Every year we ask our philosophy editor Nigel Warburton to recommend the best new books in the field. In 2022, his philosophy book recommendations include David Chalmers' latest examination of consciousness, a memoir of teaching philosophy in prison, and a biography of the ancient provocateur and original cynic Diogenes.
Has 2022 been a good year for philosophy books? Are there any particularly hot topics this year?
Last year there was a flurry of really interesting philosophy books, but I would say that, for me, there were fewer published this year. There was a huge amount of reading going on during the pandemic, which was wonderful for writers. But as the pandemic’s effects set in for publishing, I wonder whether some things got pushed back to next year, because I’ve already read several books that are contenders for the best of 2023. I just wish they’d been published at the end of 2022.
The book I’m particularly looking forward to is Sarah Bakewell’s book about the history of humanism, Humanly Possible, that’s coming out in March 2023. She wrote a brilliant book about existentialism, At the Existentialist Café, which was a group biography, a critical, engaged philosophical biography, and a book about Montaigne before that, but this is even more ambitious. It covers seven centuries of humanistic thought. It’s a hugely ambitious book but it’s done with her characteristic elegance and intelligence. So that’s a brilliant book.
Brilliant, our readers can get their pre-orders in now. But I think you did manage to put together a list of five philosophy books from 2022 that you would recommend. Maybe you could talk me through your first choice, How to Say No: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Cynicism.
This is a personal favorite. Diogenes the Cynic was a real character and this book, How to Say No, is in the Princeton series ‘Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers‘, which was commissioned by the editor Rob Tempio. These books have selections from great thinkers of the Classical Age, introduced by academics. You get a particular take and a curated selection of writing by them, which is brilliant. This one is my favorite so far.
Diogenes was Plato’s contemporary. When somebody asked, ‘How would you describe Diogenes?’ the response was ‘Socrates gone insane.’ As Mark Usher, the classicist who introduces him in this book demonstrated them in creative and often amusing or shocking ways, he showed as well as said, as it were. He famously walked around Athens with a lamp that was lit and when people stopped him in the marketplace and asked what on earth he was doing, he’d say, ‘I’m looking for an honest man in Athens and I haven’t found one yet.’
He lived a very frugal existence. He slept in a barrel—well, they say it was a barrel but it was actually probably an amphora—just outside Athens and had only a cloak as a possession. He originally had a wooden bowl to drink from as well but when he saw a boy drinking from a waterfall with his hands, he realized he didn’t need it and got rid of it.
He famously masturbated and defecated in public and defied other conventions too. At the same time, he was a cosmopolitan in the sense that he didn’t identify with coming from a particular place. When people said, ‘Where are you from?’ He’d say he was from the cosmos. So he was very provocative in the way he operated.
“When somebody asked, ‘How would you describe Diogenes?’ the response was ‘Socrates gone insane.’”
There are so many stories about him. One of my favorites was what he did when he was called a dog because of the things he did in public and how he lived, a bit like a wild dog. Some boys were teasing him and chased after him, calling him Diogenes the dog—which is what ‘cynic’ means it’s from the Greek for dog. His reaction was to lift his rear leg and piss on them. He was a comedian. Plato, in his school of philosophy, was a little pretentiously defining the nature of what a human being was as a ‘featherless biped.’ Most bipeds have got feathers; we are a featherless biped. Diogenes appeared at the back of the hall with a plucked chicken, waving it around saying ‘Here, I’ve got a man!’ as a counterexample to Plato’s generalization about what a man is. Plato then refined his definition and said something like ‘human beings are featherless bipeds with flat fingernails, not claws.’ It was just a very visual, performative way of doing that. That’s what I mean by saying he was a performance artist.
