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Jerry Goodenough reviews a book for beginners by Brenda Almond.
Whatever other crises British philosophy may be going through, lack of interest amongst the young does not seem to be one of them. Those universities which still maintain philosophy departments continue to find bright-eyed young people queuing up, eager to dip a toe in the waters of wisdom despite the fact that philosophy is taught in hardly any of Britain’s schools and has a pretty minimal presence in our general cultural life (Philosophy Now excepted!). A regular stream of introductions and guides to philosophy for the new undergraduate/intelligent sixth-former continues to appear on the shelves of our bookshops. And, as if this wasn’t enough, a surprise bestseller of last year, both in Britain and in many other European countries, was a philosophical novel aimed at teenagers. Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World was a serious and apparently popular attempt to cater to what Gaarder regards as children’s natural interest in philosophical questions. (See the interview with Jostein Gaarder in Philosophy Now No. 12)
Mention of Sophie’s World is not entirely out of place here for, although Brenda Almond’s excellent introductory book (first published in 1988 and now available in paperback in a new revised edition) is not a work of fiction, there is a certain superficial similarity between them. While Gaarder’s Sophie is the recipient of philosophically enlightening letters from a mysterious stranger, Almond’s first-person narrator (who should, according to Almond, be regarded less as the author than as “a Seeker engaged in a quest, asking questions which do not have accepted answers”) periodically receives philosophically enlightening letters from a slightly mysterious old woman called Sophia (sophia, as regular PN readers probably don’t need telling, being die Greek word for wisdom). But Almond’s epistolary device plays no great role in her text. It is not a plot-device to entice the reader, nor does it really make much of a contribution to the exposition of her Uiemes. Indeed, for much of the book the reader ceases to be aware of just who is supposed to be writing and Almond herself abandons Sophia for a substantial portion of her text before bringing her back in the closing chapter.
Nevertheless, this peculiarly insubstantial use of the epistolary device should not distract us from the many strengths of this book. For a start, it covers a somewhat wider range than many introductory texts. Almond (Professor of Moral and Social Philosophy at the University of Hull) begins with a general meditation on the nature of philosophical enquiry and this leads seamlessly via an examination of Socrates’ view of wisdom into a contemplation of questions of self-interest and morality. From here we move to more social and political questions, to an examination of justice. Libertarianism and communitarianism are briefly sketched, and die reader is made aware of the work of diinkers like Rawls and Hayek, Popper and Gramsci, abstract philosophical ideas being constantly related to actual social and moral problems such as the distribution of wealth, the morality of abortion, the status of the environment, and so on.
Next there is a splendidly clear chapter on the nature of reasoning itself which includes (via one of Sophia’s letters) a lucid little introduction to formal logic. (It is one of the standard complaints of those of us who teach philosophy that young people have very little grasp of formal reasoning and that many universities no longer regard courses in logic or critical reasoning as compulsory for philosophy majors, let alone for other students. It is not the least strength of Almond’s book Uiat its chapter on reasoning might persuade young people diat a little logic is not something to be afraid of!) Few introductory texts so deftly work in brief but helpful explanations of such logical concepts as syllogisms, truth-tables, modal logic and possible worlds widiout rapidly descending to a level of complexity guaranteed to put off the philosophically nervous.
From logic the book moves to the philosophy of language and meaning, and thence to the nature of mind. Finally, with the return of Sophia, we consider a return to grand philosophy, to a philosophy of value like Spinoza’s, and to post-modernist views of the philosophical enterprise like those of Richard Rorty. The book’s prose is generally clear and informative. Its structure, a single narrative tracking the enquiring mind of the narrator, helps to bring a sympathetic unity to the subject – we are not left with the impression that philosophy is a grab-bag of miscellaneous problems that no other discipline wants to tackle but rather with the belief that the philosophical enterprise is a reasonably coherent field of enquiry of its own.
If breadth of interest is one of the strengths of this book, it is not entirely purchased at the expense of shallowness. Each chapter succeeds in raising a number of interesting questions about the topic covered and floats a number of solutions, offering the enquiring mind further avenues of exploration. It offers little that is substantial or original in its solutions to problems; rather, like all good introductions, it is cleverly calculated to leave the reader both hungry for more and with a menu of further options available.
Where Sophie’s World seemed dedicated to breathing life into the history of philosophy, showing the relevance of the great thinkers of the past to the problems of today, Almond is equally concerned to give the philosophical newcomer a taste of the cutting edge of modern philosophy. Thus the chapter on language, for instance, includes references to the thoughts of Chomsky, Skinner, Wittgenstein, Saussure, Quine, Frege, Russell, Strawson, Kripke and Putnam, as well as more classical thinkers. The chapter on thinking about the mind moves from references to Derrida and Foucault through a consideration of some of Donald Davidson’s views to mentions of Turing and Ryle. Such widespread coverage cannot, of course, be at all profound but it does at least sketch out some of the richness and diversity of contemporary analytic philosophy. And the range of Almond’s references indicates a salutary lack of narrow-mindedness; if much of her book can be placed squarely in the centre of the Anglo-American analytic tradition, there remain plenty of informative and sympathetic links to contemporary continental trends, not least in her final chapter on postmodernism.
The book comes with a substantial bibliography and, more importantly, each chapter is followed by a short but helpful guide to further reading. And finally Exploring Philosophy, as you might expect from a work where author, narrator and letter-writer are all female, is admirably nonsexist and so might do something to correct the still tooprevalent notion that philosophy is primarily the domain of crusty old men like myself. Reasonably priced, it is a book that could usefully be circulated among older schoolchildren as well as new undergraduates for it can do nothing but good in persuading them that, as Sophia writes in her last letter here, philosophy is “not an esoteric discipline, but the common endeavour of the human race to understand and come to terms with its own perilous, fragile and ultimately ephemeral existence” and so is a worthwhile and attractive field of study in its own right.
Exploring Philosophy - The Philosophical Quest by Brenda Almond is published in paperback by Blackwell at £9.99. (ISBN 0-631-19485-1)
© Jerry Goodenough 1995
Jerry Goodenough is a research postgraduate and part-time tutor at the University of East Anglia.