Teach your gran to suck eggs - cue photo of a chicken

Philosophy
April 8, 2005

In his very funny book The Joys of Yiddish , published in 1970, Leo Rosten introduced his readers to the term chachem - "a clever, wise or learned man or woman". And of course he had a story to amplify this definition. "A bright young chachem told his grandmother that he was going to be a Doctor of Philosophy. She smiled proudly: 'Wonderful. But what kind of disease is philosophy?'"

In one way, Philosophy would be the perfect gift for the chachem's grandmother. I hope that David Papineau and his six authors will not wince when I say that their collective effort is a coffee-table book, possibly the only coffee-table book on philosophy ever written. It has a big format, is packed with illustrations in full colour, is printed on glossy paper and its 99 sections never run to more than four pages - mostly one or two. This means that the organisation of the book is both its strength and its weakness.

It is a strength in that, between them, the book's six sections - "World", "Mind and body", "Knowledge", "Faith", "Ethics and aesthetics" and "Society" - provide a rapid introduction to what it is that philosophers do. There are articles on cause, truth, phenomenology, free will, the self, scepticism, wisdom, pain and evil, stoicism, goodness, animals, authority, rights, even "the meaning of life". Interspersed are sections on individual philosophers - Aristotle, Hegel, Fodor, Carnap, Quine, Diderot, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Kant, Nietzsche, Hobbes, Marx and Rawls. Some of these are very good - Rawls's veil of ignorance is especially well explained by Jonathan Woolf. And it is welcome to have such excellent illustrations of each philosopher.

Then the weaknesses begin. Two are especially important. First, one has to ask oneself who this book is intended for. The articles are far too short to get to grips with any philosophical problem in a substantive way, and the subtitle is a bit misleading in promising that readers, after consulting this book, will be in a position to apply what they have read.

What exactly does that mean? Will the reader come away understanding what consciousness means, or free will, or what is the meaning of life? What does it mean to say that the reader will have acquired "tools" for critical thinking? Are we not entitled to expect greater exactitude from philosophers? This book is an introduction and is pitched at a very elementary level: A-level students will be well beyond it, and first-year university students will not give it the time of day. That leaves the chachem's grandmother.

A second weakness is that the organisation of the articles, though it succeeds in providing a rapid overview of philosophy, throws up a dilemma for the complete beginner, mainly because the organisation makes a complete break with historical chronology. To give just a couple of examples: Aristotle is considered before Plato; can a complete understanding of Aristotle be had without knowing that he saw himself as "the foal that kicked its mother"? Later, Aquinas is considered before Augustine, but would there have been an Aquinas without his celebrated predecessor? And perhaps it makes sense to consider Rawls before Marx, but didn't the failures of Marx make Rawls's response necessary?

The result is, I suspect, to leave the absolute beginner adrift among the various currents and backwashes of Western philosophy (which comprises 95 per cent of the book), unaware that the subject has a coherent history, in which chronology plays an important role. However much narrative history may be a bad smell in some quarters these days, there is no question that it still provides a valuable framework, especially for the beginner.

History matters in other ways too. Take, for instance, the section on the afterlife. The discussion centres around various theories concerning the relation of this life to the next (Kant's ideas about the moral improvement of mankind and what that implies for the nature of God and "the future state"), and John Hick, "who has suggested that in the next world God might create new matter and reactivate it with the conscious memories and dispositions of the former person". This is as far as the discussion goes and is a good example of what I referred to earlier as offering little scope for applying philosophy.

But, more than that, it so happens that the afterlife has been the subject of quite a lot of scholarship in recent years, historical scholarship that shows where the ideas of heaven and hell and paradise originated (with Zoroaster and with the Greeks), why they emerged, and how the concepts were modified by the Israelites and early Christians. So, instead of being a philosophical problem, just one among many, the afterlife is shown to be a manmade concept with a history of its own. This changes the idea of the afterlife and changes it fundamentally. There can be no full understanding of the notion without such historical knowledge - but you will not find any mention of such scholarship in this book or in the bibliography at the back.

A word about the illustrations. Some, in the main the pictures of the various philosophers, are very good and very welcome. Others suffer from the coffee-table syndrome: the need to have colour on all available occasions. In a discussion of Jeremy Bentham's "felicific calculus", for example, the cost of a new railway safety system is considered alongside the number of lives it will save - cue a photograph of a railway signal.

Does the regularity of tides amount to knowledge, to certainty? - cue a photograph of waves beating on rocks. Do these illustrations add anything to the argument? No, they are coffee-table adornments, designed to make such dry subjects as logic, pragmatism, responsibility and ownership more appetising. Does philosophy need this? Can difficult subjects be made easy by the injection of a few colour photographs? What is the point of philosophy if it is easy?

Peter Watson's latest book, Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud , will be published in May.

Philosophy: Essential Tools for Critical Thought

Editor - General Editor David Papineau
Publisher - Duncan Baird
Pages - 224
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 1 84483 045 4

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