He was also one of the very few philosophers with a good sense of humor. Another famous story about him is when Alexander the Great came to visit him. Alexander had been taught by Aristotle and was interested in philosophy. He was very pleased to meet this profound thinker who managed to get by with almost nothing and made a virtue out of not needing anything, and not needing to abide by human conventions or the normal conventions of Athens. Alexander the Great said ‘I’m the most powerful person in the world at the moment. What would you like? I can give you anything.’ And Diogenes’ response was supposedly, ‘Could you move because your shadow is blocking the sun?’ Alexander the Great was then supposed to have said, ‘If I wasn’t Alexander the Great I’d have loved to be Diogenes’ to which Diogenes replied, ‘if I wasn’t Diogenes I’d have loved to be Diogenes too.’
Like a modern comedian, he made these fast-thinking quips which have got a degree of profundity about them as well. When somebody asked him, ‘what kind of wine do you like drinking?’ he said, ‘other people’s.’
Diogenes didn’t write; he was written about. In that sense, he was like Socrates. This book is a collection of the very few things written about him, together with other things written by Seneca and other people who were influenced by the Cynics. It has an excellent, very short introduction by Mark Usher that really gets to the point of what Diogenes did, why he was interesting and why he might be interesting to us today. I don’t know how tongue-in-cheek this is, but it includes his advocacy of the ‘less is more’ approach and Diogenes as an early de-clutterer because he got rid of all his possessions. So this book is quite light and often funny, nice as a balance to a certain sort of po-faced philosophy that takes itself very seriously. That’s really the essence of what Diogenes was, he was deflationary. A lot of the time, he was holding a mirror up to other people and saying, ‘It doesn’t have to be like that. Look how ridiculous you are.’ At the same time, Diogenes was embracing what would seem to us now a minimalist lifestyle that might make sense transferred to today. There is an important difference between needs and wants and we would do well to remember that. We don’t need that much to survive and live quite a worthwhile life, Diogenes thought, but we might want loads of other stuff and that’s the attitude we have to combat.
I briefly got interested in minimalist—’ultralight’—backpacking. Instead of taking a tent, say, you might take a single waterproof sheet and prop it up on your hiking pole. Instead of a jacket, you simply take your clothes off when it rains and pop them back on later, that kind of thing. The idea is to minimise the weight and bulk you have to carry, but some people take it to extremes.
It depends on where you’re doing that as to how feasible it is, but Diogenes did that kind of thing without worrying about what other people thought. In fact, he was probably the father of that way of thinking because he had one cloak. Most people have lots of clothes and he had just one cloak. I think he may have had a backpack, which he kept his bowl in, but then he jettisoned that too.
Yes, why carry what we don’t need? I think that’s great: lessons from an ancient provocateur. What’s your second recommendation from the 2022 crop of philosophy books?
It’s about another ancient Greek philosopher. The book is called Looking for Theophrastus and it’s by Laura Beatty. This was a tip-off from Sophie, the editor of Five Books, who’d read it and liked it. I don’t know if I would have come across it in my reading generally. Laura Beatty is principally a novelist, I think, she’s written two new novels, two biographies, and a travel book. The subtitle is ‘Travels in Search of a Lost Philosopher.’ Theophrastus was slightly younger than Aristotle and came to Plato’s Academy when Plato was quite an old man. Then, when Plato died, he traveled with Aristotle, and was involved in Aristotle’s non-philosophical projects looking very closely at the nature of the world: the biological world, the geological world and so on.
Theophrastus is probably best known for a book called The Characters. It’s not really famous amongst philosophers, although he was a philosopher. The Characters consist of descriptions of types of people in terms of their psychological patterns of behavior and so on, which seem very modern.
