Many of these reviews have previously appeared in Practical Philosophy http://www.practical-philosophy.org.uk/, Analytic Teaching http://www.viterbo.edu/campnews/camppub/analytic/, or Peace News http://www.peacenews.info/. They appear here by kind permission of the respective editors.
Encyclopaedia of Ethics, second edition (3 vols).
London: Routledge, 2001. pp. xxxv + 1997
ISBN 0-415-93672-1 (hb) £240.
There has always seemed something implausible to me about the idea of an encyclopaedia of philosophy. With few exceptions, each entry is bound to be contentious, for that is the nature of the subject. On the other hand, there is something highly desirable about the idea too. The prospect of being able to go to a handful of volumes in order to at least get one’s first bearings on a topic constitutes a considerable temptation. Those who produce such works are presumably aware of these competing considerations, and one of the measures of their success is the skill with which they resolve them. Given that few, if any, are able to produce such works alone, the competence of the contributors is a highly significant factor in this enterprise. On this particular count, the Beckers are to be congratulated in putting together an impressive team. While I doubt if anyone except the editors are familiar with all of its members, the list is peppered with some of the very best names in the field.
In general, and probably wisely, the editors have opted for a thematic treatment of the subject. This means that relatively few individuals receive entries in their own right, and of those who do, many are of comparatively recent vintage. Some of the modern choices for this accolade are unexceptionable, but I doubt if they will all pass the test of time. The editors should have followed their own instincts and excluded the living. The division of such a complex and extensive subject as ethics into a fixed number of discreet themes is both an impossible and a necessary task in a work of this kind. How successfully it has been carried out depends on whether one finds what one is looking for. Fortunately, the provision of extensive cross-referencing as well as a substantial subject index means that if something is in the encyclopaedia it should be possible to find it without too much wasted effort. I decided to test the system by finding out what it had to say about synderesis. Given that the book addresses not only ethical theory as such but also the history of the subject, I was a little surprised to find that it had no entry of its own. Although a forgotten concept today, it was an important one in medieval moral thought. The subject index gives one reference for synderesis, directing the reader to the item on Duns Scotus. However, a perusal of the entry on conscience reveals that it is also mentioned there, as indeed it should be. (It is always easier to find what you are looking for when you know where to look for it.) I imagine this particular failing will bother few readers, but it is there, and I imagine there are others.
Although its core concern is declared to be the ‘coverage of ethical theory as pursued among English-speaking philosophers’ (p. vii), the encyclopaedia strays beyond this brief in a number of ways. Most welcome are the forays into Islamic thought and some of the philosophies of Asia. It is good to see the importance of such individuals as Nagarjuna and Wang Yang-ming recognised. Less compelling are the numerous entries relating to topics within practical ethics. While acknowledging the editors’ point that many ‘contemporary moral issues have become crucial test cases for theory’ (p. vii), I would question the decision to allot Bentham only one more page than blackmail, for example. Bentham is a seminal figure, while blackmail (except to those on the receiving end of it) is a relatively minor issue, not even rated an entry in the first edition. Given the importance attached to practical ethical issues in contemporary moral thought, it might seem strange and artificial to exclude them altogether, but the balance could be better arranged. The appearance of the Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics (San Diego: Academic Press, 1998) in the period between the first and second editions of the Encyclopaedia of Ethics reinforces the case for the balance to be more heavily weighted in the direction of theory here.
As a second edition, the book is to some extent a prisoner of its first one, published in 1992. Most of its original entries have been retained, and they have been joined by a third as many again. All have been revised and where appropriate updated, but this seems to have been patchily done. The entry on Peter Abelard, for example, contains no mention of a 1995 edition of his ethical writings. The entry on intuitionism contains no reference to a 1999 book on the subject (which just happens to be mine).
However, perhaps all these comments reflect the problem with reviewing an encyclopaedia. We are all most likely to home in on those areas in which we have a special interest, and because of our greater knowledge in these areas we are more likely to be critical of the ways in which they are treated. But specialists (in the narrow sense) are not an encyclopaedia’s target audience. I would not go to such a book for information on synderesis, because I would expect to know more about the subject already than an encyclopaedia of this kind is likely to tell me. But on opening volume II at random I find an entry on Japan, which proceeds to tell me far more about Japanese ethical theory than I ever knew before, and in an interesting and accessible way. If I want to find out about Japanese ethical theory in the future, I will turn here first. The bibliographical references at the end of each entry (in many cases with helpful annotations) provide signposts for further exploration.
I suggested at the beginning of this review that a test of a good encyclopaedia of philosophy is the balance it achieves between providing a useful point of initial entry into a topic and the natural contentiousness of the subject. Despite the many reservations I have voiced in the interim, I think that the Encyclopaedia of Ethics generally succeeds in this task and that it is a valuable resource for anyone interested in this area of philosophy. The price is likely to be a deterrent for many, but given the price of philosophy books these days it can still look like a bargain. Those already in possession of the first edition will probably not be tempted, though.
(From Practical Philosophy)
‘Seeing Things in a New Light.’ Reframing in Therapeutic Conversation.
Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 2001. pp. 125
If the word itself is of recent origin (the 1960s), the actual practice of reframing precedes it by at least 2000 years, according to Antti Mattila. Stoic techniques for coping with the world and Sophistic techniques for arguing about it are both identified as earlier manifestations of it. But what is it? Mattila reaches the following conclusion (p. 105): ‘To reframe means suggesting in a therapeutic conversation, either verbally or through behavioural assignments, a new description of the client’s situation or some part of it.’ I would suggest that to limit reframing to the therapeutic context as a matter of definition is unnecessarily restrictive, since this means that it is something we cannot do for ourselves. Furthermore, it serves to drive a wedge between it and its ancestors. The Sophists were not in the business of therapy. However, it is the point of reframing, rather than the context in which it takes place, that is important. The point, as Mattila goes on to explain, is to enable people to see things in a new light so that new possibilities for thinking and acting become apparent.
Part of the book is taken up with considering what this means and how it may happen. In the process careful connections are made and distinctions drawn between reframing and other items in the philosophical and therapeutic vocabularies. There turn out to be a surprising number of these, but Mattila is a sure-footed guide through the maze. After this conceptual/theoretical exercise, he moves on to introduce a host of examples of reframing in action and considers both the potential of the process and the possible problems it faces. Amongst these are the recurrent therapeutic dilemma of honesty versus efficacy. It can be a fine line, both epistemologically and morally, between creative re-description and outright lying. On the other hand, a therapist or counsellor can only suggest a new frame; it is for the client to accept or reject it.
Practitioners should find the discussion of how one might become a better reframer useful. The suggestion that a ‘reframing thesaurus’ might be developed to assist in this exercise is an imaginative one, and I look forward to reviewing it in these pages if and when it appears. The fact that reframing in some form or other is evidently practised across a wide range of therapeutic approaches suggests that it would find a wide readership.
This book may attract a similar one. Mattila’s guiding theme is that even if reframing has a long history and many practitioners, it has nevertheless lacked a systematic treatment that has been able to set it upon a proper theoretical footing. He has here produced a useful overview of the subject from a variety of perspectives, based on an extensive knowledge of the relevant literature as well as practical experience. Or, to look at it another way …
(From Practical Philosophy)
Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: a brief history.
Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001. pp. xi + 195
ISBN 0-87220-575-4 (pb).£10.95
Although not usually regarded as the first western philosopher (that accolade being traditionally reserved for Thales), Pythagoras is nevertheless a seminal figure. In one sense perhaps he was the first ‘philosopher’, as he is widely credited with the invention of that term. More importantly, however, he seems to have been the first to see philosophy as involving a particular way of life, and it was in the hope of learning more about what that way of life entailed that I approached this book. Unfortunately, it did not have very much to say on the subject. However, that is not the author’s fault. Kahn is to be commended for sticking close to what is actually known, and resisting the temptation to indulge in groundless speculation so as to fill in the many gaps. What emerges is a sketchy but engaging narrative, with several interesting twists and turns.
One of the difficulties in getting to the bottom of the Pythagorean philosophy is the fact that its founder wrote nothing and its earliest adherents were bound by a vow of silence. It is not always easy to disentangle the original teaching from its later accretions and adaptations. Vegetarianism, for example, while often associated with Pythagorean living, seems not to have been practised from the outset, although dietary regulations of some kind (including the famous injunction not to eat beans) were obviously always important. More generally, since so little was known about Pythagoras, he became a convenient figure for later generations to attribute all kinds of ideas and activities to, presumably because such attributions were so difficult to disprove.
