Thinking skills

12th May 2000 at 01:00
THE PHILOSOPHY FILES. By Stephen Law. Illustrated by Daniel Postgate. Orion Dolphin. pound;6.99 (pbk).

From September, a new critical thinking AS-level will be offered by the Oxford and Cambridge examinations board (OCR). It is the most visible signal yet of the Government's aim to promote the teaching of thinking skills in secondary education.

If this is indeed a sign of things to come, we can look forward to books such as this becoming standard issue in secondary schools.

Stephen Law's approach can be summed up as less reverence, more relevance. This is no grand tour of the history of philosophy and its great thinkers. Indeed, fewer than half-a-dozen philosophers get a name check. Instead, Law goes straight for what is really important - the arguments themselves. In doing so, he avoids the often embarrassing need of writers on esoteric subjects to show how their subject is "relevant" to people today.

The questions he deals with, such as "Should I eat meat?", "Where do right and wrong come from?", "What's real?" and "What is the mind?" are so obviously relevant to anyone who tries to make sense of the world that no such pleading is required.

Law's approach has given us a book with a pig on the cover, plenty of cartoons and Martians called Flib and Flob. It is much more of a genuine introduction to philosophy than the seemingly more serious efforts of writers such as Jostein Gaarder (Sophie's World) and Alain de Botton. Law gets stuck right into the same arguments undergraduates find themselves tackling.

Of course, there is much less detail, but whenever Law picks up on an issue, he touches al the key bases. This means each chapter clearly sets out the basic structure within which the debates can be taken to a much higher level. This is what makes the book so good for developing critical thinking. It's not about the positions people hold or the schools of philosophy they come from, but about how arguments work.

The philosophical integrity of the book at times makes it difficult. Law never pretends things are easy when they clearly are not. The witty cartoons, funny characters and occasional use of dialogues all help ease the way, but they are never used to disguise the complexity of the issues.

Law leaves the reader in little doubt that these are often open and unresolved questions and that he, too, is frequently baffled by them. This should not put readers off. As Law has said elsewhere, the dangers of children accepting what they're told uncritically are far greater than those of encouraging them to think for themselves and to accept a degree of uncertainty in life.

If there is one reason why you shouldn't rush out and buy this for every teenager you know, it is the prospect of embarrassing yourself in front of them. Few adults in our society have had much contact with philosophy. So when confronted with the puzzles and questions in this book, many will be unable to come up with a considered response.

It would be a good thing if future generations leave school without this deficiency. In the meantime, my advice is to make sure that if someone in your school or family has this book, you read it first.

Julian Baggini Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine

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