Global Philosophy: What Philosophy Ought to Be, by Nicholas Maxwell

John Shand on a message that is undermined exaggeration

January 8, 2015

Nicholas Maxwell pities Karl Popper, “condemned endlessly to repeat himself…Never, never, I vowed, must I allow myself to suffer a similar fate”. Tragically, this is precisely what appears to have happened.

This self-indulgent and frustrating book is another foray into convincing people yet again of Maxwell’s “great discovery”. The great discovery turns out to be that the theoretical problems of knowledge addressed by philosophy will disappear if knowledge is the slave to practical use and aims to bring about a better life – moreover, that’s how things should be. And of course the practical problems are pressing, he claims, topped out by our old friend global warming. To this end universities need to reorganise themselves, ruled by wisdom-propagating philosophy seminars conducted as envisioned by none other than…well, you get the idea by now. But no one is listening. Despite the grains of truth offered here, the something-in-what-he-says passages, the reader’s sympathy for Maxwell’s message may well be taxed by exaggeration and run-you-flat boulders of hectoring, and the crashing (repeated of course) truisms, such as: “In order to create a better, wiser world, we need to learn how to do it.” Well, knock me down with a feather.

It is true that there is something in the idea that universities can become overly scholastic; Popper is indeed an important thinker; Maxwell’s book is clearly written, if woefully edited. But so much of this gets undone by the overbearing delivery, by pushing things too far – and by the conceit that the importance of Maxwell’s ideas are not recognised because, it appears, few are as dazzlingly smart as he is. Popper could certainly get a bit like that, but never to this degree.

People have been trying to save mankind from itself, and improve it, doubtless since the inception of the human race. Dictators, religious leaders, gurus, Enlightenment thinkers, anti-Enlightenment thinkers, technologists, even some philosophers have all had a go. But in the end none of it works. There’s just too much disagreement, spirited quirkiness, admirable bloody-mindedness, for any “solution” to be able to capture the multifaceted, finely gradated and finely grained thing that is human life. The unwillingness of humanity as a whole to take up any call of “Follow me!”, is what makes human beings so lovable – what gives them their value – what makes them not ants.

Philosophy might of course help individuals. However, some people are not happy until they have found the most pressing problem facing mankind. Comfortable monomania. At one time the most pressing problem was not going to Hell after you die; now it’s not living in Hell while you’re alive. And if in the end it all comes crashing down – it might not; we’re very innovative – and mankind is no more, well, would that be so bad? No one is going to come across the cosmos to finger-wag that we have been a very naughty species. One small planet sporting intelligent life in a vast universe ceases to do so. So what?

This is a professor emeritus’ book; honest, even likeable in places, but with all caution thrown to the wind. Faith in its wisdom elsewhere is undermined by the most extraordinary undergraduate philosophical howler, “Kant thought the material world – or noumenal world as he called it –…according to Kant, science is about the phenomenal world, not the real world, the material world, which is, for Kant, unknowable”. There isn’t the space to explain why this is incredibly wrong. But every competent philosopher knows that the material world is not the noumenal world.

Global Philosophy: What Philosophy Ought to Be

By Nicholas Maxwell
Imprint Academic, 200pp, £14.95
ISBN 9781845407674
Published 30 October 2014

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Reader's comments (1)

John Shand’s review of my book Global Philosophy grotesquely misrepresents what the book is about. He says I hold that “the theoretical problems of knowledge addressed by philosophy will disappear if knowledge is the slave to practical use and aims to bring about a better life”. What I actually argue is that we need to transform academic inquiry so that the basic aim becomes wisdom – wisdom being the capacity and active endeavour to realize what is of value in life, for oneself and others, wisdom thus including knowledge, but much else besides. Problems of living need to be put at the heart of the academic enterprise. Academic philosophy has failed to perform its primary task of keeping alive awareness of our fundamental problems, above all our most fundamental of all: “How can our human world, and the world of sentient life more generally, imbued with the experiential, consciousness, free will, meaning and value, exist and best flourish embedded as it is in the physical universe?”. It has failed, too, to highlight that academia suffers from building into its institutions a damagingly irrational philosophy of inquiry. Nowhere do I say anything remotely like the problems of “philosophy will disappear if knowledge is the slave of practical use”. Shand goes on to accuse me of committing “the most extraordinary undergraduate philosophical howler” in declaring “Kant thought the material world – or noumenal world as he called it - ...according to Kant, science is about the phenomenal world, not the real world, the material world, which is, for Kant, unknowable”. It is clear from the context, and even from this quotation from my book, that I am employing “the material world” to mean “the real world, the world of things as they really are” which is, indeed, for Kant, the noumenal world. A quibble about the meaning of words has become a philosophical howler. If howler it be, I am happy to join the company of philosophy undergraduates! Why has Shand so grotesquely distorted what I say in my book? Perhaps the clue is in the first paragraph of chaper 2, where I say: “Academic philosophy is unique. There is no other academic discipline that has laboured for so long under such a massive misconception as to what its basic task ought to be” (p. 12). Shand, an academic philosopher, is offended by my serious criticism of so much academic philosophy today, and is doing what he can to ensure people do not read my book. Misrepresenting and sneering in a review is so much more effective a way of discouraging people from having a look at the book in question, than providing a serious criticism of its actual contents. (THE, 22 January 2015, Letters, p. 33)

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