BY Richard O'Brien in Frieze | 05 MAY 02
Featured in
Issue 67

Reasons to be cheerful

The current vogue for popular philosophy

BY Richard O'Brien in Frieze | 05 MAY 02

Philosophy has been pop before. Low-born Socrates went head-to-head with all-comers in all places. It was his pupil and pupil's pupil (Plato and Aristotle) who retreated to their Academy and Lyceum to do the quiet work of reflection among their studious peers. More recently, Bertrand Russell ventured to return philosophy to the people in A History of Western Philosophy (1945) and The Problems of Philosophy (1912).

Yet, there's not been pop philosophy quite like these four current surveys. Socrates didn't have 2,500 years of philosophical tradition to compress. Russell lived before (though not much before) the marketing sophistication and brand awareness of the contemporary book industry. They both largely said what they wanted and got it published.

The modern philosopher also faces a problem familiar to modern scientists: the range of subjects treated within their faculty walls is now so wide and fragmented, the fragments shouldered by a vast army of specialists, that few people, let alone an average reader on the way to work, can understand the wider picture. If one is to engage that reader (or hook that publisher) at all, what approach is to be adopted? Will it stand tall and attempt to haul its readers up? Will it confine itself to practical matters - moral dilemmas of the workplace, for example - that intelligent non-philosophers will find stimulating and useful? Will it dumb down?

Happily, the recent crop of overviews of philosophy have all arrived at different answers to these questions. In a relatively new market they stand as test cases of how and how not to perform the task of popularizing philosophical thought. The authors' backgrounds are mixed: two professional philosophers (Simon Blackburn and A. C. Grayling), a journalist/author with a philosophical training (Nicholas Fearn), and an author with what we could call an informed need for philosophy (Alain de Botton).

A comparison of the works by the academic professionals sheds the most useful light. Blackburn's Think (1999) is very hard to fault. Its eight-chapter survey of the questions commonly tackled by philosophers - Can we know anything? Is there a soul? Do we have free will? - is top of the list for anyone wishing to give some range and robustness to their thought. The intellectual lucidity and correspondingly unintimidating prose style provide an ongoing justification of the author's project: to show that reasonable thought is something that we all have some practice in - however well versed we may be in its opposite - but that we could all do with some guiding and discipline.

Grayling's grandly styled attempt to reveal The Meaning of Things (2001) has much less to recommend it. His approach seems to be one of making provocative remarks, cutting down sacred cows (religion, capitalism, old-fashioned morality etc.), and striking a pose (including the outrageously dandyish cover-sleeve photo-portrait) rather than attempting to stretch the reader's ability to consider issues. We learn, for instance, that a moralizer is someone who dislikes homosexuality and champions family values. The existence of a liberal moralizer is not even entertained. Grayling might argue that it is hard to cover all the options given the format of the book: a collection of 1,000-1,500 word essays. The answer is change format and don't peddle bigotry. Like the other three authors, Grayling claims to be 'applying philosophy to life'. Such an approach is commendable, but not Grayling's execution of it. (I choose my words carefully.)

In Zeno and the Tortoise (2001) Fearn has written an entertaining but uneven survey of the major Western philosophers and their beliefs. The author intended to make each chapter readable on the way to work, and at his best achieves this without jeopardizing quality. There are times, however, when the potted summary seems to have missed the point through over-compression. This is the generous reading. It is just possible that Fearn's instructions on 'How to Think Like a Philosopher' slip down to 'How to Sound Obscure Like a Beardie-Weirdie' for the sake of keeping the cat in the bag and retaining an air of mystery. The best method of popularizing the subject is to show that philosophers usually give mystery pretty short shrift, and to demonstrate the power of reason instead. On the whole, though, Fearn steers the right side of this divide.

Indeed, a feature common to all four books is the importance of instinct and common sense in philosophical discourse. As many philosophers have resisted theories of scepticism (the denial of the ability to know things) by appealing to the opposing views of the great majority as have tried to undermine native understanding through Socratic method or Cartesian doubt.

This is certainly key to the outlook of Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy (2000), which poses particular problems, not least because it's so good. The project seems at first wrong-headed: a kind of Pick 'n' Mix of philosophies (£8 for 6) with the single aim of making life happier. Not more rational, or necessarily more true - not even necessarily easier through practical understanding. De Botton is uncharacteristically careless when first quoting then commenting on Michel de Montaigne: '"If man were wise, he would gauge the true worth of anything by its usefulness and appropriateness to his life." Only that which makes us feel better may be worth understanding.' Of course, this is not what Montaigne said at all. We want to think our way out of a moral dilemma, for example, not just - or possibly at all - in order to make ourselves feel better, but to get something done. The distortion that de Botton engages in is entirely in keeping with his stated intention, to console. This runs the risk of not emphasizing the importance of learning to think.

Yet de Botton's book should still come near the very top of the list. He shares a taste for life with two of his favourite philosophers, Montaigne and Friedrich Nietzsche, and everything which that signifies - falling in love, dealing with money, eating nice food - as well as philosophical reflection. The anecdotes from real life that make up a large part of his book are never directly related to the author, but are told so touchingly and deftly that it is hard to detach his persona from the unnamed characters that he discusses. He is witty and modest about his learning. We may sense that the flawed philosophical integrity of the work is explained by the author's desire to be happy. The inclusion of lived emotions catches us off our guard but leaves us grateful.

De Botton comes closest to showing off with his title. The Consolations of Philosophy is borrowed from the theological work of the 5th- and 6th-century philosopher Boethius. And Grayling's title, The Meaning of Things, recalls the most famous and successful of philosophical poems, the De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius. What such similarities are in aid of is unclear. What is clear is how unlike Blackburn's Think they are. The latter doesn't suggest we need primarily to digest more philosophy, but learn to think new philosophy. He is as happy with a limerick as with Lucretius. In fact, in introducing his chapter on Free Will, he uses both. Here is the limerick:

'There was a young man who said,
It is borne upon me that I am
A creature that moves
In predestinate grooves-
Not even a bus, but a tram.'