We live in a golden age for philosophy books that are accessible to a wide audience. In the pages of even quite short books, we can find new ways of reflecting on who we are and how we should conduct ourselves in the world, as well as learn more about the brilliant thinkers who trod these paths before us. Our philosophy editor Nigel Warburton talks us through some of the best philosophy books that came out in 2019.
Obviously I can’t read all the philosophy books that come out, but the ones that I’ve read have been really exciting. There’s been quite a wide range published and some excellent books. I found it quite difficult to choose just five, which is probably a good sign.
In these interviews I try to select books that I think will be of interest to a general reader, rather than somebody who’s an academic specialist in philosophy. There are books that have been published this year that are going to be important in their field, which are very much academic monographs. I haven’t included those. Philosophy publishing is broader than the area I’ve selected from.
But in terms of books that are designed to appeal to a wide readership—which don’t presuppose knowledge of philosophy or at least not extensive knowledge of philosophy—there have been some outstanding ones and we’ll get on to those.
I notice that two of the books on your 2019 list are biographies of philosophers.
I find myself attracted to biography in philosophy when it’s done well. I think we’re quite fortunate in philosophy that there are still quite eminent figures who haven’t had a definitive biography written about them, and as a result there are some really excellent biographies coming out now. Probably this is still the second wave after the huge impact that Ray Monk’s exceptional biography of Wittgenstein had. That must be nearly 30 years old now, but it showed how there could be highly intelligent, well researched biographies of difficult thinkers, that appeal to a very wide audience and put the philosophy in the context of an individual’s life.
I do always seem to find a biography that’s way above the threshold in these selections of the best books of the year, but that might reflect my own predilection for that form as well. Some people wouldn’t even see a biography as a philosophy book but, for me, I do like to understand thinkers in their context. Some biographical writing is intellectual gossip, of course, but some of it is incredibly useful in interpreting who people were writing against, why they were so motivated to write in a particular style, or at a particular time, and how the books and articles that they wrote are of their time and have subsequently been reinterpreted. Without some biographical context, it’s very difficult to weigh some philosophers’ work.
There are philosophers who you can read without knowing much about them, but I’ve always found that when you know more about someone, you understand better where they’re coming from, what they mean by what they say. It’s the same when I interview philosophers for Philosophy Bites, the podcast I make with David Edmonds. When I go back to reading the work of people I’ve interviewed, I feel I understand better when they’re being ironic, or whether they’re nitpicking or just very thorough. From the personality you get a sense of what the writing represents, what the positions they’re occupying really are, what they’re trying to achieve, and so on.
Let’s turn to the titles you’ve selected as the best philosophy book of 2019. As we’ve been talking about biographies, shall we start with the biography of Simone de Beauvoir?
Yes, let’s start with what I think is a remarkable book, Becoming Beauvoir by Kate Kirkpatrick. French existentialism is an obvious topic for biographers, because many of the French existentialists were living public lives—in cafés, in bars, in nightclubs. They had their love lives and kept diaries about them. They were politically engaged: in ‘68, they were out there in the streets, speaking from podiums. Many of them were also novelists and playwrights—think of Albert Camus. They’re attractive, interesting, active figures. They’ve got more going on in their public life than the typical philosopher who spends most of his or her life in a room writing, attending conferences, or giving lectures to students.
Simone de Beauvoir has been written about a lot, and this is certainly not the first biography of her. Her book, The Second Sex, is an important landmark in the history of feminism. But within a philosophical context, she’s written about mostly in relation to Jean-Paul Sartre. The usual focus is on the interplay between Sartre and Beauvoir, who had this very public, ongoing relationship. They began as lovers who decided to have an open relationship at a time, just before the Second World War, when that was considered deeply shocking. Sartre talks about their relationship being ‘essential’ and all the other ones around them as ‘contingent.’
“I find myself attracted to biography in philosophy when it’s done well”
There’s also this story that Sartre was the real philosopher and Simone de Beauvoir merely his companion. Although she was a brilliant writer, novelist and intellectual, some people have thought that she simply applied Sartrean existentialism and Satrean ideas to different social and political contexts, like politics, and in particular to the position of women. That is a myth that Kate Kirkpatrick debunks in this book. What she reveals—based on thorough research, including diaries and early writings of Beauvoir that haven’t been much discussed in English prior to this book—is that she’d already started thinking about some of the existentialist themes that are usually thought Sartrean some time before she’d met Sartre. So it wasn’t that she was just picking up Sartre’s ideas and applying them. If Kirkpatrick is right, the simple story that Simone de Beauvoir was following in the wake of Sartre is just implausible and possibly partly due to sexist assumptions.
