A Return to Wonder: For Decades, Too Many Philosophers Spoke Only to Themselves-But Now They're Writing Original and Accessible Works for a Wider Public

By Derbyshire, Jonathan | New Statesman (1996), February 21, 2011 | Go to article overview

A Return to Wonder: For Decades, Too Many Philosophers Spoke Only to Themselves-But Now They're Writing Original and Accessible Works for a Wider Public


Derbyshire, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)


In 1997, the bookshop chain Waterstone's invited its customers to vote for the "Top 100 Books of the [20th] Century". More than 25,000 people took part in the poll, which was topped by J R R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. At number 41 on the list, squeezed between Watership Down and The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco's detective thriller set in medieval Europe, was Sophie's World by the Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder, a history of western philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Jean-Paul Sartre in the guise of a novel.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Sophie's World was an astonishing success: it sold over 30 million copies in 53 languages after its initial publication in Norway in 1991, and was adapted for the cinema and turned into a computer game. Since then, the general reader's interest in popular philosophy has grown enormously and the trend shows no sign of going into decline. Popular, too, are more conventionally discursive introductions to the subject and essayistic variations on it, such as Alain de Botton's bestselling updating of Epicurus, The Consolations of Philosophy (2000).

Neither Gaarder nor de Botton has held a university position, but it is possible for academics to be popular philosophers, too. A number of notable professional philosophers have, over the past decade, written original but accessible books that have impressed a readership beyond the seminar room. However, they have also attracted the suspicion of colleagues who find it hard to understand why one would want to address anybody but one's peers.

Conversely, the response of professionals to the work of amateurs such as de Botton has generally been hostile. Reviewing The Consolations of Philosophy for the New Statesman in March 2000, Edward Skidelsky accused him of promoting a "decadent" conception of philosophy that "can only mislead readers as to the true nature of the discipline". De Botton, he wrote, treated philosophical theories as if they were little more than "ointment we apply to soothe our various ailments". This was philosophy not as an inquiry into the good life, but as self-help. Speaking to the Independent last year, de Botton attributed such critical reactions to "snobbery". He pointed out that, "for the past 150 years, to be a philosopher meant to be employed by a university".

The professionalisation of philosophy and its contraction into an academic specialism remote from the interests and concerns of an educated public began more recently than de Botton suggests. A hundred and fifty years ago, thinkers and intellectuals such as John Stuart Mill and Leslie Stephen wrote on philosophical topics not for learned journals, but for general periodicals such as the Fortnightly Review and the Edinburgh Review. They were not academics writing for fellow professionals, but "public moralists", to use the historian Stefan Collini's phrase, addressing their fellow citizens.

Uncertainties of chronology aside, de Botton's general point stands: professional anxieties about the perils of popularisation are not new, nor is the hunger of the average reader for philosophical sustenance. Indeed, the two things are closely linked, because popular philosophy has often filled a vacuum left in the culture by professionalisation and academic specialisation.

In the late 1950s, Iris Murdoch, then still a philosophy don at Oxford, bemoaned the intellectual quality of public discourse in Britain. As philosophy becomes "increasingly a matter for highly trained experts", she wrote, "it separates itself from, and discourages, the vaguer and more generally comprehensible theorising which it used to nourish and be nourished by".

What replaced academic philosophy was often just as unedifying, however. In 1957, a year before Murdoch presented her diagnosis, the best-known philosopher in Britain was not the octogenarian Bertrand Russell, who by this time was more celebrated for his (sometimes crankily Utopian) political activity than for his philosophical work. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

A Return to Wonder: For Decades, Too Many Philosophers Spoke Only to Themselves-But Now They're Writing Original and Accessible Works for a Wider Public
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.