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  • Writer's pictureMark Walmsley

A Little History of Philosophy and Nigel Warburton Summary

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

A Little History of Philosophy Book

A Little History of Philosophy provides an easy entry into the world of philosophy with 40 short chapters covering the major thinkers, their key ideas, and how those ideas impacted society. You’ll see the evolution in thinking in relation to the good life (ethics), political economy, individual rights, and religion; and recognize the originators of many of our current debates. Key insights:

  1. Thinking then action – advances in society follow advances in thinking or philosophy

  2. Our best thinking evolves, and The Enlightenment saw the most rapid advances

  3. The ‘veil of ignorance’, a modern idea – is a clever way to try solve complex societal issues

  4. Learn not to care – it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters

  5. Accept the things that cannot change

  6. An action makes sense if everyone, everywhere, anytime can do it. Lying, stealing? Probably not

  7. Don’t be a snob – live and let live. Push-pin is as important as poetry

  8. In god we trust – everyone else bring data. The scientific revolution changed everything

  9. Be precise in your speech – much disagreement in life is definitional and not substantial

  10. Choose the person you want to be – you have in your power the ability to make it so

Book details

Full title: A Little History of Philosophy. By Nigel Warburton.

Length: 272 pages, or 7 hours and 35 mins on Audible

Buy the book (USA): Amazon (book, Kindle, Audible)

Buy the book (AUS): Amazon (book, Kindle, Audible), Booktopia (book)

Key insight 1: Thinking then action – advances in society follow advances in philosophy

We think, then we act. This is true at the individual level as well as at a societal one. The past 2,500 years have seen human thinking advance from well-known Greek philosopher Socrates to current intellectual Peter Singer and hundreds in between. And their thinking has been hugely important in shaping our current society. Let me provide some examples from philosophers covered in A Little History of Philosophy.

1. Niccolo Machiavelli. Perhaps remembered as the father of Politics, Machiavelli lived from 1469-1527. His 1513 book The Prince was one of several that took an ‘ends-justifies-the-means’ approach to politics and statecraft. In talking of kings (or princes as Machiavelli noted), he said “People should either be caressed or crushed. If you do them minor damage they will get their revenge; but if you cripple them there is nothing they can do. If you need to injure someone, do it in such a way that you do not have to fear their vengeance.” Ruthless Kings, Popes, ando other elites were noted to be well versed in Machiavelli’s ideas after his books were published.

2. John Locke. Perhaps remembered as the father of Liberalism, Locke lived from 1632-1704. His 1689 Essay Concerning The True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government (part of his Two Treatises of Government set) was instrumental to the US founding fathers in deciding to end the social contract with King George III and draft the Declaration of Independence, thereby starting the American Revolutionary War. The American’s won the war and established a nation based on the supremacy of Congress (or Parliament), a model that has been copied around the world.

3. John Stuart Mill. Perhaps remembered as the father of free speech, Mill lived from 1806-1873. His 1859 essay On Liberty included ‘The freedom of thought and emotion, including the freedom to act on such thought’ as the first of three basic liberties. A notable quote in this essay was “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” Free speech laws were demanded and enacted around the world with greater importance after this work.

4. Karl Marx. Perhaps remembered as the father of socialism, Marx lived from 1818-1883. His 1848 pamphlet The Communist Manifesto, and 1867-1883 three volume Das Kapital laid the foundations for the Soviet Revolution in 1917 and the world’s first communist government. Notable current and former Marxist inspired socialist countries include China, Cube, Lao, Vietnam, North Korea, Cambodia, Russia/Soviet Union, and several Eastern European, African, and South American countries. In November 2017 the Wall St Journal published an article titled 100 Years of Communism – and 100 Million Dead. Perhaps no man has been responsible for the deaths of so many in the history of the world.

5. Friedrich Nietzsche. Perhaps remembered as the father of atheism, Nietzsche lived from 1844-1900. His 1882 collection The Gay Science included the phrase “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?”, and in so doing recognized that the scientific approach embedded in The Enlightenment had fatally undermined the role of Christianity in Western thought. It followed then that humans could no longer believe in a divinely ordained moral order, and thus the rejection of absolute values based on religious precepts, for moral relativism today.

Key insight 2: Our best thinking evolves, and The Enlightenment saw the most rapid advances

Mankind’s thinking evolves over time through philosophers. One philosopher may build on a prior’s work, while another will debunk their predecessors and head in a different direction. Take the study of ethics which Wikipedia summarizes as Ethics as:

“Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. The field of ethics, along with aesthetics, concerns matters of value, and thus comprises the branch of philosophy called axiology. Ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime.”