What also emerges from the book is that the story of their relationship was more complex and less sexual than it’s generally portrayed to be. Physically it ended quite quickly, and they were not passionate lovers for their whole lifetime. They were great friends, but Simone de Beauvoir had other very intense love affairs that were extremely important to her. She lived with Claude Lanzmann, for example, and was in love with the American novelist Nelson Algren.
The story of her life is quite a complex one and reading the book makes you realise how easy it is to caricature someone’s life when you don’t have enough detail. If you only have a few titbits about Sartre and de Beauvoir’s relationship, it’s easy just to repeat those. Becoming Beauvoir is a good corrective. It’s also a very skilfully written book: it operates at a level that is intellectually high, but Kirkpatrick wears her scholarship quite lightly. It’s still readable and enthralling.
I found Simone de Beauvoir considerably more complex than she had seemed to be. Just to take one example: she personally replied to the thousands of letters that she received from women after writing The Second Sex. That’s not advertised. It’s not the kind of interaction with people you’d expect from a busy, famous intellectual. She was operating at a personal level as well as a public one.
So is it the case, then, that as a philosopher she should be treated alongside Sartre? Were they on the same level, it’s just that her work has been brushed under the carpet because she was a woman?
There was certainly sexism involved. To some extent, she played into it, because she helped boost Sartre by playing herself down. But she was a critic of Sartre’s existentialism. She wrote ‘Pyrrhus and Cinéas’ as an improvement on his existentialism. Oddly that book—or extended essay—has only recently been published in an English translation and was not widely known outside of France. In Becoming Beauvoir we get a more complete story of what she was doing philosophically, I think.
Sartre was a genius but deeply flawed in many ways, morally and certainly as a writer. Although he was awarded—and turned down—the Nobel Prize for literature, the majority of his philosophy is on the cusp of being intelligible. It’s not because it’s not well thought out, but he wrote a lot of the later work literally on speed. He didn’t revise it sufficiently, and didn’t really care to make things more accessible to the reader. So you get these lucid passages that are almost novelistic, and then suddenly you’re immersed in neo-Hegelian prose that’s like treacle.
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Simone de Beauvoir was certainly a better writer than Sartre, but she wasn’t as systematic a thinker, constructing an edifice of thought. Sartre was building a big system. So they’re different, they were doing different things.
Going back to the biography, this period in the 20th century—from the 1920s through to the 1980s—is a fascinating time in world history, particularly in France. That historical context also comes through in the book. But, for me, it’s primarily about relationships and their intricacies and problems. Simone de Beauvoir is not claiming to be perfect, you can very easily see her flaws. She’s a brilliant person thinking all the time about how she’s living, and the limits of her freedom, and it seems to be all there to sift through, because she kept such extensive notebooks and diaries. Many have been published, but there are more notebooks, which those published accounts were based on, which have further details. Kirkpatrick has researched those notebooks as well as the published ones. And so we get different levels of understanding. There’s a public persona, but there is more going on behind that public persona.
Kate Kirkpatrick quotes Simone de Beauvoir: “There’s no divorce between philosophy and life. Every living step is a philosophical choice.”
Great! She was living her philosophy and rethinking her philosophy in the light of experience. It’s a particular classical model of a philosopher, as someone who is trying to live and to understand the nature of human existence. Beauvoir was designing her life while living it, making a work of art out of her life. That’s what she was trying to do.
I’ve already mentioned Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein—Wittgenstein was another philosopher who lived his philosophy. He was very much in that mould of intellectual honesty, of living a pure existence—in his case never telling a lie. For Simone de Beauvoir, it was about having authentic relationships and exploring the nature of what it was for her to be a woman, what it was to be a free human being in a particular epoch.
For some other philosophers, the way they live and what they think about philosophically can be quite separated. Take the example of a lesser-known philosopher, Gottlob Frege. He was a brilliant philosopher of logic and on the side he was a virulent anti-Semite and racist. There’s no obvious connection between the two parts of his life whatsoever. Whereas with Beauvoir and Wittgenstein there’s a coherence in what they’re doing. Their life stories fit in with their philosophy. That is, I think, one justification for writing a biography of this kind of philosopher.
The book starts with Simone de Beauvoir’s early years and goes through her life chronologically. Kirkpatrick quotes Beauvoir when she was really quite young, writing in her diary about the “duality so often observed between the being that I am within myself and the being seen from the outside.” It’s this weird divide we all feel as we grow up, but I would never have been able to articulate it.
