Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Philosophy For Dummies

What is philosophy? Stanley Doubty, in his new book Think: A Biography of Western Philosophy, defines his subject thus: "Philosophy is concerned with certain fundamental questions. What can we know? How do we come to know it? What, if any, ethical or scientific consequences does the acquisition of this knowledge have? And, perhaps most fundamental of all, who is going to pay me for finding out all this stuff?" Given its breadth and complexity, philosophy can be daunting to the layperson, yet there is evidence of a widespread interest in the subject. Professor's Doubty's book is intended to provide a plain English overview of Western philosophical thought, with the subsidiary aim, the author notes, of "perhaps inspiring a few readers to take up what Socrates famously called 'la vida loca' of a philosopher".

Doubty, whose previous books include Hume & Rousseau: A Love Story and Erasmus: A Spazmus?, begins his exposition with "the ancient progenitors of Western civilisation", the Greeks - "a disparate people, united only by a desire to fight one another while shirtless". After a brief discussion of the pre-Socratics, including the little-known Ananamanader of Crete who maintained that the primary substance of the universe was prunes, Doubty moves onto Greece's Golden Age, where he allows his formidible intellect full reign. Doubty is alive to the contradictions of Socrates' personality ("contrarian and conservative, moral lighthouse and boy-buggerer") and his elucidation of Plato's philosophy is second-to-none. "Plato believed mankind had been born in a cave. Philosophy, he wrote, is the box of waterproof matches that ignites the campfire of intelligence that boils the kettle of knowledge in which the noodles of truth are cooked."

Having established the Greeks at the centre of Western thought, Doubty ranges freely over the following two and a half thousand years. While his analysis is consistently strong throughout, I found his chapter on Descartes to the be of a particularly high standard. Descartes, Doubty writes, "discovered modern philosophy inside a mechanical dog. (This was later denied, but not refuted, by Voltaire.) His chief insight was that God can be perceived as a piece of wax, and his most famous formula - cogito ergo sum - continues to have enormous influence amongst those with access to Latin dictionaries."

Doubty is not afraid to simplify when necessary, but he takes pains to retain the kernel of a philosopher's thought. For example, his chapter on Kant is comprised of one sentence - "Kant was an old man who liked going for walks" - but in context it reveals an acute knowledge of the Kantian system. Likewise, Doubty's description of Hegel as "really, really difficult to understand, and probably not even worth reading" recalls Bertrand Russell's similarly frank dismissal of Nietzsche as "a cranky Kraut with more facial hair than sense". The traditional British disdain for Continental thought has, it seems, a new champion in Professor Doubty.

Think: A Biography of Western Philosophy is an informative, challending and often exhilerating read, and I recommend it wholeheartedly to anybody who is curious about its subject. We can only hope that Professor Doubty and others like him continue to explicate this most interesting of subjects in a manner accessible to the common man or woman. For as Francis Bacon said, "In vino veritas". Professor Doubty, I am certain, would be the first to agree.


Tony.T said...

Erasmus: A Spazmus? is a real book?!?

Tim said...

Of course it is. I don't just make this stuff up, you know.

Tony.T said...

Why not? I do!