Tidying up the trivial

Jonathan Rée’s history of philosophy is way too long but worth sticking with for the connections it makes across whole networks of thought

Christopher Bray

There are histories of philosophy aplenty, though there aren’t many with the word “English” in the title. Occam’s razor cuts deep in Blighty, where ideas aren’t usually aired without irony. Abstract thought sits uneasy with a nation proud of what it would never call its pragmatist positivism, much less its positivist pragmatism. Like the mill-owning patriarch in An Inspector Calls, we Brits are “hard-headed practical men”. So one’s initial reaction on picking up Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English is similar to that of Edmund Blackadder on being handed a copy of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: “The most pointless book since “How to Learn French” was translated into French.”

Well, Blackadder was wrong about Dr Johnson, and so would we be to dismiss Rée’s work out of hand. While Witcraft is way too long, it is worth sticking with for the connections it makes across whole networks of thought. Rée is no great shakes as a storyteller, but his suety prose is studded with the kind of fruity wit you don’t come across in more conventional histories. Still, for all Rée’s claims to having broken away from the “condescending complacency” of traditional accounts of philosophy, the broad lineaments of his tale will be familiar to anyone who has worked their way through, say, Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Though Rée kicks off with Shakespeare and Hamlet, the better to ruminate on what philosophy would have meant to the “ordinary Londoners” of the Elizabethan age, he is soon on to Plato and Aristotle. From Athens we go on a meandering but much-mapped journey through Hobbes and Hume, Locke and Leibniz, Spinoza and Spencer, finishing up with Wittgenstein and Russell himself.

The book’s drifting feel is a result of its broken-backed time-scheme. Though it is divided up into chronologically headed sections, starting in 1601 and ending in 1951, each one taking up the reins 50 years on from its predecessor, Rée’s stories duck and dive all over the place. A Simon Schama-style opening vignette aside, none of the sections is much concerned with the year it is named for. Rée mentions approvingly Sartre’s suggestion that 20th-century philosophers should feel as free to fool around with form as the modernist novelists and painters and poets did. Witcraft isn’t exactly Woolfian. But anyone ever puzzled by Kant’s argument that time is a product of human consciousness might grasp it a little better after reading Rée’s book.

Not that he has written a guide to philosophy. Though he explains Cartesianism and Benthamism and Locke’s theory of the self well enough, he doesn’t take you through anyone’s arguments stage by stage. It’s not that he has bigger fish to fry: it’s that he has a different catch to bring ashore.  Some mighty unusual names crop up in a book that hopes “to persuade you that philosophy in English contains far more variety, invention, originality and oddity than it is usually credited with.” In a way, Rée, who once said he gave up lecturing in order to “have more time to think”, is kicking against the professionalisation of the age. He wants to get philosophy out of the ivory tower and back into the world. So it is that alongside the studies of the standard-issue big shots we get sections not only on the intellectual development of the likes of Coleridge, Carlyle, Hazlitt, and George Eliot, but also on sundry pensive parsons and doubting teachers.

Rée’s pen-portraits are skilfully done. Here is William Godwin, looking forward to the day democracy ensures that “sensual intercourse” takes place only when “the species should be propagated”. Here is Adam Smith drinking—on the counsel of no less than Bishop Berkeley—tar-water untouched by “artificial chymistry”. Here is D.H. Lawrence, calling the sight of Keynes in his pyjamas a “principle of evil”. Here is C.K. Ogden, coming on like some demented Beatles-worshipper and playing records backwards the better to understand the nonsense spouted by “eminent metaphysicians”.

Rée has a good ear for the killer quote, and more than once shows how, beyond the strict parameters of philosophy proper, laughs abound. De Quincey dismisses Kant as a “transcendental pedant”, Darwin acknowledges Herbert Spencer’s cleverness while confiding that “I seldom feel any wiser after reading him”, and as for Ned Ward, landlord of the King’s Head in Gray’s Inn and Aristotle’s soi-disant “Sumpter Horse”, he had no time for any of them, offering up “a Fart for Virgil and his Elegance and a T__d for Descartes and his Philosophy”.

But far and away the book’s funniest section is the one that brings us most up to date. Not because Wittgenstein was ever less than serious (this is a guy who was on friendly terms with that tiresomely vindictive moralist F.R. Leavis), but because of his constant duelling with his mentor Russell. From the moment they met, when Wittgenstein refused to accept the contention that they were not sharing Russell’s rooms with a rhinoceros, to his snorting at Russell’s “shilling shockers” (like that aforementioned History of Western Philosophy), their relationship was so comically abusive you find yourself thinking that all those Jonathan Miller and Monty Python send-ups were crippled by miscasting. If you want to do Russell and Wittgenstein justice, you need to call in Laurel and Hardy.

Wittgenstein thought philosophy a “synopsis of trivialities”. Certainly the thought of too many insubstantial thinkers is summarised in Witcraft. I’d love to have had a pint and a chat with Ned Ward, or to have eyeballed Harriet Martineau touring America with only her “ear trumpet of remarkable fidelity” for company. But there is a reason these people don’t show up in more conventional accounts. A practical man who trained as an engineer and was an amateur architect, Wittgenstein was fond of telling his students that philosophising was more like      “tidying up a room than building a house”. Jonathan Rée has found a new room to tidy. It’s worth a visit, but not until you know the rest of the place well.


Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English
By Jonathan Rée
Allen Lane, 768pp, £30

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