Kahn plausibly argues that at some point the more practical and the more theoretical elements of Pythagoreanism parted company and evolved in different directions. Some aspects at least of the Pythagorean way of life were taken up by the Cynics and later made their presence felt in Stoicism. For instance, the practice of daily self-interrogation evidenced in the writings of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius appears to have been a Pythagorean one. On the more theoretical side, the belief in the importance of numbers and harmony was taken up by Plato. The role played by Pythagorean ideas in his own philosophy and in the later developments of Platonism constitutes a major theme of the book. Surprisingly perhaps, this theme is traced right through to the works of Johannes Kepler.
In some ways, however, it is the minor matters that engage the interest more. While making relatively little of them, Kahn takes the positions that Pythagoras probably got his ideas on transmigration from India somehow, and that he was not the originator of the theorem bearing his name. And apparently the Romans named a species of cabbage after him. A number of obscure characters such as Moderatus of Gades and Nicomachus of Gerasa also flit across the pages from time to time, receiving a rare but refreshing outing in the realm of philosophical literature.
In the end, then, although not the book I was expecting or hoping to read, Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans turned out to provide a most enjoyable and informative experience.
(From Practical Philosophy)
Self-Knowledge and the Self
New York: Routledge, 2000. pp. ix + 193.
ISBN: 0-415-92690-4 (pb)
According to David A. Jopling (p. 157), ‘The concept of self-knowing is indissolubly tied to the nature of dialogic encounter, and the epistemic and moral responsibility it entails.’ This is the philosophical climax of the book. What follows it is a literary coda in which Margaret Laurence’s novel The Stone Angel is appealed to as evidence for, or an embodiment of, this conclusion. What precedes it principally involves an examination of three individualistic approaches to self-knowledge, those of Stuart Hampshire, Jean-Paul Sartre and Richard Rorty. This has the unfortunate consequence that Jopling spends far more time arguing against them than he does arguing for his own conclusion. Given that they stand only as exemplars of a limited range of opinions, no demolition job on them, however efficient, can establish either that the individualist approach as such is misguided, or that his own particular dialogical approach is correct. Indeed, after looking at two other dialogical approaches (those of Michael Sandel and Ernst Tugendhat), he devotes only a handful of pages to setting out his own, and even these are characterised more by appeals to the ‘Other-mysticism’ (as I would call it) of Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas than by solid argument. He claims (p. 138) that certain ‘considerations’ (some more disputable than others, I might add) ‘suggest that the means to self-knowledge, and the content of self-knowledge, have a clear social dimension,’ but more is needed than this.
This reflects a problem I had with the book as a whole. There is much of merit to it. The expositions of Hampshire, Sartre and Rorty are generally well-handled and clear (although I think there are some terminological inconsistencies in his discussion of Sartre). Furthermore, these thinkers are not treated in isolation but related to others such as Sigmund Freud and Martin Heidegger. He is genuinely helpful in identifying points of convergence and divergence across a range of relevant materials, and he digs below the surfaces of the different approaches in an informative and insightful way. However, for him the stumbling-blocks with regard to Sartre and Rorty in particular relate primarily to matters he does not like. For example (p. 144): ‘The existential approach denies that there are any grounds independent of my own decisions and carefully considered judgements to which I can appeal in order to identify the convergence of my inquiry upon its proper target.’ This may be undesirable, but that is not enough for it to be wrong (if only!). Similarly, he is obviously disturbed by the implications of Rorty’s approach for moral responsibility. He is right to be, but unless Rorty can be shown to be mistaken, then it is our notion of moral responsibility that will have to change. Again, dislike is not disproof.
Despite all this, the book is worth reading. I would not so much damn it with faint praise as praise it with faint (well, perhaps not exactly faint) damnation! It addresses an important topic and parts of it are most certainly illuminating. In his dissection of Hampshire, Sartre and Rorty, Jopling is a discerning and incisive guide. His own approach to the topic lacks neither interest nor potential, but it needs further development and support.
(From Practical Philosophy)
Consolation of Philosophy (trans. and ed. Joel C. Relihan)
Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001. pp. xxxiii + 216
ISBN: 0-87220-584-3 (hb)
One of the pleasures of new translations of the classics is that they invite the reader to return to them and look at them from a fresh perspective. If they do not, they serve no useful purpose. Joel Relihan’s rendition of Boethius’s classic work adopts a strongly literary approach to the work and in doing so helps to bring out dimensions of it that other translations have tended to obscure or ignore. That alone justifies its existence.
Although best known now for the Consolation, this is in many ways the least important of Boethius’s works. His great contribution to the history of philosophy was as a translator and commentator, rendering many works of philosophy (especially those dealing with logic) from Greek into Latin. The corpus of works thus established became the foundation of much of medieval thought. He came to a sad end, being executed on the orders of Theodoric in 524. The Consolation was composed in his prison cell. Written in the first person, it is a dialogue between a prisoner and Philosophy, ‘my nurse, in whose house and in whose presence I had dwelt since I was a child’ (p. 6). Although too fanciful to count as autobiography in the strict sense, it is clearly a personal meditation on the philosophical life.
As Relihan points out, the genre of the consolation was an established one. It consisted of ‘a moral exhortation, an address to one who is bereaved, an argument that death is not to be feared’ (p. xi). He goes on to suggest that Boethius’s work violates so many conventions of the genre that it can scarcely be regarded as belonging to it at all. His further suggestion that it fits more easily within the genre of satire is (he admits) rather more contentious. Nevertheless, it is certainly true that the prisoner receives rather less consolation from Philosophy than he might have hoped for.
Perhaps Relihan makes too much of the conflicting philosophical influences that the Consolation betrays. Boethius was well versed in many of the major philosophical movements of antiquity, and a degree of eclecticism in his outlook would scarcely be surprising. On top of that, he was a Christian (later canonised as St Severinus - his tomb is in Pavia cathedral), which would clearly limit the extent to which he could wholeheartedly endorse any particular ‘pagan’ philosophy. As a consequence, there is something of a tension in the work between the idea found in the Stoics and others that death need not be feared (a real non-event according to Epicurus!) and the Christian conviction that it is to be positively welcomed. Furthermore, it might be argued that a man awaiting execution is entitled to take his comfort from whatever source he can and may be excused from having too many qualms about consistency.
Much of what the Consolation teaches is unexceptional. Philosophy advises the prisoner (p. 19) that ‘possibly the greatest cause of your disease [is] you have ceased to know who you yourself are.’ (The metaphor of sickness and cure runs through much of the book.) He is not to trust in the outside world as a source of happiness (p. 32). It is necessary to ‘dispel this darkness of confusing emotions, which arises from .. false opinions and which dazes the true vision’ (p. 20). His sights must be set on the divine, for goodness, happiness and godliness are one and the same thing (p. 101).
Boethius stands at the watershed between ancient and medieval philosophy. The Consolation is almost a distillation of the practical comforts offered by the schools of antiquity, but given a distinctly Christian twist. How much comfort he actually derived from them himself is unknown. That he met his death is certain: how he met it is not.
(From Practical Philosophy)
What makes us think?
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. pp. x + 335.
ISBN 0-691-00940-6 (hb).
The lengthy subtitle of this book says much about it. ‘A neuroscientist and a philosopher argue about ethics, human nature and the brain.’ Perhaps the word ‘argue’ is the one to home in on first. The book is presented in dialogue form, and from time to time there is a genuine crackle in the exchanges. However, much of the early book is taken up with the question of whether it is really possible for the two to argue at all. Over and over again the very different outlooks of phenomenology and neurobiology are compared and contrasted with each other. Repeatedly Changeux suggests that neurobiology can inform philosophical discussion, and repeatedly Ricoeur responds by questioning the assumptions underlying the scientific claims. He also challenges the ability of science (at least as it presently exists) to capture fully the subjectivity of human existence and dimensions of meaning attached to it. In return, Changeux is prepared to play the waiting game by insisting that what is not known now may yet be known in the future.
The jousting of the early chapters is, however, carried out against the background of an obvious desire to reach, or at least lay the foundations for, a joint understanding. Not surprisingly, perhaps, finding a shared vocabulary frequently proves problematic. Along the way, viewers are treated to some fascinating insights from both participants. Those reading this book from a philosophical background will, I imagine, learn much about the current state of the science of the brain. Despite the occasional moments of friction, it has to be said that Changeux and Ricoeur generally display considerable patience with each other.
Later chapters move on to consider the implications for ethics of their debate. The challenge is summed up by Changeux in this way:
Can we hope one day … to devise an ethics of universal appeal in a world dominated by cultural, and particularly religious conflicts? Is it possible … to construct a secular ethics that goes beyond cultural differences and is democratically accepted? (p. 264)
In other words, is a science of ethics possible? Or, to put the issue more contentiously perhaps, if we understood better how and why we think the way we do, would that help us to think better?
