2020 has been a great year for popular philosophy with many excellent books published. Here, Nigel Warburton, our philosophy editor and co-host of the Philosophy Bites podcast, picks his favourites and explains what he likes about them.
What’s 2020 been like as a year for philosophy books?
There has been a deluge of philosophy books, many of them excellent. Obviously, I haven’t been able to read all of them, but I’ve read quite a few and skimmed quite a few others. It’s been a very strong year for trade philosophy books. Many excellent books didn’t make my list as a result of that, which might have done in previous years.
How did you come up with your selection? What were your criteria for what makes a good philosophy book?
Well, I’m thinking about books for a general readership, outward-facing books, not specialist monographs published within the university world. I’m always drawn to biography, because I think that’s a very good way into ideas as well as contextualizing them. I think too often academic philosophy acts in a kind of vacuum, ignoring the circumstances in which books were written, to a large extent. Obviously, there is the history of ideas, where contextual information absolutely informs interpretation, but there’s a tradition in British philosophy departments, and in some American ones as well, of saying, ‘We can discuss Descartes without really knowing much about his milieu’ or ‘We can read Spinoza’s Ethics and work out what he said just by looking at his arguments.’ I feel it’s time to get beyond. Because biography is such a popular genre, these contextual studies, or books that have a historical aspect, come to the fore in trade books in a way that they don’t within philosophy departments so much.
We’ve been talking about the best philosophy books of the year for a number of years now: has there been anything new going on in 2020 compared to previous years?
One thing I’ve noticed is that the number of young women philosophers writing books has increased significantly in the last five years. This is reassuring. It’s possibly coinciding with more women being employed in philosophy departments. There is still a terrible imbalance, but there have been positive moves in that direction. This year, three out of the five books I’ve chosen are by women, but I could have chosen more. I think this is the first year that I could easily have chosen five books by women as my best of the year.
On that note, shall we turn to the first book on your best of 2020 list, which is The Philosopher Queens? This fits in both with what you were saying about liking biography, as it’s lots of mini biographies, and it’s also by two young, female academics: Lisa Whiting and Rebecca Buxton. Tell me what you liked about this book.
This is the book of the year for me. Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting are both graduate students in philosophy and they’ve co-edited this amazing book, which is basically the book that they wish had existed when they started thinking about studying philosophy. It’s a book that has 20 short essays about significant women philosophers. It’s skewed towards political philosophy and ethics, which is where their interests lie, but not exclusively, and it goes from ancient Greece to more or less the present day. It’s a selection of philosopher queens, women philosophers who’ve been neglected by mainstream curricula in philosophy.
It’s also an illustrated book, which is unusual in philosophy. Philosophy books with pictures are relatively rare; Hobbes’s Leviathan is an interesting exception with an amazing frontispiece. The illustrations are all portraits by Emmy Smith. They’re stylized and colourful, almost caricatures of the philosophers. Most covers of philosophy books, if they illustrate the people they’re about, are galleries of blokes with beards. It’s remarkable to see a cover of a book which is not only visibly all of women philosophers, but also including a significant number of women of colour. It’s quietly a radical book in its selection of the philosophers discussed. I think the illustrations make the point very nicely, a point that is made by the whole book explicitly, that there aren’t enough women discussed in philosophy, and there have been women that we could be discussing in the history of philosophy that have been neglected largely for sexist or perhaps political reasons.
The’ve got some excellent authors for these short essays and they’ve managed to keep them very, very accessible. So, for instance, there are short essays by two eminent biographers: Claire Carlisle, who is writing on George Eliot here, but who has recently written a biography of Kierkegaard; and Kate Kirkpatrick, whose brilliant biography of Simone de Beauvoir was one of my selections for best of the year last year. The quality of the essays is generally very high. They tend to be celebratory, they’re not as nit-picky as many philosophy summaries can be. It’s a very positive book.
“I’m always drawn to biography, because I think that’s a very good way into ideas as well as contextualizing them”
It was published by Unbound, which is a crowd-funding-based publisher, so it was made possible by supporters. I guess as a declaration of interest, I should say I made a small contribution and received a hardback book as a result of that. I love that they managed to get so many people supporting their project. That support and enthusiasm has continued after the publication of the book too. There has been huge interest in the press, particularly in France where they keep appearing on television discussing what they’ve done.
