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Review: “The History of Ideas” by David Runciman – A Wide-Ranging Exploration
The partially preserved body of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham on display at University College London. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

When is a book not a book? When it’s the book of a podcast. David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge and the former co-host of Talking Politics (with Helen Thompson), now produces a podcast called History of Ideas. This is the second book based on it, after 2022’s Confronting Leviathan, in what is planned as a series. “I have tried to retain the conversational style of the original podcasts, though each chapter has been extensively rewritten and adapted,” the author notes in the preface. The result is not merely a transcription of the podcast, but nor is it fully a book.

A dozen thinkers get their own chapters: Joseph Schumpeter on democracy, John Rawls on justice, Jeremy Bentham on utilitarianism, Friedrich Nietzsche on the genealogy of morals, Simone de Beauvoir on feminism, and so forth. Those hoping to engage with an in-depth book might be struck by the almost complete lack of direct quotations from the discussed thinkers. Readers are simply expected to take on faith statements like “Hobbes believes that …” or “[Rosa] Luxemburg thought …”. Frederick Douglass, the 19th-century former slave and abolitionist, is described as a “miraculously good” writer, yet no examples are provided. What about Friedrich Nietzsche? “His two catchphrases are ‘God is dead’ and ‘The will to power’.”

This lack of quotation shows a condescending view towards the reader, as if they couldn’t handle reading the actual writings of these philosophers and need it constantly paraphrased in CliffsNotes style. It also excuses Runciman from providing textual evidence to back his assertions about what a particular writer “thinks.”

Unfortunately, this refusal to cite original works removes the idiosyncrasies and personal brilliances of these authors: everything is translated into a monotonous murmur of a placid 21st-century liberal discussing topics like Donald Trump, smartphones, Greta Thunberg, or the social network formerly known as Twitter. Such subjects appear now and then as attempts to make the philosophers seem relevant to current interests, along with trendy references to 1990s alt-rock (“there are a lot of jagged little pills to swallow”).

Runciman awkwardly panders to an imagined audience of anti-intellectuals. We are told in a patronizing manner that Bentham and John Rawls are not “ivory tower” thinkers, but Robert Nozick is “probably too clever by half”. In this discussion of 12 philosophers, little value is placed on philosophy itself. “Rawls was a professional political philosopher, not simply an intellectual or a writer,” Runciman notes, “and sometimes it feels as though the philosophy took priority over the writing.” Yet, no examples of the writing are given.

This attempt to undermine the merely intellectual is helped by a verbose and cliche style: one book is “an incredibly wide-ranging, sweeping analysis” (rest assured “there are twists and turns along the way”), and another idea “feels like a bigger ask”. At one comical point, Runciman criticizes Simone de Beauvoir for being insufficiently woke: her view on the difference between men’s and women’s novels is, he laments, “the sort of thing a man would say”.

Despite the relentless and, some might say, historically inaccurate attempts to make his subjects relevant to modern politics, Runciman misses an obvious parallel. His earnest defense of Bentham’s utilitarianism does not mention its modern transformation into “effective altruism,” an approach that recently faced setbacks following the giant crypto fraud perpetrated by one of its notable adherents, Sam Bankman-Fried. Not to mention “longtermism,” meaning, according to some followers, that we should privilege the future lives of trillions over the mere billions living today. In the world of History of Ideas, however, nothing is quite so troubling: all is calm and frictionless, like the soothing tones of a podcast while you are stacking the dishwasher.

Source: The Guardian