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Pandora’s Book by David Birch
Steven Campbell-Harris is provoked by ideas.
Introducing a subject as unruly and multitudinous as philosophy is a challenging affair. After all, philosophers disagree even about its nature and scope. Some philosophers give a historical overview of canonical thinkers (for example, Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Reason or AC Grayling’s The History of Philosophy); others acquaint their readers with philosophical method (for example, Timothy Williamson’s Doing Philosophy); while others invite readers to ponder a few of the most intractable philosophical problems and wrestle with responses to them (for example, Nigel Warburton’s Think). Pandora’s Book (2021), subtitled 401 philosophical questions to help you lose your mind (with answers), is an alternative kind of introduction from philosophy teacher David Birch. The book is structured in two parts, but feels anarchic and wild, bursting at the seams and resisting closure. It doesn’t attempt to enclose or compress philosophy into a particular thematic structure. Its aim is rather to set thought in motion: to propel the reader into thinking for themselves. As Birch writes in his introduction, “To open the book is to invite chaos. Like Pandora’s box, its questions seek to release a type of mayhem. They are not mere irritations to be scratched away. Your answer to a given question is only the start of the process, not the end” (p.7).
In Pandora’s Book, Birch first poses his 401 strange and stimulating questions directly to the reader, all framed in yes/no terms: ‘When you eat a raspberry, are you eating its redness?’ ‘Do the borders between adjacent countries have width?’ ‘If there were a pill that eliminated one’s capacity to feel shame, would you take it?’ Since possible answers are restricted to a yes or no, we are confronted with a choice, compelling us to think. The second part of the book consists of ‘answers’ to some of these questions. These come in the form of passages from notable works of philosophers and literary greats, along with Birch’s commentary. While some passages directly address their question, others come at it sideways. Alongside excerpts from canonical figures of Western philosophy (Plato, Descartes, Kant, et al), we have the Marquis de Sade describing his philosophy of sex, anarchist Emma Goldman offering a call to revolution, and the ancient Greek historian Herodotus discussing different cultural practices for respecting the dead. Even the most ardent bibliophile and seasoned philosopher will uncover an abundance of material for thinking.
Cartoon © Alexei Talimonov 2022
The labelling of these selections as ‘answers’ is somewhat misleading – a sop to marketing – as Birch is keen to stress that they’re intended as starting points for exploration rather than the ends of our inquiry. Like Pandora’s box, there is no way to neatly pack away again what has been opened. ‘Chaos’ is an appropriate term for it. There is a danger in writing an introduction to philosophy that curation will produce demands for order and exclusion: the author will usually want to frame the subject in a certain way, which omits what lies beyond the frame. When imposed by an authority (the philosopher as expert) the answers may be treated with deference by eager initiates, but this may be too focused on the author’s own way of doing things, and too stifling of philosophy’s power to disrupt. Pandora’s Book foregoes the temptation to do much of the thinking for us, instead inviting the reader to become an active participant in the co-creation of meaning.
Pandora’s Book also offers a distinctive account of what philosophy is. Birch writes, “I am inclined to see philosophy as arising from a basic aspect of our nature, a thought-drive we possess, the cognitive equivalent to the libido. This thought-drive, call it the epinoia (epino-ah), is an irreducible instinct within us to question, wonder, challenge, probe, explode, shake, shatter, rattle, prod, flip, whip, stretch… in a word, to think. Whereas the libido seeks satisfaction, the epinoia, tireless and indefatigable, seeks the endless flight of thought. It craves problems, seeks perplexities, and shows no interest in sound conclusions or tidy answers” (p.5). Birch contrasts this view with those who argue that the goal of philosophy is wisdom. He writes, “Whereas wisdom is still (a statue of thought), the epinoia is fluid (a river of thought)… Her worth is determined not by the problems she solves but the new territories of thought she makes available” (p.6).
Birch’s idea of the epinoia highlights a puzzling tension in the quest for understanding. On the one hand, philosophers are often engaged in solving and resolving problems; in a search for closure culminating in the still endpoint of truth. On the other hand, they are likely to be dissatisfied with resolutions in their thinking, being determined to seek out new complexity and new problems. Birch identifies the ‘philosophical’ aspect of our nature with the epinoia, the drive for questioning, but our drive for resolution might be considered an equal companion to it. After all, why would we search in the first place if we didn’t think we could acquire conclusions along the way (albeit provisional)? Perhaps, in addition to our ‘thought-drive’, which compels exploration, we have a ‘truth-drive’, that presses us to seek closure. These drives seem to compete with as well as complement each other. They are the eternal yin and yang of philosophical enquiry.
Pandora’s Book is a lively and stimulating attempt at a different kind of introduction to philosophy. Birch is a playful and elegant writer, and it is a testament to his facility for provoking thought that I frequently had to close the book to venture down a rabbit hole opened by one or other of his questions. I would recommend it to all those who seek perplexity and the intoxicating dance of thought.
© Steven Campbell-Harris 2022
Steven Campbell-Harris is a philosophy educator and trainer at the Philosophy Foundation, London.
• Pandora’s Book: 401 philosophical questions to help you lose your mind, David Birch, Iff Books, 2021, £16.99 pb, 304 pages, ISBN: 1789045711