But what Laura Beatty has done is take the bare bones of his life—because not all that much is known about him—and made a literal journey through the places where Theophrastus lived and tried to understand more about him. She tries to find him. Some of that involves a recreation of what might have happened. It’s imaginative biography, in a sense, and it would have to be imaginative biography to get to a book that’s around 300 pages because there isn’t so much reliable evidence about Theophrastus. It’s fascinating because even though she never steps back and says, ‘this is what I’m doing,’ she’s scrutinizing everything in the style of Theophrastus. She’s trying to describe that particular way of looking at things, where you pay attention and discover things, she’s trying to show us that through her writing. When she arrives in Greece, for example, you get a very novelistic description of her own experience of what she sees. At first, I thought it was a bit overwritten, with this colorful description of the context. But then I realized what she’s doing is actually embodying that way of seeing the world, trying to be like Theophrastus and showing us the kind of close attention to detail that he had and that is the essence of his way of doing philosophy.
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He’s actually a bit like a modern philosopher that I really admire, Peter Godfrey-Smith, an Australian who writes brilliantly about octopuses and other marine life. His book, called Other Minds, about octopuses, is exactly that kind of concentrated, receptive engagement with the biological world. Through his description, he reveals more than just something neutral. He achieves a different level of understanding through that receptive attitude of somebody who wants to know, the curious mind—which is the source of philosophy, people being curious about the nature of the world. In Aristotle and Theophrastus’s day, it wasn’t so demarcated as a subject. They were intellectuals trying to understand their world with the limited equipment that they had: not limited in terms of intellect, but limited in terms of scientific apparatus, and the existing framework.
Peter Godfrey-Smith is doing something similar out there snorkeling, looking at cuttlefish and arthropods and crustaceans in the sea around Australia. These are supposedly primitive animals but aren’t, he’s paying attention to what their behavior actually is and through the description of the nature of their bodies and interactions with their environment Godfrey-Smith provides a very interesting take on the nature of other minds. An octopus mind can be very sophisticated. I think Theophrastus and Aristotle were forefathers of that way of thinking. This book is fun because Beatty in her own way is doing that as well in the descriptions of her travels. She has a receptive mind.
I love that because I suppose if you are trying to write about thinking from ancient times, apart from in very few instances, you have that problem of how you link together these various fragments. You can make a feature of the fragmentary nature, the way that someone like Anne Carson does, with If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho, or you can join the dots by doing it imaginatively and try and find the shape, right?
I don’t know what Classicists will make of this book. Maybe they’ll think, ‘this is just speculation, and a bit spurious, and it may not have been like that at all.’ But the speculation is hung on a framework of historical evidence and of his of Aristotle’s writing. It’s not the definitive story of what happened with Theophrastus, and it doesn’t purport to be. You can’t miss that she’s hypothesizing, it’s almost like a daydream as you go where Theophrastus went. Was he looking at this? Was he doing that? It’s openly speculative. It’s not trying to say this is how it really was, but I don’t see how else you could get into his world.
Well, that sounds great. Let’s move on to your third philosophy book of 2022, Reality+ by David Chalmers.
David Chalmers is probably most famous for the term ‘the hard problem of consciousness’. This is the problem of reconciling qualitative experiences that we have of the world with the strong likelihood that we are physical beings. How could material neurons give rise to such complex experiences as the conscious experiences that we have? That’s the hard problem. He’s also written on many other topics connected with the mind.
This book is meant for a general reader, but it has an original take that drives it. It introduces many central questions about philosophy, but it does it through the angle of virtual or enhanced reality, and the way that tech has taken us in the direction of the possibility of a Matrix-like existence where you’re in this created world that has been simulated by computers or some kind of machines to give us a very convincing illusion we’re living in the real world. The interesting angle that David Chalmers takes that is unexpected in some ways is that enhanced reality and virtual reality are real, in the same sense that anything else is real. This book is, I suppose, a response to the classic philosophical problem that René Descartes introduced in the 17th century in his Meditations. He’s trying to find out what he can know for certain about reality and he takes a skeptical position. He recognizes that his senses are fallible, they make mistakes, so they can’t be a reliable source of knowledge. Even more extreme, he recognizes that he could be in a dream. He can’t tell whether he’s dreaming or not. But even more extreme even than that, he could be the victim of an evil demon that’s constantly manipulating his experience. So although Descartes, who was a mathematician, thought that two plus two equals four, maybe it equals five and the demon is just deceiving him all the time. That seems to be a very deep degree of skepticism: how could we ever know that we weren’t being deceived by this godlike, very powerful demon, to create an illusory world? Descartes’s famous response is, ‘Well, even if that were the case, I would know that I exist, because there must be something that’s being deceived. And so whenever I think, I must exist, the controversial cogito ergo sum of the Meditations.
