Philosophy is a funny discipline, like the areas it covers and the questions it attempts to answer, its boundaries are very obscure. So its study of course is a difficult thing to undertake. The first book I decided to blog about in the VSI series turned out to be Philosophy : A Very Short Introduction by Edward Craig.This book is structured around a few fundamental questions that any thinking individual who is able to perceive the depth of life beyond basic material needs, shall ask of himself and the world. The author presents in a manner eloquent if occasionally obscure as to how men of repute or those written about ( thus immortalized ) have attempted to answer these questions.
The book is organized as follows :
- Introduction : The Author speaks about Philosophy in general and how it is not just a subject of intellectual conversations or conversation among the acclaimed intellectuals. It can be the pondering and discussions that you and I face while doing the most menial of tasks. The book recognizes the mammoth nature of the task it undertakes and declares forthright that no one volume can ever hope to span the immeasurable breadth of Meta physics. However this thin work hopes to sow the seeds of inspiration for further reading and to bring to one’s attention the various well-recognized and time-tested ideas in the domain.
- What Should I Do ? : In this chapter the reader is exposed to the thoughts of perhaps the most familiar of philosophers, Socrates and then Plato. Socratic thought and Hellenic philosophy are two subjects which most literate people of the English-speaking World and indeed many of those who don’t speak it all, shall know something of. The author show us very small excerpts from Plato’s Crito. Despite my having some cursory knowledge of this period in the Greek School, Plato’s portrayal of Socrates is interesting to learn about. How he could have peddled his own dogmas under the guise of them being propounded by our Hemlock drinking friend is interesting. If you think how this shaped civilization it is even more amazing. From Socrates’ impending execution and his view on Ethics even in dire times to the idea that his views were not unique and even inconsequential at the time tells us that this part of philosophical history is not as esoteric as it seems ( a term the author uses with much gusto). Having being accused by the state of leading Young Minds astray with his speeches and discourse, Socrates accepts his fate when decided by those in power. His refusal to defy this clear travesty of justice earns him a special place in history books but begs me to ask the question whether this loyalty to one’s ethics and word is not irrelevant in death? But then the man believes in retribution and afterlife and what not. Perhaps his greatness can be attributed to the idea : It doesn’t matter if you say great things it matters that a great many hear you say them. I guess Aristophanes would agree. For anyone who wishes to ponder on the balance between the rational thing to do versus the virtuous, Plato’s Crito seems a good read.
- How do we Know? : David Hume takes center stage with his rather theological and yet for the age rational, line of thought. Homage is paid to the Scotsman for his being one of the foremost writers on the subject in the English Language. This chapter gets a tad annoying with an immense chronological and thus ideological leap. But the author’s concern is not to preserve the line of thought of the reader but rather to raise a question and propose how it was answered in Hume’s Of Miracles. This along with the Treatise of Human Nature argue in favor of the otherwise irrational assumption that things defying logic can exist if there are reliable, certifiably sane individuals who claim their existence. An idea which does seem preposterous but as the author puts it this all predates any real study into psychology and the selective rationality of humans, let alone the kind which the likes of Dan Ariely today preach. This is a tiresome chapter which left me with little incentive to read the works of Hume probably due to our conflicting stands on theology.
- What am I? : This is the first and only true deviation from the Western School of thought in this book. The conversations between the Indo-Greek king Milinda and the Buddhist monk Nagasena are up for display. The question being one of self-definition. The idea that a thing has its identity defined by what we choose to define it as or the attributes which we believe it is made up of. The idea of an object is not its components but their composition and recognition across a society of this arrangement that identifies that object. The idea of a soul + body to make the human form is floated and a small glimpse in Buddhist Spiritual and philosophical thought is offered. The arguments when you think about them with a clear mind don’t seem odd or even unique. The questions of identity are ones which we seldom ask, You don’t question a rock of its identity, you don’t ask why it is rock or why something else is not. The presumption of things being what we label them as, is one inherited out of convenience.
- Some Themes : Here is where things start to become decidedly advantageous for anyone planning to delve into the well-defined notions of meta physics. You are exposed to the syntax and jargon of Western philosophy:
- Ethical Consequentialism : The idea that morality and ethics are a function of ones circumstance. What’s the right thing to do always vs now.
