Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English by Jonathan Rée

This is a big book on a big subject. It’s 600 pages about the history of philosophy, mainly dealing with philosophy as it was practiced in English. But as the author says:

Philosophy in English is as multi-lingual as philosophy in any other language. It has always been fascinated — repelled as well as attracted — by foreign philosophy, and philosophical terms such as idea, logic, nature, politics, virtue, science and spirit, which now pass as linguistic natives, used to be seen as exotic outsiders [8].

The book’s eight chapters roughly concern the philosophical landscape in 50-year increments.There are chapters devoted to 1601, 1651, 1701, 1751 and finally 1951. But Rée never limits himself to those years. They’re merely labels for different eras. So the principal figure in the last chapter is Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose major works were published in 1913 and 1953 (and composed in German).

Witcraft was written for the general reader, although I don’t think it’s superficial. And it’s not the kind of treatment that the poet Stephen Spender complained about:

In the first lesson we were taught that J. S. Mill’s Utilitarianism meant the greatest happiness of the greatest number . . . in the next tutorial we were taught that Mill was wrong . . . The next philosopher was Locke. We were told what he thought and then why he was wrong. Next please. Hume. Hume was wrong also. Then Kant. Kant was wrong, but he was so difficult that no one could be sure of  catching him out [4].

The author hopes that his stories will bring out “the ordinariness of philosophy, as well as its magnificence and its power to change people’s lives”. He sees it as “a carnival rather than a museum: an unruly parade of free spirits, inviting you to join in and make something new” [9].

In that regard, I especially recommend the chapters that revolve around Adam Smith and David Hume (1751), John Stuart Mill and Mary Ann Evans, better known as the novelist George Eliot (1851), the pragmatic philosopher and psychologist William James (1901) and the intense and enigmatic Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein (1951). They are all thinkers worth knowing about.

By the way, Wikipedia says that Jonathan Rée is “a British freelance historian and philosopher”. Educated at Oxford, he was “previously a Professor of Philosophy at Middlesex University, but gave up a teaching career in order to have more time to think“.