This book is, in some ways, a response to that line, because the modern successor of Descartes’s evil demon could be the creator of a Matrix-like virtual world that we find ourselves immersed in. What David Chalmers wants to say is that the reality that we seem to experience if we see a table in front of us is in some important sense real: it’s not an illusion. That goes against the Cartesian way of seeing those imaginary or created worlds. He gives reasons for this. He identifies five senses in which we use the word ‘real’ and four out of five of them are found in virtual worlds as well.
That’s only part of the book, but that’s the main thrust of it. He’s very clever because he’s managed to then rehearse many of the key arguments that you would encounter in most philosophy courses, but through that lens of virtual reality—although I don’t think lens is necessarily the right image, it’s a bit of an archaic technology to use…
Through the headset of?
Through the VR headset of created worlds. Yes. It’s an entertaining way of moving through philosophy and thinking about it. Even if you don’t agree with him, he leaves you room to disagree. It’s a very stimulating book in the way that it makes you think, because some of the key ideas are counterintuitive, some of the things he’s saying. But he does provide rigorous arguments to try and support those counterintuitive ideas.
It sounds stimulating, if it challenges one to formulate counterpoints.
It genuinely is thought-provoking (or virtual thought-provoking). It’s well-written too. Chalmers in some ways reminds me of Daniel Dennett, another major thinker who has a great capacity to make ideas interesting and accessible to a wide audience.
That brings us to title number four on your list of the best philosophy books of 2022, The Life Inside: A Memoir of Prison, Family, and Philosophy by Andy West.
This is a very different kind of book. It’s largely memoir, but it’s a bit like Looking for Theophrastus in that it’s partly constructed memoir because it’s about Andy West’s involvement with prisons. Andy is a teacher of philosophy in prisons but he’s also somebody who’s had a lot of family experience in prisons from the inside, because his father, his uncle, and his brother, have all spent time in jail. So he’s got an ambivalent attitude to prisons and I think his family said, ‘What on earth are you going teaching in prisons for? That’s another one that ended up inside!’ He has a particularly interesting take on all this.
The reason why I suggested that it’s partly fictional is that he discusses the sessions where he teaches philosophy to prisoners, but for reasons of privacy, he hasn’t revealed too much about the identities of particular prisoners and has openly produced composite case studies, as it were, of the kinds of thing that happen. He’s not purporting to describe exactly what happened, the exact conversations. But some of the things that prisoners say in the book absolutely ring true. He couldn’t have invented them completely, they’re drawn from his experience, though probably are mixed up a bit so you can’t just say, ‘that’s so-and-so, who was in for murder.’ It’s a really interesting book about teaching philosophy in this context. He replays some of the sort of sessions that have occurred, and it’s really fascinating.
It feels a bit glib for me to suggest that those in prison might be in a good place for philosophical discussions. But is this unusual circumstance one that forces one towards a certain strain of reflective thought?
It depends on the individual and on the prison. The vision of a quiet, secluded cell in which to study is not actually how it is for most prisoners, though some long-term prisoners may get that kind of treatment. In the shorter term, it’s overcrowded, it’s noisy and smelly, and people are liable to denigrate what you’re doing if you’re studying just as much as celebrate it. I think it can be very difficult for people to concentrate in those circumstances.
On the other hand, in a sense, prison has been presented to them as a kind of reflective break from the rest of their life, whether they like it or not, so people do reflect on their lives and on questions of morality and justice. What’s important in life, not least the importance of freedom, is made very clear to people in prison through experience.
