Durant Publishes

Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy was one in a series of publications written to make materials that had previously been available only through college-level texts available to the wider public. Durant sought to bring the field of philosophical inquiry to the increasing numbers of people who had not had the opportunity for higher education but wanted to educate themselves for personal and cultural reasons.

Summary of Event

The publication of Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy was the result of several events, one of which was the popular realization that owning certain books gave the impression of belonging to the culturally elite. In the autobiographical work that he coauthored with his wife Ariel Durant, A Dual Autobiography (1977), Durant reflected on the unprecedented demand for The Story of Philosophy, stating, “My book became a social necessity; every proper family felt obliged to display it on the table or the shelf.” Another, more significant reason was the increasing public desire for education beyond that provided in secondary schools, which led to the popularity of “outlines” of particular subjects. As Durant stated, “The ’outlines’ came because a million voices called for them.” Durant’s book drew on the success of H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind (1920), Outline of History, The (Wells) a summary of world history that contained many volumes on a variety of subjects and was written in a readable, unpretentious style that clearly summarized important ideas. Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind (1921) had been second in nonfiction sales to Wells’s history, but The Story of Philosophy sold 100,000 copies in its first year. The public was eager to understand philosophical concepts that had been hidden from them by languages such as Greek and German, the complexity of ideas developed by the philosophers, and in some instances, the desire of academics to protect their territory. [kw]Durant Publishes The Story of Philosophy (May, 1926)
[kw]Publishes The Story of Philosophy, Durant (May, 1926)
[kw]Story of Philosophy, Durant Publishes The (May, 1926)
[kw]Philosophy, Durant Publishes The Story of (May, 1926)
Story of Philosophy, The (Durant)
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[c]Philosophy;May, 1926: Durant Publishes The Story of Philosophy[06620]
[c]Publishing and journalism;May, 1926: Durant Publishes The Story of Philosophy[06620]
Durant, Will
Simon, Richard L.
Schuster, Max Lincoln
Haldeman-Julius, Emanuel

Will Durant made it his life’s work to disseminate Western culture to those unable to attend university. An academic who earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia in 1917, Durant wished to make knowledge accessible to all. Consequently, he began to lecture to adult workers at New York’s Labor Temple. His initial course in 1914 was on the history of philosophy from Socrates to French philosopher Henri Bergson. Soon, in addition to teaching at the Labor Temple and taking courses for his degree at Columbia, Durant started a career as a public lecturer outside of New York City.

He also began producing a series of guides to philosophy for the publisher Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. From 1922 to 1925, Durant wrote eleven essays on philosophers from Plato to John Dewey. Some of these were first printed in Haldeman-Julius’s Life and Letters series, and all were issued as Little Blue Books. Little Blue Books These small books (which, at roughly fifteen hundred words each, were actually more like pamphlets) were designed to make culture “seem both manageable and disposable.” They were bought to be read, rather than displayed, and cost five cents each. Haldeman-Julius also changed the titles from “guides” to “stories,” making them appear more accessible. Durant’s “little books” sold an average of twenty-seven thousand copies annually.

The success of Durant’s books led Haldeman-Julius to propose that the pamphlets be bound together and sold as a single volume. The firm asked Durant to provide some text that would unify the different books and suggested that Durant offer the publication to the new publishing house of Simon & Schuster. Simon & Schuster[Simon and Schuster] The new firm was touting itself as a democratized publisher, and as such it was in tune with Durant’s desire to popularize knowledge. Richard L. Simon and Max Lincoln Schuster believed that their mission as publishers was to widen the readership for fine literature, and they planned to publish “better books for more and more people, at lower prices.” Consequently, they embarked on a vigorous advertising campaign that depicted Durant’s book as a painless form of liberal education. The campaign included special incentives for bookstores that sold more than their sales quotas, direct-mail solicitation of Labor Temple students, and eventually a money-back guarantee. Advertisements, which at first were relatively small in size, grew into one- and two-page spreads that quoted from prepublication reviews. A full-page advertisement on the back cover of Saturday Review extolled the book as “the outstanding best seller that discriminating people are talking about” and focused on people’s desire to become one of the cultural elite.

