Little books on big thinkers

Turing - Socrates - Derrida - Berkeley - Descartes - Locke - Ayer - Wittgenstein - Russell - Hegel - Nietzsche - Marx
January 30, 1998

For most of the 20th century, mainstream philosophy has been busy alienating both its public and its publishers. But in 1991 that all began to change. Out of Norway came a jejune philosophical children's story by Jostein Gaarder. Its technique of transforming fearsome dead philosophers into eccentric cuddly playmates may have had more in common with Disney than Descartes, but it scored record-breaking sales in dozens of different languages and won an enthusiastic readership for philosophy among adults as well as children. Sophie's World - "the novel that thinks it's a history of philosophy" - left booksellers urgently asking for more.

Professional philosophers, however, turned a deaf ear to the tinkling of Sophie's cash bells, and they have not been amused by the students who now express disappointment that their philosophy classes do not live up to the novel's cheery promise. And it need not be mere professional vanity that makes us wince when some of the world's most creative thinkers are reduced to fall-guys in a tidy bed-time story. As the main purpose of philosophy is to challenge our prejudices and arouse us from balmy intellectual daydreams, it is not surprising if the professionals regarded popularity as a sign of philosophical weakness rather than a criterion of success.

But some refused to accept that the only philosophy that sells is bad philosophy. Ray Monk and Frederic Raphael have decided to fill the gap with a series of little paperbacks on The Great Philosophers. The first 12 titles are out, and further batches are in preparation. The books are short, cheap and airy - designed more for getting you through a train journey than an exam. Each volume is devoted to one canonical figure (no revisionism here: white Europeans to a man). Up to half the text is taken up with direct quotation, and the rest is commentary and explanation by an expert (another WEM) who is also an enthusiast, even an evangelist.

Collectively, the volumes are like clashing manifestoes rather than mysteriously harmonised instruments playing some totalitarian orchestration of philosophical knowledge as a whole. Philosophy becomes a huge democratic assembly, where the philosophers not only differ freely from each other but cannot even agree about what it is that divides them.

Readers might as well start at the beginning, with Socrates - the inventor of philosophy, according to the ordinary reckoning, and also, as Anthony Gottlieb says, its original "saint and martyr". Of course Socrates left no written doctrine, but Gottlieb marshals all the old stories about how, without ever claiming any special knowledge of his own, Socrates managed to humiliate those who were foolish enough to pretend to superior wisdom. Gottlieb also succeeds in placing the Socratic idea that wisdom leads to virtue and thence to happiness in a plausible light, and interestingly suggests that when Socrates was condemned to death it was not because he was in favour of tyranny, but because his vision of philosophy was "too democratic". It is that tricky combination of relentless criticism with infinite tolerance that makes Socrates an appropriate emblem of the philosophical tradition at its best and a suitable mascot for this generous and tolerant series as a whole.

If Socrates is one of the most attractive assignments on the roster of great philosophers, then A. J. Ayer must be one of the most unrewarding. Oswald Hanfling does his best to explain Ayer's notoriously unspecific allegation that the "traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful". It is not Hanfling's fault if his concise guide to Ayer's dogmatic negativism about meaning, objectivity, knowledge and morality often seems long-winded, nor can he be blamed for leaving the impression that Ayer's noisy blustering was a threat to the philosophical conversation rather than a contribution to it.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was an infinitely more intriguing thinker than Ayer, but for this reason his work is apt to inspire a kind of awestruck sectarianism that is equally disabling. P.M.S. Hacker is well known as a Wittgensteinian loyalist who likes to present his hero as a thinking person's James Bond, calmly circumventing terrible threats to our wholesome form of life. Here Wittgenstein repeats his victories and incredible escapes, outwitting his clever but sinister antagonist, the ubiquitous Rene Descartes. We also witness him quashing in anticipation the crypto-Cartesians who, Hacker believes, still besiege us. It is often hard for the reader, and perhaps for Hacker too, to distinguish between Hacker and Wittgenstein, but no one will doubt the passionate conviction with which Hacker-Wittgenstein gets to work on our real or imaginary conceptual enemies.

