Nigel Warburton’s A Little History of Philosophy is fast gaining critical acclaim (a recent review by the Guardian’s Julian Baggini said that Warburton’s work ‘provides the perfect fuel to kick-start anyone’s journey into philosophy’). The book, which is inspired by E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, introduces the great thinkers in Western philosophy, exploring their most compelling ideas in an accessible way. Here Nigel Warburton discusses his first contact with Gombrich’s work, and recalls the role Gombrich himself played Warburton’s family history.
Article by Nigel Warburton
As a teenager I was an eclectic autodidact. On weekends when I wasn’t playing rugby I would walk several miles to the local public library in Dartford and browse every shelf. Eventually I would make my four book selection and set off for home clutching them in a carrier bag. I rarely managed to read them from cover to cover, though I always intended to. I’d be just as likely to come home with a novel by Thomas Hardy as a book on hawk moths or hydroponics.
Inevitably I came across Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. But, sadly, when I got round to reading it I didn’t get beyond the pre-Socratics. Philosophy sounded important and interesting, but Russell lost me in the thickets of antiquity. Since then I’ve been trying to write the sort of book that I wish I’d found on those library shelves. So when I was invited to author a book in the series that has developed from Ernst Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, I was both delighted and somewhat daunted.
At eighteen a friend had leant me Gombrich’s The Story of Art, which I did read from cover to cover. A few years later I read Art and Illusion too, and was later lucky enough to attend several lectures Gombrich gave in Cambridge when I was a postgraduate philosophy student there. Gombrich awakened my interest in the visual arts. But it was from my late mother-in-law, Lotte Motz, that I first learnt about his A Little History of the World, a decade before it was published in English. Lotte had read and loved the book as a young teenager in 1930s Vienna, though it was soon banned by the Nazis. Her love of A Little History of the World (or Eine kurze Weltgeschichte für junge Leser as it was then known), would later play a part in her courtship.
Lotte and most of her family escaped to the United States in 1941, three years after the Anschluss. Some time afterwards she began dating another Viennese emigré, the physicist Hans Motz. One day they were walking near the Metropolitan Museum in New York, when by chance they met Ernst Gombrich in the street. Hans knew him well – they’d been friends since schooldays – and Gombrich took them for an impromptu tour of the Frick Collection. This greatly impressed Lotte – not, though, because of Gombrich’s eminence as an art historian, but rather because her suitor was on such good terms with the author of her favourite book from childhood. Not long after that Lotte married Hans.
I remember Lotte talking with fond enthusiasm about A Little History of the World, and I tried to find the book, only to discover that it hadn’t then been translated into English. Sadly Lotte died before that happened and so did not know about the book’s second life after its re-publication in English in 2005. She would have been delighted to know that I had been invited to write a book in the same series as the one that had been so inspirational for her.
In writing A Little History of Philosophy I soon realised that Gombrich was an extremely hard act to follow and that I had to write in my own voice and not try to imitate his. But I completely share his view that an intelligent teenager should be able to follow complex ideas if they are presented in the right way. I believe this passionately. Too often academics thrive on a diet of obscure jargon that seems designed to make outsiders feel inferior. But much of that is unnecessary. Philosophy is critical thinking about the most important questions we can ask ourselves about the nature of reality and how we should live. We are fortunate in that some of the most brilliant thinkers of the last two and a half thousand years have devoted their energies to the subject. I’ve tried to give a flavour of their most important ideas and why they still matter today.
Nigel Warburton (born 1962) is a philosopher and Senior Lecturer at the Open University. He is best known as a populariser of philosophy, being author of a number of books of this genre, but he has also written academic works in esthetics and applied ethics. He regularly teaches courses on philosophy and art at Tate Modern and writes a monthly column ‘Everyday Philosophy’ for Prospect magazine. He runs a popular philosophy blog Virtual Philosopher and with David Edmonds regularly podcasts interviews with top philosophers on a range of subjects at Philosophy Bites.