Berkeley tried the temples of doom

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
THE GREAT PHILOSOPHERS, A SERIES OF 12. Consultant editors: Ray Monk and Frederic Raphael, Weidenfeld Nicholson Pounds 2 each

The staggering success of Sophie's World showed up an unexpected readiness for accessible philosophy. In this new series, 12 academics line up to sustain the momentum from their side by providing short, lucid and inexpensive introductions to some of the great philosophers. But given the absence of a story-line, what exactly is going to pull in the punters this time?

In fact, the appeal of narrative is recognised by the accent put upon biography. We would expect this for Socrates, but in other cases the procedure of setting the philosophy within its life-context throws new light on familiar figures. David Berman's volume, for example, which deals with the experimental roots of Berkeley's empiricism, provides fascinating insight into the man behind the immaterial substance.

I was especially struck to learn of the experiment by which he had himself (almost) hanged for a while in order to see what kind of perceptions near-death experiences might involve. This volume could really lend Berkeley street credibility and goes some way to establishing him as the Indiana Jones of philosophy.

Again John Cottingham's account of Descartes' lucid dreams makes the argument in Meditation I for the dubiousness of sense-experience appear far less contrived. Elsewhere, however, the prominence of biography encumbers a sense of the independence and universality of philosophical questions. This holds especially of the volumes on Nietzsche, Russell and Turing, which make it harder to feel that the questions are our own and not just the property of rather tortured genius.

By far the most refreshing trait of the series is the original slant each author brings to his particular philosopher. Instead of trying to offer a sort of conceptual map of the philosopher's whole thought (a feat attempted by the Oxford University Press Past Masters series) a single theme is taken which serves as a way into the wider terrain. P.M.S. Hacker's book, for example, gives valuable illustration of how Wittgenstein's philosophical method can be set to work within a psychological context.

But Terry Eagleton's volume on Marx is the definite number one in the series (if we're into league tables). Secondary works on Marx easily overlook the humanism sustaining his critique of economic and political institutions. Eagleton redresses this, employing the choicest quotations to demonstrate Marx's underlying concern with the essential freedom and creativity of individual human beings. But the thematic approach is less effective in other cases. Derrida's discussion of Plato would have made a juicier subject for a book than his debate with the comparatively small-fry Levi Strauss (where in heaven's name is Plato anyway?).

The series goes some way to supplying stimulating secondary works which one can recommend to students with a clear conscience. The books should improve the cultural circulation of philosophy, by their style as well as their substance. Each volume is slinky enough to allow for ready concealment. Now who says philosophy can't be practical?

Titles include: A.J. Ayer by Oswald Hanfling, George Berkeley by David Berman, Derrida by Christopher Johnson, Descartes by John Cottingham, Hegel by Raymond Plant, Locke by Michael Ayers, Marx by Terry Eagleton, Nietzsche by Ronald Hayman, Russell by Ray Monk, Socrates by Anthony Gottlieb, Alan Turing by Andrew Hodges, Wittgenstein by P.M.S. Hacker.

Joseph Sen teaches philosophy at Westminster School.

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