It’s just an amazing achievement and a really beautiful book. What I like about it is it’s a book to be dipped into. I guess some people will read it from cover to cover, but I tend to just dip into it. It includes thinkers who less frequently appear in philosophy surveys, like Angela Davis, an important civil rights activist linked with the Black Power movement. Most philosophy books steer very far from including Angela Davis. I think one of the best illustrations in the book is of her. It’s a beautiful, very stylized illustration of a black woman with an ‘Afro’ in the thinker pose. It’s everything that philosophers traditionally aren’t: a woman, black and young. She’s radical, and against the Establishment. As I’ve already mentioned, the pictures make the argument of the book very well and that image is one that shows well what they’re doing. This is a political gesture as well as an informative book. You could give it to any 16-year old who is thinking of studying philosophy and they’d get a lot out of it. I’m very happy to recommend this as my top choice of the year’s books. It’d make a fantastic present.
I’ve met four of the people who are illustrated and one that really struck me is of Mary Warnock. It captures something of her personality very well, even though it’s a kind of caricature of her, in some respects. Something in her expression just really is her.
I like a point they make in the introduction, that while you could “forgive people for assuming that men have been doing most of the philosophy” over the past 2,000 years, Plato himself had a different view.
That’s the title, The Philosophy Queens. It’s taken from the Republic. Plato wanted his republic to be ruled by rational, independent, well-trained philosopher kings, but he had a place for women in that republic. There could be philosopher queens, and women in the army. He wasn’t as sexist as many of his contemporaries. Somewhere philosophy went wrong in terms of how women were treated as sources of ideas.
They’ve got at least one Chinese thinker in the book as well, I noticed.
The difficulty with this kind of book is not seeming to be tokenistic. You have to recognize this is just a selection. There are many other selections. There are many women who aren’t here who could have been. I mentioned this selection was skewed towards political philosophy and ethics, but there is a really interesting phenomenon in the 20th century of very strong women philosophers in the philosophy of science. None of them make it in here. So that’s an interesting omission. I think it just reflects their particular interests as editors. Another book could be written with a completely different cast list which could be very strong. Whether they’ll do it or not I’m not sure.
Let’s go on to the next book in your best philosophy of 2020 selection, which is Emily Thomas’s The Meaning of Travel.
When I was sent a copy of this book, I thought I knew what it was going to be about, and it wasn’t quite what I expected. It isn’t just a philosophical reflection on what it’s like to go on a journey, it’s actually historically informed by what philosophers have done when they’ve travelled and what they’ve thought about.
Emily is herself addicted to travelling and has done a lot of it, including traveling across Alaska. That’s pretty amazing, and appears in the book. So, there’s a personal voice, a personal story, along with this really fascinating investigation of what travel has meant for a number of different philosophers and how it’s opened up new perspectives and unexpected ways of thinking. For instance, one that stands out for me is the meaning of mountains and why they might be attractive as places to visit. I’d never encountered the idea that the beginning of tourism to mountains coincided with views about mountains being God’s work and how that opened up a new way of appreciating mountains.
“It’s a good time to stop and think about what travel means to us”
She’s taken a series of topics from the history of travel, from the 17th century onwards, and showed why this is a really interesting and important area for philosophers to consider. The only other book I’ve come across previously about the philosophy of travel was Alain de Botton’s book, The Art of Travel, which is a much more whimsical, idiosyncratic book about the topic. Emily combines a personal voice with highly informative, well-researched glimpses of particular philosophical travellers. And she’s pulled off a really good book that is directed at the general public. It’s accessible and it’s entertaining, but also opens up interesting philosophical ideas. It’s very original. That’s one of the reasons I chose it. It’s not the book you’d expect somebody to write about the philosophy of travel – like a good journey it can surprise you. She’s also got a sense of humour; it’s not a heavy book.