So with that description behind us let’s have a look at how philosophers’ thinking on Ethics has evolved over the millennia. As you read the extract below think about how early key concepts such as equality of sexes, or individual sovereignty feature in our history.


Look back over the list at the advances in thinking from philosophers active between 1685 and 1815. From Wikipedia again on The Age of Enlightenment:

“The Age of Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason or simply the Enlightenment) was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th to 19th centuries. Philosophers and scientists of the period widely circulated their ideas through meetings at scientific academies, Masonic lodges, literary salons, coffeehouses and in printed books, journals, and pamphlets. The ideas of the Enlightenment undermined the authority of the monarchy and the Church and paved the way for the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. A variety of 19th-century movements, including liberalism and neoclassicism, trace their intellectual heritage to the Enlightenment."

The American and French Revolutions were directly inspired by Enlightenment ideals and respectively marked the peak of its influence and the beginning of its decline. The Enlightenment ultimately gave way to 19th-century Romanticism. So if you are happy that you live in a democratic, capitalist society, with separation of church and state, and universal voting rights; then you ought to be grateful to the Enlightenment philosophers whose thinking made it possible.

Key insight 3: Designing a better society – from behind the ‘veil of ignorance’

What do you think we should change about society? If you are successful with high incomes you probably think we should lower tax rates to incentivize work. If you’re poorer or have a disability, you probably think we should increase welfare and nationalize healthcare. In reality, these two examples show our ability to favor policy prescriptions which help us personally. How can we get around this problem? Enter John Rawls.

Rawls’ posited that people making political decisions should make laws for society from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ in which they do not know what their place in that society would be. They wouldn’t know whether they would be rich or poor, talented or mundane, have educated parents or not, or be beautiful and healthy or the reverse. Once they made the laws in this thought experiment, then they would join the world in any random location.

So what you might say. Well if you were one of say 100 people designing a society would you advocate for slavery knowing that it could be you that became a slave? Would you be for universal representational government or a dictatorship? The idea is that parties subject to the veil of ignorance will make choices based upon moral considerations, since they will not be able to act on their class interest.

Rawls' maintained that any society designed on this basis would adhere to two principles: the principle of equal liberty, which gives each person the right to as much freedom as is compatible with the freedom of others, and the maximin principle, which allocates resources so that the benefit of the least advantaged people is maximized as far as possible.

When I read Rawls theory I think it is necessary to add one additional qualifier; that those 100 people designing society actually know a thing or two about how society works. Things like legal principles around freedom, economic principles around growing the economy, science and engineering knowledge about how to harness new technologies, and an understanding of human motivations through psychology. Why is this important? An ignorant person behind the veil might advocate for socialism believing it to be the fairest; only to crash the economy and make everyone poor. Another might want high welfare without realizing that this can create an incentive for able-bodied people to stop working. Yet another might advocate for low very taxes hoping to stimulate the economy without realizing it would starve Government of money for Defense, health, education, justice, or infrastructure; all essential to help the poor and support the economy.

I’ve highlighted Rawls’ theory as it shows how the thinking of one man can influence important societal decisions; but also how it further stimulates the thinking of those that continue the line of inquiry as I have done above. Taking my line of thinking further – I would be interested to know what are the best ways to encourage new technologies and business that grow the economy and prosperity, without leaving the less-well-off left behind? What are the relevant tradeoffs? What level of taxation encourages folks’ incentive to create or work extra-hours? What level of welfare incentivizes able folks to stay at home and collect money for nothing? What are the best value education and health systems measured in terms of outcomes per cost?

Rawls' theory might help us avoid slavery as a policy prescription, but without knowing and agreeing these things, it might not help us design the best possible society. That task falls to future philosophers.

Other insights from A Little History of Philosophy

4. Learn not to care. How things affect us depends on how we feel about them. How we feel about them depends on what we believe they mean. We can’t control the world, but we can control what our minds focus on and how it thinks. Epictetus (55-135AD) knew this when he said “Man is affected, not by events, but by the view he takes of them. It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

5. Accept the things that cannot change. Sh!t happens in life, to you or someone close to you. Since fighting against it would only be counter-productive, the Stoics advocated for enduring pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint. Roman Emperor Seneca (4-65AD) said “There are conditions of our existence that we cannot change, so it is best to adopt a noble spirit towards them.”