Also, a lot of people are mixing. They’re stuck in there having conversations. Conversation is an important part of people’s experience in prison. From my experience of that—and from what Andy says and what other people have said to me about teaching in prisons—it’s great to have something to talk about. Sometimes a little prompt from studying an interesting philosophical passage from a book or article or a thought experiment can stimulate genuine, deep discussions that go far beyond the classroom because people are all thrown there together. They’re passing time and conversation is a good way of doing that. So I think for many people prison both is and isn’t a good place for reflecting.
“The modern successor of Descartes’s evil demon could be the creator of a Matrix-like virtual world”
There’s another book about this that came out this year that I wrote an introduction to. It’s a more academic book and it’s called Philosophy behind Bars by Kirstine Szifris. It’s based on her criminology doctorate. She visited two very different prisons, teaching philosophy within those prisons, and then reflected on the kind of dynamics of what she was doing in the different prisons and how that played out. So if somebody wanted a more detailed response to that question that you asked me, her book is great for understanding how prison isn’t just one thing. The kinds of prisoners that go to different prisons are different, the kinds of circumstances you find yourselves in from day to day are different, and what’s possible in terms of teaching philosophy varies from prison to prison.
There is actually a lot of philosophy taught in prison, which is great. It’s something got involved with when I worked at the Open University. Prisoners are very receptive, usually. There’s a charitable organization that is headed by a Five Books interviewee, M.M. McCabe, who recommended books about Socrates for us, too. She runs Philosophy in Prison, which helps to coordinate philosophy being taught in prisons.
A brilliant initiative. That leads us to our final 2022 philosophy book recommendation: Susan Stebbing’s Thinking to Some Purpose.
This book was first published in 1936 and has long been out of print. It was finally republished this year. Susan Stebbing was a very brilliant, hardcore, analytic philosopher, logician, and philosopher of science. She was amazing in that she was a respected contributor to philosophy in the 1930s, when academic philosophy was almost completely inimical to women in Britain. She was also a Humanist and head of the British Humanist Association, at one time, what’s now called, Humanists UK. Sadly, she died relatively young, in 1943 (she was born in 1885). Probably because she died during the wartime, her reputation was affected by not being part of that post-war recovery in society, and she got forgotten. When people talk about the important women philosophers of the 20th century, she’s rarely mentioned, the attention goes to Iris Murdoch, or Philippa Foot, or Mary Warnock—the next generations in the post-war period.
But as well as making contributions in the academic world, Susan Stebbing published this very popular book in the genre of critical thinking. She was committed to spreading the word about philosophy, and she thought that it was a very useful subject for everyone, particularly logic, because it helped people get their thoughts clear about the things that mattered most in society. She was writing this book well aware of the rise of fascism and where things were heading in Europe. In fact, it was published in 1938 in that nice turquoise, Pelican series of popular books. There’s a lovely addition to the wartime version: she didn’t write this but on the back it says, “For the Forces: When you’ve read this book, please leave it at your nearest post office, so that the men and women in the services may enjoy it too.” The idea is to pass the book around, that’s really important. I can imagine people had it in their back pockets (it’s a very thin book in its original form) and pulled it out when they were bored or waiting for something to happen, or in a bomb shelter.
It’s about avoiding the pitfalls of lazy thinking. As a disclaimer, I should say I wrote a very short foreword to this 2022 reissue of the book, though I won’t get any financial benefit if you buy it. (I was already paid a small fee.) One of the most feted recent books about thinking was Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Stebbing intuitively or from observation of how people fall into psychological patterns of error anticipated some of the themes of that book. She’s a forerunner, in some ways, of Kahneman, but she’s also—and this might be an obstacle for some readers—a very passionate and unrelenting advocate of strict logical thought. As far as she’s concerned, the clearest thinking is logically sound thinking where the premises are clear and true and you can deduce the conclusion. That might be a caricature, but she really, really pushes the need for clarity in the way that you think. She also pays attention to language and propaganda and things that are not strictly logical, but where she’s at her most strident, she’s talking about people making mistakes of logic or falling into fallacious patterns of thinking.