Whereas the discussions of the early chapters were tightly focused and highly detailed, the later ones, while stimulating, are looser and less compelling. Ricoeur finds it difficult not to invoke religion, and Changeux tends to stray beyond his original brief. As a result, neither seems to speak with the same authority, although that does not mean that they are not worth listening to. A curious point of convergence (one of several in the book) is a shared belief that the aesthetic may offer one of the great vehicles for the reconciliation of human differences. This, in the end, is the theme of the book. It is both a plea for and an exercise in collaboration, in the belief that if, as members of the human race, we don’t hang together then we may well find ourselves hanging separately more often than we would wish..
(From Analytic Teaching)
Bakhtin and Cultural Theory (second edition)
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001. pp. x + 276
ISBN: 0-7190-4990-3 (pb)
If ever there was a good reason for bringing out a second edition of a book, Bakhtin and Cultural Theory has it. Since it first appeared in 1989, the Soviet Union has ceased to exist and a flood of new materials by and about Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) has seen the light of day. However this has proven to be something of a mixed blessing. Where previously a relative poverty of materials had given Bakhtin scholars a sense of common cause, new freedoms and new resources have led to serious divisions within the community. Furthermore, it turns out that even the little that was thought to be known about him before has now to be seriously reconsidered. Amongst other things, it turns out that Bakhtin routinely lied about his academic background, and was not beyond shameless plagiarism in his writings.
But what exactly were his writings? For someone who had so much to say about the connections between historical circumstances, language and literature, it is perhaps ironic that some scholars appear to believe that Bakhtin’s works should to some extent be rewritten. The argument is that he was obliged to conform to the strictures placed on academics and published authors by USSR orthodoxy, and was consequently often obliged to express his ideas in terms not of his own choosing, or camouflage them with overt nods in the official direction. However, while this is certainly true, textual emendation is too drastic a remedy. Interpret and annotate, yes; tamper, no.
The background to the whole problem is dealt with by Ken Hirschop in his introduction, where the major themes of Bakhtin’s life and work are set out in a clear and helpful fashion. Nikolai Pan’kov’s contribution reconstructs the circumstances surrounding Bakhtin’s defence of his dissertation in 1946, a key event in his intellectual life. Brian Poole digs into the origins of some of Bakhtin’s ideas, revealing previously unknown (or at least unacknowledged) debts to Max Scheler and Nikolai Hartmann in particular. In a short concluding bibliographical essay, Carol Adlam summarises the past decade or so of Bakhtin scholarship. Anyone new to Bakhtin (or to the ‘new’ Bakhtin!) will find that these four new pieces between them provide an excellent survey of the subject.
Of the remaining seven essays, six have been retained from the first edition of the book. They explore, in various ways and directions, Bakhtin’s ideas on language, literature and society. While ideas clearly need to be tested, and while comparisons can sometimes be illuminating, some of the items, most notably those by Terry Eagleton and Clair Wills, stray too far from the central subject matter of the book to make much of a helpful contribution to it. By contrast, Nancy Glazener’s essay constantly keeps in contact with Bakhtin’s thought, using it as a basis from which to approach the work of Gertrude Stein.
However, for me the best of the rest by far is Tony Crowley’s ‘Bakhtin and the history of the language.’ In a model piece of writing he first introduces the reader to some key terms in Bakhtin’s thought (monologism, dialogism, monoglossia, polyglossia and heteroglossia), and then proceeds to critically apply them to the evolution of the English language. Genuine insights emerge as the usefulness of these terms in understanding the process is demonstrated, while Crowley’s style has a clarity too many academics seem to find unnecessary (or impossible).
I cannot comment on Bakhtin’s own style, but the book preserves an interesting expression of his attitude towards academic honours, and it is fitting to conclude this review with his own words. In his view, a philosopher ‘should be nobody, because if he becomes somebody, he begins to make his philosophy fit in with his professional position’ (p. 26).
(From Analytic Teaching)
Midwest Studies in Philosophy Vol XXII: The Philosophy of Emotions.
Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999. pp. 312.
ISBN 0-268-01442-2 (pb), £18.50, 0-268-01443-4 (hb), £31.50.
This is a collection of fifteen previously unpublished essays by different authors all of which, in some way or other, address the issue of emotion. More than one contributor expresses the view that there is much for philosophers to learn from experts in other disciplines when dealing with this issue. Nancy Sherman, for example (p. 108), suggests that 'an integrative approach bringing moral philosophy and empirical and clinical studies in psychology together is long overdue.' In a similar vein, Robert Solomon (p. 3) points out that: 'Philosophers in general, to this day, seem not yet to have discovered the significance of the face in emotion theory, despite the fact that this has all but ruled the work of the psychologists across the hall for more than twenty years.' Nevertheless, the authors themselves are almost all from a philosophy background, and the psychologists across the hall are not represented. Fortunately, however, philosophers being philosophers, it is variety rather than uniformity that is the hallmark of the collection.
Insofar as it is possible to generalise about the contents of the papers, they tend to fall into two broad categories. Whereas some are concerned with enhancing our understanding of emotions as such, others are more tightly focused on one or two emotions in particular. In the latter group are papers examining such emotional phenomena as anger, empathy, love and pride. A recurrent theme which extends across both categories is the extent to which emotions have to be understood as possessing a cognitive dimension.
In contrast to many philosophers of the past who, when writing about emotions (especially in the context of ethics) were inclined to be very wary of them (to the point of outright hostility in some cases), modern scholars tend to be more indulgent. However, indulgence is only to be entertained up to a point; as Steven Horst puts it (p. 58): 'As with all of the passions, we must navigate between the unacceptable extremes of hating our own natures and taking them as a good guide to conduct.'
This observation helps to locate many of the essays within a wider context. The search for a better understanding of the emotions is rarely pursued for its own sake. An understanding of the emotions is generally seen as a prelude to deciding what we can and should do about them. The extent to which we are (or can be) in control of our emotions is an issue which exercises more than one of the contributors. It is also one of obvious interest to philosophical counsellors.
As a collection of recent writings by recognised figures in the area, the book is a useful resource for those wishing to expand their familiarity with it. Each of the essays has its own specific insights to offer, and together they constitute a helpful and panoramic introduction to an important subject. A word of warning may be appropriate, however. Those prone to depression may prefer to avoid reading John Morreall's paper on 'The Emotions of Television'!
(From Practical Philosophy)
A New Stoicism
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. pp. viii + 216.
ISBN: 0-691-00964-3 (pb).
There has been a considerable revival of interest in Stoicism in recent decades, and this has manifested itself in a number of ways. With regard to primary texts, a number of new translations have appeared, not just of old favourites but of more obscure works too. In the area of secondary literature, some have concentrated their efforts on rediscovering what it meant to be a Stoic in antiquity, and on the methods the school used to train its adherents. Others have looked at the therapeutic uses of Stoic teachings in contemporary life. A New Stoicism self-consciously and determinedly sets out to offer something different from any of these types of work.
Becker is guided throughout his book by the question as to what Stoicism would look like today if it had continued as an unbroken tradition since antiquity. He rightly takes it as a given that it would have undergone significant changes. It had already shown a propensity for shifting its positions during the period when it did constitute an unbroken tradition. The long-standing custom of distinguishing between the early, middle and late Stoas is a reflection of this fact, since the labels are intended to indicate far more than the simple passage of time. Nevertheless, the very fact of unbroken tradition meant that it was both possible and relatively easy to accept them all as different versions of one and the same philosophy. On the other hand, one of the challenges facing Becker is that of justifying the claim that what he puts forward should be seen as a form of Stoicism, rather than something else.
In order to meet this challenge, he is obliged to confront the fundamental question of what is essential to Stoicism. Surprisingly, perhaps, the most famous principle of classical Stoicism, 'Live in accordance with nature!' is not regarded as essential at all. Becker's reasoning is that the principle was founded upon a teleological view of nature which is no longer sustainable. And it is no longer sustainable because it is not in accordance with contemporary scientific opinion. For Becker, 'follow nature' is to be replaced by 'follow the facts', and science is to be taken an authoritative arbiter of what 'the facts' are. On the other hand, 'science' is broadly construed so as to encompass the social sciences as well as the natural ones, and he makes considerable use of the findings of psychology in particular.
What he does regard as essential can be summarised by saying that he regards Stoicism as a eudaimonistic, naturalistic, rational philosophy, which espouses the unity of virtue. That is to say, Stoicism holds that the way to a good life (which is both fulfilling and virtuous) is through the exercise of practical reason upon our knowledge of the world (which includes our knowledge of ourselves). Stoicism shows us how to have the best life possible, given that we are material, rational agents. The bulk of the book is dedicated to unpacking, explaining and justifying this basic outlook. The case is densely argued, and it is impossible to do full justice to it here. Consequently, applying his 'axiom of futility', I will not try to. However, potential readers should be aware that the text is distinctly heavy going in parts, made even more so by what seem to be some eccentricities of usage.
