Adler on Will Durant and “The Story of Philosophy”

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Some time toward the beginning of the summer of 1926, Mark Van Doren asked me to review the recently published “The Story of Philosophy” by Will Durant, one of the then current “popularizations of knowledge,” which kept company with H. G. Wells’s “Outline of History”, Hendrik Van Loon’s “Story of Mankind”, and Lewis Browne’s “This Believing World”. Chapters of Durant’s book had been previously published by Haldeman-Julius in little paperback blue books that sold for ten cents a copy. Collected in one hardback volume, they were now being offered to the public by Simon and Schuster for five dollars. Through the haze of my indifference to externals, I was aware that Durant’s “Story of Philosophy” was being lavishly praised by reviewers. An advertisement in the “New York Times” of August 22, 1926, announced that this “run away best-seller” had gone through nine printings in less than three months. It quoted extravagant encomiums from Heywood Broun, Henry Hazlitt, and Stuart Sherman, and included John Dewey’s statement that in this “thoroughly scholarly, thoroughly useful, human and readable” book, “Dr. Durant has humanized rather than merely popularized the story of philosophy.” I was irked by all of this, but not enough to move off dead center.

What did it was a telephone call from Mark Van Doren at the beginning of September which reached me in Kip Fadiman’s apartment, where I spent many days aimlessly frittering away time. Mark said that he wanted my review of Durant as quickly as possible, and set a deadline which allowed me only ten days to read the book and write the review. It was as if Mark had pressed a button that released energies I had been storing up for the purpose. I read “The Story of Philosophy” with mounting distaste and gave vent to it in my review. Mine was one of only two adverse criticisms that the book received at the time; the other was written by Paul Weiss and published in the “New Republic”. The affinity of our reviews established a bond between Paul and me that has grown into a lifelong friendship.

My chief complaint was that Durant had “humanized” philosophy — exactly the thing for which Dewey praised him. His book, like that of his precursor in antiquity, Diogenes Laertius, author of “The Lives and Opinions of the Philosophers”, dealt mainly with men, not with ideas, or with ideas only as opinions formed by men under certain psychological or cultural influences. An interest in human beings is one thing; an interest in thought another; and one should not be allowed to get in the way of the other. Nor should a man’s thought be explained solely by reference to his personality or temperament, or the social and cultural setting of his life. To use that type of explanation as a basis for evaluating his thought, to insinuate that its origins make its validity suspect, is to commit the genetic fallacy — the substitution of psychology for logic — which was my main point of protest against John Dewey and other pragmatists and humanists.

The central blindness of Durant’s book, I wrote, lies in the fact that “philosophy is conceived in a manner which would be rudely uncongenial . . . to the minds of the philosophers Mr. Durant has chosen to sketch sympathetically. Where he has achieved sympathetic insight into a philosophic system it has been largely on the side of its vital motivations rather than in terms of its dialectical intent. His implicit acceptance of the pragmatic attitude toward the history of philosophy . . . makes his lack of appreciation for antithetical viewpoints the more distressing, since the pragmatic conception of philosophy is the unacknowledged, pervasive doctrine of the book, underlying its exposition of thinkers to whom pragmatism would have been unintelligible. This doctrine commits the fallacy of genetic interpretation. It assumes that ideas are to be exhaustively understood and their validity estimated in terms of their origins; that philosophies are most significantly revealed as biographical items in a socio-politico-economic context.”

Admitting that “the thinker may be described biologically” and that “thinking may be a psychological process, susceptible to various psychoanalyses,” I went on to insist that “thought itself . . . has a logical structure disengaged from life and a life of its own in discourse which is purely dialectical.” And I concluded the review by saying that just as the poets were banished by Plato for writing stories about the gods, so “Diogenes and Mr. Durant would have been exiled with them for telling stories about the philosophers. Not that gossips and collectors of opinions could have harmed the real philosophers who ruled the perfect state; simply that lack of insight into the relation between discourse and truth would have offended them.”

As I now look back upon that review, I can see evidence of my unresolved state of mind about philosophy, torn between a concern with its being true in the same way that science claims a modicum of truth for itself, and an inclination to disengage philosophy from relation to anything outside the universe of discourse in which it flourishes as a dialectical or logical enterprise. The extreme purism, or intellectual austerity, to which the latter tendency drove me is now as repugnant to me as it must have been to my elders then, some of whom may have had the charity to excuse it as a youthful excess. On one thing, however, I have not changed my mind. The genetic fallacy is an error always to be scrupulously avoided. Nor have I ever found the idiosyncrasies of human beings, including myself, more interesting than their ideas.

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