Know what I mean?

4th October 1996 at 01:00
Western Philosophy: An Anthology, Edited by John Cottingham, Blackwell Pounds 60, paperback Pounds 14.99

Jane O'Grady reads an anthology of philosophy for students. The word "anthology" in the subtitle of Western Philosophy is misleading. It suggests a more populist, less student-geared approach than is actually adopted.

The book is divided into 10 sections corresponding to ten orthodox philosophical categories. Even if, in true American style, the section on metaphysics is called "Being and Reality" and that on epistemology "Knowledge and Certainty", any concession to unscholarliness is belied by John Cottingham's crisp summary of the standard terms in the introduction to each.

At the end of the sections are "specimen questions" and suggestions for further reading. None of this adds up to something geared for the coffee-table browser. But how useful is the anthology for the student, at whom, presumably, it is aimed? The article introductions are exemplary. Those to the Kant extracts in the epistemology and metaphysics sections, for instance, lucidly and concisely discuss the rationality-empiricist divide (and the exaggeration of it), Kant's disagreement with Hume and Leibniz, and his attempted synthesis. In presenting Kant's struggles with the question of how knowledge is possible, Cottingham never loses sight of the immediate intuitive aspects of this problem, yet does justice to all the technical stuff about "synthetic","analytic", "a priori", etc.

Prefacing the extract from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is an incisive summary of Aristotle's main ethical insights; and an excellent commentary on Carnap's abridged Elimination of Metaphysics shows how exaggerated are claims about the death of metaphysics and indicates the continuance in current realist-antirealist de-bates of the problems that engendered such claims. This makes a welcome contrast to the way most similar collections tend to leave metaphysics in historical midair so that students are unsure of its contemporary status.

Unfortunately, however, this useful contextualising and cross-referencing of philosophical debate is too often confined to Plato and Aristotle, and to the 17th and 18th century which is Cottingham's speciality, with the odd foray into modernity and the Middle Ages. Obviously the science and methodology section is forced to include Popper and Kuhn, and similarly applied ethics has Judith Jarvis Thomson on abortion and Peter Singer on famine aid. But the epistemology section ends with G E Moore's 1925 A Defence of Common Sense, where it could usefully have gone at least as far as Gettier in 1963 on justified true belief. Still more regrettably, the mind and body section ends with an extract from Ryle's 1949 Concept of Mind, which is ludicrously to shortchange one of the most fascinating issues in current philosophy. However good on what it covers, therefore, this Anthology requires supplementation by a more up-to-date collection.

Jane O'Grady teaches philosophy to extra mural students at Birkbeck College, London.

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