Think? A Critical Look At Popular Philosphy

John Bulman, Member, on 2 July 2002

Is philosophy relevant to the concerns of the man or woman in the street? Does it answer the great questions posed by the strangeness of human existence, like: is my will free?, how do my mind and body interact?, and (as Kant put them) what can I know?, what shall I do?, and what can I hope?. Further, can any conclusions reached by philosophy be communicated in any way intelligible to the non-philosopher?

People in the street are almost by definition those who do not sit in their studies to dwell on that strangeness and the questions it poses, but rather go out to look at the world and see how best to act in it. Among them are the scientists, who perhaps have done more than the philosophers to uncover the true place of human beings in the universe. But some in the street, especially now that the traditional religious answers to the great questions lack credibility, turn to books on philosophy instead.

There are many such books, of great variety in style and purpose.

There are popular books from the 1940s and 50s which to us may already seem to typify their historic context, including one of them, Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy, which itself sets out to relate each past philosopher or school of philosophers to their times.

There are current histories, too, ranging from Sophies World, a best-seller, because set in the form of a teasing novel, and those like Zeno and the Tortoise which also purport to teach philosophical method. This last tries to identify each of the great philosophers in turn with a particular `trick' of thinking, but then shows how fallible that trick may be. For the more searching, there are primers on that other important `trick' of philosophy, logical analysis.

The titles of others are more beguiling. De Botton claims to show the Consolations of Philosophy and A C Grayling how we can `Apply Philosophy to Life'. A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues by a French academic, described in the blurb as `An excellent book of philosophy', is merely a string of elegant essays, assured of certain certainties.

Perhaps the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus should look up the answers to the great questions in a reference book. There are several pocket dictionaries (from Oxford, Cambridge and Penguin) and encyclopaedia, of different style and content depending on the contributors. Enquirers are likely to find, however, that each entry will refer them to others, and leave them feeling they must read the whole book to understand properly.

Text books abound, often split into sections of various fonts and shadings, for `Introductions', `Examples', `Things to Think About', `Exercises' and `Recaps', sometimes bewildering to the general reader. Each is tuned to a particular classroom; gently intelligent for the boys at Westminster, defensively argumentative for the British `comp', large and glossy for the American `High'.

Texts for the general reader range from a Teach Yourself Philosophy, looking like a schoolbook but refreshingly adding personal opinions on the great questions, to the attractive Think, covering them all, with a brief essay on Logic, and also letting slip some opinions. Both, however, end with disclaimers: one, from Plato, `Heaven knows whether it is true, but this at any rate is how it appears to me', and from Blackburn in Think, `A decent modesty becomes us in our intellectual speculations'.

Words direct from the philosophers themselves are not so modest, but sometimes obscure. However, when on radio or TV with Brian Magee they aim for lucidity, and, when lacking it, are nudged back into it by Magee. A pity he could not interview all the great philosophers, and not just our contemporaries!

From all these books do we glean any answers? A J Ayer seems to me to clear the ground on The Central Questions of Philosophy, standing on the shoulders of science: saying there is no `mental' substance, that the Self is a figment of grammatical error, and making short work of the ancient arguments for God.

Only two authors, driven by what I think are disagreeable passions - Scruton in his Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, furious with what he calls the `scientisation' of all our attitudes, and Iris Murdoch with her obsession to claim The Sovereignty of Good in that and her later book on Morals - nevertheless seem to get near the heart of all our problems: that we are NOT the independent owners and directors of the bodies we inhabit, as our human nature inclines us to believe. We are not merely `in' the world as outsiders, but are wholly `of' it.

Essentially they agree with A J Ayer's iconoclastic analysis, but arrive at a selfless and quasi-religious attitude. Murdoch ends her first book saying `The humble man, because he sees himself as nothing, can see other things as they really are', and her second by a quote from Psalm 139. Scruton says that `philosophy should take the reader to the point where he can hear the music of the spheres, and at last attain that "condition of complete simplicity" costing "no less than everything".

That at any rate, I say with Plato, is how it appears to me.

John Bulman