Book Review – A History of Western Philosophy (C. Stephen Evans)

A History of Western Philosophy: From the Pre-Socratics to Postmodernism, C. Stephen Evans (Downers Grove: IVP Academic Books, 2018), 585 pages.

Not too very far in my past I was blessed with the opportunity to be an instructor at the university level (personal rant here – a Professor is one who has attained a level of tenure and is a title bestowed by his or her peers. An instructor is one who instructs. I was an instructor, not a professor!!) One course that I was assigned was the subject of Philosophy of Religion. I have always been quasi-interested in the field of philosophy, and this course whetted my appetite to understand the intersection of philosophy and religion as no other assignment might have done. Alas, I was utterly adrift as to what to use as a text, and the text that was suggested to me was an anthology of writings, not an explanation of the topic of Philosophy of Religion. The first time I taught the course was an absolute disaster (as far as I was concerned, and I apologize profoundly to my students who were subjected to my ignorance!). The second time revealed some improvement, but not much. What I needed was a brief, yet as thorough as possible, treatment of the major strands of the field of philosophy. What I needed, in brief, was this book – sadly not published until long after my instructorship days were concluded.

In many respects, C. Stephen Evans has pulled off what I consider to be a minor miracle. He summarizes the vast ocean of material in the field of philosophy, and manages to do in a relatively brief (if 585 pages can be called brief) amount of space. In my estimation he also does this in a very readable and understandable manner – something that is critical for my decidedly less-than-prodigious ability to understand philosophical concepts. In other words – Evans wrote in a way that I can understand him. That, my friends, is truly a five star, two thumbs up recommendation for this book.

The book is arranged with 24 chapters, each chapter focusing on one (or sometimes two or three) major characters/writers in the field of philosophy (Socrates left no writings of which we are aware). All the “biggies” are discussed – Socrates, Plato and thus and such until he concludes with Friedrich Nietzsche. The outline is basically chronological, although he does break at one point to cover one time period from two different angles – European (Continental) and British. Each chapter discusses how the particular philosopher under discussion accepts or rejects previous philosophical movements, and then goes on to provide a brief explanation of that philosopher’s contribution to the field of philosophy.

(By the way, if you are wondering, his explanation of why he stops with Nietzsche is brilliant! I was wondering why he did so, and it is because he does not feel that it is possible to evaluate which of the 20th century philosophers will be critical enough to the future of philosophy to effectively evaluate them. Any evaluation, he believes, is for a future volume, one that I personally hope he writes. But, he does not want to view 20th century philosophers from the vantage point of “history” quite yet.)

There are, to be sure, some drawbacks to the author’s methodology. First, it is truly impossible to summarize the philosophy of Socrates, Augustine, Spinoza, Kant, or Marx in 25-30 pages. Yet, given this limitation, Evans does a remarkable job of maintaining his “meta narrative” (to borrow a philosophical term) throughout the book. Second, (and this is a criticism I have of virtually every “summary” type book regarding philosophy) – the authors of such summary style books are so educated, so well versed in their topic, that they can (and do) understand their characters in a manner deeper than they are able to summarize. Thus, they may write what they think is an acceptable summary of the thinking of Leibniz, but in a subsequent chapter they refer to an obscure (or not fully developed) aspect of Leibniz’ philosophy as if the reader fully understood Leibniz, and especially in my case, I don’t fully understand Leibniz’ philosophy. However, I must quickly add that this is a minor quibble, and in no way is meant to be a negative criticism of the value of this book. It simply is a consequence of what the author attempted to accomplish – provide a summary of a character’s philosophy and relate it to later philosophers’ writings.

Among all the positive attributes of this book that I could mention, perhaps the one that stands out to me right now is the fact that Evans writes from the position of a Christian philosopher, and he relates the contributions of each major character in terms of Christian thought. His favorite philosopher is Soren Kierkegaard, and his exuberance concerning Kierkegaard, and his explanation of Kierkegaard’s methodology, has kindled a real desire in me to read more of Kierkegaard’s writings (I only own one of Kierkegaard’s books). I offer just one snippet of Evan’s concluding chapter to illustrate his perspective:

The reason religion cannot be completely divorced from philosophy is that philosophy is done by human beings, and human beings are incorrigibly religious . . . If Christianity is true, then humans were made in God’s image, and their intended destiny is to have a relationship with God. If humans are deeply religious by nature, it is hard to see how philosophy can be sharply segregated from religion, or why it should be. (p. 577)

Now, to be sure, Evans view of Christianity differs from mine. He will make dogmatic statements that I do not necessarily agree with (he repeatedly refers to “original sin” as a universally held Christian belief, something that I do not ascribe to). But – show me a book in which I agree with everything the author says, and I will point out that book is one that I wrote.

As a deeply personal aside here, one of the real joys that I discovered in this book is that it helped me understand more of the background to one of my favorite theologians – Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and he never references Bonhoeffer once (boo!). Bonhoeffer’s two academic dissertations were written in response to a number of the philosophers discussed by Evans – Kant, Fichte, Husserl, and to a degree, Heidegger. What slowly dawned on me as I read these chapters is that in addition to being a brilliant theologian, Bonhoeffer was a profound philosopher. Maybe that one reason I find Bonhoeffer so challenging – and so valuable even almost 75 years after his death. Statements like, “Only those who believe can obey, and only those who are obedient can believe” are not only deeply theological, they are profoundly philosophical. Bonhoeffer was doing (albeit without consciously attempting to) what Evans described as what Kierkegaard was trying to do – speak to his culture in a way that they could hear the message of Jesus without being beat over the head with it. Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer were both attacking what they believed to be a dead church – so it is not surprising that their methods might have been so similar!!!  Maybe not, I’m not that much of a Bonhoeffer scholar, and he was clearly writing as a Christian scholar and pastor. But, the parallels between Bonhoeffer’s theology and philosophy became crystal clear to me through the pages of Evans’ book.

If you are interested in philosophy, especially if you do not consider yourself a professional philosopher and if many of the major philosophers are difficult to understand, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The cumulative length of the book is prodigious (the afore mentioned 585 pages), but the chapters themselves are 25-30 pages on average, and, once again, Evans writes to non-specialists. This is a very accessible book for philosophical neophytes like me.

Buy this book, brew yourself a big pot of tea (or coffee if you prefer) and give yourself a real treat. You will not regret investing in yourself – and hopefully grasping a little greater understanding of yourself and your world.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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