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A Little History of Philosophy

By Nigel Warburton
13-minute read
Audio available
A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

A Little History of Philosophy (2011) takes readers on a whistle-stop tour of the thinkers who shaped philosophy over two and a half millennia. From Ancient Greece to twentieth-century Germany, this book makes philosophy’s age-old questions feel as relevant today as when they were first posed.

  • History buffs interested in the development of philosophy
  • Ponderers drawn to questions about the meaning of life
  • Anyone daunted by typical philosophical jargon

Nigel Warburton is a British philosopher, columnist, and podcast host. He has presented Philosophy Bites, a podcast, since 2007 and is the author of Philosophy: The Basics, among other books.

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A Little History of Philosophy

By Nigel Warburton
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton
Synopsis

A Little History of Philosophy (2011) takes readers on a whistle-stop tour of the thinkers who shaped philosophy over two and a half millennia. From Ancient Greece to twentieth-century Germany, this book makes philosophy’s age-old questions feel as relevant today as when they were first posed.

Key idea 1 of 8

Socrates and Plato asked profound questions that set philosophy in motion.

Around 2,500 years ago, in the Greek city of Athens, an unclean and somewhat ugly man was regularly seen stopping strangers on the street. His name was Socrates, and he possessed one of the most brilliant minds in all of Ancient Greece.

Now, Socrates wasn’t asking people for money; he was questioning Athenians about morality and the nature of truth. And he often found their answers to be one-dimensional and full of assumptions.

Unfortunately, Socrates never wrote his ideas down, though one of his students, Plato, did. Most of the Socratic dialogues, for examples, were in fact written by Plato. But Plato was more than a mere transmitter of his teacher’s thought. He was also a formidable philosopher in his own right.

The key message here is: Socrates and Plato asked profound questions that set philosophy in motion.

Plato is perhaps most famous for the Allegory of the Cave. In this parable, people unschooled in philosophic thought are likened to captives held in a cave. Facing the cave’s wall, they mistake the shadows they see for real life. The philosopher, on the other hand, is different. He can escape the cave and observe the world as it really is.

This parable ties in with Plato’s theory of Forms. According to this theory, every physical object has an underlying and ideal Form. The physical objects themselves, however, are mere approximations of this Form, just as shadows on a cave wall are approximations of the objects casting them.

Most people are distracted by the physical things they encounter in the world just as the captives are distracted by the shadows. But to really perceive reality, to truly exit the cave, we must use thought rather than just relying on our senses.

For example, we know the characteristics of what makes a table – a flat top, one or more legs – but we can’t always grasp the true Form of a table, that abstract quality of “tableness” that transcends the physical world.

Similarly, we might describe actions as “good,” but rarely do we have a clear idea of what the abstract ideal, or Form, of goodness is. The ability to think in terms of Forms, Plato proposed, was a skill exclusive to philosophers.

He even recommended that philosophers should run society because of their unique wisdom. But some Athenians didn’t agree. They thought that philosophers were disrupting the city’s traditions — encouraging youth to disobey authority and neglect the gods.

In fact, many Athenians made these same accusations against Plato's mentor, Socrates. In the end, Socrates was found guilty of “corrupting the young.” As punishment, he was sentenced to drinking a lethal poison. But his questioning spirit has inspired philosophers ever since.

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