Fortunately, given the amount of material and the number of ideas Becker manages to fit into his argument, even those who violently disagree with it (or fail to understand it!) may find the book worthwhile. Each chapter ends with a commentary section in which he discusses a range of primary and secondary materials. Collectively they provide a useful resource for the student of Stoicism. He also offers some interesting observations concerning the nature of ethics. His suggestion that it deals with 'all things considered' judgements is a useful corrective to the tendency in much of modern moral philosophy to limit its scope. In a similar vein, he notes that Stoicism, properly understood, is concerned with whole lives, and it is for this reason that he takes a dim view of some of the narrow therapeutic purposes to which some contemporary writers have sought to put it.
This book is not designed to be an introduction to Stoicism, and should not be approached as such. Better alternatives are available, and his treatment of some of the traditional problem areas of Stoicism such as determinism and apatheia are amongst the least helpful and least persuasive parts of what he has to say. With regard to apatheia in particular, it may be questioned whether his revisionist approach leaves him with something which is still entitled to be called Stoicism. However, as an invitation and stimulus to thinking through what Stoicism may still have to offer to the modern world, it is a useful volume.
(From Practical Philosophy)
Reason and Emotion: essays on ancient moral psychology and ethical theory.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. pp xiv + 588.
ISBN 0-691-05875-X (pb)
This is a weighty work in more ways than one. It is a hefty read, but fortunately it can be dipped into rather than scrupulously studies from cover to cover. Indeed, there is some advantage in taking the former approach since the book is not free from repetition. It is a collection of twenty three essays written over a period of nearly thirty years. Most of them deal with the thought of Plato and Aristotle, with only three essays given over to Stoicism and Epicureanism.
Both the title and sub-title give an accurate indication of the book's contents. Cooper's guiding and unifying theme is what might be termed the mechanics of morality as understood by some of the major thinkers of antiquity. (Morality is here understood in the ancient rather than the modern sense, with one's whole life, rather than a peculiar set of problems within it, being understood as the object of ethical reflection.) Given that we are as we are (which is itself, of course, a matter of lively dispute), how do we manage to live a good life? Or perhaps the question is better put in a more negative way: how do we frequently fail to live a good life? The central importance of reason is acknowledged by all of the thinkers discussed here, although Cooper brings out the different views they had concerning precisely what reason was, and, in particular, the degree to which it exercised control over the domain of action. Some accord a stronger motivational force to reason than others, and so are led to different positions on the question as to whether the failure to live a good life is a failure of reason as such.
Where reason is held to have serious motivational competition, it is the emotions that are seen to provide the required alternative influence. Again, Cooper effectively explores the different ways in which the emotions were understood by the philosophical schools, and the directions in which those different understandings developed. What emerges is an interesting array of attempted explanations of the observed, and experienced, facts. While modern philosophers perhaps tend to be too readily dismissive of any psychology which is not equally modern, Cooper is always keen to give credit where it is due. Implicitly, at least, there is often the sense that the models developed by the ancient philosophers are not lacking in insights which might benefit contemporary ones.
The book will undoubtedly be of most interest to students of the moral and political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, of which there is no shortage. One of the book's strengths is its engagement with topics, such as Aristotle's treatment of friendship, which are too frequently neglected. Indeed, a study of the relevant essays cannot fail to broaden anyone's understanding of Aristotle's Nicomachaean Ethics generally (although I would question the helpfulness of Cooper's decision to use 'virtue' as an equivalent to arete). To the extent to which people find such classic texts of contemporary relevance, so they will also appreciate the practical value of Cooper's commentaries on them.
However, for those whose interests lie more in the areas of moral psychology and motivation, there are also benefits to be had. For such readers the book constitutes an introduction and guide to how some of the wisest minds of the western world wrestled with problems of persistent concern. Even if their attempts are adjudged to be unsuccessful, the ways in which they failed may yet be instructive. If only we were all equipped to make such impressive mistakes!
(From Practical Philosophy)
I send you this Cadmium Red: a correspondence between John Berger and John Christie
Barcelona: Actar, 2000. pp. 300.
ISBN 84-95273-32-2 (hb). $49.99.
Eulàlia Bosch is well-known for her work in organising innovative exhibitions. Here, however, in addition to the role of organiser, she also plays those of eavesdropper and midwife. I send you this Cadmium Red is an exhibition as well as a book, and it is based, as the subtitle indicates, on a correspondence between John Berger, artist and writer, and John Christie, artist and film-maker. Eulàlia was, in her own words, 'an occasional witness' to this correspondence, which began when John C sent John B a painted square of Cadmium Red. For the next two years or so all manner of items changed hands: colours, letters, poems, booklets, etc. Cadmium Red gave way to Rust-Iron, blue, black, gold, green.... The subject of their correspondence was, in the words of Berger, 'darkness, light, pages, colours, stones, bodies, layers.' But above all, it was about colour.
Each colour led to a series of reflections. Some were purely personal, based on subjective associations: but these were never more than a beginning. They led on to wide-ranging considerations of the meanings and natures of the different colours, drawing on personal experience and the history of art. Matisse and Mondrian, Kandinsky and Klee all find their way into the discussions. The authors' own ideas are also regularly interspersed with those of others such as Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys and John Gage. In this way, the discussion unfolds into a prolonged meditation, not systematic but multi-faceted, on the notion and significance of colour itself.
In her role as eavesdropper, Eulàlia writes, 'Their insights drew me into an apparently gratuitous but rigorously essential way of looking.' This prompted to her to act as midwife, in suggesting to the two authors that they convert their correspondence into a book, which in due course she also organised into an exhibition. Since the correspondence took place with no thought of being made public, the reader's experience of the book is that of both a viewer and a voyeur. The two kinds of experience are inextricably combined: personal letters are reproduced as illustrations. It is difficult to get drawn into the depths of the discussion without also feeling drawn into the lives of the writers. In revealing the layers of meaning in the colours, they are also offering us revelations about themselves.
While the book is structured chronologically, as with an exhibition it is sometimes tempting to go around it the wrong way. It can be dipped into as well as tackled systematically. Given that the authors were not writing for the public, they have not felt the need to make any concessions to the public, and some sections require considerably more effort than others. But that is (at least part of) part of the point. It is only by slowing down, only by getting out of our habitually superficial way of looking at things, that we begin to appreciate what lies beneath the surface.
(From Analytic Teaching)
Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Introducing Aesthetics.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. pp. 226+xiv.
ISBN 0-7486-1191-6 (pb). £14.95.
This is an interesting and useful book in a somewhat neglected area of philosophy. It sets out to introduce not only, as its subtitle suggests, aesthetics, but also the history of aesthetics. The competition is relatively thin on both counts, but particularly so with regard to the latter. The authors roam over the entire history of western culture and a wide range of artistic media. Their treatment is, however, not merely descriptive but also argumentative, although they try not to let their own preferences and opinions intrude too disruptively or dogmatically on their material. The authors do adopt some contentious positions (for example, concerning the accessibility of the art of past ages), but it is not necessary to subscribe to them.
Because the brief of the book is so broad, it is bound to attract criticisms concerning selections, divisions and emphases. Should there be no mention of Ortega y Gasset at all? Should Plotinus appear in the medieval section? Is there enough on Croce, or too much on Aquinas? All of these are arguable, and will doubtless be argued.
One of the issues facing any introductory text concerns what prior knowledge may or may not be assumed on the part of the reader. Here there are some inconsistencies. In discussing architecture the authors feel the need to define 'pendentive' (and incorrectly, as it seems to me), while in the chapter on music a number of technical terms are employed without comment. More seriously, the book sometimes becomes a history of art rather than a history of aesthetics, and that is a dangerous indulgence in a work of this (no more than average) scale and (already substantial) scope. The temptation is obvious, but it should have been met with greater resistance. The fact that it was not is testimony to the importance attached in this book to the historical dimension of the subject.
Indeed, the emphasis of the book is so much on the historical, that the past is allowed to dictate its agenda to an overwhelming extent. There is, for example, a chapter on the theatre, but nothing on film. The only modern music discussed is that of the concert hall. If one of the aims of an introduction to aesthetics is getting people interested in aesthetics, then this book is unlikely to enjoy much success. By managing to promote an image of art which is largely elitist and remote, it will do little to persuade many of the importance of aesthetics. Those to whom it preaches will probably consist principally of the converted. It will be of most use to those who already have an interest in aesthetics and who want to find out more about the history of the subject. Such a purpose it serves well, although the inclusion of more explicit guidance on further reading would have helped it serve it better.
(From Practical Philosophy)
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. pp. 148+xi.
ISBN 0-691-05745-1 (pb)/0-691-05744-3(hb). $15.95/£9.95 pb, $49.50/£30.00 hb.
