's response to A, and B's influence on C, the dozen pages do not leave much room. Despite these constraints, some chapters are informative and thought-provoking. (These include, but are not limited to, Warren on Plato, Inwood on Stoicism, Guyer on Hume, Harcourt on psychoanalysis, and Golob on Heidegger.)
Many chapters are about just one philosopher, but, as one might expect, there are some on schools or movements (Neoplatonism, Humanism, Cambridge Platonism, and Pragmatism). Some chapters are diptychs, including those on Albert and Aquinas, Scotus and Ockham, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, Locke and Butler, and Adam Smith and Bentham. A very rough division into "periods" reveals 9 chapters on ancient philosophy, 5 on medieval, 9 on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, 7 on the eighteenth, 11 on the nineteenth, and 13 on the twentieth (including some discussion of the twenty-first). (This division is very rough because some chapters cover more than one century or period.) In other words, a little less than half of the book is devoted to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and almost a quarter to the twentieth century. I do not know why the book is biased towards...