Jaunty new angle for thinking caps

Philosophy in Practice - Aristotle and Augustine on Freedom
October 13, 1995

What is odd about philosophy is that, although in one sense it is a vast body of knowledge, in another, the philosophy student, unlike the student of any other subject, has all the data she needs before she even begins. The inchoate questions and puzzles she already has are what, refined into systematic arguments, philosophy in the first sense comprises, and it is to her own intuitions that she should constantly refer any proposed solutions, however venerable, to these arguments. Unless philosophy is taught in a way that encourages her to do so, it becomes little more than a history of ideas, which is perhaps how philosophical introductions once tended to present it. But telling students "there is no point studying philosophy unless you are prepared to think for yourself," as Adam Morton does in Philosophy in Practice, is liable to elicit muddled, homespun, pre-existing ideas.

But Morton's book is expressly dedicated to fine-tuning students' powers of reasoning and critical awareness. It consists of mingled exegesis, thinking exercises and questionnaires ("how conventional are your beliefs?"). This may sound hopelessly American and "colour supplementy". It runs the risk of trivialising philosophy, transforming it into pseudopsychology and turning the student in on herself and her own psychological reactions, even if it is intended to make her examine her style of thinking with a view to modifying it.

The reader, systematically shown the breakdown of arguments, offered choices between possible meanings to them, detailed questions and constant feedback, is likely to gain a sense of clarity and steady, cumulative progress. And though overall clarity is sabotaged by Morton's odd organisation of material, which breaks up the orthodox divisions of philosophical issues, much of the exegesis is superbly done.

Chappell's scholarly Aristotle and Augustine on Freedom is at the opposite extreme. He assumes prior interest and reasoning ability, and is more concerned with a scholarly rendition of what Aristotle and Augustine said about freedom than about freedom per se.

Classical philosophers claimed that we can only desire what is good, and therefore cannot willingly do evil, which made it hard to account for weakness of will. Chappell discusses what exactly Aristotle meant by voluntary action, and whether he admitted some diminished version of akrasia (weakness of will). He goes on to insist that Augustine, the great medieval philosopher, has been misinterpreted as being a proto-Humean who held that people might willingly do anything for any reason.

Instead, Chappell says, Augustine shared the classical view that wilful wrongdoing is impossible because it would be irrational. Thus, despite notionally subscribing to the Judaeo-Christian belief that we can desire evil and willingly do what we know to be wrong, Augustine in fact had the same problem as Aristotle, and it is for this reason that his account of freedom is deliberately and necessarily incomplete.

If only one could have a hybrid of these books. For even if Morton's aim of sharpening his readers' powers of reasoning is realised, it may be that he simultaneously undermines his allied purpose of getting them to think for themselves by trying to do the thinkers' thinking for them. He could usefully add to his excellent exegesis at the expense of some ofhis laborious reasoning techniques, whereas Chappell is at his most interesting when he desists from scholarship, neglecting his two protagonists to spell out his own solutions to the weakness-of-will problem.

Jane O'Grady is co-compiler of Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations, and extra-mural philosophy teacher, Birkbeck College, London.

Philosophy in Practice: An Introduction to the Main Questions

Author - Adam Morton
ISBN - 0 631 18864 9 and 1 8865 7
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £60.00 and £14.99
Pages - 500

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