Magazine article The Christian Century

The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone

Article excerpt

The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone

By Scott Samuelson

University of Chicago Press, 240 pp., $22.50

The word philosophy is derived from the Greek for love of wisdom--not knowledge, mind you, but wisdom. It is cliche to moan that academic philosophy is taken up with abstruse and perhaps insoluble puzzles--secular versions of wondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Perhaps the examined life is not worth it either. Why not study something practical instead of spinning your wheels on pseudo problems, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein put it? That is the suggestion philosopher Peter Unger drives toward in his recently published cannonade, Empty Ideas.

The Deepest Human Life is an elegantly written, impassioned, and sometimes disjointed plea on behalf of philosophy. Author Scott Samuelson, a philosophy professor at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa City, invokes poets, novelists, and theologians to defend the dialectical process that Socrates imparted, obliquely arguing that no matter who you are or what you are doing, self-examination will enrich your world and nurture "the deepest human life."

Seneca, one of the many thinkers to appear in these pages, taught, "He who studies with a philosopher should take home with him some good thing every day. He should daily return home a sounder man, or on the way to becoming sounder." If this does not happen, if the pupil only accumulates some knowledge or perhaps becomes an expert in intellectual jujitsu, he is wasting his time. Concurring with Seneca, Samuelson writes, "All ideas under philosophical discussion, in the end, must be judged on their ability to help us live well." For Samuelson, philosophical inquiry--intellectually probing beneath the floorboards of our basic assumptions--will help us live better lives by augmenting our sense of meaning.

The Deepest Human Life would be an excellent companion volume for anyone interested in a study of philosophy's greatest hits. It opens with a scintillating spate of pages on Plato's Euthyphro and Apology. As Samuelson reads these classic texts, the basic question the gadfly of Athens let loose was: Do you worship goodness or power?

Many professors claim to learn from their students while inwardly denying the claim. But the enchanting Samuelson takes us along to class with him in these lively pages. Unlike other members of the philosophers' guild, he seldom serves up an abstraction without an accompanying concrete example culled from in-class comments and student papers.

For instance, when discussing Immanuel Kant's moral theory, Samuelson informs us that for Kant, consequences are of no moral consequence. We cannot control what happens in the world. On the plane of right and wrong, it is only our intentions that matter. Having delivered this riff, Samuelson recalls a time when one of his students took him aside and asked, "with startling passion, 'Is it true what Kant says? Is it true ... that the consequences of an action are irrelevant?"' We then read that this ardent student was the mother of a young boy who died in an operation she had reluctantly agreed to--an operation that might have been required because of an injury inflicted by the boy's abusive father, to whom she was married.

One of Samuelson's strongest chapters is on the Stoics, those porch-sitting cogitators to whom St. Paul brought the good news of Christianity. …

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