One of the ways of understanding the world for both Beauvoir and Sartre was to put it into words. They wrote a lot, wherever they were. Sartre even called his autobiography The Words. He saw himself above all as a writer, unrestricted by genres. That was his fundamental choice in life, above being a philosopher. There’s something of that too in Simone de Beauvoir. Her letters and autobiography alone amount to more than a million words. She’s all kinds of other things, but she’s a writer. That is the way in which she understands the world, by communicating it in written words, even if just to herself.
That said, if you look online, there are a couple of interviews with her on Open Culture and YouTube and it’s clear she was a superb speaker as well as a writer. She was a formidable and brilliant interviewee. There’s a level of seriousness in her conversation that you don’t often see. She was clearly an extraordinary person.
Would you definitely describe her as a philosopher?
I would. There are people who will say, ‘Well she didn’t hold an academic post in philosophy beyond a schoolteacher. What’s her system?’ Some people would say, ‘She’s a novelist, she’s an intellectual, she’s a feminist writer, she’s a social historian, she’s diarist, she’s a playwright, even. She’s all kinds of things, but is she a philosopher?’
It doesn’t really matter, because her ideas are philosophically interesting for sure, particularly her critique of Sartre’s existentialism, and the more famous The Second Sex, which is obviously hugely important, but dated in some ways. She knew she was writing for her time. She didn’t ever think she was doing something universal.
So in terms of her philosopher contribution, it would be to existentialism?
Her philosophical contribution is a refinement of Sartre’s existentialism. Existentialists are obsessed with freedom. Sartre wrote as if anything were possible: whatever position you found yourself in, you could always think yourself out of it. Beauvoir was far more subtle in her recognition of the pressures that constrain what people can do and be. She gets criticised today for not being sensitive to issues of intersectionality or that she wasn’t aware of race or poverty to the same degree as some writers now. But she was far more sensitive to the complexities of actual lives and how those shape the choices people make than Sartre ever was.
She said Sartre didn’t read much and even when he did, he didn’t seem to get the positions right. There’s a sense that he was a bit slapdash with his scholarship and just got on with his original ideas. Beauvoir is much more scholarly. She reads avidly and the list of books she read in her life is amazing, many of them in the original languages.
“She was living her philosophy and rethinking her philosophy in the light of experience”
Becoming Beauvoir is not just an outstanding philosophy book, it’s one of the best books I’ve read for a while. It’s of interest far beyond the narrow area of philosophy. Whether you love her or hate her, Simone de Beauvoir was a really significant cultural figure and it’s great to have such an interesting new biography of her.
There is another biography that came out this year that I wanted to mention in passing too. This was Clare Carlisle’s biography of Kierkegaard, Philosopher of the Heart. It’s very different in style—more poetic and more experimental. In a sense, she was trying to be a Kierkegaardian as she wrote about Kierkegaard. That was another interesting philosophical biography about an important figure published this year.
Let’s go to your next pick of the best philosophy books of 2019: Socrates in Love by Armand D’Angour.
This is a book that’s impossible to write, in a way. It’s a biography of Socrates, who refused to write anything down, as a matter of principle. Socrates felt that the written word was a bad thing for philosophy (and life) because although it looked intelligent, every time you asked a question it always gave the same response, whoever asked the question. Whereas if you spoke to somebody, you could adjust what you said according to who was in front of you. You could be more subtle and not waste time giving a complex answer to somebody who couldn’t possibly understand it.
Armand D’Angour has attempted to write the story of Socrates’s life using his knowledge of Classics and ancient history. He has analysed the sources that exist: largely Plato’s writings—his famous dialogues—and also Xenophon’s Socratic dialogues, which are quite different in style and present a different, slightly more ploddy Socrates.
D’Angour has managed to tell what I feel, as an outsider, is quite a convincing story about Socrates. At its heart is the idea that Socrates had a very significant female mentor figure. According to the story D’Angour tells, it’s very likely he had a love affair with Aspasia, who had been Pericles’s lover, and that she was the source of the character Diotima in Plato’s Symposium.
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Diotima is incredibly important in the Symposium, because Socrates talks about being told a story by her about the nature of love. It’s about how you move from falling in love with a beautiful individual—which in Socrates’s case would probably have been a beautiful young man—to admiring beauty in others, to admiring the concept of beauty. You move up what’s known as ‘Diotima’s ladder’ to admiring the nature of beauty, the nature of the good, and then bingo, at the top, is moral goodness. So somehow falling in love with a beautiful young person is a route to philosophy and the highest form of morality. It’s almost a kind of sophistry (which would probably be inappropriate for Socrates, incidentally). You could also interpret it as a moral story about not being too obsessed with the beauty of an individual, because you want to get beyond that to more abstract concepts of justice and goodness. These are not connected with the sublunary world of individual beauty, but with the actual concept of Beauty, the concept of goodness removed into the weird world of Forms that Plato—and possibly Socrates—believed to exist as the true nature of reality. In Plato’s analogy of the cave, the beauty of an individual is just the flickering shadow on the wall, whereas the Form is the abstract thing that lies behind it.
