The history of philosophy: A coherent explanation

March 7, 2022
Background image: ‘Philosophers: twenty portraits of ancient thinkers’ engraving by JW Cook, 1825. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

The History of Philosophy: A Marxist Perspective
by Alan Woods
Wellred Books, London, 2021

Alan Woods’ The History of Philosophy takes a specifically Marxist perspective to marshal the vicissitudes of Western philosophy — from Ancient Greece through to the development of Marxist philosophy itself — into a coherent framework.

The book covers ancient Greek philosophy; the influence of Christianity from the time of the late Roman Empire; the philosophy of the Middle Ages in Europe and the Islamic world; the Renaissance; and philosophers through to the 19th century — such as Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Kant and Hegel — up to the development of the philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

The history is primarily limited to philosophy as it evolved in Europe. A chapter on Indian philosophy was left out to keep to a more manageable scope.

The geographic detour represented by covering the philosophy of the Islamic world is necessary in virtue of the fact that it was here that the philosophy of ancient Greece was preserved and developed when Europe entered the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. And it was from here that it re-entered Europe in the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The philosophy of Marx and Engels is generally and usefully labelled “dialectical materialism”.

The materialism aspect of it sets it on one side of the conflict stretching back to ancient Greece between two counterposed perspectives, the other being idealism, which has recurred in different forms throughout the history of philosophy.

While materialism views thought as a product of the material world with the ability to represent that material world, for idealism thought is an independent or even the only realm of reality and the material world we think about is seen as being in some or all respects a product of thought itself.

The earliest Greek philosophers, from the Ionian Islands in the sixth and seventh centuries BC, were materialists and sought to find the underlying principles of nature.

Thales thought that all matter was based on different forms of water while Anaximenes thought it was air. Though the possibilities of modern science was not available to them, they still sought to explain the world around them in terms of forms of matter, and matter that could move and transform itself without any need for the hand of gods or supernatural forces.

This probably explains why they were also surprisingly far-sighted in terms of science. Anaximander, for instance, prefigured Darwin by two millennia suggesting that humans had evolved from marine animals.

Greek philosophy subsequently developed idealist schools such as the Pythagoreans and that established by Plato.

Plato represents an iconic position in idealist philosophy. For him, the “universals” with which we think about and describe the world constitute a separate realm of ideas or forms from the material world.

As Woods explains it: “The universals of thought, for example, the idea of a circle, had an independent existence, separate and apart from particular round objects … the plate, like all other crude material objects, is merely an imperfect manifestation of the idea”.

Plato’s pupil Aristotle, however, represents a turn back towards materialism.

Dialectics — that other element of dialectical materialism — also has origins going back to ancient Greece.

Heraclitus (c. 544-484 BC) wrote: “We step and we do not step into the same stream; we are and are not.”

A stream, like the world in general, is in constant motion and is never the same from one instant to the next.

In dialectics, though we must necessarily think of the world in terms of fixed, stable categories, a human, for instance, those things we represent with those categories are in a state of constant change.

Things contain within them conflicting, contradictory forces such that they are continually becoming something other than what they are, such that at a certain point they will become something qualitatively different, a corpse, for instance.

Woods quotes Engels: “When we consider and reflect upon nature at large or the history of mankind or our own intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless entanglement of relations and reactions, permutations and combinations, in which nothing remains what, where and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away … This primitive, naïve but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that of ancient Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and is not, for everything is fluid, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.”

A subsequent inflection of dialectics bequeathed by ancient Greek philosophy is the method of Socratic dialogue.

Socrates’ method, taken up by successors such as Plato, was to begin with a particular idea or opinion. Then, though a step-by-step argument, often represented as a discussion between two people, to bring out the inner contradictions of the initial idea, show its limitations and eventually arrive at a more sophisticated and nuanced idea.

In the modern era it was German philosopher Georg Hegel (1770–1831) who played the most significant role in re-establishing the philosophical perspective of dialectics through works ranging from history and politics to logic.

In his first major work The Phenomenology of Spirit of 1807, he traces the historical development of human thought through various phases. He traces the path of thought through contradictions and conflict to arrive at a more developed and sophisticated level of thought.

However, he situated this development as a development of “spirit” — as an expression of the mystical and, as Woods points out, ill-explained Absolute Idea. As such, Hegel’s philosophy was a variant of idealism.

Marx and Engels early evolution began in the intellectual milieu of the Young or Left Hegelians but soon became dissatisfied with its entrapment within the idealist world of spirit or abstract ideas.

Instead, they developed a materialist dialectics — a dialectics not merely of ideas but of nature and society. As Engels described it: “The Hegelian dialectic was placed upon its head; or rather, turned off its head, on which it was standing, and placed upon its feet.”

In the best tradition of Marxist analysis, Woods brings the perspective of dialectical materialism to bear on the history of philosophy — seeing the history of philosophy as a dialectic through which a conflict of contradictory ideas can develop philosophy to a higher plane but not seeing this as a matter of ideas developing in their own free-floating realm. Rather they are viewed as being shaped within the material, socio-economic context of history.

The history of Western philosophy has been covered numerous times before. Bertrand Russell’s 1946 History of Western Philosophy is probably considered the standout classic and indeed has much to recommend it.

However, Russell’s own perspective as a representative of one variant of the Anglophone empiricist tradition mars his ability to give a dispassionate account of contemporary philosophy. It also leaves him totally at sea when it comes to explaining Hegel and dialectics.

So a retelling of this history from a Marxist perspective is a worthy project and Woods’ readable style should be helpful to anyone looking for a more reliable orientation to the broad scope of Western philosophy.

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