The topic of self-deception is an important one for counsellors, and perhaps for philosophical counsellors in particular. Why, in the face of all the evidence, do people adopt and hang onto positions which range from the weak to the untenable to the outright perverse? The answer, according to Alfred Mele, is, at bottom, because they want to. This may seem neither profound nor surprising, and perhaps it isn't. Nevertheless, there are enough people who disagree with Mele for him to devote substantial chunks of the book to taking detailed issue with them. For those not well-versed in the literature on the subject, these parts of the book are not always easy to follow, and can feel like more of a distraction from, rather than contribution to, the main argument.
At the heart of the argument (although Mele does not put it this way) is a desire to preserve, in an unproblematic way, the (psychological) unity of the self-deceiving individual. This is manifested in three different but related points. First, that self-deception is importantly unlike the deception of others. There is no need to 'divide' the individual in order to make self-deception coherent. Secondly, self-deception does not consist of people trying to convince themselves of things which they know to be false. Thirdly, self-deception does not involve people believing something to be both true and false at the same time.
Instead of all this, Mele suggests that the key to understanding self-deception is the notion of a motivationally biased belief. We believe things which are false for all sorts of reasons, and self-deception is just one way of being wrong. In self-deception, we believe what is false because, for whatever reason, we want it to be true. Our desires shape our beliefs in all kinds of ways, making it more likely that we will believe one thing than another. They play a role in our generation of hypotheses, in our searches for evidence to test them, and in our interpretations of that evidence. At each of these stages our desires may gently but firmly push us in one particular direction rather than another. While that direction may seem natural to us, to others it may appear quite the opposite. Indeed, one of Mele's tests for self-deception is whether impartial others, with the same evidence, would come to the same conclusion.
According to Mele's model, then, rather than self-deception involving some act of will whereby a true belief is forcibly rejected or repressed in favour of a false one, it is more like a process which protects us from having to acknowledge reasons for believing that which we find unacceptable. Consequently, this book raises important epistemological concerns which extend far beyond the specific topic of self-deception. However, from the philosophical point of view, it is a pity that the conceptual analysis on which Mele embarks at the end of the book is so perfunctory. This seems to me to be an area in which a little more conceptual analysis might have helped to save a lot of wasted empirical effort. This reflects the general point that as a philosophical book it is perhaps too eager to be a psychology one.
Partly for that reason, philosophical counsellors may not find the book wholly to their tastes. However, there is much in it which is of use, and in particular the materials which deal with the concrete and insidious ways in which our desires may shape our beliefs. The better counsellors understand how clients come to hold beliefs which are inaccurate and unhelpful, the better placed they may be to help clients become free of them.
(From Practical Philosophy)
The Siren and the Sage: knowledge and wisdom in ancient Greece and China
London: Cassell, 2000. pp. x + 257
ISBN 0-304-70640-X (pb) £18.99
It is clear that there are differences between the thought of ancient China and the thought of ancient Greece, but precisely what those differences are is not so clear. This book attempts to articulate those differences in terms of the concepts of intentionality and participation. Intentionality is concerned with conceptualisation, objectification, the creation of distance between ourselves and the world in which we live. It emphasises the disconnectedness of things, and is associated with knowledge. Participation is concerned with appreciation, engagement, the appreciation that we are a part of the world we live in. It emphasises the interconnectedness of things, and is associated with wisdom. The nub of the argument is that whereas Chinese thought tended to participation, Greek thought tended to intentionality. Where Greek culture found the development of an assertive individualism exciting, the Chinese found it worrying. While the authors acknowledge the dangers inherent in making large scale generalisations of this kind, their ideas provide useful promptings to guided reflection on Chinese and Greek thought (even if they sometimes play rather fast and loose with their pair of principal concepts).
The evidence for their argument is taken from three areas: poetry, history and philosophy. The three principal Greeks discussed are Homer, Thucydides and Plato. From the Chinese side come the authors of the Classic of Poetry and The Records of the Historian, Confucius, Laozi, and a handful of others. I do not propose to discuss the poets or historians further, although some of my comments on their treatment of philosophy apply to them too.
The authors do not simply want to describe or characterise the natures of Greek and Chinese thought; they also want to go some way towards explaining them. This leads to the weakest sections of the book. Clearly, all thinkers work within specific contexts and, equally clearly, their thoughts are not divorced from those contexts. However, the relationship between context and thought is a complex one and it is dangerous to assume otherwise, as the authors seem to. They compound this error with their bizarre decision to regard Plato as the first western philosopher. For Shankman and Durrant, Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War is the context from which philosophy, in the shape of Plato's thought, emerged. I find this claim absolutely incredible. The Presocratics are peremptorily brushed aside, and even Socrates barely gets a look in. The Greek world outside Athens is disregarded. (At this point it becomes difficult to take the book seriously.)
The authors push themselves into this untenable position partly on account of the comparative nature of their work. Because they want to set the emergence of Chinese philosophy in the context of the late 'Spring and Autumn' and 'Warring States' periods (when there was considerable political turmoil in China), they cast around for a parallel context in which to locate the development of philosophy in Greece. Sixth century BC Ionia is presumably far too peaceful, so the likes of Thales and Heracleitus are simply ignored!
In the end, then, the book is a very mixed bag. There are some genuinely stimulating insights and ideas, and some genuinely awful arguments. The comparative dimension of the book turns out to be both a strength and a weakness.
(From Practical Philosophy)
Engaging with Ethics: ethical inquiry for teachers
Katoomba NSW: Social Science Press, 2000. pp. xviii + 253
ISBN 1-876633-15-8 (pb) AU$ 35.00
This is an ambitious book which sets its sights in a number of different directions. However, its primary target audience is the world of teacher training, and its primary aim is to prompt and support ethical inquiry in that world.
Although formally divided into two parts, for practical purposes the book falls into three. The first of these is concerned with communities of inquiry. It is the view of the authors (p. 47) that 'the community of inquiry is a unique educational practice that cultivates democratic character in students and a special sense of community - the community of ideas for a common purpose.' Having thus nailed their colours to the mast, they go on to show how such a community may be established. In so doing they helpfully identify the different skills which a successful community of inquiry needs, and suggest ways in which they may be developed. This part of the book contains a valuable distillation of evident experience in this area, including useful warnings about potential problems and how to overcome them.
The second part of the book comprises a brief introduction to moral theory. Because no formal philosophical background is assumed on the part of readers, the authors provide one. They first discuss the general nature of ethics, and then go on to give outline accounts of some particular ethical perspectives. The four they select for this treatment are non-consequentialism, consequentialism, virtue ethics and the ethic of care. These are then contrasted with each other through developing and considering the different responses they generate to a short case-study.
The third, and largest, part contains materials for classroom use. A variety of topics are introduced, such as equity, democracy, pluralism and punishment. Each section contains an 'episode' backed up with brief analyses of 'key ideas' and suggestions of 'cues for inquiry'. The narrative episodes are all related in some way to issues arising in the world of education, and to a single imaginary community. While these materials are specifically designed to be used in the programme for establishing a community of inquiry set out earlier in the book, they also lend themselves to employment in other contexts. Some of the cues for inquiry, in particular, could work well as free-standing exercises, essay titles or exam questions!
In addition to all of the above, the book also contains helpfully annotated suggestions for further reading, information on further resources, and guidance on training in philosophy for children. No one could accuse the authors of trying to do too little, although some may feel they have tried to do too much. This problem seems to me to be particularly evident in the second part of the book. To fit all the authors wish to convey into fewer than fifty pages is a very tall order, and sometimes the price of compression is serious distortion. To suggest, for example (p. 112), that, 'Non-consequentialism adheres to the principle of equal respect for persons,' is at best misleading. Some forms of non-consequentialism certainly embrace this principle, but it is entirely possible to be a non-consequentialist without doing so. One solution to this problem would be to assign more space to this part of the book. A more radical approach would be to omit it altogether, and leave (or force!) the community of inquiry to operate without the benefit of its contents. It would be interesting to see how much of them it could generate by itself, and how much of them it could happily do without.
The authors presumably did not take this radical approach because of the importance they attach to moral theory. However, their attitude to moral theory turns out to be rather puzzling. Early in the book (p. 15) they justly bemoan the tendency of students to 'hold naive versions of either moral relativism or moral absolutism,' and one of their aims is to confront and challenge this tendency. But towards the end of it (p. 215 and again on p. 224) they say that: 'Ethics is not a matter of trying to work out which is the better ethical or moral theory or which theory results in the better solution. Sometimes it may be necessary to take all or only some theories into account.' If I understand these words correctly, and their meaning seems to be plain, the authors seem to be endorsing a form of moral eclecticism. This is dangerous because it threatens to undermine moral theory itself. Part of what it means for moral theories to be different from each other is the fact that it is necessary to choose between them. To entertain more than one at the same time is generally to embrace inconsistency, and inconsistency is generally fatal to theory. Once it becomes possible to hold all theories at once, what is left of theory? If this is the price to be paid for shifting students away from moral absolutism or moral relativism, it seems to me to be an inordinately high one.