I found Socrates in Love completely fascinating. It’s a very readable book, even for somebody who doesn’t know much about philosophy. Whether or not he’s right about Aspasia, it’s still an interesting hypothesis.
That chapter about Aspasia is quite speculative.
It would be nice if it were true because it would make the most significant early philosopher—the man who has cast a shadow across the whole of Western philosophy—in some ways dependent on the ideas of a woman. Socrates is portrayed as the father of philosophy, but here’s a hint that maybe there was somebody who was a mentor to him who was a woman. Given the history of excluding women from philosophy, that’s quite an interesting story to tell. I’m sure it’ll fall on receptive ears, even if it isn’t true.
But Socrates in Love isn’t a work of fiction.
No, as I’ve said, it’s speculative but based on Armand d’Angour’s extensive knowledge of classical history, classical sources and Greek philosophy. It’s a reconstruction from the fragments, but inevitably with the classical world we are dealing with fragments. We’re lucky that the ideas of some thinkers and writers exist pretty much intact, but for most of the ancient world, we literally have fragments of their writing, which we piece together to try and tell the best story we can, given the many gaps.
As a book, Socrates in Love is great. It’s a very clever idea and it’s very artfully done. I found it a quick read, surprisingly, given it’s a book about ancient history and ancient philosophy. Those can often be quite difficult to follow, but this is an enthralling story and there are lots of rewards along the way, little glimpses of different places, different aspects of ancient Greek society and so on. It’s a very readable book and it’s admirable in all kinds of ways.
He’s also trying to overturn some of the conventional wisdom about who Socrates was, isn’t he? The obvious and undeniable one is that we always think of Socrates as an old man, but he must have been young once. But he also talks about how Socrates was quite physical, and served as a soldier into his late forties. And that he likely came from a more wealthy background than we’ve been led to think.
There’s a public story that it was convenient for Plato to tell about Socrates. That’s part of the theme of this book, that that story may not be entirely based on who the real Socrates was. There’s always that problem in ancient philosophy, working out who Socrates was—as opposed to the character that Plato created in his brilliant dialogues. Those are clearly artistically shaped for all kinds of reasons that suited Plato. It’s not as if he felt he was writing history in any sense that we would recognise.
I learned a lot from the book, including that bit at the beginning when a crane swings onto the stage, which is part of his analysis of Aristophanes’s comical presentation of Socrates in his play The Clouds.
Yes, I should have mentioned that Aristophanes’s play is one of our other sources, which has Socrates coming out of the clouds.
The basic driving force of the book is, ‘What made Socrates Socrates? Where did this guy come from?’ He’s quite a remarkable figure who pulled together all these bits of what we would now call pre-Socratic thinking, and emerged as this charismatic interrogator of assumptions. His reputation has survived two and a half thousand years and, to me, he is still one of the most interesting figures in the history of thought. Being able to fill in some of the details of his life, even in a speculative form, is really interesting.
To go back to your question about what kind of year it’s been for philosophy books for a second, it’s certainly been a good year for biographical writing in philosophy.
We’re now on book three from your list of best philosophy books of 2019, which has quite an interesting title, A Theory of Jerks and other Philosophical Misadventures. Tell me about this book.
This is a completely different sort of book. It’s by Eric Schwitzgebel, an American philosopher, whose blog, The Splintered Mind, consists of thousands of his posts. Some of those are included here. In a sense this book is just the tip of the iceberg of this philosopher’s public working through of ideas that really matter or really interest him.
What you get, cumulatively, is a glimpse of an incredibly fertile mind. I first came across Eric Schwitzgebel because he did an empirical study on whether academic philosophers—particularly ones teaching ethics—were morally good. He used criteria like how frequently they return their library books, or how late they are with their marking, things that he could find public data on. He revealed that ethics professors tend to be less morally good than other kinds of professors. So that was a fun bit of empirical research, but that then led him to speculate about why this might be and to reflect on the rationalisations or explanations of why philosophers in particular might behave differently from other people. That’s typical of his strategy.
Take the title essay of the book, ‘A Theory of Jerks.’ You think that’s just a joke, but he actually makes the jerk a philosophical category of interest. He’s not worried whether it’s just philosophy or not, he does a bit of psychology as well.
