Brief Thoughts on A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living

March 28, 2014 — 1 Comment

12082644Earlier today, I finish reading Luc Ferry’s A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living. I think I picked it up on Keller’s recommendation. I was looking for a general history of philosophy that was aimed at the popular level. That’s pretty much what this is, but with a twist I didn’t expect.

For starters, I didn’t have an idea of what Ferry’s background might be. But, he describes Christianity so sympathetically, I briefly thought he might be a Christian.

Not even close.

Ferry is a dedicated secular humanist. But unlike someone like Dawkins, he is not against religion in general and Christianity in particular. Instead, he paints Christianity in a very favorable light. Contrasting Christianity and other philosophies, he says:

Therefore I must renounce the wisdom of Buddhism, as I renounce that of Stoicism – with respect and esteem, but also with a sense of unbridgeable difference. I find the Christian proposition infinitely more tempting – except for the fact that I do not believe in it. But were it to be true I would be certainly be a taker. (Kindle Loc., 3341-3343)

Earlier in the book, asking whether “Christian philosophy exists,” Ferry says:

The response must be ‘yes’ and ‘no’. No, in the sense that the highest truths in Christianity, as in all of the major monotheistic religions, are termed ‘revealed truths ’: that is, truths transmitted by the word of Christ, the son of God himself. These truths become an active belief system. We might then be tempted to say that there is no further role for philosophy within Christianity, because the essentials are decided by faith. However, one might also assert that in spite of everything there remains a Christian philosophical activity, although relegated to second place. Saint Paul emphasises repeatedly in his Epistles that there remains a dual role for reason and consequently for purely philosophical activity. On the one hand , Christ expresses himself in terms of symbols and parables (the latter in particular need interpreting, if we are to draw out their deeper sense). Even if the words of Christ have the distinction, a little like the great orally transmitted myths, legends and fairytales, of speaking to everyone, they do require the effort of reflection and intelligence to decipher their more hidden meanings. (Kindle Loc., 934-942)

You can see now why one might say that there both is and is not a Christian philosophy. There must clearly be a place for rational activity – to interpret Scripture and comprehend the natural order sufficiently to draw the correct conclusions as to the Christian divinity . But the doctrine of salvation is no longer the prerogative of philosophy , and, even if they do not in principle contradict one another, the truths revealed by faith take precedence over those deduced by reason. (Kindle Loc., 947-951)

Later in other discussions, he seems to “get” Christianity better than some Christians. He doesn’t entirely get it mind you, but he does see Gnosticism has no place in Christian thought. Consider his explanation of the Christian doctrine of salvation:

One can be a non-believer , but one cannot maintain that Christianity is a religion dedicated to contempt for the flesh. Because this is simply not the case. Taking resurrection as the end-point of the doctrine of salvation, we can begin to understand what enabled Christianity to rule more or less unchallenged over philosophy for nearly fifteen hundred years. The Christian response to mortality, for believers at least, is without question the most ‘effective’ of all responses: it would seem to be the only version of salvation that enables us not only to transcend the fear of death, but also to beat death itself. And by doing so in terms of individual identity, rather than anonymity or abstraction, it seems to be the only version that offers a truly definitive victory of personal immortality over our condition as mortals. (Kindle Loc., 1204-1210)

Ferry makes much of this “doctrine of salvation” business, and not just in relation to Christian thought. In contrasting religion and philosophy, Ferry sees that latter as “doctrines of salvation (but without the help of a God).” That was the other twist I wasn’t anticipating. In Ferry’s understanding, philosophy is just a different way of formulating a doctrine of salvation. As such, it leads to certain ethical commitments (hence the subtitle of his book). To get to those, one must study philosophy. Ferry explains:

Philosophy is the best training for living, better even than history and the human sciences. Why? Quite simply because virtually all of our thoughts, convictions and values exist and have meaning – whether or not we are conscious of it – within models of the world that have been developed over the course of intellectual history. We must understand these models in order to grasp their reach, their logic and their consequences. (Kindle Loc., 55-58)

He goes on to add:

As several contemporary thinkers note: one does not philosophise to amuse oneself, nor even to better understand the world and one’s own place in it, but sometimes literally to ‘save one’s skin’. There is in philosophy the wherewithal to conquer the fears which can paralyse us in life, and it is an error to believe that modern psychology, for example, can substitute for this. (Kindle Loc., 69-72)

Notice that in Ferry’s account, philosophy is a different way of achieving peace in the face of fear. And, as he noted above, the chief fear is death. What one is saved from then is our own fears, and specifically death. In this way, his “doctrines of salvation,” Christianity included, are missing a “doctrine of sin.” That certainly skews his account, but it did make for a very stimulating take on philosophy and religion. I’ll probably post more on here since there is much to add. This merely sketches out his general approach to philosophy. Later, I’ll add my thoughts on how he presents the narrative of western philosophy.


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One response to Brief Thoughts on A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living

  1. The last bit here reminds me of Boethius and his “Consolation of Philosophy” though he was a religious man he chose the consolation of philosophy rather then theology. C.S. Lewis did a great recap of his life and work in “the discarded images”.

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