Monday, August 3, 2020

Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English, some applause - in fact they save us from reading them at all

I would like to – no, I will – spend some time with Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English (2019), a history of modern philosophy, a book with some claims to art.  I mean that even the reader who does not care particularly about the history of English philosophy will find something of value in the stories Rée tells, his characters, his language, his literary art.

Rée hooks his history onto specific years, fifty years apart, 1601, 1651, and on to 1951, eight chapters that get longer as they progress, with most chapters hooked to one person, Adam Smith in 1751, for example, although they are not all significant philosophers but people who lived through the major philosophical events of the time (“lived” meaning: read books).  To understand what happened in 1751, it is obviously necessary to go back, and probably forward, and to understand one person’s ideas I also need to see those of many other people.  Rée has hammered out a big, rough frame that has room for anything he wants to do.  It solves a lot of problems.  It never seems like a gimmick.

In the Introduction, Rée describes his own discovery of philosophy in Jean-Paul Sartre (Existentialism Is a Humanism, 1946), which showed him that “[p]hilosophy was about questioning received ideas, and I wanted more” (1).  He tried Descartes, but that was “unbelievably dull,” so one of the many available histories of philosophy was the next step.  Where literary history is left to specialists, weirdos like me, ignored, and is it ever, even by most readers of the so-called classics, histories of philosophy are “part of philosophy’s core business, and without them no philosophical education would be complete” (3).  It is not like I am actually going to read Kant myself.  I read about Kant.

If the histories are depressing for aspiring philosophers, they come as a relief for the rest of us.  They tell us enough about philosophy to assure us that it is a waste of time.  They save us the trouble of studying the great books with close attention, in fact they save us from reading them at all.  No wonder we like them.  (4)

One of the big problems solved by Rée’s arbitrary dates and personalities is that all of this becomes historicized, meaning that the old books that seem like foolishness in 1951, missteps in the history of ideas, were the hot new thing, full of truths, in, say, 1751, when Adam Smith was reading them.  Rée is always working from someone’s point of view, so whatever they find interesting is interesting.  And we still do not have to read the actual books.

My plan is to review Witcraft, and I mean review it, chapter by chapter, like I did with Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis last year.  “This is a great book, and it deserves infinitely more clamorous applause than it has yet received” says Robert Minto in a blog post (“October 2019: What I Read”) he has since deleted for some reason, which means he also deleted the comment where he told me that Witcraft occasionally reminded him of Wuthering Expectations (!), I think mostly because Rée likes to use comical out-of-context quotations as titles.

As art, Witcraft often reminded me of Christopher Benfey's brilliant, wide-ranging literary histories, like The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan (2003) which moves from Melville to The Book of Tea to Heidegger in a way that seems natural.  I wish I knew more books like these.



  1. I've been awaiting this day. Can't wait to read your series.

    The book's like this blog not just because of its funny chapter titles, but also because of its manner of relating the specific, odd anecdote and quotation to the general sweep of history, a "method" (if it is a method) that I associate with your writing. A way of proceeding, head aslant, so one eye is trained on the ground and the other on the sky. A way of proceeding that seems to skip across a flat horizon of associated phenomena I would never have thought to combine, and somehow adds up to something systematic and encyclopedic.

    Like you, I wish there were more books (/blogs) like this one. I suppose I should read Benfey. (I spent a few months of lockdown with no physical books except Jacques Barzun's FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE, which I think at least resembles this kind of book. Anecdote rich, joyfully digressive, casting a different light on historical moments one thought one knew already, and quietly of staggering ambition and scope. Have you looked into Barzun's doorstopper? It's your sort of thing.)

  2. That is a pleasure to read, thanks. I have profited from any Barzun I have read, but for some reason never did more than leaf through From Dawn to Decadence. It is obviously full of things I would like to know.

    Rée's book is so good. I hope it finds its audience.