Friday, June 28, 2024

The Philosophers’ Library: Books that Shaped the World by Adam Ferner and Chris Meyns

Relentless focus on intellectual reparations
The Philosophers’ Library
is an illustrated history of books on philosophy, printed in a mini-coffee table format of 8" x 9.5". Published in 2021 by Ivy Press, this is a follow-up to their similarly designed 2019 book Scientifica Historica about the history of science books. Ivy Press has since developed this into a series named Liber Historica, which now includes The Atlas of Atlases, The Anatomists’ Library, and The Astronomers’ Library. These volumes combine photographs of pages and illustrations from rare and classic books with text that one hopes would give a historical overview of the important books in the particular field in question. Like Scientifica Historica, this book is illustrated with many beautiful photographs of illuminated manuscripts and printed books. Book lovers will find it a pleasure to look at, but the text by authors Adam Ferner and Chris Meyns is not as satisfying.

Did you know that for thousands of years white men ruled the Earth, colonizing foreign lands, subduing other cultures, and stifling the voices of women and people of color? Well, in case you didn’t know that, the authors of this book remind you of it in almost every paragraph. For much of philosophy’s history, white men were the only people allowed to practice, teach, or disseminate philosophical thought. Why not just assume that your readers are intelligent enough to know that, instead of continually repeating the known fact of white colonialism? That could have been covered in a disclaimer or preface at the front of the book, so we could get on with the discussion of philosophy. Instead, all we’re told here about almost all white philosophers is that they were racists. While the effort to present a more inclusive canon is a good thing, so much space is used up in caveats on colonialism, slavery, the expatriation of cultural artifacts, and the intellectual bias enforced by white power structures that there is little left to devote to the thoughts of the thinkers discussed. While the field of philosophy has many facets, the only philosophical issues that Ferner and Meyns are interested in are racism, feminism, and colonialism. There’s almost nothing in here about epistemology, for example, and very little on ethics outside of race and gender ethics. On the other hand, the authors allow a very broad definition of philosophy that includes just about any nonfiction book that supports their interests, from history to memoir to race and gender studies.

Ferner and Meyns are to be commended, however, for striving to make this a true world history of philosophy, rather than just a recap of Western civilization. There is much more in this book about Arab, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese philosophy than you are likely to find in any other summary survey of the discipline. And when it comes to these Eastern philosophies, the authors spend less time talking about racism, so you actually get a better idea of what these non-Western thinkers had to say. I wish there had been a bibliography, or at least of list of books discussed as in Scientifica Historica, that would make it easier to track down some of these titles in English translation.

Scientifica Historica succeeded in telling readers just enough about important historical books to make the reader think, “That’s a book I might like to read.” When you read a book about the history of books, you should come away with a reading list. With The Philosopher’s Library, you don’t learn enough about any of these philosophers or their books to accomplish that. Instead of walking away from this feeling like you got a concise but comprehensive history of philosophy that somewhat conveys an academic consensus of what’s important in the field, you feel more like you just listened to two scholars expound at length on their personal research interests, pet issues, and favorite authors.
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