A guide to thinking big

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
September 11, 1998

Ray Monk welcomes a new breadth in philosophy in a monumental encyclopedia.

The nimbus of philosophy has been lost." Thus did Wittgenstein begin a series of lectures he gave in 1930. The clouds which hitherto had surrounded the subject had been cleared, he claimed, and a clearer view of its tasks was now possible. "A method has been found", and thus:

"philosophy is now being reduced to a matter of skill I Compare the difference between alchemy and chemistry: chemistry has a method and we can speak of skilful chemists."

The note of triumph and confidence displayed in these remarks became characteristic of English-speaking philosophy throughout the following three decades, when, sure that it had found in the analytic method the key to solving its traditional problems, it felt justified in paying scant attention either to the philosophers of the past or to those of other traditions. Thus a whole generation of British philosophers was brought up largely ignorant of classical and medieval philosophy and scornful of their colleagues over the Channel, whom they regarded as still stuck in a pre-analytic fog, unable to see that most of what they said and wrote was utter nonsense. At the peak of this confidence, in 1967, Macmillan published an eight-volume encyclopedia of philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards. With a list of contributors that included many of the leading philosophers of the day, Edwards's encyclopedia was a model of its kind. The entries were written in clear and elegant prose and the whole work had a kind of consistency and unity that would not today be achievable. It presented what was then understood to be the core of the discipline with great style and became indispensable as an authoritative guide to the subject as it was then taught in British and American universities.

But if Edwards's encyclopedia reflected the virtues of the anglophone philosophy of its period - clarity, rigour, self-assurance - it also reflected its vices, the chief of which was a smug and complacent narrowness that threatened to stifle the subject out of existence. The price to be paid for a clear conception as to what lay at the centre of philosophy was a condescending dismissal of what was thus consigned to the margins. Non-western traditions of thought were dealt with in a few summary articles, while the bulk of so-called "Continental" philosophy was ignored altogether. Analytic philosophy of language held centre-stage, ethics, aesthetics and political philosophy were given only walk-on parts, and feminism was left waiting in the wings in complete silence.

Now, all this has changed. The 30 years since Edwards's encyclopedia was published have seen an astonishing growth and diversification in English-speaking philosophy. New subjects have grown up, old ones have been revived and the arrogance of the analytic tradition has been shaken by internal disputes as to what, exactly, the analytic method is. As Edward Craig, the editor of this magnificent new encyclopedia puts it: "In the 1960s philosophy felt fairly sure of its business and its boundaries; in the 1990s it does not have the same confidence ... and a clear mark of this is a greater tendency to look around, historically and geographically, to see what others are doing."

The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a superb resource for those thus willing to extend their philosophical horizons. It is thoughtfully laid out, with short, helpful summaries and annotated bibliographies accompanying every entry, a complete list of entries in every volume, and an extensively detailed index that takes up the whole of volume ten. Users of the CD-Rom version have the added advantage of being able to use the index to take them straight to the relevant entries. The production and editing throughout are exemplary. But what impresses one most about this encyclopedia, especially in comparison with Edwards's, is its quite extraordinary range. Roughly a quarter of the articles in it are devoted to non-western philosophy, introducing to the English-speaking world the leading figures and themes of a host of unfamiliar traditions of thought, including those of Japan, China, Korea, Tibet, India, Latin America and Africa. Twentieth-century French philosophy, disdainfully neglected by Edwards, is represented here by long entries on its leading figures, such as Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and Lacan, and generous space is given to the branches of the subject that either did not exist in the 1960s or were neglected until quite recently. The words "feminism" and "feminist", which were not used at all in Edwards's encyclopedia, here feature in the titles of no less than eleven entries, not to mention a multitude of related entries on subjects such as "Gender and science".

There is a price to be paid for this inclusiveness of course, which is that, taken as a whole, the encyclopedia fails to provide any coherent view of its subject. If philosophy lost its nimbus during the heyday of the analytic tradition, it now seems to have lost its centre. Where Edwards's work presented a clear and strong single vision of the discipline, the view here is refracted through the lenses of a plethora of widely divergent specialisms. Much of the responsibility for choosing the entries and the contributors was evidently delegated by Craig to the 32 subject editors who worked alongside him, each of whom seems to have been given a roughly equal amount of space. The result is that the philosophy of mind - widely regarded now as the core of the subject among English-speaking philosophers - seems little more predominant than any of the other 31 subjects, which include (as well as the more usual subheadings like "Epistemology", "Aesthetics", "Ethics", etc) such exotica as "Chinese, Japanese and Korean philosophy", "African philosophy", "Indian and Tibetan philosophy" and "Islamic philosophy". The aim, Craig explains in his editor's preface, was to ensure that "the periphery was not to be kept peripheral by being presented as it appears from the centre".

The extreme contrast between the Anglocentrism of Edwards's encyclopedia and the diversity of Craig's, then, is not entirely due to changes in the subject during the past 30 years. Craig and Routledge, it seems, are not content merely to reflect trends; they want also to take a lead themselves in extending the boundaries of the subject. "The production of an encyclopedia," Craig says, "is one of the rare opportunities to do something towards breaking the barriers down."

