In Defence of Wonder and Other Philosophical Reflections

June 21, 2012

The difficulty for philosophers, trading mainly in age-old problems, is to offer something both true and interesting at the same time. Raymond Tallis manages, in the short essays that form the body of this book, to say much that is true and to say it almost always in an interesting way. Heavy stuff about philosophy's interface with science, time, literature, medicine, religion and death is accessed via Dad's Army, some modern and popular novels, more than you might need to know about the author's follicles and urinary tract, butterflies, Sarah Palin's ignorance and other items from the passing show. This is already no small achievement, and what comes across, on almost every page, are Tallis' enthusiasms for both philosophy and - even greater - for writing itself. And for once the back-cover puffery, where we are told of his "verve, insight and wit", most definitely hits the mark.

But are these essays, all reprinted from elsewhere, actually interesting? It will depend who is reading them. Professional philosophers will find little that's new and might in two ways be irritated by the easy style: there's no sense of a struggle or deep engagement with difficult ideas, and, although many of Tallis' confident pronouncements can be assessed on their own grounds, when it comes to reporting the views of others there might be doubts. So, at least for them, another bit of blurb-speak - Tallis as "polymath and intellectual heavyweight" - will perhaps be less convincing. Amateurs may be more impressed, but perhaps also more easily lost and even at times misled. Nevertheless, both audiences, stuck in an airport or on another delayed train, will find here enjoyable ways of passing the time.

Dip in and out and certain themes emerge. These are more explicitly addressed in the opening and closing pieces, an overture and a coda, both considerably longer than the rest. Together these give the book its shape and explain its title. Wonder (meaning awe rather more than puzzlement) at the world about us is what we need more of. His book succeeds, Tallis insists, if we come to recognise this. And philosophy, he wants to claim, in contrast to science, religion and even the arts, is best fitted to encourage such wonder. Why so? In part because science and religion especially (the story is less clear in relation to the arts, where the focus is almost exclusively on literature) trade in simple-minded reductive analyses both of the world in general, and in particular those bits of the world - the thoughts and activities of human beings - that Tallis is most interested in. The doubts I mentioned above might come into play here. Are there really people who think that mathematical entities constitute the world, that subjective experience is illusory, or that there are no important differences between us and other animals?

And does science go wrong in looking for ultimate explanations? Tallis seems to think so, but thinks also that this is the right and proper business of philosophy. Thus "a philosophical thought aims at the widest possible generality"; if we are serious about philosophy, "we want ultimately to bring everything together"; "the implicit dream of philosophy is to grasp the true and most general nature of the world and of ourselves within it". And so on.

This may be Tallis' view, and it may well be the view of Parmenides, the semi-mythic and more than semi-mystic proto-philosopher he eulogises at the book's end. But it is mightily ambitious, and more than a handful of philosophers are content with more modest and piecemeal aims - Socrates, Hume, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, to name names.

In Defence of Wonder and Other Philosophical Reflections

By Raymond Tallis. Acumen, 256pp, £14.99. ISBN 9781844655250. Published 26 April 2012

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