To know the difference

January 22, 2015

John Shand’s review of my book Global Philosophy: What Philosophy Ought to Be (Books, 8 January) grotesquely misrepresents what the book is about.

He says I hold that “the theoretical problems of knowledge addressed by philosophy will disappear if knowledge is the slave to practical use and aims to bring about a better life”. What I actually argue is that we need to transform academic inquiry so that the basic aim becomes wisdom – wisdom being the capacity and active endeavour to realise what is of value in life, for oneself and others, wisdom thus including knowledge, but much else besides. Problems of living need to be put at the heart of the academic enterprise. Academic philosophy has failed to perform its primary task of keeping alive awareness of our fundamental problems, above all our most fundamental of all: “How can our human world, and the world of sentient life more generally, imbued with the experiential, consciousness, free will, meaning and value, exist and best flourish embedded as it is in the physical universe?” Nowhere do I say anything remotely like the problems of “philosophy will disappear if knowledge is the slave of practical use”.

Shand goes on to accuse me of committing “the most extraordinary undergraduate philosophical howler” in declaring that “Kant thought the material world – or noumenal world as he called it –…according to Kant, science is about the phenomenal world, not the real world, the material world, which is, for Kant, unknowable”. It is clear from the context, and from this quotation, that I am employing “the material world” to mean “the real world, the world of things as they really are” which is, indeed, for Kant, the noumenal world. If a quibble about the meaning of words has become a philosophical howler, then I am happy to join the company of philosophy undergraduates.

Why has Shand so distorted what I say in my book? Perhaps the clue is in the first paragraph of chapter 2, where I say: “Academic philosophy is unique. There is no other academic discipline that has laboured for so long under such a massive misconception as to what its basic task ought to be.” Shand, an academic philosopher, is offended by my serious criticism of so much academic philosophy today, and is doing what he can to ensure that people do not read my book. Misrepresenting and sneering in a review of the book is so much more effective a way of discouraging people than providing a serious criticism of its contents.

Nicholas Maxwell
Emeritus reader in science and technology studies
University College London

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