If Craig and his editors even partially succeed in this aim they will have performed an extremely valuable service. But it will be a long time, I fear, before students of philosophy in English-speaking universities are given much of an opportunity to study the work of, say, the Tibetan thinker, rGyal tshab dar ma rin chen, to whom a fulsome entry is here devoted, describing him, perhaps somewhat unenticingly, as "one of the foremost disciples of Tsong kha pa Blo bzang grags pa (Dzongkaba, 1357-1419), the founder of the dGa'-ldan (Ganden) school". Naturally, Tsong kha pa Blo bzang grags pa himself gets a (somewhat longer) entry of his own, and the tradition to which they both belong is described in some detail in a seven-page article on "Tibetan philosophy". Figures equally unknown in the English-speaking world from the Japanese, Korean and Islamic traditions of philosophy are accorded similar respect and given equal amounts of space, making this encyclopedia the ideal starting point for a study of these hitherto neglected canons of philosophical literature. No one could pretend, however, that an acquaintance with this literature was an essential element in the study of philosophy as it is practised in English-speaking countries at the moment.

The aim of breaking barriers and of introducing English-speaking philosophers to the work of other traditions is a laudable one, but one wonders if Craig and his fellow editors have quite got the balance right between serving the existing needs of philosophy students and anticipating (and, to some extent, directing) their possible future interests. The effect of looking at the periphery as if it were the centre is that the centre itself is in danger of looking peripheral. The main entry on "Aesthetics" by Malcolm Budd, for example, is a good deal shorter than the entries which follow it on "African aesthetics", "Chinese aesthetics", "Feminist aesthetics", "Aesthetics in Islamic philosophy" and "Japanese aesthetics". It might be thought that the purpose of Budd's article is to provide a short introduction to the themes dealt with in more detail by these other entries, but this is not the case. It is not even clear that the word "aesthetics" is being used in the same sense in the various articles. For Budd, aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that attempts, quite generally, to understand the nature of aesthetic judgments and experiences, whether these are related to art, nature or whatever else. The entry on "African aesthetics", on the other hand, is dominated by specific anthropological considerations that seem to have little to do with aesthetics as Budd has defined it, and concentrates almost entirely on the question of how best to understand the aesthetic elements of the culture of the Yoruba peoples of south-western Nigeria. While this article seems to assume that the study of aesthetics is culture-specific, Budd's article seems to assume that it is not, though neither assumption is made explicit and the tension between them is left unexplored.

Budd's short general article, it ought to be stressed, does not exhaust the encyclopedia's coverage of mainstream, European aesthetics, which is also covered in more specific articles, such as Budd's on "Aesthetic attitude", Marcia Eaton's on "Aesthetic concepts", and Michael Tanner's on "Aesthetics and ethics". With remarkably little overlap, Tanner also contributes an article on "Art and morality", and there are, too, entries on "Abstract art", "Art and truth", "Art criticism", "Definition of art", "Performing art", "Understanding of art", "Value of art", "Ontology of art", "Aesthetics of music", etc, etc. Safe to say, then, that the subject is given more space than was occupied by the twin articles, "Aesthetics, History of" and "Aesthetics, Problems of", into which it was squeezed by Edwards. The gain in width, however, has to some extent been achieved by a corresponding loss of focus.

This sense of fragmentation is evident also in the way the encyclopedia handles the other main subjects areas of philosophy: epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, etc. Each of these, of course, has its own entry, but these tend to be brief and general, leaving it to other, more specialised entries to fill in the gaps. The entry on the philosophy of mind, for example, refers the reader to no less than a hundred other entries, ranging from articles on Freud and psychoanalysis to surveys of semantics and artificial intelligence. The impression is given that philosophy, and each sub-division of it, has broken up into hundreds of specialisms, each with its own technical literature. Nevertheless, it remains true that anyone who followed up all these references would have been given a superbly authoritative introduction to the subject, including much of the work that has been done in the last 30 years.

The specialised nature of most of the entries raises the question of who the contributors have imagined themselves to be writing for. Craig states in his preface that his challenge has been "to provide a work that will be valuable to a very wide range of users, from beginners making their first acquaintance with philosophy, to professional colleagues doing what one might call routine maintenance work on one of their favourite areas". Unavoidably, many of the entries on specific topics in logic and mathematics would be beyond most beginners, though Graham Priest in his admirably lucid article on "Numbers" shows that it is possible, even in this area, to write engagingly and accessibly. In many more general entries, too, however, one feels that one is in the hands of a specialist writing primarily for specialists. Nicholas Griffin, for example, who is a lucid and elegant writer as well as one of the finest contemporary Russellian scholars, contributes a magisterially authoritative article on Bertrand Russell, but he makes few concessions to the uninitiated in his analysis of the problems raised by Russell's Paradox and the Ramified Theory of Types. It is a pity, too, that in a 12-page article Griffin could find no room to discuss Russell's more popular work on ethical and political themes.

