A Book of Pop Philosophy

January 31, 2010 § Leave a comment


The Pig that Wants to be Eaten (Baggini, Julian)

The Pig Philosopher? (Jeremy Bentham, by Henry Pickersgill, National Portrait Gallery, Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Julian Baggini is a descendent of sorts of Aesop, who used ludicrous talking animals to illustrate social morals; and also, in a way, of Gottfried Leibniz, who thought all human problems could be reduced to mathematical or logical terms, recommending that disputants in any field sit down at a table, take pens in their hands, and affably exclaim, ‘Let us calculate!’

Baggini believes that a certain kind of confusion lies at the heart of every philosophical dispute – a confusion that can only be resolved by identifying, isolating and disentangling the many variables involved. These disputes are huge, knotty balls of wool, all in a twist, and we can either tug away exasperatedly at any one thread that strikes our fancy, clucking in frustration when it exacerbates the problem, or patiently set about unravelling each knot by figuring out the main problem and pulling at the right point. The somewhat scientific procedure Baggini uses for the purpose involves what he calls ‘thought experiments’, inspired by sources ranging from Plato, Hume and Berkeley to Philip K Dick to such topical issues as abortion, the bribery-for-peerage scandal, and the use of torture in interrogation. The book is a ready reckoner of sorts for some of the hottest issues that have concerned philosophers and regular folks for centuries. Many of the issues discussed are ethical in nature, and the rest are to do with our sense perceptions, logic and language.

Interesting as the concept is, and pertinent as the issues undoubtedly are, the book doesn’t rise above the status of ‘pop philosophy’, just as Thomas Friedman is Pop Economics. It simplifies in order to explain. It isn’t exhaustive as a listing of philosophical disputes, nor is it comprehensive in coverage of any single issue. It doesn’t even go far enough into each argument, happier to provide broad-strokes sketches than detailed portraits. And most pertinently, it does not contribute original thoughts to any of the debates.

Unlike Friedman, however, Baggini tries very hard to not take sides. One possible reason is that he is merely trying to provoke thought – the best use for the book, by the way, is as dinner table family conversation, to introduce one’s pre-teen children to the complex construct we call reality. Another possible explanation is that unlike Friedman, Baggini is aware of the perils of passing breezy judgment based on simplistic treatment of a subject. The most cynical explanation, of course, is that Baggini knows that people have strong views on both sides of each debate, and he wants to sell to all sorts.

In that sense, he has written The Book That Wants to be Read – By All.

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