Review: A History of Western Philosophy and Theology
I have read some but not all of the philosophers John Frame canvasses in this book. That almost certainly describes you, too. So you’re probably in precisely the same boat I’m in when it comes to Western philosophy—that creaky boat full of hopefuls traveling from the land of ignorance to the land of knowledge. But (and please bear with this analogy, ahem) we hopefuls need guides to get us across the water. (Keep bearing.) We want the kind of guide who will say, “That’s a rocky coastline; you don’t want to land there” or “That’s a good harbor.”
It simply isn’t advisable—or even possible—for most hopefuls to navigate the massive waves and hidden sandbars of philosophy without a guide. That’s true even though firsthand knowledge of that sea is the ultimate goal some of us, at least, ought to be shooting for. We ought to aim to become capable skippers ourselves, guiding others across the perplexity.
One of the themes of John Frame’s own theological work is the moral obligation we have to pick the right guides, to get knowledge righteously. And one of the primary ways we accomplish this feat is by trusting the right authorities. Ultimately, of course, divine authority is the only one that validates knowledge. But that very authority has gifted His church with teachers like Frame (Eph. 4:10).
Now to the book: simply put, John Frame is just the kind of guide, just the kind of teacher, you want on a journey through Western philosophy. You don’t want mere description, even the expert and easy-to-read summarizing that Frame can give as an ABD in philosophy at Yale and a long-time teacher. You want evaluation throughout the trip.
Philosophy travels into obscure, fathomless depths. Frame is an ideal guide because he has firmly fixed his theology in God’s revelation. He has probed the depths of the person’s own role in knowing. And he has an eye to the situation to which knowledge must always be applied.
I could have told you all that without reading the book, but let me focus my comments on the chapter which covered the thinkers with which I am most familiar: chapter 9 on “Nietzsche, Pragmatism, Phenomenology, and Existentialism.”
The amount of space Frame gives to any given thinker is a bit unpredictable, but guided (I gather) by the general principle that more important thinkers generally get more ink. Nietzsche leads off the chapter. Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre, and a few other thinkers who fall into the theme of the chapter also have their say.
Each thinker gets a combination of summary (this is the bigger part) and critique (the smaller), and those critiques often include pointing out rational and irrational elements of the thought of a given philosopher. Frame’s treatments of thinkers I had some familiarity with were judicious and helpful. He has a gift for summarizing complex material in a readable way. I have particular interest in Peirce (largely because he was an influence on Stanley Fish, my favorite pragmatist—who does not appear in the book), and I found it genuinely enlightening. I was surprised, for example, to see some “scientistic” strains in Peirce’s thought.
Footnotes are explanatory; Frame customarily doesn’t write in explicit conversation with secondary literature—though I still feel he deals with his topics responsibly. At the end of each chapter are key terms, study questions, bibliography, some reading and listening suggestions, and a collection of relevant famous quotes from the respective philosophers covered.
It’s hard to avoid the feel of a recital in a book like this. And if you have no background whatsoever in philosophy—it’s utterly and completely brand new to you—it’s doubtful that you’ll be able to follow well. But it’s hard to imagine a better guide for the at least minimally initiated than John Frame.
I wrote this review in exchange for a free copy from the publisher, P&R, but the opinions are my own.