ARTYFACTS: Anthony Kenny (Edinburgh Book Festival) - masterful

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Anthony Kenny (Edinburgh Book Festival) - masterful

When Kenny retired he was asked to write a new History of Western Philosophy. As he said, Russell was inaccurate but readable, Coplestone accurate but boring. His is an attempt to be accurate and readable. (Hard to understand why Russell got the Nobel Prize for Literature, for his book.)

He took us on a quick journey through Western Philosophy, starting with Plato and Aristotle - Plato asked more questions, but Aristotle gave more answers. St Augustine was criticised for his later theological strictures and Aquinas praised as one of the greatest mind of the Middle Ages but a Gulliver held down by Lilliputians (the clergy and Aristotelian physicists). Duns Scotus’s scepticism he saw as an enduring and destructive force stretching all the way to Hume. The problem with the Middle Ages was reverence for sacred books, so Aristotle became an unquestioned orthodoxy. It was only when this reverence for Aristotle was overthrown that philosophy could progress.

After a quick run through Early Modern philosophy from the Continental Rationalists (Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza), against the British Empiricists (Locke, Berkeley and Hume), we get the great unifier Kant. He seemed to have a soft-spot for Bentham but found the Greatest Happiness principle suspect. Interestingly, he saw the mutual antipathy between the Anglo-American and Continental philosophy rather false and destructive. Nevertheless, the only passage he read was a diatribe against Derrida, who he accuses of simply being a deft user of rhetoric in the form of puns, the bawdy, sneers and sniggers. For Kenny, Wittgenstein is, for him, the greatest of the 20th century philosophers.

Philosophy, for Kenny, was a personal journey, which is why he is sceptical of lectures on the subject and in favour of dialogue and tutorials. He thought that much modern philosophy had become trapped in institutional behaviour with far too many journals and obscurism. Given his view that Aquinas’s genius had been thwarted by the Church and modern philosophy thwarted by academia, I asked whether he though Hume was a better philosopher for being outside academia. He admired Hume’s moral philosophy but thought little of his analysis of causality (the opposed position was a view that few held) or basic empiricist theory of impressions.

The book itself is indeed readable and HUGE. Having read a few passages in the bookshop - it's on my next Amazon order.


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