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Classical Mind (History of Western Philosophy)

by W. T. Jones

Buy the book: W. T. Jones. Classical Mind (History of Western Philosophy)

Release Date: June, 1969

Edition: Paperback

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Buy the book: W. T. Jones. Classical Mind (History of Western Philosophy)


In the beginning...

This book, 'The Classical Mind', is the first volume of a five-volume series on the history of Western Philosophy by W.T. Jones, professor of philosophy in California. This series is a very strong, thorough introduction to the course of Western Philosophy, beginning at the dawn of the philosophical enterprise with the pre-Socratics in ancient Greece to the modern thinkers such as Wittgenstein and Sartre. It has grown, over the three decades or so of its publication, from one to four then to five volumes. It has remained a popular text, and could serve as the basis of a one-year survey of philosophy for undergraduates or a one-semester survey for graduate students. Even advanced students in philosophy will find this valuable, all major topics and most minor topics in the course of philosophy are covered in these volumes.

Jones states that there are two possible ways for a writer to organise a history of philosophy -- either by addressing everyone who ever participated in philosophy (which could become rather cumbersome if one accepts the premise that anyone could be a philosopher), or to address the major topics and currents of thought, drawing in the key figures who address them, but leaving out the lesser thinkers for students to pursue on their own. Jones has chosen the latter tactic, making sure to provide bibliographic information for this task.

This volume, 'The Classical mind', starts and ends in ancient Greece. Plato and Aristotle are well featured, to be sure, but the pre-Socratics and the post-Aristotilean thinkers are also discussed in great detail. The first chapter deals with a number of thinkers whose names are well-known to those who study the history of science as well as to philosophers -- Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras -- showing the interconnection of disciplines that recurs again and again throughout history, but never again so closely as in these opening days of Western thought.

Jones gives a general history lesson along with the history of the development of thought so that the reader will understand the social and historical context in which ideas developed. Plato and Aristotle both came out a context in which Greece was a fairly violent place much of the time, with warring factions and city-states variously dependent upon and warring against each other.

The discussion of Plato largely deals with his theories of knowledge and metaphysics, with an additional chapter on subsequent topics such as ethics, politics, religion and art. Similiarly, Aristotle is dealt with in two chapters, with the major topics of metaphysics, logic, ethics, politics, aesthetics, and other issues addressed. At the end of each of these sections, Jones gives a general critique of the philosopher's main ideas, and in the final chapter of the book, sets the stage for further developments, particularly in terms of the decline of the Golden Age in Greece. In some regards, all subsequent Western philosophy vacilates between Plato and Aristotle, so a thorough grounding is important.

Each volume ends with a glossary of terms, and a worthwhile index. The glossary warns against short, dictionary-style definitions and answers to broad terms and questions, and thus indicates the pages index-style to the discussion within the text for further context. The one wish I would have would be a comprehesive glossary and index that covers the several volumes; as it is, each volume has only its own referents.

This is minor criticism in a generally exceptional series. It is not easy text, but it is not needlessly difficult. The print size on the direct quotes, which are sometimes lengthy, can be a strain at times, but the reading is worthwhile.

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An Excellent Textbook

W. T. Jones' first volume, The Classical Mind, is a fantastic introduction for studying ancient philosophy. His work is fairly clear and not very difficult in terms of being able to understand his explication of various philosophers and theories. That is, Jones does not write to other philosophers; he is writing to would-be philosophers or students. Jones considers important aspects such as the timing and events surrounding the philosophical theories in order to demonstrate that these ideas do not develop ex nihilo. They arise because of important questions or issues developed in the relevant cultures.

This work covers quite a few people. Of course, it is not exhaustive on every thinker; nor is such even possible since many of the writings of people like the pre-socratics do not exist beyond a few manuscripts. In any case, Jones starts with them (specificaly Homer and Hesiod), through Thales, to Plato, to Aristotle, and up to the skeptics (e.g., Carneades and Sextus). From time to time, Jones will comment upon some of the positive and negative (or implausible) aspects of each of the theories provided. Sometimes his objections are good; other times, they can be answered. For instance, Jones treats Plato's argument for the Forms as a transcendental argument and he applies Stephan Korner's uniquness argument against Plato (c.f. Korner, "The Impossibility of Transcendental Deductions"). Jones doesn't refer to Korner, but it is the same point. I think Plato could *in principle* answer Jones.

There are a couple areas where I think that Jones has misinterpreted some of the early thinkers. For instance, Jones treats Aristotle as only holding to the intellectual virtues as being eudaimonia (for an alternative view, see Cooper, John M. "Reason and Human Good in Aristotle"). Also, Jones gives a traditional analysis of Parmenides. Patricia Curd offers an alternative analysis in "The Legacy of Parmenides." Both of these thinkers challenge the traditional views that Jones sides with. In any case, that's a head's up for readers who have not done exhaustive reading on these philosophers; just something to keep in mind when reading Jones.

Finally, I think that Jones often uses far too long of quotes from other people. At one point, he quoted Plato for an entire three pages (8 size font!). Jones could have summarized the point and added a footnote. Nevertheless, this is a great textbook for studying ancient philosophy and it deserves five stars despite my harsh disapproval of some of his analyses and writing style :)

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