It’s the kind of book that in other times you might have read on a long journey, but actually it might have greater success because of the inability of most us to travel at the moment. It’s a good time to stop and think about what travel means to us. It’s much more poignant now, when you can’t travel. You can think, ‘What have I lost? Those encounters with otherness, how important are they in life?’ And I think Emily Thomas makes a case, through these cases studies, that it’s incredibly important, and that we neglect it at our peril. There is going to be a huge cost, imaginatively and intellectually, for many of us by being confined in our country or in our bubbles.
Let’s talk about book number three on your list of best philosophy books of 2020, which is Cheryl Misak’s biography of Frank Ramsey. I have to say I’d never heard of him, so perhaps you could tell us a bit about him as well as the book.
My PhD supervisor Hugh Mellor, a Cambridge philosopher who died this year, was a huge fan of FR Ramsey and described him as Cambridge’s greatest ever philosopher. He made an excellent radio programme about him “Better than the Stars”. He ranked him above Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. This is a man who died very young – he was only 26. He was a genius – no question. He made contributions not just to philosophy but to maths, game theory, and economics. He was taken seriously as an extremely young man by John Maynard Keynes and Wittgenstein, neither of whom suffered fools gladly. He was 19 or 20 and they were talking seriously with him as an intellectual peer. It’s quite remarkable. They immediately recognized his brilliance. He had such a fertile mind that he spun off these short papers that 20, 50 years later suddenly became the focus for game theory discussions or injected life into debates about knowledge and belief in philosophy.
His contributions have had these afterlives, but unfortunately – and this gets back to the biography – they’re often highly mathematical, highly technical, and it’s not easy for a general public to understand precisely why he was so important. Because he was a polymath, they’re not just in one field, so very few people have grasped him whole. Economists latch onto one bit of his thought, game theorists onto another; philosophers another. What Cheryl Misak has tried to do is pull that all together in a biography, a book which is quite long for somebody who lived such a short life. She’s done something unusual for a biographer, which is to commission a number of experts to write a brief explanation of the key contributions that Ramsey made in that short lifetime. That’s an interesting decision. I’m not sure I’m completely convinced by it, but I’m not sure how else she could have done it. It would be very difficult for anyone to summarize all these contributions accurately, so it’s better, perhaps, to get a range of experts to summarize them. These are parts of the book you can skip, if you want.
Get the weekly Five Books newsletter
The biography as a whole is really interesting. Ramsey was very unusual. He grew up in Cambridge and the simplest explanation of how he came to be so clever is that his father was a mathematics don who gave him an excellent foundation in mathematics. He excelled at it as a schoolboy at Winchester College. He was an odd, very large child and then man and was very genial. He was on the left politically, involved with the Bloomsbury set and their ideas of openness in sexual relations. He got involved with psychoanalysis early on as well. He was an atheist, but his brother, Michael Ramsey, became Archbishop of Canterbury. He’s in this milieu of early 20th century Cambridge, which was a fascinating time with Bertrand Russell and Keynes and Wittgenstein around.
Amongst other things, he translated Wittgenstein’s Tractatus from German – having learnt German extremely quickly – and had intense discussions with him. He came up with a brilliant line about the Tractatus. The Tractatus famously ends with the line, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” That’s just saying that the things that he’s explained in the book are all that you can meaningfully say, that there’s a very narrow range of things that can be spoken about. All the interesting, important stuff is outside that, which is almost a mystical conclusion. Ramsey said, “What we can’t say we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.” Wittgenstein used to whistle all the time. He was into whistling Mozart as he walked down King’s Parade. So it’s a joke at Wittgenstein’s expense. The point he’s making is that you can’t show something that can’t be said. If it really can’t be said, it can’t be whistled either. The Tractatus is an attempt to whistle it, as it were.
It’s just remarkable that such a young man should be so clearly intellectually the equal (or perhaps even the superior) of somebody who’s been thought of as one of the most important 20th century philosophers. It’s so sad that he died so young. He got sick after swimming in the Cam and it’s possible he caught something there. He died pretty quickly of a fever, but it wasn’t clear exactly what he died from, possibly Weil’s disease.