When The Story of Philosophy was published in May of 1926, it was priced at five dollars. It was almost six hundred pages long, and the chapters were basically copies of the versions published in the Little Blue Books. By the end of the year, the work was the best-selling nonfiction book in the United States. Durant offered access to what most people believed was beyond their understanding: the great philosophers and their ideas. The subtitle of the book, The Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers, made the book more human by focusing on a biographical approach and putting the difficult concepts into language people could understand. Durant made it clear that the book was not a complete history, and he interjected himself (using the first person plural) as a congenial guide through the stories of philosophers Plato, Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Baruch Spinoza, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Herbert Spencer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Benedetto Croce, Bertrand Russell, George Santayana, William James, and John Dewey. The style and tone of the volume helped Durant show that the study of philosophy could be a source of pleasure: He included chatty speculations, witty asides, and lively anecdotes to keep the reader engaged. By directly addressing the reader as well as asking rhetorical questions, Durant forced the reader to become engaged with the book. The book was selected as a Book-of-the-Month choice, which was the ultimate stamp of approval for many readers.

Although the public loved the book, many critics did not. Academics found fault with Durant’s failure to include selection principles, and others did not like his chatty approach to such a serious subject. Mortimer Adler, in a September 29, 1926, review in The Nation titled“Sleight of Hand,” began by stating that the book “is probably no worse than its fellow outlines,” but then goes on to deplore the “vaudevillian character” in which Durant handles the “ponderous problems” inherent in philosophy. “The worst sin of all,” according to Durant himself, “was the omission of Chinese and Hindu philosophy.”


Durant’s former professor at Columbia and philosopher John Dewey hailed the book as “thoroughly scholarly, thoroughly useful, human, and readable.” In his foreword to the book, Dewey stated that Durant had “humanized rather than merely popularized the story of philosophy.” The review in The New York Times, titled “Even Philosophy May Now Be Comprehended,” praised the book, stating that Durant presented knowledge, “even the most abstruse, in a manner and with a lucidity that conveys to ordinary mortals the convictions that it originates with human beings.”

Sales of the Modern Library’s philosophy titles in 1926 increased, suggesting that Durant’s summaries motivated readers to read the work of the philosophers discussed in The Story of Philosophy. The sales of philosophical classics increased 200 percent, and a librarian at the New York Public Library reported that since the publication of The Story of Philosophy there had been “a wide and increasing demand” for the philosophical classics.

Publications such as The Story of Philosophy made self-education possible for those who yearned for more education, but were unable to attend a university. Durant’s book, written in accessible language and focused on key concepts, amazed readers who discovered relevance in the thinking of the philosophers to issues in their own life, and the American Philosophical Association noted that many people chose to become philosophers after reading the book. Story of Philosophy, The (Durant)
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Further Reading

  • Adler, Mortimer J. “Sleight of Hand.” The Nation, September 29, 1926, 298-299. In his lengthy, negative review of The Story of Philosophy, Adler deplores Durant’s “chatty” style.
  • Benton, Megan. “’Too Many Books’: Book Ownership and Cultural Identity in the 1920’s.” American Quarterly 49, no. 2 (1997): 268-297. A discussion of book ownership as an indication of belonging to the “cultural elite.”
  • Cotkin, George. “Middle-Ground Pragmatists: The Popularization of Philosophy in American Culture.” Journal of the History of Ideas 55, no. 2 (April, 1994): 283-302. Cotkin discusses how philosophy was “popularized” and integrated into American intellectual and culture life during the interwar period.
  • Durant, Will. Preface to The Story of Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961. Durant defends his outlines as a viable way to learn and responds to his critics. His describes his book as “an introduction and an invitation” to the world of philosophy.
  • Durant, Will, and Ariel Durant. A Dual Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977. Durant and his wife reflect on their lives and provide background information on The Story of Philosophy.
  • Forman, Henry James. “Even Philosophy May Now Be Comprehended.” The New York Times, June 20, 1926. A lengthy and positive review of The Story of Philosophy.
  • Rubin, Joan Shelley. The Making of Middlebrow Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. A detailed study covering the impact of Durant’s book.
  • Sherman, Stuart. “Philosophy and the Average Man’s Adult Education.” New York Herald Tribune, June 20, 1926. Positive review of Durant’s book shows how it provides a response to people’s hunger for education.

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