C. Stephen Evans. A History of Western Philosophy: From the Pre-Socratics to Postmodernism. IVP Academic, 2018. See here to purchase the book.
C. Stephen Evans has a Ph.D. from Yale and teaches Philosophy and the Humanities at Baylor University. Before Baylor, he taught philosophy at Calvin College, St. Olaf College, and Wheaton College.
As the title indicates, this book goes from the pre-Socratic philosophers to postmodernism. It covers major philosophical figures from classical, medieval, and modern periods. In comparison with its interaction with other thinkers, the book’s coverage of existentialism and postmodernism is rather terse, but it is still a quality discussion.
Here are some of my thoughts and impressions:
A. Evans engages interesting questions. Some samples: How much did Plato’s writings reflect the views of the historical Socrates, and how can we tell? What were the differences between Hume and Kant, in terms of their epistemologies? Were Hume and Kant as skeptical as many scholars think? To what extent was Nietzsche a precursor to Nazism?
B. A while back, I read John Frame’s History of Western Philosophy and Theology. It is a lucid introduction to philosophy, like Evans’ book, and Frame even covered more philosophers and theologians. Where Evans’ book is superior, however, is that Evans really tries to get into the heads of the philosophers and to understand the rationales for their positions. Frame seemed rather dismissive of some philosophers, and I would scratch my head thinking, “How could a philosopher believe that?” For instance, how could Kant profess to solve the problem of Hume’s epistemological skepticism, only to be a skeptic himself? Evans showed how: our reason does not match the reality that is out there, but it is still rational and universal, so it can provide some basis for science. Another philosophy that Evans explained well was Stoicism, as Evans addressed whether the Stoics believed that a literal fire inhabited the cosmos and likened the divine rationality of the cosmos to the soul that occupies the human body. Where Evans perhaps could have done better in highlighting the motivations of the philosophers was in his treatment of the pre-Socratics: why did they seek a common element that permeates and underlies everything. What did they believe was at stake?
C. The epistemological discussions in Evans’ book were difficult, in areas. They are a lot more lucid than other treatments I have read. Evans uses helpful illustrations, such as rose-colored glasses to illustrate Kant’s view on the relationship of the mind to the outside world. Still, some things were unclear. For instance, did Berkeley believe in matter or not? Representationalism is a recurring theme in this book, and it has been held by rationalists like Descartes and empiricists like Locke. Essentially, it states that we do not see subjects as they really are but according to our ideas or concepts about them in our minds. Yet, at least for Locke, how they are somehow influences our ideas and concepts of them. There seems to be a difference of opinion among representationalists as to whether the ideas precede our apprehension of the outside objects, or the outside objects shape our ideas. Overall, I could follow the epistemological discussions in Evans’ book, though I must admit that the distinctions between Hume and Kant went a little over my head. At the same time, even after reading this book, I cannot rattle off to you what each philosopher believed about epistemology. In order to retain knowledge in this book and to be able to rattle it off to others or to write it on a test, many might do well, not simply to read this book, but also to study it, take notes on it, and review one’s notes.
D. In some cases, the book informed me about details on which I was fuzzy. For instance, Aristotle’s view of the soul is often characterized as being that the soul is what makes something what it is: the soul of a human is the form that makes a human a human. This is often differentiated from seeing the soul as an internal reality that animates people and survives death, but Evans did well to highlight that Aristotle believed in the latter, too. Another detail that stood out to me was that Kierkegaard influenced the existentialists. Kierkegaard is often called a “Christian existentialist,” and the impression that can easily leave is that Kierkegaard merely Christianized existentialism; actually, Evans states, Kierkegaard influenced existentialism.
E. The book is especially meaty in conveying the views of the philosophers. I recall reading Descartes’ Meditations in a philosophy class years ago, and I will say that Evans accurately and clearly conveys the details of Descartes’ arguments. Evans’ discussion of Kierkegaard was likewise detailed and interesting, as he shows how Kierkegaard employed pseudonyms to articulate positions with which he disagreed, but which he still thought had some merit. Kierkegaard played the role of a hedonist, then a strict moralist, defending both positions before he defended a third perspective, that of a religious person. Nietzsche is often characterized as one who dismissed Christianity as a crutch, and so he did, but Evans shows that Nietzsche also thought that Judaism and Christianity contributed something positive in that it made humans more reasonable and not just focused on strength. Nietzsche hoped that the Superman would transcend both the good/bad system that focused on strength and Christianity.
F. While Evans made a sincere and largely effective effort to get inside the heads of the philosophers, he also acknowledged where he thought that they were unclear or contradictory, or did not make sense.
G. The conclusion contains a stirring paragraph about the importance of religion to many prominent philosophers, as it laments the marginalization of religion in philosophy departments. Evans’ own conclusions were a little thin: he tried to advocate epistemological humility while not going as far as the postmodernists, but he did not flesh out how he could have the best of both worlds. But, in all fairness, he probably did not intend that discussion to be the end-all-be-all but was simply sharing brief reflections in response to the thinkers whom he profiled.
This is a fantastic book, and it is almost 600 pages. It would make a fine introductory textbook in philosophy.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.