Life etc: a browser's guide

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy
May 5, 1995

If Simon Blackburn's perception that the topics of philosophy include "life, the universe, and everything" is a sound one, then this dictionary should appeal to a good percentage of the human race. In fact, it is an excellent source book and can be strongly recommended. Blackburn has designed the book with three ambitions in mind: one, to provide a "playground for browsers"; two, to provide a resource for anyone remotely interested in general intellectual movements; and three, to provide a "simple work of reference". Browsing is fast becoming more and more of an important pastime (a pastime we increasingly cannot afford to do without) as we interact with computers in a way that renders the thought of producing and disseminating knowledge independent of technical and machinic media impossible. On the browser front, therefore, Blackburn's text is a resounding success. There are generous and informative entries on the great philosophers (Plato, Rene Descartes, Benedictus de Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, etc). Blackburn is to be applauded, in part, for attempting to include entries on modern feminist and continental perspectives, as well as non-western sources of thought such as Chinese and Indian philosophy. A helpful system of cross-referencing has been adopted throughout the text.

The book is much less successful on the second front, however. Overall the entries are written in an informed and judicious manner. But there are notable anomalies and lacunae, aspects that no doubt can be explained, if not excused, as the result of certain blindspots in Blackburn's range of philosophical competence and expertise. He is excellent where one would expect him to be, as in the entries on the concerns of analytical philosophy, such as mind, language, truth and so on, as well as in the entries on seminal analytical philosophers of this century, such as Willard Quine.

However, the entries on thinkers classified as "continental" and "feminist" (all equally concerned, it should be noted, with matters concerning language, truth, self, and consciousness) often have a perfunctory ring to them. On occasions the entries on continental sources are incredibly funny (intentionally or otherwise, I do not know). In the entry on the French philosopher-guru Jacques Derrida, for example, Blackburn notes that his work is "not so easily assimilated by people used to normal linguistic expressions of thought".

On other occasions the entries on continental sources are thoroughly misleading. Friedrich Nietzsche's vision of the ubermensch is reduced to some vague, incoherent model of self-creation, while the "will to power" is erroneously described as the "fundamental element of human nature" (in Nietzsche the idea is not restricted to human nature, and it is an open question whether or not he subscribed to a notion of "human nature"). This is evidence of sloppy thinking.

Again with these "continental" entries, Blackburn has unfortunately been influenced by considerations of fashion. Seminal thinkers such as Derrida and Michel Foucault both get an entry, albeit short and perfunctory. But the most important and original French philosopher of the past 30 years, however (at least in my opinion), Gilles Deleuze, does not get the entry his work deserves. It is an omission which cannot be excused. Not only does Deleuze's work have the merit of being unclassifiable (it is both history of philosophy and innovation, both metaphysics and philosophy of science), it also cannot be easily assimilated according to a straightforward analytical/continental split. His work challenges part of the basis on which Blackburn has constructed his text.

One is left pondering the future of philosophy in terms of a possible emergent dialogue between its two principal entrenched traditions. Is the split between analytical and continental traditions real, reflecting genuinely different objects of philosophical investigation, or is it merely in the mind, reflecting no more than differences of style and presentation? I do not have an easy answer to this question. All I can indicate is that Blackburn's text, in its superficial treatment of continental patterns of thought, evident in its ignorance of the work of Deleuze, has missed a golden opportunity to demonstrate that the future of philosophy resides in the corrosion of this unproductive division between "analytical" and "continental".

One area of thought where the future is beginning to show itself, that of "complexity" theory (which receives no entry in the dictionary, unfortunately), clearly shows that a radically fertile soil for the contemporary philosophical imagination, at least in its more interesting manifestations, resides at the point where continental strands of thought are beginning to intersect with the philosophies of science and technology. In a decade the portrait of philosophy found in this book will have to be radically redrawn.

Keith Ansell-Pearson teaches all kinds of philosophy at the University of Warwick.

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy

Author - Simon Blackburn
ISBN - 0 19 211694 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 408

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