Jacques Derrida is even more of a tar-baby than Wittgenstein: those who try to get to grips with him find it hard to pull their fingers free. And he presents an extra difficulty because he deliberately refuses to locate himself unambiguously on a conventional philosophical map. Moreover, everyone knows that Derrida is associated with deconstruction - either the elixir of theoretical life or a deadly virus, depending which pundit you choose to believe - and it falls to every fresh Derridian to try to explain it anew. Christopher Johnson's guide is marketed as a demonstration that deconstruction "doesn't mean 'destruction' - nor does it involve any 'con'", but in fact it sets its sights rather lower, offering little more than an exploration of Derrida's criticisms of Claude Levi-Strauss's equation between literacy and civilisation and his adoration for the "primitive mind". This oblique approach illuminates salient features of Derrida's conception of politics, but readers may flounder when left to figure out for themselves such ideas as the "originary violence" of writing. (The only help Johnson offers is the not-unridiculous suggestion that "even the projection of characters upon a computer screen" involves "the violent incision and separation of a medium".) The pioneer of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing, is the most unexpected participant in this parade of great philosophers, but Andrew Hodges makes the case for his inclusion with resounding success. He explains how Turing's early reflections on the essential properties of a "computer" (which, in the 1930s, meant a person who computes, not a machine) grew out of the work of Kurt Godel and David Hilbert, and how they led him to the idea that by the end of the century we might be willing to ascribe thought to electronic apparatus. Turing may or may not have been right, but he was a true conceptual inventor.

Bertrand Russell receives an equally elegant introduction from Ray Monk, who shows us the main lines of Russell's philosophical development refracted through his changing attitude towards mathematics: childhood infatuation with the idea of a pure realm of mathematical truth, then youthful dalliance with holistic mysticism, followed by a return to mathematical logic, and then the tragic twist in which his mathematical discoveries devastated the vision that originally inspired them, forcing Russell back to the depressing view that "numbers are nothing but a verbal convenience".

Other philosophers are less easy to epitomise in a single concentrated line of argument, and Friedrich Nietzsche's wares always turn into tawdry banalities when expounded as a collection of detachable doctrines. Ronald Hayman has therefore chosen to celebrate the sheer stylistic exuberance of what he calls "Nietzsche's experiments in mimicking other voices" -experiments that, Hayman argues, drove him to madness. But anyone who quotes extensively from Nietzsche is like an actor working with a child or an animal, and Hayman is inevitably upstaged by his subject.

Georg Hegel will have presented exactly the opposite problem: he was exciting and subtle as a thinker of vast thoughts, but - apart from a handful of well-known epigrams - he was a champion bore as a writer. And unfortunately, Raymond Plant's decision to focus on Hegel's treatment of various themes of Christian theology leaves Hegel looking remote and boring. The young Karl Marx, in contrast, comes across in Terry Eagleton's presentation as not only a "good dialectician" but a brilliant observer of the forces that shape our moral ends and often turn them against themselves. Eagleton's advocacy of Marxism as a "political ethics" that "values the individual" and is "concerned more with difference than with equality" should arouse many to a belated recognition of Marx's rightful place in any philosophical democracy.

Perhaps the greatest success of the series is its vindication of three thinkers who are preceded by a very powerful reputation as room-emptiers: John Locke, Descartes and George Berkeley. Michael Ayers not only provides crisp reminders of Locke's vital engagement with the scientific and metaphysical issues of his day, but also extracts an attractive and undogmatic respect for "pretheoretical sense experience" that throws down a challenge to almost all the philosophical orthodoxies of the late 20th century.

Ayers endorses the familiar idea of Locke as an opponent of the uncritical rationalism of Descartes; but the Descartes who emerges from John Cottingham's treatment is a very different kind of thinker, and more intriguing by far. Descartes' notorious dualism of mind and body, according to Cottingham, was designed not so much to save the concept of soul for old-fashioned theology as to open up the entire physical world to exploration by mathematical science. Cottingham concludes by drawing attention to some passages where Descartes treats ordinary bodily experiences such as hunger or desire as intimations of an aspect of human existence that is irreducible to either physics or theology. Unluckily for philosophers who have made careers of being anti-Cartesian, it would seem that Descartes may not have been a Cartesian after all.

David Berman sketches an equally engaging portrait of Berkeley. Like Ayers's Locke and Cottingham's Descartes, Berman's Berkeley is a great thinker because he is a great experiencer - not the querulous pedant who quibbled over the meaning of the word "perception" but a fearless intellectual adventurer who tested his thoughts by pushing his own experiences to the extremest limits. "Armchair psychology," as Berman puts it, "is hands-on philosophy." And not just armchairs. Berman recounts how Berkeley, wishing to know what it would be like to be hanged by the neck, arranged to be suspended from the ceiling until he indicated that he was ready to be cut down: an experiment which almost killed him since, having waited until he was "losing the use of his senses", he was no longer in a position to make a sign for help.

Readers ought not to attempt this experiment at home. But if they want to acquire some first-hand experience of philosophical democracy, they would do well to read a few volumes from this welcome new series.

Jonathan Ree is lecturer in philosophy, Middlesex University.

Turing: A Natural Philosopher

Author - Andrew Hodges
ISBN - 0 75380 192 2
Publisher - Phoenix
Price - £2.00
Pages - 58

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments