Is God sexy?;Book of the week;Book

18th June 1999 at 01:00
PHILOSOPHY: Basic Readings. Edited by Nigel Warburton. Routledge pound;40 hb, pound;12.99 pb

Philosophers are notoriously picky about introductory anthologies, but Julian Baggini has found one that manages to be both accessible and discerning

Philosophers have a peculiar problem with introductory books. Whereas scientists such as Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore can write for the mass market without much hand-wringing, our top philosophers on the whole remain sceptical of the value of packaging their subject for the unwashed masses.

Their resistance is usually defended in terms of the discipline's alleged difficulty. Philosophy is a very taxing, conceptually complex subject so, they argue, any book which is not sufficiently complex and taxing isn't an accurate reflection of what philosophy is. The best way to deal with such an argument is by counter-example, and Philosophy: Basic Readings provides just that.

Warburton has unashamedly set out to win the heart of the reader for his subject matter and has assembled a set of readings which present philosophy in its most attractive light. So we have readings on the "sexy" themes of God, right and wrong, politics, the external world, science, mind and art; not on epistemology, metaphysics, logic or the philosophy of language. These four elements of the subject (all traditionally seen as core aspects) are not so much missing as concealed - lurking in the background of much of the text. Warburton has chosen not to put the spotlight on them, perhaps so as not to frighten the reader.

Some might see the refusal to give due prominence to these central issues as cheating, but is it really cheating to hold back from the novice what is most difficult to master? No one would introduce physics or biology with the discipline's most arcane, technical and abstract branches, so why do so with philosophy? The purists will protest that this distorts the real nature of philosophy, but it only does so in the way in which a book on physics distorts physics if it isn't filled with complex mathematics.

Certainly, this means the present volume is not a thorough survey of all aspects of philosophy, unlike John Cottingham's Western Philosophy: An Anthology (Blackwell, 1996), which is as close to a definitive set of readings as we are likely to see.

But Warburton's selection criteria make his volume a better read. His goal is to weave together readings to give the flavour of a conversation - it is more important that the readings compel, and cohere with one another, than that the finished book contains all the readings from a generally accepted canon of core texts.

The quality and importance of the assembled names is also beyond dispute. Apart from the Ancient Greeks, none of whom was invited in, all the usual suspects are there: modern era giants such as Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hobbes and Mill; important 20th-century thinkers such as Popper, Kuhn, Wittgenstein and A J Ayer; and living greats such as Robert Nozick, Bernard Williams, Judith Jarvis Thomson and Peter Singer. One could gripe about some of the missing names, such as Donald Davidson, W V O Quine and Hilary Putnam, but as their inclusion would not have contributed to the volume's readability, Warburton was fully justified in leaving them out.

As an introduction, a well-edited book of readings such as this has several advantages over a monograph. To be presented with a range of voices and styles of argument is surely a more thorough introduction to a subject than to read the words of just one thinker. Second, original readings are almost always more enduring than secondary sources. You can return to these readings time and time again and continue to get something new from them. The same can rarely be said of single-author introductions. Third, original readings are a kind of insurance policy against the prejudices of the author. Warburton's introductions to each reading are refreshingly brief, which means the reader can come to them unburdened by the preconceptions an editor's interpretation can foist upon you.

Philosophy is almost always more subtle than brief commentaries suggest, and Warburton's anthology proves that these subtleties needn't put primary sources beyond the untrained reader's comprehension.

The book's most effective touch is the introductory chapter of four short readings on what philosophy is. It is embarrassingly hard to say in simple terms what our subject is about and why it matters. The extracts from Mary Warnock, D H Mellor, A J Ayer and Bertrand Russell dissolve the difficulty.

Together they show that philosophy is distinguished by its analytic approach to questions which are general in nature, and that its main benefits are the widening of our intellectual horizons and the clarity of thought that it brings. As an opening gambit, it is highly effective in whetting the appetite and firing up the reader's enthusiasm for the readings to come.

The quality of Warburton's anthology is surely sufficient to silence the doubters who continue to believe philosophy cannot be popularised without being deformed. Philosophy: Basic Readings has filled a long-running vacancy for an introduction to philosophy that can be recommended without caveat or qualification.

Julian Baggini is editor of 'ThePhilosophers' Magazine'

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