Is Cheryl Misak herself a philosopher?
Yes, she’s a first-rate philosopher and she makes the case that as well as making contributions in his own right, Ramsey persuaded Wittgenstein to move in the direction that he later moved in—the later Wittgenstein’s concern with forms of life and the social context in which utterances were made, moving away from the more austere, logical Wittgenstein of the Tractatus. The discussions that Wittgenstein had with Ramsey were, she thinks, the triggers for that change. She backs this up with evidence too.
But the book isn’t just fascinating as a biography of this genius. There are so many interesting features of the Cambridge world in this period just after the First World War.
In the New Yorker article you sent me “The Man Who Thought Too Fast”, it mentions Lytton Strachey, the author of Eminent Victorians saying about Frank Ramsey that “there was something of Newton about him.” What does that refer to?
I think it’s the clarity of his thought and startling originality. He grasped where people had gone wrong and very quickly overturned disciplines which had been going in one direction. I think it’s a tribute to just how original he was. Amazing to think of somebody so young being compared seriously with Newton.
There are just so many absorbing aspects to the book. Lettice Ramsey, Frank’s wife, was an eminent photographer and later photographed Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Cambridge. The other bit that stayed with me about the book is that Ramsey’s mother was such a strong and interesting character. She studied history at Oxford and was a socialist thinker connected with the suffragettes. I almost wanted another biography just of her. It was very early for a woman to be studying at Oxford or Cambridge – I tend to think of Oxford and Cambridge as rather conservative, not radical places. It’s interesting to get a glimpse of the left-wing side of Cambridge between the wars.
Let’s move to Vienna now and The Murder of Professor Schlick. This is by David Edmonds and it’s about the Vienna Circle. Could you tell us why the Vienna Circle was important and what you like about this book?
The Vienna Circle was a group of scientists and philosophers who met regularly in Vienna to discuss the nature of meaning, trying to get clear about what we can meaningfully say. Wittgenstein was a major influence on them. They were extreme empiricists. They felt that many things which passed for meaningful statements about the world were in fact literally meaningless and shouldn’t be given much attention because they were untestable. They famously dismissed such utterances, often, as metaphysics.
This is most clearly evident in A.J. Ayer’s summary and interpretation of the core ideas of some of the Vienna Circle’s thinking which was published in 1936 as Language, Truth and Logic. Ayer was a very young man at the time. He’d been to Vienna and attended meetings of the Circle, trying to understand what they were discussing. He focused on some of the key ideas and then wrote this iconoclastic book where he said that basically—and this is the key idea of the Vienna Circle—any meaningful statement must be either true by definition (like two plus two equals four, or, to take the clichéd example, ‘all bachelors are unmarried men’) or else empirically verifiable or falsifiable. It’s a two-pronged test for meaningfulness, basically. If it’s neither true by definition nor is there any empirical test which could show that it’s either true or false, then it’s literally meaningless.
And when you apply this—as the Vienna Circle and various other people have tried to do—to areas of philosophy, it turns out that much metaphysics, where people reflect on the nature of reality, whether everything is one or whether being infuses the world and so on, turns out to be literally meaningless and not even any good as poetry, because it wasn’t written to be beautiful or rhythmic or whatever.
Members of the Circle shared respect for science, for logic, and for mathematics, and a keen desire to find the limits of what can be meaningfully said. It was a movement that had an immense influence on 20th century philosophy, not just because of Ayer’s dissemination of the ideas in Britain, but because with the rise of Nazism, partly because many of the thinkers connected with the Vienna Circle were Jewish, and partly because of the effects of the Anschluss and then the Second World War, the group disseminated around the world, principally to the UK and America and continued to have a strong influence there.
David Edmonds is my co-podcaster for Philosophy Bites and also a friend. He’s famous for an earlier book, Wittgenstein’s Poker, which is about a dispute that took place in the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club between Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. Wittgenstein was alleged to have shaken a poker in a threatening manner at Karl Popper and then stormed out. That book is a brilliant exploration of different people’s interpretations of that event and how the different people remembered it differently and what the significance of the conflict between the two philosophers was. That incident does re-appear in this book, and Wittgenstein and Popper are both important characters here as well. This latest book is a kind of broadening of the milieu, the context of that dispute. It’s quite complex in the sense there are many different intertwined life stories involved. Many of them have a similar trajectory and many of those trajectories don’t have happy endings.