These concerns lead me to take an ambivalent attitude towards the book as a whole. There is indubitably much of practical value here, but I find myself in serious disagreement with some of its philosophical content. I would certainly be willing to use it as a manual for setting up a community of inquiry, but I would equally certainly be wary of exposing students to some of the observations on ethics it contains. It engages me, but not with its ethics.
(From Analytic Teaching)
Lucretius and the Modern World
London: Duckworth, 2000. pp. x + 163.
ISBN: 0-7156-2882-8 (pb), £9.99.
There is a distinct shortage of accessible and affordable books on Epicureanism, and any additions to the meagre total are to be welcomed. That said, from a philosophical point of view Johnson's book is a somewhat eccentric contribution to the genre. Since Johnson's background is not in philosophy but in classical (and especially Latin) literature, this is not altogether surprising. It is also not altogether disadvantageous, for a different perspective can sometimes help to shed new light on an old subject.
The central focus of the book is Lucretius's On the Nature of Things, and it tackles it in three different ways. The first two chapters deal directly with the poem itself, seeking to identify its central themes. Their titles, 'No Truth But in Atoms' and 'The Gospel of Pleasure', are adequate indications of what these themes are taken to be. However, in and around his exegesis of the relevant sections of the poem, Johnson weaves a series of observations concerning its literary style and the cultural context in which it was written. Lucretius's treatment of sex, for example, is not only expounded but also contrasted with the approaches of Catullus and Cicero. Long-standing debates over whether the poem was ever finished are reprised and examined.
The next two chapters chart the history of the poem, the poet, and their reputations from the Renaissance onwards, beginning with Gassendi and ending with Santayana. Here, two related questions are addressed. First, how has Lucretius been served by his translators? Secondly, to what extent was Lucretius properly understood by either his supporters or his detractors? The fact that so little was known about him (and perhaps nothing that was really reliable) perhaps meant that, more than most, he served as a surface upon which his interpreters could project themselves. Quotations from the entries on the poet in the fourth, seventh and ninth editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica provide a graphic illustration of the fickleness of philosophical fashion.
In the final chapter Johnson goes on something of an excursion through some unpredictable territory (both science fiction and science fact) in order to return to the themes of the first two chapters. Atoms and human happiness are here brought together in the context of nuclear weapons, their development and use. The gap, real or otherwise, between science and ethics which many bemoan in the modern world was not a feature of Lucretius's. Not only Epicureanism but other schools as well regarded an understanding of the physical world as the foundation upon which a correct way of living had to be constructed. Johnson allows himself perhaps a little too much latitude in his meanderings, with the result that the important points he wishes to make come across rather weakly.
As the only substantial and systematic work in the classical Epicurean corpus, On the Nature of Things is a text of the greatest importance. Lucretius and the Modern World is a useful accompaniment to it.
(From Practical Philosophy)
Plato's Progeny: how Plato and Socrates still captivate the modern mind
London: Duckworth, 2001. pp. x + 165.
ISBN 0-7156-2892 (pb), £9.99.
As Melissa Lane says in her conclusion (p. 138): 'Socrates provides the model of someone devoted to philosophy, who asked incessantly how best to live, though we cannot be sure whether he believed that he had the answers; someone who died loyal to the behest of his democratic homeland, though we can never be sure whether he was loyal to it in his life and teachings.' Her book charts the West's fascination with Socrates and Plato, master and pupil, heroes to some, villains to others. Each nation, each age, each philosopher recreates them anew, giving us Socrates the martyr, Socrates the misfit, Socrates the ironist, Plato the mystic, Plato the educator, Plato the fascist... The list goes on.
The book focuses on three main themes: Socrates's life and its meaning, Plato's metaphysics and its relation to his ethics, and Plato's political principles. Each theme could easily occupy a book on its own, and the accounts on offer here are aimed more at the interested than at the advanced reader. Nevertheless, the amount of material which finds its way into these pages is impressive, as is the narrative skill with which it is handled. Familiar names such as Kant and Heidegger rub shoulders with seldom remembered figures such as Pater and Nettleship. If the book carries its scholarship lightly to some extent, the scholarship is still very much there.
While Practical Philosophy readers may find much to detain them throughout the book, it is probably the chapter on Socrates that will attract them most. This is entirely understandable, and may prove to be a salutary experience. Lane seeks to be fair to the available sources, neither privileging nor dismissing Plato. We are firmly reminded of how little is really known about Socrates, and of the strongly conflicting opinions held about him even during his own lifetime. Posthumously, if he has not exactly been all things to all people, he has certainly been many things to many of them! (Proponents and practitioners of Socratic Dialogue may wish to pause over various interpretations of 'Socratic' which have seen the light of day over the past twenty-four centuries.) Furthermore, since he wrote nothing, the few facts about his life concerning which there is agreement take on a disproportionate degree of importance, and they have been debated long and hard. Did his activities help to move classical Greek culture in a key fact about his life was his death, and here again questions arise. Was it a supreme act of civic obedience, or was it more an act of despair?
The answer to these questions, of course, is that there is no answer. What is significant is that they continue to be asked. While both Socrates and Plato have evoked a variety of responses from their philosophical successors, very few have felt able to ignore them. That, perhaps, is the ultimate testimony to their importance.
(From Practical Philosophy)
Spinoza, a life
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001. pp. xiii + 406
ISBN 0-521-00293-1 (pb) £13.95/$19.95.
As Steven Nadler points out in the preface to this book (p. xi): 'There is so little surviving material, so little that is known for certain about the details of Spinoza's life, particularly before 1661 (when his extant correspondence begins), that we can only speculate on his emotional and intellectual development and on the more mundane matters that fill out a person's existence.' As if that were not problem enough, most of what actually is known about Spinoza's existence is mundane in the extreme.
The principal dramas of Spinoza's life (1632-77) come when he is in conflict with the authorities. In 1656, for reasons that remain frustratingly unclear, he was excommunicated by Amsterdam's Jewish community. In the last few years of his life he was attacked by Christian communities of the Netherlands for the views expressed (anonymously) in his Theological-Political Treatise. Between these times we often know little more about him than where he lived and the company he kept.
However, if his life was in the main uneventful, it was not unexamined. Spinoza reflected long and hard on the human condition, and his Ethics was a philosophical masterpiece, if a somewhat eccentric one. Taking its form from the conventions of geometry, in the manner of ancient philosophy it begins with metaphysics and ends with a vision of the good life. Nadler shows that while Spinoza is often thought of as leading a solitary and isolated existence, this was far from the case. He had contact at first or second hand with many of the major thinkers of his time and was widely read. While, therefore, the Ethics may have been a deeply personal philosophical statement, it can nevertheless be seen as quietly bearing witness to a number of external influences.
However, while historians of philosophy may be more interested in how the world in which he lived manifested itself in Spinoza's philosophy, those interested in practical philosophy may be more concerned with how his philosophy manifested itself in his life. Unfortunately the lack of available biographical information makes this more difficult to judge. It certainly seems that he led a very simple, if not frugal, life, and was a valued friend to many. He turned down an academic appointment, but the precise reasons for doing so are debatable. He made a living out of grinding lenses, but there is no agreement on why he chose to do so.
In the end, Spinoza, a life might have been better entitled 'Spinoza, a time and a philosophy'. Much of the 'life' contained here is speculative rather than assured, and some of the speculation borders on the idle. However, the picture Nadler paints of the intellectual life of seventeenth century Amsterdam (and in particular of its Jewish community) is vivid, and his outlines of Spinoza's works are helpful and clear. The portrait of Spinoza himself which emerges, however fragmentary, may also, perhaps, serve as something of an inspiration to those who seek to pursue the philosophical life outside of academic institutions.
(From Practical Philosophy)
Intellectual Impostures (second edition)
London, Profile Books, 1999
ISBN: 1861971249 (pb). 276 + 20 pp. £6.99
Every new philosophical movement is a divisive force. There is nothing novel about that. Many new philosophical movements are characterised by their opponents as meaningless or vacuous, while being hailed by their adherents as rescuing philosophy from oblivion. There is nothing novel about that either. Seen in those terms, postmodernism is just the latest in a long line of philosophical developments, and one whose true significance probably cannot yet be properly assessed. However, if it is too soon for final verdicts, it is not too soon for some interim judgements.