- Epicurian Life : A pleasurable life by the absence of pain and troubles instead of desire satiation.
- Utilitariansim : Decisions are based on the utility they deliver or one hopes they will deliver, be good to others for they shall be good to you.
- Integrity : Commitment to a set of values irrespective of circumstance
- Political Authority – The Contract Theory : The trade-off between physical protection offered by the state versus allowing it to dictate its will upon its citizens.
- Evidence & Rationality : The idea that belief in something doesn’t necessarily make it true and gathering evidence for or against clarifies the picture.
- Self : What is it that we describe as I, is it the body, the mind, the soul, the sum of our experiences ?
- Isms : This to me was the most interesting part of the book offering general theories rather than the propositions of certain obscure men. Consequentialism, Dualism, Materialism, Idealism, Empiricism, Rationalism, Scepticism, Pyrrohnism and Relativism find mention here. These of course tied to the likes of Kant, Descaretes, Democrates and Pyrrho but reflect general thought schools of ages.
- General Notes : The shift to modern philosophy is nearly non existent in this book, the author even claims his reasons for not mentioning any philosopher of whom there might be a color photograph in existence. The nearest we get to the concept of modernity in our quest to understand the meaning, purpose and direction of life is via that of the European thinkers of the 18th and 19th century. Descarates seems promising with his much relatable hatred for formal education. His considerable prowess in mathematics and physics doesn’t fail to impress this reader as to the value in reading the man’s work. Hegel , Kierkegaad, Russell and Wittegenstein , names which have been intriguing in past texts but without background come up. Russell of course has captivated my attention briefly via Why Men Fight but that flirtation can hardly be considered a true attempt at understanding the wiry man’s genius. The conversation moves to Darwin and how he changed the entire scenario by his idea of evolution. Science and its enabling the understanding of our life shall definitely contribute to our perception of its purpose. Nietzsche comes next with his questioning of the truth of the truths and the foundations of morality and ideas. His insistence on questioning the very foundations of Christian thought marks him as an explosive thinker. The societal structure based on economics and polity and how it governs ethics is an interesting proposition. This man’s work definitely seems intriguing enough to invest a week or so reading and perhaps spend the next writing or reeling?
- Perspectives : The Individual, The State, The Priest, Women, The Worker, Animals and professional philosophers are offered as participants in the study of philosophy and its impact. These are the prime movers in most ideas. This segregation and its relation with certain works can help in the picking of material which is more inclined to one’s concept of what is centric to personal ideology.
- Bibliography : The author has covered a huge body of knowledge so there are tomes to list but he offers them well-organized as further readings. A good place to start I’d guess if you want to go into specifics or specific introductions. I’d however google the mentioned terms and authors and get a basic understanding before plunging into an all-consuming work of metaphysical thought which may demand a stamina one might not be capable of delivering.
The realm of philosophical thought is surely puzzling. As the book itself points out, meditations on one’s dining chair, commode, parked scooter or hanging drunk from a ledge of a college hostel, are all acts into the quest for meaning. The idea of these thoughts is not limited to understanding what is there, but why, how and other questions. No work thus can claim to be broad enough to span all of this. This one doesn’t either. With a strong focus on Western thought, that too particularly well celebrated ones, begets the question whether this is by any means is a true representation of the subject. A complete neglect of the Asian, African, American and Australian thinkers ( without a doubt there have been many) leads me to believe that consequential philosophy is not well covered in the book. Perhaps some would find the absence of Aristotle from the text also unnerving. Where as by its nature the subject claims to be independent of geography it is undoubtedly tied to culture and society. Perhaps more specific works, ( there are nearly 50 : here is the list.) relevant to philosophy shall cater to such needs. This book however manages to ignite a spark of curiosity in the reader to study the concepts it mentions and the people it applauds. Probably it would have been easier, more reliable and faster to read anything categorized as Western Philosophy off the internet. But with any OUP book you get the guarantee that even though the subject may not have been done complete justice, the language shall make the experience an enjoyable one.