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Zeno and the Tortoise by Nicholas Fearn

Adam Carter browses through Nicholas Fearn’s introduction to philosophy for bartenders who wear baseball caps.

Zeno and the Tortoise is a large, crafty bag of brilliant tools - Ockham’s razor, for example. Hume’s fork – an academic arsenal of philosophical weapons that are keen for slicing and stabbing through the slippery profoundities of day-to-day decision-making and right into the middle of dinner-party conversations of which you would have otherwise been left out.

With a grade-school like reptile on the cover, Zeno and the Tortoise is not for the PhDs and third-year grad students. It’s a book for the bartender who is sick of hearing those fancy professors stroll in and schmooze for hours about Descartes and Nietzsche, leaving him out of the conversation because he didn’t go to college and wears dirty ball caps. Philosophy, as we know, can be a condescending gig, and because it generally takes years of schooling in the Western intellectual tradition to hold a five-minute conversation on the subject, philosophical chit chat – especially when names are dropped – becomes inherently exclusionary. Zeno and the Tortoise is, thus, a crash-course style text that makes some of the major themes in the history of philosophy as readable as a tabloid, giving around six or seven page bare-bones, witty and even humorous descriptions of the great philosophers – in chronological order beginning with Thales – along with the essential contributions that each has made. Author Nicholas Fearn has done this by relating each philosopher’s major contribution to practical scenarios and events in recent history. So when the previously philosophobic reader hears such names as ‘Kant’ and ‘Derrida’ – he or she will think “Never tell a lie” and “deconstruction” rather than “Can you shut this guy up?”

While Zeno and the Tortoise is not by any means a substitute for reading the classic texts, I would recommend it as a brush-up book for anyone who enjoys thinking about such things as the brain buster pertinent to the title’s namesake. Zeno was a Greek philosopher known for his paradoxes, the most famous regarding a hypothetical race between the great warrior Achilles and a tortoise. Zeno argued that if the tortoise was given a 10-yard head start, the quick Achilles could never catch up. You see, in the time that it takes Achilles to have caught up the 10 yards, the tortoise will have gone a foot. In the time it takes Achilles to make up that foot, the tortoise will have gone three inches. Once those three inches are made up, the tortoise will have at least nudged forward a fraction of an inch, on and on until infinity – the tortoise never relinquishing its lead.

Zeno is a quick read – about 10 minutes per philosopher – and perfect for perusing in small sections while waiting for a train or for the kids to get out of school. It is, in all respects, the History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell for people would would never ever read the History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. As for its status on the official star system (5 is great, 1 is rubbish), I give it a solid 4.

© Adam Carter 2003

Adam Carter (B.J. Journalism and B.A. Philosophy, University of Missouri) is a freelance writer and philosopher.

Zeno and the Tortoise by Nicholas Fearn, (Grove/Atlantic Books). £7.99/$12.00.

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