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A beguiling tale of English philosophy

Anyone who’s listened to episodes of the BBC’s “In our time” with Jonathan Rée as one of the contributors (for example), or read articles by him (for example) in the London Review of Books, will appreciate his well-informed summaries of philosophical positions delivered in a relaxing and modulated tone.


Sean Sheehan


The reassuring clarity and elegant sanity of his measured prose is equally characteristic of his new book “Witcraft: the invention of philosophy in English”.

He decries traditional histories of philosophy because of the way they dumb down their subject into hackneyed quotations and pre-packed arguments while readers rush through them “like tourists on a tight schedule looking out for the attractions mentioned in their guidebooks but ignoring everything else’.

Rée wants to bring to the history of philosophy in English the intellectual excitement that he felt as a teenager when he read Jean-Paul Sartre and warmed to his clarion call to live out our freedom – “like an artist facing a blank canvas rather than a functionary filling in a form’.

He begins with Renaissance humanism and early translations into English of classical authors. Later, says Rée, Descartes was translated as “an honorary Englishman’. Home-grown philosophers, like Hobbes, and the Irish free-thinker John Toland are singled out before looking at John Locke and Hume as the first major philosophers in English.

Outside the mainstream, figures like Cervantes and George Eliot are looked at, as well as a host of other thinkers who were never in the limelight.

Moving into modern times, he includes philosophers who came to England and the greatest of these, Wittgenstein, receives a lot of attention from Rée. He emerges as the  hero of Witcraft because of the way he devoted himself to philosophy not in order to secure promotion or tenure in a university — he would in time walk away from his professorship at Cambridge, calling it “ a mutual admiration society”— but because he needed to think.

By way of providing essential background, there is a lucid explanation of Gottlob Frege’s breakout from traditional Aristotelian thought about logic and numbers, followed by the role of Bertrand Russell in Wittgenstein’s life. The later chapters of Witcraft weave biography, history and philosophy into a narrative smorgasbord that becomes a pleasure to read.

Photo: Pixabay

Witcraft’s curious ending is a remark by Wittgenstein about the difficulty of understanding other people. The fact that we all look more or less the same is misleading: “If some people looked like elephants and others like cats, or fish, one wouldn’t expect them to understand each other and things would look much more like what they really are.’

Rée’s ending does not fulfil what he said in an uncharacteristically glib book review about the purpose of a long book being the need “to build steadily to a culminating revelation’. There is no climactic conclusion but Witcraft is all the better because of this.

“Witcraft: the invention of philosophy in English” by Jonathan Rée is published by Allen Lane

( Photos: Pixabay)

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