Question of time;Books;Secondary

5th February 1999 at 00:00
THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY. By Bryan Magee. Dorling Kindersley. pound;20.

A YOUNG PERSON'S GUIDE TO PHILOSOPHY. By Jeremy Weate. Dorling Kindersley. pound;9.99.

A recent correspondent to the Guardian spoke of the "overwhelming negativity" of his university philosophy course, of the "annihilation" of his enthusiasm and its replacement by a, "sense of utter futility", having been taught that "all the great philosophers were wrong".

Sadly, it is a common experience. But Bryan Magee was never one of those who needed to demonstrate his own cleverness by demolishing others. He never loses sight of the big picture.

Criticism is crucial, but it must be constructive. Magee constantly accentuates the positive. Ideas are built one upon another, and out of ideas comes creative action. His story shows how the pre-Socratic question of "What is there?" changed into the post-Socratic enquiry of "How ought we to live?" and on to the Cartesian concern for "What can I know?" In the process we see artistic and scientific enquiry coming into being.

This story is rooted in the ancients but it overtakes us, incorporates us in its telling and explains our present world. Without Locke, could there have been liberal democracy? Without Hegel, could there have been fascism and totalitarian communism?

And negatively, if it comes as a surprise that John Stuart Mill's 1869 treatise The Subjection of Women was the first book devoted to sexual equality since the idea was first mooted by Plato and Epicurus, it also shows the power of Aristotle and the schoolmen in damning the notion for centuries.

Jeremy Weate's book is a disappointment. Its aim is commendable but the form contradicts the content. Where Magee tells a story, linking the various components into a seamless tapestry, the Young Person's Guide to Philosophy is fragmented, almost as if it were intended as an example of postmodern, X-generation dysfunctionalism.

Not only are the various philosophers separated from one another and from their schools, but each opening paragraph contains as many as seven font sizes, with upper-case lettering for the first three lines and a medley of fonts for the red-lettered major quotations.

The editorial staff seem to have just discovered what a computer can do and are playing with it.

A pity. In both books the production qualities are otherwise exceptional.

Jack Priestley is a research fellow in Exeter University's school of education

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