When Marjorie Grene wrote on Heidegger for Paul Edwards's encyclopedia, she understood clearly that her task was to make Heidegger comprehensible to analytic philosophers. The result was an unenthusiastic appraisal of Heidegger's work that left admirers feeling dissatisfied, but at least it was intelligible to non-experts. Thomas Sheehan here writes on Heidegger at greater length and with more sympathy than did Grene, but his language and style are too close to Heidegger's own to be readily comprehensible to outsiders ("Being-in-the-world is structured as a thrown project: holding open the possibility (project) by ineluctably living into possibilities (thrownness)", etc).

Similarly opaque to me is the claim by Verena Andermatt Conley in her article on Hel ne Cixous that: "I is more than one, for it is in constant dialogue with others, and any identity is imposed from the outside." Is the word "for" here supposed to signify that what follows provides an argument for believing that the word "I" is plural? Again, take this horror of a sentence from Timothy Bahti's article on Paul de Man: "(De Man) subsumes the 'matching' of language, and with it of grammar and logic, to a phenomenal-cognitive model of nature and its human experience, under the names of an 'aesthetic formalisation' or 'aesthetic ideology', and he criticises it in the name of language's tropological, material and ultimately non-signifying otherness from all aesthetics and other rational-logical extensions that would establish a truthful continuity between the world and language or vice versa." No matter how many times I read this sentence (and the context does not help much), I cannot attach any sense to it whatsoever.

Sometimes, one does a double-take, not because a sentence eludes one's attempts to grasp it, but because what it says seems so absurd that one wonders how anyone can believe it. Can Sandra Harding, for example, really believe what she says in her article on "Postcolonial philosophy of science" that "the great explanatory power and appeal of modern sciences has been established in part as an empirical consequence of European expansion"? Can the power of quantum electrodynamics to explain the behaviour of light, for example, possibly be an empirical consequence of the European colonisation of other parts of the world? Or take this from Mark Poster's article on Jean Baudrillard: "The TV news does not really report about something in an 'external' world: it makes important what it states, creating news as it 'reports' about it." Does this mean that, for example, the death of Princess Diana was "created" by the television reporting of it? Or is it just making the entirely trivial point that the death of Diana would not be news unless it was reported as such?

For short explanations of the jargon of philosophers, the Routledge Encyclopedia is perhaps not as useful as, say, Ted Honderich's Oxford Companion to Philosophy or the many single-volume dictionaries of philosophy available. There are entries on a posteriori, a priori, analyticity, communicative rationality, implicature and incommensurability, but not on Dasein, language-game, noesis, and hyle. These latter, however, are all in the excellent index, which sends you to the entries on, respectively, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Husserl.

The entries on individual philosophers will, one suspects, be the most heavily used of all. The major philosophers are all treated in great depth, and there are entries also on many scientists who have had an influence on philosophy, such as Einstein, Darwin and Freud. Russell, notoriously, devoted a chapter to Byron in his History of Western Philosophy, though Byron does not merit an entry here, which is slightly odd given the inclusion of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Holderlin. I would have liked, in fact, to see many more literary figures included. Why not Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, D. H. Lawrence, Conrad and Virginia Woolf? All of them, in various ways, were concerned with broadly philosophical themes. An entertaining entry on Lewis Carroll (under his real name, Charles Dodgson) is included, but this rather misses a trick by failing to discuss his contributions to logic and, in particular, his much-discussed paradox of entailment, "What the Tortoise said to Achilles".

Among living philosophers, the Americans generally do better than the British, with entries on Davidson, Dennett, Dworkin, Kripke, Lewis, Nagel, Putnam, Quine, Rorty and Searle. The only notable exclusion I could detect was Martha Nussbaum, who, however, contributes a splendid essay on the subject of love. The only living British philosophers I noticed (there are no doubt more) were Elizabeth Anscombe, Michael Dummett, Peter Strawson and Bernard Williams. One might have expected Peter Geach, John McDowell, Colin McGinn, Hugh Mellor, Christopher Peacocke, Mary Warnock and David Wiggins to be in (they all have entries in Honderich's Companion), but their exclusion is no doubt a reflection of the determination of the publishers to aim for a world market, and the relative decline of the importance of British philosophy for that market. One more significant change since Edwards's day is that, in the 1960s, the brightest American philosophers came to Oxford; now the intellectual traffic is in the other direction.

All in all, Edward Craig and Routledge are to be congratulated on a monumental achievement. Give or take the odd irritating piece of gibberish, the standard of writing throughout is extraordinarily high, and the picture of philosophy they have presented, if at times bewildering, is in many ways extremely heartening. If the view is cloudy once more, it is at least no longer featureless.

Ray Monk is senior lecturer in philosophy, University of Southampton.

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Editor - Edward Craig
ISBN - 0 415 07310 3 (ten volumes); 16917 8 (set + CD ROM)
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £1,695 (ten volumes); £1.995 (set + CD ROM)
Pages - -

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