The essence of this book is in her preface, where she says, “I’m convinced of the urgent need for a democratic people to think clearly, without the distortions due to unconscious bias and unrecognized ignorance. Our failures in thinking are in part due to faults which we could to some extent overcome, were we to see clearly how these thoughts arise.” She says: “It’s the aim of this book to make a small effort in this direction.” So she doesn’t think that the book is going to cure this or stop the Second World War, but it’s a hopeful book nevertheless.
She’s a really good example of a public philosopher. She’s knowledgeable about philosophy, and she’s concerned to communicate her ideas. She’s in touch with reality in that she draws from lots of contemporary newspaper discussions and events that have happened in recent history. She’s rigorous, but she’s writing for autodidacts, of which there were many in the 1930s, so she explains what she means. I’m sure she had a bigger impact than almost any other philosopher of her time on general thinking by the population, because those Pelican books, apart from being handed round amongst the forces, were printed in large numbers and were relatively cheap. She took the trouble to face outwards from the world of academe to ordinary people. The book is not in the least patronizing in the way that she does it. That’s part of her humanism as well, the underlying drive is that human beings can be better. We can all be better, we can all do better than we are. Something that can, in a small way, help improve everybody’s lot, is if they’re willing to put in the effort to think about how they’re thinking.
This feels quite similar, perhaps, to what has driven your own career.
That’s probably why I like what she does. I am interested not just in thinking about philosophy, but in trying to communicate to a wider audience. I think that everybody is a philosopher to some extent, when they reflect on the meaning of life, what they ought to do and how we should organize society, and so on, and that the long history of philosophy and contributions by contemporary philosophers have something to contribute to those discussions. Not everything, but there are contributions to be made. In the tradition of focusing on critical thinking as something which could be of much, much wider use I wrote a little book called Thinking From A to Z that’s in the same area as this book. I also did an interview about the best books on critical thinking which, interestingly, had the widest readership of any of the interviews that I’ve done for Five Books.
It’s one of the most popular interviews that we’ve ever run.
Which makes the point that books like Thinking to Some Purpose have a huge potential effect on society. As long as they’re not claiming to offer a panacea, philosophers can really contribute to education in the general sense. What we need as participants in a democracy is people who recognize the difference between rhetoric and a good argument and are not swayed by surface detail but are able to analyze the way evidence is being used, counterarguments, implications, and so on. Those are exactly the sorts of things philosophers, if they’re any good, focus on. They’re not alone in that, but the subject encourages reflection.
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Was there anything else that you wanted to mention?
There were three other books that I didn’t choose, but that I would like to mention in passing. It should be obvious that not all public philosophy is about critical thinking. There were two books published this year that I think are contributions to public philosophy, which are really about how we live at the level of individuals trying to make sense of their lives. There’s Skye Cleary book—it’s got different titles in different places, but the American title is How to Be Authentic, which uses Simone de Beauvoir’s thought as a way into discussing, particularly, what it’s like to be a woman in the 21st century. That’s really a framework for discussing problems about how we live.
Then there is Kieran Setiya’s Life Is Hard, How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way, which, like Skye Cleary’s, could be thought of as almost in the self-help area. Like her book, it draws on great thinkers of the past and the present, to illuminate real problems that people have, and suggest ways that we can engage with them. And also there is Massimo Pigliucci’s recent book The Quest for Character which uses Socrates and Alcibiades as a way into discussing leadership qualities. So those are very different from the book Susan Stebbing wrote, which took the tools of philosophy and showed how they apply to analyzing arguments and the patterns of thought that people fall into, particularly in the area of political debate. Setiya, Cleary, and Pigliucci are more in the area of self-development, whereas Thinking to Some Purpose is, amongst other things, a contribution to political education and to citizenship education.
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