6. What if everyone did that? How can we decide what to do in any situation? Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) answer is that an action is moral if it makes sense for everyone to do it as a universal thing. Telling lies? Stealing? Spreading rumors? How would society function if we made these rules everyone had to follow? Not good. From Kant, “Act always on that maxim which you can, at the same time, will should be universal law."

7. Don’t be a snob; live and let live. Which is the better hobby – reading poetry or ten-pin bowling? Prior to Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) folks were a bit snobby about their past-times. But Bentham advocated that enjoyment was enjoyment no matter where in society it occurred. His quote, “The game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences, or music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either.”

8. In God we trust, everyone else bring data. Is someone’s theory real? How do you know? Karl Popper (1902-1994) proposed falsification as a way of demarcating science from non-science. It states that for a theory to be considered scientific it must be able to be tested and proven false. For Popper, science should attempt to disprove a theory, rather than attempt to continually support theoretical hypotheses.

9. Be precise in your speech. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) tells us that many of the things we argue about do not involve genuine disagreements, but rather occur because we attend incorrectly to the proper uses of language. Further, we may often have different conceptual schemes such that two people who appear to be disagreeing are really interpreting the world in radically different ways. If you want to solve problems or just avoid confusion, be precise in your speech.

10. Choose the person you want to be. Is our path in life fixed? Who decides? In an empowering answer, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) said that we first exist as plain humans, and we then become whom we decide to be through our free will or choice. A man’s essence is formed by his total past, to which he adds in every moment of his life. We are the sum of our decisions and choices. Sartre put it succinctly when he said “Existence precedes essence.”

Bonus 11th. Know both sides before you debate. Have you ever been caught out in discussing a hot topic when your protagonist gave new information which undermined your argument? John Stuart Mill foresaw this problem when he said “He who knows only his side of the case knows little of that.” So whether the topic is minimum wage, border controls, abortion, Black Lives Matter, Internet Censorship, Global Warming/Climate Change, or the Green New Deal; if you can’t articulate the case against your position, you probably don’t understand your position very well.

Why you should read this book if you’re under 30

We sapiens have been at this thinking thing for perhaps 2,500 years, and in reality there are very few original thoughts in the modern age. Most of what constitutes ‘new thinking’, is actually old thinking spruced up to reflect modern concepts like the internet or social media. By understanding the history of philosophy you’ll be better placed to recognize ‘new thinking’ for what it is an then critically analyze it.

By reading philosophy you’ll learn to be a little less rigid in your views in the pursuit of truth or happiness or whatever you’re seeking. If humanities best thinkers can change their minds and adopt different views – so can you. You will also become more intellectually flexible by being able to bring a range of different perspectives to a problem. Perhaps it is Wittgenstein’s use of precise language, Popper’s data to support a decision, or Rawls approach to positioning the decision maker; a knowledge how different people have thought will help you to think differently.

Relationship to other Eruditeable books

#10 – 50 Economics Ideas You Really Need to Know. This book provides an in-depth look at economics, markets, political systems, and behavioral psychology; which will further your knowledge on these topics originally developed by these philosophers.

#11 - Don't Burn This Book. This book suggests a Classic Liberal view on the world which leverages the philosophical knowledge from A Little History of Philosophy.

#12 – Loserthink. This book encourages to think differently – like a scientist, economist, artist, engineer and so on. To this list you will soon be able to add a philosopher, noting that this group brings a great variety of different thinking styles.

#13 – 12 Rules for Life. This book contains historical, psychological, and philosophical references as it provides a guide for living. An understanding of philosophy will assist in maximizing the insights this book provides.

#18 – Sapiens. This book will allow you to understand in more detail how philosophers influenced the complete course of human history.

Book resources

About the author

Nigel Warburton, born 1962 is a British philosopher. He is best known as a popularizer of philosophy, having written a number of books in the genre, but he has also written academic works in aesthetics and applied ethics. Warburton received a BA from the University of Bristol and a PhD from Darwin College, Cambridge. He is the author of a number of introductory Philosophy books, including the bestselling Philosophy: The Basics.

He regularly teaches courses on philosophy and art at Tate Modern and writes a monthly column "Everyday Philosophy" for Prospect magazine. He runs a philosophy weblog Virtual Philosopher and with David Edmonds regularly podcasts interviews with top philosophers on a range of subjects at Philosophy Bites.

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