The Uses of Philosophy

By Fearn, Nicholas | The Spectator, November 18, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Uses of Philosophy


Fearn, Nicholas, The Spectator


THE DREAM OF REASON

by Anthony Gottlieb Allen Lane, 20, pp. 480

Ever since Thales fell down a well while studying the stars, historians have been unable to resist poking fun at philosophers at the same time as paying tribute to their achievements. The more ancient the philosopher, it seems, the more ludicrous his teachings appear, and the easier it is to draw a portrait of a clown from the relics of a poorly documented life. Surveys of philosophy aimed at the layman have fallen, as philosophical ideas themselves often do, into either banality or absurdity. Against this, Bertrand Russell's achievement in his History of Western Philosophy was to condense the lives and works of the great philosophers without reducing them to the size of his descriptions. Anthony Gottlieb's account is a worthy, if belated, successor to Russell's - almost equal in its wit and erudition and perhaps even clearer in its even-handedness.

The traditional image of philosophy as a sort of `meditative science of pure thought' Gottlieb puts down to 'a trick of the historical light'. He takes as his starting point the metaphor coined by Russell himself, under which human knowledge is like a filing cabinet in which there are sections for maths, physics, psychology and so on, and a further section for things which we are not sure where to place. This section is philosophy, and as soon as its contents, in part, become more finely delineated, they are taken out of the philosophy section and gain a category all of their own. So that, as Gottlieb puts it, `Yesterday's moral philosophy becomes tomorrow's jurisprudence' and `yesterday's philosophy of mind becomes tomorrow's cognitive science'. The reason philosophy might seem useless, then, is that whenever anything becomes useful it ceases to be philosophy. Evolution occurs even within philosophy 'proper', however. For example, the view of Parmenides that it is impossible to think about things that do not exist is identified as a precursor of a problem that dominated much of 20th-century philosophy: that is, how do thought and language refer or link to the world? …

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