What David has managed to do is combine the biographical and historical with the philosophical, without getting too technical. A lot of the philosophy of the Vienna Circle was quite hard core, but he doesn’t get bogged down in the details. This is a book that’s accessible to a general reader. He’s very good about making clear what the importance of the debates they were having was, what their limitations were, why they were or were not influential, as well as telling these stories which connect very strongly with the rise of Nazism, including the murder of the title of the book. Schlick was a major figure in the Vienna Circle, and was murdered by a young man with psychiatric problems, but there was a reaction by some people that actually the murder wasn’t such a bad thing. So, there’s a murder at the heart of the book, there’s the rise of Nazism, the melting pot of Viennese intellectuals, the sense of impending disaster that was evident from the political divisions within Vienna and the anti-Semitism and sympathy of many Viennese for the Nazi standpoint. It made Vienna in the 1920s and early ’30s both an exciting and dangerous place to be, where ideas really mattered. What went on in the coffee houses in Vienna wasn’t just idle chat, people were passionate about their beliefs. This is the world of Freud, it’s where Wittgenstein came from, Karl Popper too…
Who were the famous names in the Vienna Circle?
The key figures were Kurt Gödel, the mathematician—he was probably the most famous— Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap, and Moritz Schlick. They were inspired not just by philosophy but by contemporary physics, Einstein and his contemporaries. It’s really high-powered stuff. David has chosen a different route from Cheryl Misak. He hasn’t invited experts on the particular papers of the Vienna Circle to say why particular positions they took were important, but he’s given an overview, a flavour, and an assessment.
What’s odd is that it has always been recognized in British philosophy just how important the Vienna Circle was for understanding the way philosophy went in the 20th century in Britain and America and Australia and various other parts of the world, but there have been very few books covering this movement. There’s a recent book about the Vienna Circle, Exact Thinking in Demented Times, but not much else.
And the Vienna Circle’s ideas? What happened to them?
David’s take is that, ultimately, the core ideas of the verification principle in their strict formulation failed on their own terms. It’s not even clear that the verification principle itself passed its own test for meaningfulness. Nevertheless what he calls “the self-identifying merits of analytic philosophy”, such as its “meticulous attention to logic and language and the pursuit of clarity, the contempt for grandiosity, and the calling out of nonsense…suspicion of arguments that rely on ‘feel’ or ‘intuition’ over substance” – all these features of this iconoclastic movement and the way its members went about doing philosophy have certainly had an afterlife in academic philosophy and will continue to do so. The Vienna Circle helped foster a climate in which “they are so much taken for granted that they are virtually invisible”.
There are a number of tragic personal stories within the book as well. It’s like sad music. It’s quite a poignant book.
David Edmonds also has another book out this year, co-written with Bertie Fraser and aimed at a younger age group (9-12), called Undercover Robot. My kids really enjoyed it, and I think you wanted to mention it?
Yes, David has actually had two books out this year. I thought Undercover Robot, which I wanted to mention in passing, was excellent as well. It’s a story about an intelligent robot. It’s very witty with lots of in-jokes that adult philosophers will spot as they read this to their children.
We’re now at the last of the books of your best philosophy of 2020 selection. This is Metazoa by Peter Godfrey-Smith.
Peter Godfrey-Smith wrote Other Minds, a bestselling book about octopuses where he made the case that these soft, short-lived, rubbery animals are really like an alien life form. He’s an Australian philosopher who is also a scuba diver and snorkeler. He goes outside Sydney, dives a lot and observes carefully. Other Minds was a mixture of science, philosophy, and personal observations. He explained how the complexities of the octopus nervous system produce an animal that’s capable of complex behaviour even though it only lives for a few years, mostly alone. It’s an animal which learns a lot, which seems to have independent minds in its different tentacles, but has a very different sort of mind or minds from our own. That book is a philosopher’s take on that and it was brilliant.