Sokal and Bricmont's book is an important one, and an important one to review. It has gained a widespread popular reputation, but that reputation can be misleading. It is often talked about as if it were a thoroughgoing debunking of postmodernism as such. It is not. Its target is a much more limited one. The authors' aim is to reveal the abuse of scientific terms and language by a selection of writers who can reasonably be termed postmodernist. That abuse is claimed to be such as to render portions of their writings literally meaningless. Those accused here are Lacan, Kristeva, Irigaray, Latour, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Guattari and Virilio. The specific charge (put on p. 13) is this: 'The authors quoted in this book clearly do not have more than the vaguest understanding of the scientific concepts they invoke and, most importantly, they fail to give any argument justifying the relevance of these scientific concepts to the subjects allegedly under study. They are engaged in name-dropping, not just faulty reasoning.'
There is nothing new in decrying standards of academic writing. It often seems to be an exercise in obscuration. And when, despite the best efforts of the author, its meaning is revealed, it often delivers far less than it seemed to promise. Here, however, the claim is that behind the postmodernist veil of obscurity there may sometimes be nothing at all. The most recent emperor on the philosophical block is more scantily clad than he would wish us to believe.
Because it does not (and does not seek to) challenge any of the tenets of postmodernism itself, this book is more a work of entertainment than one of philosophy. However, it is an entertainment with a serious purpose. After reading this, anyone tempted to slip the odd 'quantum' or 'chaos' into their writings should at least pause for second thoughts before doing so. More broadly, the book can be seen as a call for clarity in academic writing, and a demonstration of what may happen when it is neglected. Finally, it must also serve as a source of concern to postmodernists that so many of their leading figures have been revealed as (at least occasional) pedlars of gibberish.
(From Practical Philosophy)
Philosophy for Counselling and Psychotherapy: Pythagoras to Postmodernism
Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000
ISBN: 0333750985 (pb), 0333926242 (hb). 380+xiv pp.
The introduction of philosophical materials into the contexts of counselling and psychotherapy is an interesting and growing area of study and practice. From being seen (partly through its own choice of self-definition) as an abstract and remote subject for many years, philosophy is increasingly perceived as something having real relevance to everyday life. Those with even a smattering of knowledge of the history of philosophy will readily recognise that this is not a radical new development, but rather a rediscovery of what philosophy was always meant to be, and often succeeded in being.
Modern philosophical counselling, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon, and is largely the domain of those whose original expertise lies in philosophy. For such people, the combination of philosophy and counselling is achieved through the acquisition of the requisite counselling skills. This book is rather aimed at those moving, or wishing to move, in the opposite direction. What does someone with counselling skills do, who wishes to introduce philosophical perspectives into his or her practice? What Alex Howard has sought to do is to provide a substantial resource for such a person to draw upon.
The scope of the book is ambitious. As its subtitle indicates, it presents the insights which philosophy has to offer within an historical structure. Thirty-one individuals, two ancient schools, and postmodernism are covered. Each section consists of a number of elements. First there are the 'key points', the essentials of the philosophical perspective condensed into no more than half a dozen brief statements. Next come the 'applications', where the general relevance of the perspective to the counselling and/or psychotherapeutic context is explored. Again this is done a few brief statements. There is then a more discursive treatment of the perspective in question, followed by some questions and exercises to stimulate further reflection and suggest further avenues of application. Each section ends with a brief bibliography, which includes a list of useful websites.
Any history of western philosophy which occupies fewer than four hundred pages is bound to contain contentious statements and questionable compressions which it is possible to dispute. But philosophy is a disputatious discipline at the best of times. Furthermore, anyone who seeks to cover a broad expanse is bound to acknowledge that others may have greater expertise when it comes to individual areas within it. These seem to me to be facts of philosophical life, and I do not have a problem with them.
My main problems with the book are more practical than philosophical. If the aim is to produce a resource book for counsellors and psychotherapists who wish to have some knowledge of, and access to, philosophical ideas, why present the materials within a structure dictated by the chronology of the history of philosophy? Will it matter to any of the intended users of the book that Luther came before Hobbes, or Schopenhauer after Rousseau? I think not. And why are most of the chapters in the book dedicated to individuals? Isn't it the ideas that are important, rather than the names of the individuals which can be attached to them? I think so.
These problems would not be so intrusive if there were a helpful index enabling the book's users to track down the topics they were looking for. Unfortunately, the index is limited, and heavily weighted towards names. 'Happiness', a topic one might consider a likely one to be sought out, has a single reference in the index, to the section on Aristotle. This is despite the fact that Epicureanism, Bentham and Mill each have their own chapters. There is no mention at all in the index of 'self', although the chapter on Hume deals extensively with the topic. And so on.
I am pleased that the bibliographical section includes references to internet websites, which are becoming an increasingly valuable resource. However, for a book aimed at beginners it is a pity that few books other than primary sources are cited. It is quite a leap from a fourteen page introduction to Heidegger to Being and Time, and I think the citation of some secondary sources alongside the primary ones would have been helpful.
There is much of value in this book. However, unless counsellors and psychotherapists are prepared to work diligently through the whole book, I fear they may derive little benefit from it. In any event, I think that it is a mistake to structure a book aimed at such an audience historically rather than thematically. In fact, it is more likely to be of use to those who already possess a reasonable amount of philosophical knowledge who want to think more about the practical applications of that knowledge.
(From Practical Philosophy)
In the Dark Places of Wisdom
Shaftesbury: Element, 1999
ISBN: 1862046247 (hb). 288 + ii pp + map. £12.99
Peter Kingsley's writings have shed a great deal of new light on ancient Pythagoreanism and its influence on the history of early western philosophy. In this book he turns his attention to Parmenides (or Parmeneides as he suggests it should be spelt, and as I will spell it hereafter). Parmeneides has long been recognised as one of the key figures in Greek philosophy. Plato wrote a dialogue about him, and Zeno devised a set of paradoxes based upon his work. He is traditionally regarded as the first great exponent of monism, the idea that, ultimately, the world is a unity rather than a multiplicity, and that, therefore, ultimately, multiplicity is illusory.
The title of an earlier book, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic [Oxford: Clarendon Press 1995] gives a major clue to the kind of approach Kingsley takes to his chosen material. His argument is that the rationalist version of the history of western philosophy is simply unsustainable when it comes to looking at some of the earliest figures in it. This is not a new claim, having been given voice at least as long ago as E. R. Dodds' classic 1951 study, The Greeks and the Irrational [Berkeley: University of California Press]. Nevertheless, it is not as widely heard and understood as it should be even now. Early philosophers such as Pythagoras, Empedocles and Parmeneides are not to be thought of as prototypical Oxbridge dons, but rather as complex figures combining elements of the shaman, the lawgiver, the counsellor and the poet (amongst others) in different degrees.
It is also not often realised that when we speak of the philosophers of 'ancient Greece', we are talking not of a country but of a culture. Most of the important figures in the early history of philosophy came from areas outside modern Greece. The very earliest came from what are now western Turkey and southern Italy, and these are the two areas which feature most prominently in Kingsley's narrative. Parmeneides came from Elea (or Velia) in southern Italy, which was founded by colonists from Phocaea in western Turkey. The narrative seeks to unravel what ideas and practices the colonists brought with them which underlay and structured Parmeneides' philosophy. The picture and interpretation of his thought which emerges from this exercise is very different from the usual one. The monist is revealed as a mystic.
The story is interestingly told, and is certainly thought provoking. The book's one serious drawback is its style. It tends to be written in short sentences. Like this one. And this one. It can be irritating. Can't it?
(From Practical Philosophy)
Has Man A Future?
Nottingham: Spokesman, 2001
ISBN 0-85124-638-9. 154pp, £8.99
This book was first published in 1961, when the Cold War was in full swing. Not surprisingly, it is a product of its time. It was written with the clear conviction that a nuclear war of catastrophic proportions was highly likely within ten years unless something radical was done to prevent it. A lack of faith in most of the politicians of the day is evident throughout. Consequently, one of the principal themes of the book is that an international government of some kind is required in order to deal with the failures of national ones.
In the event, nothing radical was done, and the war did not happen. Like most people who predict the future, Russell was wrong. Those same politicians for whom he had so little regard somehow managed to get it right enough for armageddon not to happen. The same Kennedy and Khrushchev whom he berates for their lack of sanity managed to find enough of it to extricate themselves and the world from the Cuban missile crisis of the following year (although the fact that the crisis was of their own creation suggests that Russell was not entirely wide of the mark).
However, in a way things got worse rather than better. The major powers constructed even more, and more destructive warheads, and several more countries than he anticipated became nuclear ones. While there have been occasional moves in the direction of arms reduction, disarmament remains as distant a dream as ever. Judgements as to the success of the United Nations may remain mixed, perhaps, but it is no nearer to being any kind of world government than it ever was.