Here’s his definition of a jerk (from pages 4-5): “the jerk culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him, treating them as tools to be manipulated or fools to be dealt with, rather than as moral and epistemic peers.” So he actually comes up with quite a precise notion of what the jerk is. It’s partly a response to Aaron James, who wrote a book called Assholes: A Theory and Harry Frankfurt before that, who wrote a book OnBullshit. This all sounds like it’s just philosophers having a bit of fun writing about these categories, but Schwitzgebel then moves it up a level and says, ‘Look, there is this category of people for whom other people are always inferior.’
There’s been a prime example of this in British politics recently with Jacob Rees Mogg. He’s a politician who claimed that the people who died in the fire at Grenfell Tower were too stupid to realise they should have got out, even though the fire brigade recommended they stay in their apartments. To me, that’s somebody who culpably fails to appreciate the perspective of others around him and treats them as fools to be dealt with. There’s an unwillingness to recognise another’s perspective in its richness and complexity, faced with danger and not knowing precisely the circumstance of that danger.
Schwitzgebel also goes into how you might avoid being a jerk. He gives you the reassuring thought that if you start reflecting on whether you’re a jerk, you may not be a complete jerk, or you may have already started not to be a jerk. He talks about discovering one’s ‘degree of jerkitude.’ He has fun.
I love his iconoclastic approach. He never gets stuck on anything, he’s always moving on to something else. It’s a particular kind of mind he’s got and he’s selected 58 of these blogposts and edited them, not hugely but to some degree. The range is also interesting. A lot of the entries are about morality, broadly considered.
Is he an ethicist himself?
I don’t think he fits into categories very easily, though he certainly writes often on ethics. He’s a philosopher in the sense that Socrates was a philosopher: he’s somebody who challenges assumptions. His reaction to received opinion is to challenge it. So, for instance, Immanuel Kant is held up as one of the greatest philosophers of all time and is revered by many philosophers.
Schwitzgebel calls that into question with an essay called ‘Kant on Killing Bastards, Masturbation, Organ Donation, Homosexuality, Tyrants, Wives, and Servants.’ It’s pretty well known that Kant was a racist and he had absolutely obnoxious views in many areas, and Schwitzgebel goes through them at the start of the essay. Kant says masturbation is in some ways “a worse vice than the horror of murdering oneself.” Kant also thought a child that comes into the world outside of marriage is born outside the law and is therefore—and the implication is rightly—outside the protection of the law.
It’s a very short essay, but Schwitzgebel goes on to say that it makes him slightly suspicious of Kant’s arguments in his Critique of Pure Reason, which are pored over by scholars and thought to be so brilliant. He’s raising the possibility that they might be quite shoddy arguments. They’re so complicated, perhaps nobody can really follow them all the way through or hold onto them. There’s a sense in which maybe Kant is just giving you the illusion of getting what you want. He makes all kinds of promises, about what he’s going to deliver in terms of blending rationalism and empiricism and finding the rational grounds for morality and so on, but does anybody follow the arguments all the way through? Schwitzgebel is prepared to be the child in the story of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and question that.
It’s a really enjoyable book to dip into. I wouldn’t imagine anybody would read it from cover to cover.
I like some of the titles: ‘Should Your Driverless Car Kill You So Others May Live?’
Yes, the classic trolley problem question. It’s fun, but there’s a serious thought behind most of these pieces. Some of them are very short. What he does—and what the best philosophy does—is he makes you think. You don’t have to agree with him and you won’t agree with him on everything, but he’s provocative. It would be difficult to read one of these pieces and not start thinking about what your own views on a subject are.
There’s something about the tone he writes in. I can imagine a bigot writing a book like this and it would be dire. He’s obviously not a bigot. He’s adopting strong, controversial positions, but somehow he does it in a quirky, slightly weird way and I don’t find it irritating. There’s a persona behind it that is attractive, even though he’s sometimes saying some outrageous things. To me, it feels like you’re seeing somebody really thinking and it’s quite exciting to watch.
I only wanted to read a couple of entries before meeting you, to get a general sense of what the book is about. But I found it quite hard to stop. The essays are quite moreish.
It’s a philosophical personality that’s expressed through this book. Cumulatively there’s an effect. You get the sense that here is something you thought you understood and had a view on and he’s teasing you with it. He has an amazingly fertile imagination in terms of topics to write about. He seems to be able to find philosophically interesting material anywhere.
We’re now on book four of your best philosophy books of 2019. This is called Galileo’s Error and I noticed the author, Philip Goff, actually thanks you for the title in his acknowledgments.
