T.Z. Lavine. From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.
[An installment of the “Read Me” Project]

How this book ended up on the Read Me Shelf is a mystery. It doesn’t look like it came from any of the usual book stores, and it’s old. This makes me think that it was one of the refugees from Mom and Dad’s house. It’s a book Dad might have bought. And it’s one that, when I saw it, I could have thought “hey, that looks good … and I don’t know anything about Sartre.” I don’t remember doing that, but it’s my best theory.

Lavine reviews the history of [western] philosophy from Plato through Sartre, by looking in depth at six big names: Plato, Descartes, Hume, Hegel, Marx, and Sartre. You’ll probably wonder what happened to Kant – but he’s in there. And Feuerbach, along with Husserl and Heidegger, and Locke and Leibniz, just not profiled in the same lengthy way. So, it’s not a comprehensive history of philosophy. It’s an overview, like “greatest hits of western philosophy,” from the perspective of T.Z. Lavine in the mid-eighties in the US. As such, it has the virtues and the limitations of being a short, single volume.

Within those constraints, Lavine does a service to the reader who, like me, knows something but a lot less than everything about western philosophy. He outlines the major and central ideas of the big philosophers (so, Plato’s forms, the divided line, the cave, the skeletal structure of the Republic; Descartes’ cogito, ball of wax, clear and distinct ideas, mathematical certainty; Hume’s epistemology, sense impressions, critique of causal connection, … you get the idea). He explains the historical and influential connections of these ideas to the material that went before, and the implications of the ideas for the philosophy that comes after. This is now Kant and Heidegger get into the mix: he deals with other big names in less detail, but spells out how their work figures into the context for the work of the featured philosophers, or follows on from it. So, if what we need or want is a good “big-picture” overview, Lavine will serve us decently well.

Lavine is clear, too, and makes for fairly lively reading – especially for being academic philosophy. He tells stories along the way, he asks leading questions, he generates interest, and he puts a human spin on the thinkers and their ideas. He has the knack of showing the reader why someone might have cared about these ideas, and why we might care about them, too – how they have a role to play in the world real people live in.

Lavine’s entertainment and accessibility value comes at the expense of a little reliability. For instance, he devotes some pages (210-213) to that famous Hegelian dialectic that isn’t as Hegelian as people think.[1] This makes me nervous about leaning too heavily on his handy list of the seven key characteristics of phenomenology (393-396) without getting confirmatory witnesses. So Lavine alone might not get us our A in Intro to the History of Philosophy. But having Lavine along to help with the philosophy-to-English translation of the course text might make that A easier to get. And if we’re long past taking Phil 101, Lavine will stand in the gap, quick as you please.

[1] Maybee, Julie E., “Hegel’s Dialectics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/hegel-dialectics/. In particular:

Note that, while Hegel was clearly influenced by Fichte’s work, he never adopted Fichte’s triadic “thesis—antithesis—synthesis” language in his descriptions of his own philosophy (Mueller 1958: 411–2; Solomon 1983: 23), though he did apparently use it in his lectures to describe Kant’s philosophy (LHP III: 477). Indeed, Hegel criticized formalistic uses of the method of “triplicity [Triplizität]” (PhG §50; alternative translation) inspired by Kant—a criticism that could well have been aimed at Fichte.

More from the “Read Me” Project

interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library
So. many. books.