Quaker Universalist Voice

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Universal Philosophy

A Book Review of A. C. Grayling, The History of Philosophy(2019)

A. C. Grayling, The History of Philosophy (2019) is a monumental effort, not just for its size of 600 pages, but it is the first book since Bertrand Russell’s effort in A History of Western Philosophy (1945) to explain all of philosophy in a single volume. Further, Grayling’s effort is the first accessible history of philosophy to include the Western traditions, Indian tradition, Chinese tradition, Arabic-Persian tradition, and African tradition of philosophy.  It is the best effort so far to be universal, to describe the history of human philosophy as a whole.

Grayling is a professor at Oxford University and knows of which he speaks in this book.  This is an effort to provide a history of human philosophy, to recognize the universality of inquiry on the big questions and to acknowledge the universal progress made in pushing the frontier in new knowledge.

This book is organized in five parts.  The larger first four parts describe the history of philosophy in the Western tradition, arranged chronologically as ancient, medieval and renaissance, modern, and 20th century.  The Part V includes essays on Chinese, Indian, Arabic-Persian, and African philosophical traditions. Separated this way, the Part V seems like an addendum to Western philosophy, but, at least, the parts are all together in the same volume.  And the Part V essays are informative and particularly helpful to the unfamiliar reader.  Together, this is a real effort to chart the history of the whole evolution of human philosophy.

The author summarizes what is currently known of African philosophy.  There are no currently known identifiable bodies of African philosophical doctrines or major individual philosophers. The essay emphasizes the prominent African concept of Ubuntu, which is a complex, universal concept of shared humanness and connectedness.

This historical survey of all human philosophy’s history is intended for the general reader, emphasizing major achievements and the evolution of understanding over time.  The language created to communicate philosophical ideas also evolved and became richer and clearer.

The book’s title could be better formulated as “The History of Human Philosophy” to emphasize that this is a universal human perspective.  It is as comprehensive and inclusive as any book effort to date.  The appendix summarizes the field of logic, followed by a helpful timeline of philosophers, a bibliography, and an index.

For those of us who need reminding, philosophy is important for human civilization as a species. Rational inquiry is important. We have struggled with better understanding through changes in vocabulary to support and communicate that inquiry.  Philosophy is variously metaphysics, moral philosophy, natural philosophy, and science.  Today, the vocabulary is divided into metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, logic, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, political philosophy, and the examinations of the assumptions, methods and all claims of enquiry in science and social sciences.  This is all an effort to make sense of the things in our world, to achieve understanding of reality (faith), and to clarify how to conduct ourselves daily (practice).  This book is a universal human effort to distinguish the light in the darkness.  

Quakers:  This book is the place to start to refresh, to push forward in a Quaker inquiry to better understand reality (faith) and how we manage ourselves (practice).

Quakers are not noted in the history of philosophy or this book.  Quakers are not mentioned in this book.  Yet, Quakers are influenced by the philosophical ideas of their cultures, particularly in the Western tradition.  Perhaps, the early and determined interest of Quaker intellectuals in openness to other religions and cultures is significant for the development of tolerance. This can be seen as a Quaker contribution to philosophy.


  • Why does the Quaker tradition not produce philosophers whose work is notable in human history?
  • How do Quakers engage with philosophy?
  • How do Quaker parents translate and address philosophical ideas in the education of Quaker youth?


  • A. Grayling, The History of Philosophy (2019)
  • B. Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (1945)
  • W. Durant, The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers (1991)
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