Book of the week: philosophy made sweet

21st September 2001 at 01:00

Zeno and the Tortoise: how to think like a philosopher
By Nicholas Fearn
Atlantic Books pound;9.99

The history of philosophy is often presented as though it were a museum of ideas. The theories of the greats are laid out before us and we are asked to marvel at their ingenuity.

But as so many of these ideas are well past their sell-by date, why should anyone want to devote time to wandering around such a museum? Why should we remember a medieval monk who believed that motion did not exist, it was just that objects reappeared at different places?

Nicholas Fearn's answer to these questions is the premise of his entertaining and witty Zeno and the Tortoise . The great legacy of these long-dead metaphysicians is not their theories and ideas, but the methods and tools they used to help craft them.

William Ockham's theory of motion may be bizarre, but he leaves behind a principle still used by philosophers today: in seeking an explanation of any phenomenon one should not postulate the existence of more entities than is strictly necessary.

Thales was wrong to say that everything is composed of water, but in seeking to explain the existence of all things in terms of a smaller number of simpler things, he introduced the method of reductionism which has been so successful in science.

And though Lucretius's theory of space has been superseded, his method of conducting thought experiments, by means of which he reached this false conclusion, continues to have its uses today. The intellectual constructions of these philosophers may have been faulty, but they developed some powerful tools to build them.

By making the philosophers' tools the focus of Zeno and the Tortoise , Fearn corrects the misleading impression given by most introductory texts that philosophy can be understood purely as a body of ideas rather than as a particular mode of rational inquiry. Each of the book's 25 short chapters sketches out one such tool.

This is not a dry textbook. Fearn's formula is to hook each chapter on an apposite and often amusing example and to throw in the most entertaining stories from the philosopher's life to help the medicine go down. The result is a smooth, sweet concoction that should tickle the taste buds of the most philosophobic of readers.

Julian Baggini is editor of the Philosophers' Magazine

  • Picture: William of Oakham believed motion did not exist
    • A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine

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