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Because I was no longer teaching and had a bit of time on my hands, I decided to read through Will Durant's "The Story of Philosophy," a work that I had never had the opportunity to peruse during my professional career. I figured it would offer a refresher course on some of the philosophers who had less bearing on the areas of philosophy I regularly taught. I also hoped that it would give me some fresh insights into the philosophers and philosophical movements with which I possessed a degree of familiarity.
The book was not what I expected. I will note why momentarily. First, however, the positive. As I knew from having read his "Story of Civilization," Will Durant is an engaging writer. He is eloquent without being flowery or effete. His vocabulary is extensive, but he does not use it to show off his erudition. In no way is he pretentious. He is also able to explain difficult ideas in a straightforward, understandable fashion, certainly a boon when discussing the theories of philosophers. And he is good at explaining how the thought of a philosopher flows from and contrasts with that of his forbears.
However, if one is expecting a true history of philosophy, this is not the book to read. I would go so far as to say that the title of the book is quite misleading. This is not the story of philosophy. It is the story of the writings of those philosophers who, for whatever reason, Durant wants to highlight. The book pays no significant attention to ancient philosophy before Socrates or after Aristotle. While Socrates/Plato and Aristotle are examined in detail, subsequent developments in Greek and Roman thought are either covered in a most sketchy manner or absent altogether. For example, neo-Platonism in general and Plotinus in particular, are ignored.
Even more shocking is Durant's treatment of the entire middle ages. It is in fact a non-treatment. Without explanation (other than that Durant doesn't think it is important) we skip over nearly a thousand years of Western thought and quickly find ourselves studying the philosophy of Francis Bacon. One could read this book without being aware of philosophers such as Anselm, Peter Lombard, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and many others (not to mention the Islamic philosophers of the tenth and eleventh centuries).
When we come to post-medieval philosophy, while we are treated to a fairly detailed explication of Francis Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, and Kant, Durant doesn't even mention Descartes (sometimes regarded as the father of modern philosophy) or the British Empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, and Hume) except by way of extremely brief references when presenting the thought of other philosophers.
Durant does somewhat better in describing the major figures of nineteenth century philosophy. Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche are all given extensive space. However, Durant spends an inordinate amount of time describing the thought of Herbert Spencer, who today is nearly forgotten.
Does all this mean this book is not worth reading? No, it doesn't. I've given it Four Stars, for the reasons stated earlier. It does cover the thought of certain philosophers in a way that is reasonably complete (for an overview) and relatively easy to understand. However, one should not read this book as though it were a general introduction to the story of philosophy.
Over 3 years, Will Durant did the research for this book, and the reader's reward is a full table with tempting dessert.
The dessert is one understands the present to a greater extent, so that the current moves and moods are not
bewildering but one can say, "I reall that so-and-so said something like that . . .. "
The alert reader will be able to make sense of this 21st century puzzle of life, ethics, history, philosophy, and world-views.
If I were to teach philsophy in college, I would select this book for an introduction and spend time in small groups and a book of readings in philosophy. This idea would work in lay groups in churches also.