In 1926, Will Durant brought out “The Story of Philosophy,” an engagingly written account of what great thinkers from Plato to William James thought about life, the universe and everything. Its intended audience, said Durant, could be described by a line from Dostoevsky: “Those who don’t want millions, but an answer to their questions.” A generation later, in 1945, Bertrand Russell produced “A History of Western Philosophy: And Its Connection With Political and Social Circumstances From the Earliest Times to the Present Day.” That book’s slightly daunting subtitle belies its stellar virtues: clear exposition, sparkling prose and an author who was himself one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century. In his opening pages, Russell affirms that “To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.”

Both these works became huge bestsellers. As late as the mid-1960s, a teenager in a small Ohio steel town could buy and then heavily underline the latest printing — the 16th — of a Washington Square paperback of the Durant. Even now, the Russell can be purchased in a sumptuous Folio Society edition. Is it surprising that these outlines of philosophical thought have been so popular? It shouldn’t be. Who among us, in the dark reaches of the night, hasn’t suffered from the terror of cosmic loneliness or wondered “What really matters”?

A.C. Grayling’s “The History of Philosophy” accurately offers itself as a successor to Russell’s classic survey — with some key differences. As well as touching briefly on the philosophical traditions of Asia and Africa, Grayling’s study devotes more than 200 pages to 20th-century thinkers, including Martin Heidegger, Karl Popper, Jean-Paul Sartre, W.V. Quine and Jacques Derrida. No other popular survey possesses this range. Anthony Gottlieb’s two linked volumes — “The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy From the Greeks to the Renaissance” and “The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy” — progress no further than the mid-18th century, the era of Hume and Rousseau. Perhaps a third volume will follow someday.

While Gottlieb’s books are excellent and highly recommended, their author — a former editor of the Economist — does exhibit a journalist’s forgivable urge to be flashy or witty whenever possible. By contrast, Grayling — a professor of philosophy and a public intellectual — adopts a more temperate style. Philosophy, he begins, is “the attempt to make sense of things, to achieve understanding and perspective, in relation to those many areas of life and thought where doubt, difficulty, obscurity and ignorance prevail — which is to say: on the frontiers of all our endeavours.”

Over the next 600 pages, Grayling proceeds to summarize the thinking of philosophy’s grand masters from the pre-Socratics to the modern analytic philosophers of language. However, in nearly every case, he also respectfully points out the holes in their arguments. For instance, Socrates maintained that “if one knew the right thing to do or be, one could not do or be otherwise.” This is obviously untrue, as well as psychologically flawed. For one thing, Grayling points out, Socrates fails to take into account “akrasia,” the Greek word for “weakness of will,” something that many of us experience when it comes to dieting, going to the gym or resisting various temptations.

Of course, people may also be weak-willed about starting to read about metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. Won’t it be hard? Sometimes. Yet even the least acquaintance with the thought of Aristotle, Spinoza or Kant more than repays the effort. Several great theorists also write beautifully, notably Plato, Rousseau, Hume and Schopenhauer; their books are literature. Grayling neatly sums up the ­ever-exhilarating Nietzsche as “a dramatist of ideas.”

Throughout, he also leavens his narrative with famous catchphrases, proofs and anecdotes. Among these oldies-but-goodies are “Know thyself” (attributed to Thales), “All is number” (the motto of the Pythagoreans), Zeno’s paradox of the race between a tortoise and Achilles (which the latter can never win), Lord Acton’s sad truth that absolute power corrupts absolutely and, of course, Alfred North Whitehead’s quip that phil­osophy mainly consists of “footnotes to Plato.” But did you know that Ludwig Wittgenstein attended school with Adolf Hitler? I particularly love G.E. Moore’s succinct report after examining ­Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” which had been submitted for an advanced degree: “This is a work of genius but it otherwise satisfies the requirement for the Ph.D.”

Among his other virtues, Grayling frequently compels us to rethink our ideas about certain philosophers (Marx) or what seem settled philosophical points. Here’s just one example: When Heraclitus states that you can’t step twice into the same river, does he mean that everything is always in flux or does he actually mean “that things stay the same only by changing”? In the latter case, the river’s flux “does not destroy its continuity as the same river, but in fact constitutes it.”

Like Heraclitus’s river, philosophy is itself ever-changing but never-ending, an ongoing conversation about the same eternal questions, the same perplexing human problems. What is real? How should one live? What government is best? Why do the good suffer and the evil prosper? Any answers can only be propositional or tentative, inviting further amplification or rebuttal. Plato’s later writings actually challenged some of his own ideas in “The Republic”; Wittgenstein eventually rejected much of his “Tractatus.” If you needed to characterize philosophical inquiry in a single term, a good choice would be “aporia”—the Greek word for inconclusiveness.

However, book reviews shouldn’t end in aporia. So, let me say that “A History of Philosophy” isn’t just worth buying; it’s worth scribbling in and dog-earing. For a work of scholarship, there can be no higher praise.

Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.


By A.C. Grayling

Penguin Press. 682 pp. $35