Journey from Metaphysics to Manners on the Subway

By Kelly, Stuart | Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland), September 30, 2018 | Go to article overview

Journey from Metaphysics to Manners on the Subway


Kelly, Stuart, Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland)


oes philosophy have a nationality? DOn the surface the questions seems ludicrous. Philosophy is about eternal verities and a way of reasoning that recognises neither space nor time. But scratch a little and the ivory tower reveals layers and layers.

I studied during the period where there was a turf war between "Anglophone" philosophy - concerned with logic, deduction, questions of law and how to make language more like mathematics, the tradition of Locke, Hume and Russell - and "Continental" philosophy, which valued élan, rhetoric, subtlety and paradox. Even within that, there was the split between the French thinkers, such as Sartre, Derrida and Paul Ricoeur, and the slightly more uptight and difficult "Germans", such as Kant and Heidegger and Kojève. Oddly, nobody seems to talk about Spanish philosophy, or Latvian philosophy, or even Manx philosophy. That is one of the reasons why Julian Baggini's new book is so timely and so important. He has written, as a selfproclaimed "journalist-philosopher", a number of very good books indeed, but this, I would say, is his best to date.

You may have noticed that the list of the philosophers above have one thing in common despite their differences of opinion. They are all white, European men. Baggini shifts the focus to look at the philosophies of non-European cultures, and the results are well worth pondering.

His book begins with an examination of the Axial Age, and the idea that different cultures in different places came up at the same time with roughly the same moral grounding: either "do not do to others what you would not want done to you" or "behave towards people as you would wish them to behave towards you". From this kernel unfolds an enthralling complexity. Baggini is as much a sociologist of philosophers as a philosopher himself, and the ideas are engagingly twinned with various academic conferences and how the participants behave towards each other. Who gives deference? Who has a bit of a dustup? Who denies a difference between philosophy and theology? Who is, frankly, incomprehensible and pleased at being so - the old idea of the koan, the one hand clapping or the colour of the wind? At each encounter with non-Western philosophy, Baggini is alert to the problem that, broadly stated, to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. Certain ideas - karma, or mu, or xiào - are difficult to translate and Baggini admits that such concepts can be brought over but perhaps never wholly understood by those who are intrigued by such differences. There is a humility here which is commendable. To try to fit other philosophical traditions into our idea of "philosophy" is both arrogant and blinkered. There are always things to learn. …

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