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Book Review

A Short History of Western Thought by Stephen Trombley

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Publisher: Atlantic Books, hardback

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Reading the definitions of the word 'philosophy' as outlined here by Trombley (who is also an Emmy-award winning film-maker) you find yourself doing that thing where you move your lips slowly and repeat the words to ingest them properly.

The German phenonmenologist Max Scheler described philosophy - deep breath now - as “a love-determined movement of the inmost personal self of a finite being towards participation in the essential reality of the possibles.” On the other hand, the Greek philosopher Aristotle said that philososphy ‘begins with wonder,’ which is decidedly easier to deal with.

Now your present writer, all those years ago, was often the only one awake at his Philosophy tutorial on Saturday mornings in UCD. It was my third subject, I could drop it in second year so I only gave that `love-determined movement’ a year out of my precious life. ‘Love-determined', eh? Steady on, now, Herr Scheler – instead of ‘love-determined movement', I would insert the following: ‘ pragamatic third subject choice deemed to be a dawdle. ' Once I had finsihed first year (and indeed passed philosophy as required) I continued with my History and English degree. These subjects were deemed to be relatively useful for getting one of the scarce jobs out there in the Seventies.

In order to be succinct in his compelling 260-page account, Trombley has had to simplify and telescope some mighty complicated theses that have come our way since the pre-Socratics started the ball rolling with the four humours of blood.(This is a family website, so I'm not going to name them - you might also be about to have breakfast.)

In more recent times, we learn that Pascal, Heiddeger and Bergson were all highly-skilled mathematicians, as well as being philosophers. Despite their considerable intellectual capacties, these hugely influential thinkers could express their ideas in remarkably simple language, accessible to the common reader.

The author is not without some self-deprecating humour, telling us in the preface how he used to wake in a panic from a recurring nightmare. In this awful scenario, a global catastrophe had occured, and he was one of a crowd of hapless survivors whose task it was to rebuild Western civilisation.

Trombley's particular challenge was to summarise philosophical ideas from ancient Greece to the present. The nightmare became reality when the guy from Atlantic Books made that phone call. But the author has risen admirably to the task, with his stimulating, illuminating, and, yes, thought-provoking work.

Paddy Kehoe

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