This new book, Metazoa, is about animal minds and the birth of consciousness. It’s a much more ambitious book, because he’s talking about the whole animal kingdom and how nervous systems have evolved, the ways in which various animals act in the world, and how these have given rise to different sorts of consciousness. His central theme is sentience, the capacity to feel things, to have a point of view on the world, and he’s trying to understand how that emerges in the history of animal development and which animals might be said to have a point of view on the world. This is a kind of spoiler, but the surprising conclusion is that insects, and some apparently quite primitive aquatic animals, have this way in which they act in the world, in which they sense and react to stimuli, that justifies thinking of them as on a continuum with human minds.
Support Five Books
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.
What makes this such an interesting book for me is the combination of the first person and the more scientific and philosophical analysis. I’ve already mentioned that the author is a scuba diver. He’s brilliant at describing just what he sees, the patterns of behaviour of the animals he observes, whether they’re little worms or parts of coral, sharks, whales, or whatever. I found reading the book stimulated me visually. It includes some photographs, but the verbal descriptions are so evocative that they’re barely needed. It’s a bit like the way Oliver Sacks had a great capacity to describe as well as to reflect on things.
That first person description, while it’s delightful in its own terms, is also I think an important part of the argument of the book, because it would be hard to persuade anybody about the mind of an animal without getting a sense of how that animal encounters and moves around in the world. He’s such a brilliant, close observer of the way animals behave that this is completely convincing. And then he steps back and reflects, from a philosophical point of view.
He’s very opposed to the idea that minds are things which you can simply upload like computer programs, that they’re just about relationships between neurons that could be instantiated in some kind of other system. His approach is much more tied to the flesh of animals as it were, it’s much more intimately connected with evolutionary development and how neurones have developed, and how animals operate in the world, and how minds are connected with action and particular sorts of action, and the complexities of the nervous systems that develop, which facilitate survival in different environments.
So, he’d be sceptical about being able to upload your brain to a computer?
Yes, certainly with computers at the moment. He thinks that’s not a useful way of thinking about minds and consciousness. He’s approaching these issues from a completely different direction, as a philosopher-biologist-naturalist, giving an evolutionary account. But it’s a subtle one that, as I said, combines first person observation with findings from scientific research. He gives you some science, and he gives you some philosophy, but it’s all in a very palatable form.
One of the other things I like about his writing is that he doesn’t pretend he knows when he doesn’t know. He’s speculative, but still sceptical. He will speculate, for instance, on the way in which certain sorts of brains set up patterns of waves beyond the electrochemical reaction between individual cells. There are waves of electrical energy that pass across a complex system like a brain and he reflects on what the significance of that might be, but doesn’t claim to know, because the science hasn’t really determined that. He’s got sufficient humility not to claim things that he can’t substantiate, and you see him reflecting. It’s really interesting. It’s almost as if you’re witnessing an intelligent person grappling with ideas in front of you, rather than simply presenting the conclusion that he’s reached as an absolutely certain outcome about the world.
I’m sure some people will criticize him for selecting some animals to reflect on and not others, but he’s a unique voice within philosophy. There are few philosophers who have such an intimate knowledge of animal behaviour. He’s obviously biased towards marine animals, that’s his passion. And so he moves a lot faster when he gets to discussing animals on dry land. The real strength of the book I think is in the parts where we’re underwater.
It’s a great book. It doesn’t give you the last word, but it’s a book that makes you think differently about animals that you might have presumed to be more like little robots than they probably are. And he couldn’t resist including a chapter on octopuses. He’s passionate about understanding octopus behaviour. He’s not sentimental about them. He doesn’t think they’re smart in the sense that we’re smart, but it’s just that they have certain kinds of minds that are on a continuum with ours. He’s not claiming they’re super intelligent because they can solve some puzzles, but he suggests they might have nine minds, which is slightly weird, something like a central control system and then eight further minds, one in each tentacle. They act independently as well as in a coordinated way. It’s just such an interesting way of thinking about a different kind of mind from our own.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at email@example.com