This isn’t the time for an account of my higher education (a tale including a state college, a flagship university, and a Christian college, plus grad school stops at four different institutions, one of them twice), but I do need to zero in on one episode: the impulse, partway through, to change from grad study in literature to grad study in philosophy . . . so I could plunge even more deeply into the life and thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Yes, this was in the early 1970s, around the peak of the fascination with the Austrian genius that drew so many wildly different intellectual young people to read Norman Malcolm’s slim memoir of the philosopher and pore over the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations. In the end, I wisely decided against such a move (not that I ever abandoned interest in L. W.).
But that’s a story for another day. I mention it here because it leads to the book that is the subject of this column, Julian Baggini’s How to Think Like a Philosopher: Twelve Key Principles for More Humane, Balanced, and Rational Thinking. You see, during the time that I was considering grad study in philosophy, I had several conversations with professors of philosophy who were quite irritable when I talked with them about such a plan. Wittgenstein, they told me, was not a philosopher, whatever else he might be. Please note. They didn’t simply say that Wittgenstein was mistaken about this or that; he simply wasn’t a philosopher, period.
This turned out not to be explicable by the peculiar nature of Wittgenstein’s work and influence, but rather an extreme instance of a common phenomenon. Both from my reading over the years that followed, and my work with philosophers when I was an editor in reference publishing and then the editor of Books & Culture, I discovered that many philosophers held such views about this or that school of philosophy or this or that individual thinker. In short, there is no generic way of “thinking like a philosopher.” Hence my agita when I saw the title of Baggini’s book.
I first encountered Baggini in a novel by Alexander McCall Smith, who occasionally gives cameo roles to friends in his fiction. The book in question was from the series featuring the (fictional) philosopher Isabel Dalhousie. (Readers of First Things who possess a long memory may recall a piece I did on this series in the May 2007 print edition of the magazine, “Language, Truth, and Murder.”) The founding editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and the author of many books, Baggini is also in demand as a reviewer; you can regularly find his reviews in the Wall Street Journal, not to mention the Times Literary Supplement and other first-rate venues. And this new book, How to Think Like a Philosopher, comes from one of my favorite publishers, the University of Chicago Press.
The first of the twelve “Key Principles” Baggini wants to impart to his readers is “Pay Attention.” Certainly paying attention is a good rule to follow, whether while making coffee or reading former President Barack Obama’s banal comments regarding book bans. But this is pretty thin gruel. After reading this chapter, I took another look at the gushing endorsements on the back of the book: embarrassing stuff.
The “Key Principle” explored in the second chapter is “Question Everything (Including Your Questions).” I’ll quote my favorite bit here, so you can savor it too:
Another philosopher who was not as self-doubting as he should have been was Michael Dummett, a giant in the philosophy of language and also a practising Roman Catholic, unusual among his peers. Philippa Foot once asked him, “What happens when your argument goes one way and your religious belief goes the other?” He replied, “How would it be if you knew that something was true? Other things would have to fit with it”. . . . For Dummett, his religious faith was beyond question. Philosophical doubt stopped at the church door.
How does that song go? “Patronize Me, Baby.”
I don't think Baggini has earned the right to patronize Michael Dummett, not to mention “religious believers” in general, but it's particularly striking that he does so after telling readers to question their own questions, advice he fails to heed himself. A more accurate title for this book would have been “How to Think Like an Imaginary Generic Philosopher as Conceived for This Project by Julian Baggini.” But that isn't very catchy. One closing thought. Baggini begins every chapter with a quotation from Dostoevsky. I was baffled by this strategy, because there seems to be a flagrant contradiction between the anodyne advice Baggini dispenses and the sarcastic, twisty intelligence of the Russian novelist. If any reader solves this puzzle, I hope he or she will let me know.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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