Yes, I commissioned several essays from Philip for Aeon magazine about panpsychism, which is his particular interest, and we talked about his idea for this book a little before he pitched it to publishers. Panpsychism is the idea that, at some level, there is consciousness in all matter. This is a view which, on the face of it, seems absurd, but actually has several prominent defenders like Galen Strawson, for instance. He’s another thinker who seems to be adopting this view on the grounds that, although it’s seemingly implausible, it’s the best explanation of how we could possibly be both physical beings and able to have experience. Otherwise you get a gap: you can put together systems, but where does the qualitative experience come from? The argument of the panpsychists is that it was already there in the bits you put together, at a very low level. Somehow, putting those bits together in the brain of human physiology raises it to a higher level of consciousness. It’s not like something new comes in, it was there already. That’s the angle that Phillip takes.
The title, Galileo’s Error, is explained in the book. Galileo, as well as being a scientist, had a philosophical take on the nature of reality, which was that you could plausibly divide the world into things which you could describe in quantitative language—like mass or size—and things which were qualitative or sensory qualities—like colours, smells, tastes and so on. So you could explain, say, the redness of a tomato in terms of the interaction between the stuff which you could quantify, the physical thing out there, which wasn’t in itself red, and its relationship to the sensory system of an observer. I look at the tomato and it looks red to me because that particular combination of physical stuff produces this qualitative experience in me. That immediately divided the qualitative and the quantitative—and science focused on the quantitative. Galileo’s scientific universe was all about the stuff you could quantify.
The trouble is that that scientific approach, which focuses on what can be quantified—according to the story that Philip Goff tells—can’t possibly explain the qualitative stuff. He calls it a radical division between the physical science and the qualitative nature of experience. So the error in the title is of separating these things out and assuming that you couldn’t have qualitative aspects to the stuff that constitutes the universe. As he puts it (on p.23), “the problem of consciousness began when Galileo decided that science was not in the business of dealing with consciousness.”
“Reading philosophy books is partly about disagreeing with what is said so that you stay alive as a thinker”
What Goff argues is that panpsychism can provide a way out. It’s a different conception of science that will, in the process of changing our view of what the nature of reality is, also change our understanding of how we can possibly be conscious. The book makes the case for panpsychism, which, interestingly, the novelist Philip Pullman has also picked up. He’s quite sympathetic to the approach. It’s not a million miles from some of the things that he writes about in His Dark Materials and The Book of Dusttrilogies.
I don’t buy the story, and I don’t think Philip Goff is going to find a lot of converts to panpsychism. But he might find lots of fans for the book, because it’s very skilfully written. It takes into account a lot of different philosophical views. It covers many aspects of philosophy of mind and it’s very accessible for somebody who hasn’t studied philosophy before.
Also, for me, one of the interesting things about the book is that he speculates at the end about what that implications would be if you were a panpsychist. If you took this view of the nature of consciousness and reality, how would it change your moral view of the world?
When you think about the natural world, like a rainforest: for him a rainforest is teeming with consciousness. If you think value comes from consciousness, even though it’s at a low level, then trees have consciousness of a certain kind that gives them a certain value. Irrespective of their value producing oxygen, they have a value in themselves in the same sense that human consciousness does. So if you believe that human consciousness has a value then, depending how far down the scale you want to go, tree consciousness has a value. Even though it’s probably not the kind of reflective consciousness that we have, it’s got some of the things that we value built into its very nature.
That might be another attractor towards panpsychism.
But you don’t believe that?
No, I don’t believe it. He says on page one, line one, “We are conscious creatures embedded in a world of consciousness.” I think that’s far-fetched. He’s too ready to believe that the material account of consciousness won’t provide an adequate explanation of how qualitative experience emerges.
Whereas you think it will. Or does.
I think it’s plausible. It may be that we don’t have the kind of intelligence that could understand our own consciousness. It could be that we’ve got a limit on what we can understand somehow built in, that doesn’t allow us to understand that. Or maybe, like lots of things that we’ve come to understand, like evolution, there could be a breakthrough that allows us to reconceptualise what we are. I think it’s too early to resort to such exotic explanations as panpsychism.
But, that aside, I think it’s a great book. He has real skill at explaining philosophical positions in an entertaining way, so that if you read this book, you’ll know quite a lot about contemporary philosophy of mind and you’ll pick it up quite effortlessly. I doubt you’ll be converted to panpsychism. I certainly haven’t been. But I don’t think that’s a flaw in the book. He’s honestly presenting his view and it’s often easier to think against somebody, actually. As with the Schwitzgebel book, reading philosophy books is partly about disagreeing with what is said so that you stay alive as a thinker. He’s challenging you to think in a radically different way about the entire nature of the universe and what it’s made up of. That’s quite a big challenge and whether or not you accept it, it’s going to make you reflect on what you are, what matters, and what matter is.
