A Brief History of Thought Book Summary - A Brief History of Thought Book explained in key points
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A Brief History of Thought summary

Luc Ferry

A Philosophical Guide to Living

4.3 (272 ratings)
24 mins

Brief summary

A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry is an introduction to philosophy which charts the evolution of Western thought from ancient Greece to contemporary times. It provides insight into how philosophy can inform and enrich our lives today.

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    A Brief History of Thought
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    Philosophy has three primary dimensions.

    To outline the history of philosophy, we must understand what it is – how it works, and what it seeks to achieve. 

    So, what is philosophy?

    Unfortunately, there’s no universally accepted definition – philosophers are a notoriously opinionated and argumentative group. But we can arrive at a satisfactory description with a bit of thought.

    To begin with, humans are, in philosophical language, finite beings: mortal creatures occupying a limited patch of space and time. And, unlike other animals, we’re aware of these limits. A dog or lion, for instance, has no advance knowledge of their death. They’re only concerned with the present moment. But humans live knowing that they – and their loved ones – will inevitably die. 

    This shadow of death forces us to contemplate what to do with our fleeting time on Earth. It also instills us with deep terror – fear of losing loved ones, fear of the unknown, fear of nothingness.

    This angst prevents us from living a wholly contented life, full of love and satisfaction. And from the start, philosophy and religion have tried to help us conquer this fear – but they go about it in entirely different ways.

    Religion – and particularly Christianity – promises to save us from the fear of death through faith. If we have faith in God, He will save us by admitting us into heaven, where we’ll reunite with our loved ones for eternity.

    Philosophy, on the other hand, promises to save us by using our own logic and reasoning. By trying to understand ourselves, other people and the world we inhabit, philosophy hopes to conquer the anxiety surrounding death.

    Toward this end, philosophical thinking comprises three stages.

    First is theory. This involves thinking deeply about the nature of reality. But our knowledge of reality is filtered through the tools we use to comprehend it, and so theory studies those tools too. How do we pinpoint the causes of natural phenomena? What are the ways through which we can establish a statement as “true?” These questions make up the second part of theory.

    Second is ethics. This is more practical and studies humanity. In particular, it asks how we should behave and coexist with one another. 

    Third is wisdom or salvation. This is the ultimate goal of religion and philosophy and asks what – if any – meaning there is to life, and how we can live a fulfilled life free from the suffocating fear of our mortality.

    And one of the first philosophies to utilize this three-stage system was Stoicism.

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    What is A Brief History of Thought about?

    A Brief History of Thought (1996) chronicles the big moments in the history of Western philosophy in a lucid and accessible way – from the Stoicism of classical Greece right through to twentieth-century postmodernism. Not simply a description of abstract ideals, it shows how we can apply the wisdom of the world’s best thinkers to live happier and more meaningful lives.

    Who should read A Brief History of Thought?

    • Those who find philosophy cryptic and confusing
    • History students not up to speed with the development of Western thought
    • Introspective humans searching for a meaning to life

    About the Author

    Dr. Luc Ferry is a French philosopher and prolific author, whose books include On Love: A Philosophy for the Twenty-First Century (2012) and The New Ecological Order (1992). Between 1996 and 2011 he was Professor of Philosophy at Paris Diderot University, and from 2002 until 2004 was Minister of Education for the French government.

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