A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry is an overview of philosophy which, as Ferry himself explains “is both modest and ambitious: modest, because it is addressed to a nonacademic audience; ambitious, because I have not permitted myself any concession to simplification” (xi). He moves through the generally accepted epochs of philosophic thought, choosing a few exemplary voices to represent each, never allowing his own preferences to go unrevealed.
Ferry effortless moves from the stoicism of Epictetus, laying out the premises and flaws of Stoic thought, through Christianity, which fills some of the need for meaning left unexplained by the Greeks and Romans, to Kant and eventually Nietzche. In focusing on a chosen few voices, rather than superficially touching on too many, the author allows the reader to not only come to an appreciation for each of the different schools of thought. Never does he pull his punches, throwing a harsh light on the weaknesses of even his own preferred philosophers nor does he disguise his own skepticism towards beliefs he feels do not hold up to contemporary rationalism. Transcendence and salvation, theoria and chosmos, lay a foundation for what Ferry discusses throughout the rest of the text.
Because of the breadth of the content, Ferry obviously must leave many philosophical questions unanswered but the significant stones are not left unturned. Can the explanations of the Stoics suffice in the face of the promises that Christianity holds? Does Christianity offer a view of the individual that can adequately meet the needs of modern man? How far can the idealism of Enlightenment’s democratic teaching move society forward? And now that Nietzche has exploded classical thought into the modern era, where can the contemporary philosopher go from here?
If Ferry does not draw the same conclusions as the reader may reach, he allows the reader an insight into why he has come to certain ways of thinking, even sharing a story from his personal experience of collaborating on a book with another philosopher’s whose own beliefs were different from his own and how these disparate perspectives allowed him to better appreciate his own ways of thinking.
For the person interested in reading about philosophy but who is not confident enough to read the primary sources quoted by Ferry yet who is weary of reading an overly superficial look at philosophy, the seeker need look no further. This book is more academic because it doesn’t try to include too much and Ferry encourages the reader to the “original texts as early on as possible” (19). This encouragement is reinforced in his commitment to citing each quotation so that the reader can indeed turn to the source and read the context from which each quote is taken. In the end, Ferry succeeds, modest in the breadth of his approach, he is able to provide a semi-academic overview of philosophy and, for the reader who is moved to continue in learning more, offers an abbreviated reading list. This is an excellent introduction to the sweeping implications of philosophical thought and a book I highly recommend to others.