He says in the book that 56% of philosophers are materialists, which seems on the low side.
It depends what you mean by philosopher. If you include everybody who writes about the nature of God as a philosopher, then that’s not a surprising figure. Or maybe it includes people who won’t sign a piece of paper saying they’re a materialist because they have some sophisticated philosophical position about consciousness where they’re not a materialist because they believe mind emerges through some kind of software and it’s not a physical thing in that sense. It might be about relationships between things. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be researched by science. I think if you asked the question, ‘Do you think that neuroscience is the best route to understanding consciousness?’ you’d get a much higher percentage, but I might be wrong.
Let’s get to your last book.
My last choice is not a book most professional philosophers will come across. It’s A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucius to Twitter by Andrew Hui. He’s a professor of humanities, not a card-carrying philosopher, which probably liberated him to write about something which is very prominent in the history of philosophy but gets largely neglected in philosophical teaching, which is the aphorism. We’re often told that philosophy is a matter of giving arguments, of presenting reasons and conclusions, of teasing out the implied premises and all the logic of building up a case. It might be system building, like Sartre or Hegel or Kant: one of these people who’ve got these grand systems. In the history of philosophy the aphorism is something quite different from that.
Andrew Hui actually captures this in something that could also become an aphorism. He says that, “aphorisms are before, against, and after philosophy.” ‘Before,’ in the sense that people like Heraclitus were writing aphorisms before philosophy. ‘Against,’ in the sense that it’s one of the easiest ways to attack philosophical systems, to come up with neat aphoristic intuitions about what’s wrong with them. ‘After’ is more controversial, but there’s a sense in which post-systematic philosophy, you can’t plausibly build up huge arguments. All you have is a lot of fragmented thoughts.
This is not an easy book to read from cover to cover, partly because each aphorism mentioned is capable of multiple interpretations. Every aphorism is an invitation to stop and think and there are a lot of them quoted in the book. Obviously he’s selected interesting ones, like ‘nature likes to hide’, which is a very famous one. You stop and you think, ‘What does that mean?’ And he talks you through some of the possible interpretations, putting it in context and so on, but there may be others as well. It’s very difficult not to engage with the aphorisms when you’re reading them. So that’s part of the joy of the book, that it’s very, very rich in thought-provoking, isolated thoughts.
“In my view, this book is groundbreaking. There should be a lot of other books about aphorisms because it’s such a rich area”
What the book also does is draw attention to this important aspect of the history of philosophy, which is conveniently omitted from most stories people tell, apart from when they get to Friedrich Nietzsche. Then they’ll allow that Nietzsche made some contributions through aphorisms, but they’ll still tend to concentrate on more prolonged passages in his writing.
The book’s subtitle is ‘from Confucius to Twitter’ and Confucius is the main non-western philosopher who appears in the book. Andrew Hui also zooms in on Heraclitus, the Gospel of Thomas, Erasmus, Bacon, Pascal—another great aphorist—and Nietzsche. So it’s very selective. There’s no Kierkegaard, who is one of the greatest aphorists in the history of philosophy. Wittgenstein only makes a small appearance very early on, even though much of his writing was decidedly aphoristic. “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent” is the famous aphoristic conclusion of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations break down into aphoristic comments at certain points, where a lot is left for the reader to piece together or to understand the significance of the particular points that he’s making.
In my view, this book is groundbreaking. There should be a lot of other books about aphorisms because it’s such a rich area. There’s an assumption in the way philosophy is often taught—in the West at least—that aphorisms are a quirky, awkward bit of philosophy that we’ll admit is there but we won’t focus on. I think it’s time other philosophers started thinking seriously about how aphorisms work. Are aphorisms part of philosophy? If they’re not, are you saying that you can restrict the ways in which people communicate? Because historically, an aphorism like ‘You can’t step in the same river twice’ has been more powerful than many complete works of philosophy. It’s certainly more generative of thought than many books. How do we deal with it? With Heraclitus we’re dealing with fragments, we don’t know the context, we don’t know what he meant. But with many aphoristic writers there is a sense in which the possibility of multiple interpretations is part of the reason they wrote in that more poetic style.
Going back to Eric Schwitzgebel, he’s got a rant against obfuscation in philosophy. It’s an interesting question, whether aphorisms are a form of obfuscation, whether they’re a barrier to understanding what the thinker really meant and force you to do a lot of work to try and understand it. But I think they’re different. I think you find obfuscation in a writer like Slavoj Zizek, where much of it is just a smokescreen. In contrast, many of the best aphorisms have the quality of great poetry. The interpretations of them are profound, or at least interesting and stimulating.
