When a group of philosophers was recently asked to name the most influential dead thinker, they selected David Hume (runners up: Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein). Selling points for this eighteenth-century Scottish historian and economist include his knack for delivering unsettling ideas—such as naturalism, which robbed the miraculous of its supernatural tenets—in such a genial mode that people hesitated to attack him as a heretic. Anthony Gottlieb, the former executive editor of The Economist, is another deft, congenial writer, and his long-awaited The Dream of Enlightenment (Liveright, $27.95) continues the fascinating exploration he began with his 2001 The Dream of Reason, which gave a fresh and refreshing account of the thought of the ancient Greeks. As he did with the ancients, Gottlieb treats the Enlightenment figures, starting with Descartes, like paintings that have become smudged and muddied by time and fingerprints. He strips away the patina of received ideas, and looks as directly as a historian of ideas can at what these men actually said (all men. As Gottlieb notes, this was only “The Age of Trying to be More Reasonable”). Often, what they first meant isn’t how later audiences have understood it. Was Descartes such a hard-core dualist? Gottlieb shows he wasn’t the “rampant subjectivist” he’s thought to be. And Hobbes—we know him for “nasty, brutish, and short,” but his first and abiding love was geometry. And so on, with Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, and several French philosophes. Each of Gottlieb’s brief chapters is a masterpiece of brevity and lucidity.
John Kaag is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and while one of his goals with American Philosophy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26) is to trace the origins of the country’s distinctive takes on transcendentalism and pragmatism, his book is decidedly not academic; rather, he writes to disprove his fear that “philosophy [is] no longer intensely personal.” Structured around the unexpected task of cataloging the library of William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966), the book is at once Kaag’s own Dantesque journey through a dark period that includes the death of an alcoholic father, the end of a marriage, and a disillusion with academia, and a survey of philosophy as he works through Hocking’s tens of thousands of volumes. Though now merely a “nearly famous philosopher,” Hocking was renowned in his day, and counted among his friends William James, George Santayana, Josiah Royce, and many others. As he comes upon their books, Kaag summarizes arguments, reads choice selections, and contextualizes the thoughts within the thinker’s life—and within his own. Immediate and urgent, these aren’t lessons but true discoveries, and Kaag goes from volume to volume, tradition to tradition, 19th-century American to German Romanticism, idealism to phenomenology, famous men to unfairly overlooked women, looking for the answer to James’s question, “Is life worth living?”
With the charming Montaigne at its center, Bakewell’s How to Live was an instant crowd-pleaser. Now the one-time “suburban teenage existentialist” presents a more challenging cast, including Heidegger, Merleou-Ponty, Camus, Sartre, and Beauvoir. Aside from Heidegger, about whom “a single documented example” exists of his “actually doing something nice,” Bakewell not only admires, but truly likes her subjects; her profiles are as engaging as they are illuminating. Noting that “all existentialism is applied existentialism,” Bakewell traces the philosophy’s role in feminism, gay rights, and other movements—work sure to continue as technology and neuroscience force us to reconsider the definition of “human.”