So, if Russell was so wrong, why bother to read the book? First, because intelligent people can be interesting without being right, and Russell’s mistakes should make us question our own assumptions concerning the future. Secondly, and more importantly, while he may have been a poor prophet, he was also a person of principle. His insights into the deficiencies and dangers of nationalism are as appropriate now as they were then, and his observations on the morality of war and weaponry deserve to be read by anyone interested in the subject (and, arguably, everyone else, too). In his own time, Russell stood against the establishment while being part of it, and served as a reminder that protest was not the sole prerogative of the young. More than once in his life, he was prepared to stand up and be counted, and to use his position to draw attention to his stance. One of his few speeches in the House of Lords, reproduced here, was against nuclear weapons. And Russell being Russell, his ideas are expressed with exemplary clarity and, even on this most serious of subjects, no little wit.
In addition to all this, the new edition of the book begins with a foreword by Johan Galtung, and ends with a special report prepared by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation in 1988 on the reform of the United Nations.
(From Peace News)
The Older Sophists
Indianapolis: Hackett 2001. pp. x + 347.
While naturally acknowledging the enormous erudition of Practical Philosophy readers, I nonetheless suspect that the name of Antiphon is rarely on their lips. However, a perusal of The Older Sophists reveals that he might reasonably be recognised as the first philosophical counsellor. It is said that he set up a private practice in Corinth at which he offered to alleviate the suffering of all those who came to him. Unfortunately, business was poor, so he turned his hand to public speaking instead. The case of Antiphon raises issues which affect philosophical counselling to this day. His gift, it seems, was largely a rhetorical one; he did not so much solve problems as attempt to persuade people that they did not really exist. If faced with a choice between making a client happy and helping a client discover the truth, he would, it seems, unhesitatingly choose the former. (Such a choice may also be a familiar one to contemporary philosophical practitioners.)
It is this idea that the sophists had (at best) a cavalier attitude towards the truth that has plagued their reputation up to the modern day, aided by a great deal of spin on the part of Plato. Their names almost serve as a roll-call of Socrates's protagonists in his dialogues: Protagoras, Gorgias, Critias, Thrasymachus and Hippias all feature here. Plato displayed the traditional hostility of inherited wealth towards those who had actually managed to earn it, and his prejudices have been extremely influential in the subsequent history of western philosophy. It is perhaps only amongst historians of education that the sophists have managed to achieve anything like a good press. However, it was not merely snobbery which led Plato to despise them. Philosophically, his absolutism found their (general but not universal) relativism difficult to stomach. Protagoras, perhaps the greatest among them, famously declared (p. 4) that: 'Of all things the measure is man, of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.'
One of the problems with the sophists (as was later to happen with the 'heretics') is that they are best known through the writings of their enemies. This means that what has survived is fragmentary, and generally presented in the worst possible light. (There are honourable exceptions: both Diogenes Laertius and Philostratus sought to give them a fair hearing.) One of the merits of The Older Sophists is that, so far as is practicable, it allows the sophists to speak for themselves. Unfortunately, in most cases they can now speak only in isolated sentences or passages which fail to give full effect to the variety and coherence of their thought.
This book, a welcome reprint of a 1972 work, will primarily be of interest to students of ancient philosophy. For them it contains much material not easily (or as cheaply) available elsewhere. However, it may also be recommended reading for at least two other constituencies. First, to those who read Plato, in order to provide the basis for a more balanced judgement of those whom he excoriates. Secondly, to contemporary philosophy practitioners to whom such as Roger Scruton have sought to apply, in a pejorative way, the label of 'sophist'.
Finally, for those who might find the title of this book puzzling, it may be helpful to know that the 'older' sophists are those who practised primarily in the fifth century BC. They are conventionally thus distinguished from the 'second' or 'new' sophistic movement of the second and third centuries AD.
(From Practical Philosophy)
The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell: the public years, 1914-1970.
ISBN 0-415-24998-8 (hb), 660 pp, £25.
In September 1961, at the age of 89, Bertrand Russell was sent to prison. He had been prosecuted for his involvement in the demonstrations against nuclear weapons organised by the Committee of 100. If a sentence of one week (reduced from two months on health grounds) was scarcely sufficient to make him a martyr, it was enough to cement his international reputation as a crusader for peace. That crusade had begun for him as early as the First World War, when he had been a conscientious objector. His pacifist activities then had also led to imprisonment (for several months in 1918). As he served both terms in Brixton, he was welcomed on his second visit as an old friend!
Russell led a remarkably full life, as these letters make abundantly clear. He was a prolific writer, whose works ranged from abstruse discourses on logic to popular journalism. He was an inspirational teacher, although his views sometimes made it difficult for him to find work. He was an inveterate traveller, nearly dying in China in 1921, and surviving a plane crash in Norway in 1949. He was an ardent lover, whose passions found their outlets in a string of marriages and a host of affairs. And, as this book makes clear, he was an almost compulsive writer of letters.
Peace News readers will find most to interest them in the first and last sections of the book (helpfully entitled 'War' and 'Peace' respectively!) which between them occupy roughly half its pages. 'War (1914-1918)' contains valuable insights into both the public and the private dimensions of pacifism during the First World War. Russell was an active member of the No Conscription Fellowship (NCF), which had been founded in November 1914 by Fenner Brockway and Clifford Allen. The NCF was the principal organisation serving to support conscientious objectors during the war, and Russell's correspondence details its operations and inner conflicts. What emerges very clearly is that, for Russell, it was always important to be not only opposed to the war, but also effectively opposed to it. This led him, then as later, to change his position from time to time in line with changing circumstances. What also emerges very clearly is the extent to which his objections to the war put many personal friendships under considerable strain.
In 'Peace (1955-1970)' there are fascinating revelations of the ways in which Russell worked tirelessly for peace across a number of fronts. His views on the dangers of nuclear weapons, and activities in both the CND and Committee of 100, are well-known and they are well-documented here. There is also much on the establishment of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and its activities. Few now seem to remember the international tribunal which it set up to investigate American war crimes in Vietnam, but it was an important experiment. Most astonishing of all, perhaps, is his correspondence with Jawaharlal Nehru and Chou En Lai during the 1962/3 Sino-Indian border dispute. At a time when the gung-ho pro-American popular press was dismissing him as senile, Russell was not only writing personally to both of the premiers, but also receiving visits at his Welsh home from their London representatives! His own representatives travelled on his behalf with quasi-diplomatic status. His name was sufficient reason to treat them seriously and with respect.
This book is a valuable resource, and Nicholas Griffin's running commentary on the letters helps immeasurably to place them in their appropriate contexts. However, his intentions are primarily biographical, and perhaps only those with a particular interest in Russell as an individual will be sufficiently tempted to buy it.
(From Peace News)
The Handbook (various editions: see below).
When is a book not a book? The Handbook of Epictetus (sometimes referred to by its Greek name of Encheiridion) is not a book by Epictetus (c 55-c 135), and it barely qualifies as a book at all. To the extent to which it is a literary composition, it is the work of Arrian (c 90 - c 180). A politician and historian, he studied with Epictetus in the early years of the second century AD. From his recollections of what he heard (when he must have been quite young), he composed the Discourses of Epictetus, four volumes of which survive. As with Pythagoras and Socrates, Epictetus committed nothing to writing, and the Discourses preserve something of the ad hoc quality of his oral teachings. The Handbook, on the other hand, is a distillation of the essential content of the Discourses, reduced to fewer than twenty pages in modern editions.
In P.E. Matheson's translation, The Handbook begins as follows. 'Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.' Later (in the same translation) come these words: 'For no one shall harm you, without your consent; you will only be harmed, when you think you are harmed.' Between them these few lines contain the practical heart of Stoic philosophy. The beginning of wisdom lies in recognising where our powers end, but the powers we have are sufficient for the attainment of happiness. The lines also possess a certain poignancy since Epictetus spent part of his life as a slave.
Of course, as a good Stoic, Epictetus afforded a rather narrower scope to those things which are in our power than would many other thinkers, ancient or modern. For him the hand of fate exercised a very powerful grip on the world, although his view was not so extreme as that of his probable contemporary Manilius who even attributed his belief in fate to fate! However, one of the pleasures of reading Epictetus (as with all of the great philosophers, perhaps) is that it is not necessary to agree with him in order to benefit from the experience. It is not so much how he solves problems that is important as the problems that he identifies as the ones which merit our attention. Seen in this light, he is in many ways at one with the existentialists in demanding that we reflect on the limits of our power. There is, indeed, a curious parallel between the former slave and Sartre who looked back on the Nazi occupation of Paris as an education in the nature of freedom. Let us hope that most of us can learn the same valuable lesson in less painful ways.
There are various translations of Epictetus available, many of them quite old. The most recent can be found in N. White, The Handbook of Epictetus, Indianapolis: Hackett 1983. The Matheson translation I have quoted here is in Jason L. Saunders, Greek and Roman Philosophy after Aristotle, New York: Free Press, 1966. The Everyman edition of Discourses (London: Dent, 1995) also contains The Handbook.
(From Practical Philosophy)