Hui does provide some historical context for understanding Pascal, and shows some of the richness of interpretation. But the book is just scratching the surface. Somebody could write a big history of the aphorism in philosophy. It’s yet to be done definitively. It’s weird that it hasn’t happened yet. This book is a start. It’s a particular individual’s take on some key aphoristic thinkers. It’s a really interesting and entertaining book and that’s why I’ve included it. It’s not a typical philosophy book, but it’s writing about something that is very important and deep and not discussed much in philosophy.
Aphorisms remind me a bit of ancient Chinese poetry, or even the lines of Sun Zi’s The Art of War. The complete absence of context gives scope for a kind of timelessness.
I think aphorisms present a problem for people who like their interpretations clear-cut. I’m torn here, because I think the clarity of someone like David Hume, who is harder to misunderstand than Kant or Hegel, is a great virtue. But I wouldn’t want to preclude the possibility of doing serious philosophy through aphorisms that are designed to make you think and offer different interpretations to different people at different times. I think we need to find room for a poetic philosophy that makes us think in a different way about the nature of who we are, what our obligations are, and other big philosophical questions—and not be too restrictive about the styles in which people write, because clearly for some people this unleashes huge creativity.
The other great thing about aphorisms is that they’re so portable—much easier to carry around than a pile of books. If you’ve got a good memory, you could remember thousands of them. And you can get them out at any moment: while you’re waiting at a bus-stop, or as you’re sitting on the tube. One little aphorism could be as nourishing intellectually as a whole book.
So to finish off, traditionally you always mention a few other books you’ve enjoyed during the course of the year.
I have to confess I like short books. I was a judge of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction last year and I was appalled by how long many of the books on the longlist for that prize were. Sometimes there was an unwillingness to edit and get to the point, a kind of laziness, I felt.
So this year there were a number of interesting short books published that didn’t quite make this list. I liked Angie Hobbs’s Plato’s Republic. Although it’s a Ladybird book, it isn’t a Ladybird book in the sense either of being a book for young children or one of those ironic Ladybird books about Brexit. It’s part of a new genre of Ladybird book—which I don’t think the public has quite latched onto yet—which is the Ladybird Expert Book. It’s 50 pages long, but roughly 25 of those are illustrations. So it’s a very, very short book which brilliantly summarises the main arguments of Plato’s Republic and engages with some of them. So I’d recommend that.
Another shortish book, a bit longer, about 70 pages, is John Sellars’s Lessons in Stoicism which is a neat introduction to Stoicism as a practical philosophy of life that you can live.
A quite old book, which saw a new edition published this year, is Quentin Skinner’s Very Short Introduction to Machiavelli. I thoroughly recommend that, it’s a brilliant book partly about another brilliant book. Quentin Skinner is a top historian, political philosopher, and thinker. Machiavelli’s The Prince, as well as his other writing, has to be understood in the context of Renaissance Italy and Skinner is authoritative on that, but also excellent at showing you the meanings of key ideas. So I think it’s the ideal companion to reading Machiavelli.
Lastly I wanted to mention a longer book that has only just been published: How to Teach Philosophy to your Dog, by the novelist Anthony McGowan. It’s shouldn’t be possible to write 300 pages on the whimsical basis of the author strolling around London explaining philosophy to his dog, but it works brilliantly because Anthony McGowan is an excellent writer.
Is it for beginners?
Yes, it doesn’t presuppose any knowledge of philosophy. It’s done with a light touch and a great sense of humour. It’s very well-crafted. It would be a nice stocking filler for Christmas. Another good stocking filler would be Stephen Law’s What Am I Doing with My Life? which gives a philosophical angle on a range of frequently asked questions on Google.
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Nigel Warburton is a freelance philosopher, writer and podcaster, and our philosophy editor here at Five Books. He is best known for his introductory philosophy books and for his podcast series Philosophy Bites. Featuring short interviews with the world's best philosophers on bite-size topics, the podcast has been downloaded more than 35 million times to date. You can read all the interviews he's done with other experts here. (Not all are about philosophy).
Nigel Warburton is a freelance philosopher, writer and podcaster, and our philosophy editor here at Five Books. He is best known for his introductory philosophy books and for his podcast series Philosophy Bites. Featuring short interviews with the world's best philosophers on bite-size topics, the podcast has been downloaded more than 35 million times to date. You can read all the interviews he's done with other experts here. (Not all are about philosophy).
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