Review: ‘Philosophers Take On the World’

Philosophers Take On the World is a highly concentrated book. Jam-packed with intellectual stimulation, it aims to make us alert to philosophy’s modern relevance and omnipresence.

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.
Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

The genesis of the book is the (ongoing) Practical Ethics Blog, an online outreach project set up in 2007 by the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and now counting millions of readers. Editor David Edmonds decided to put together the best posts from the blog; the result is a dense, thought-provoking assemblage of philosophers’ “takes” on the world.

The book’s main strength is its striking variety. 250 pages long, featuring 62 articles and 47 contributors, the project is a truly collaborative one. To make the point that philosophy can and does encompass all aspects of contemporary society, the topics discussed span from health to terrorism, from religion to language. Questions contributors ask include: ‘Is it ethical to use data from Nazi medical experiments?’; ‘What is a pet worth?’; ‘Would you hand over a decision to a machine?’. On top of the richness in subject matters, chapters are also variegated in terms of style. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s ‘My brain made me do it – so what?’ mimics a dialogue between two friends (a nudge to Socratic dialogues perhaps?), while Chris Gyngell’s ‘Artificial wombs and a visit to Birland’ envisages a world where humans lay eggs.

The bite-size format is the second admirable quality of the collection. Chapters are never longer than four pages, which means a couple of chapters fit perfectly in a daily commute. Concision is an excellent way to counterbalance the intellectual depth of the material. In a world where most of us cannot commit to long, detailed philosophical articles, the book targets curious minds with limited spare time. It manages to touch upon a variety of topics in a brief, engaging way.

Of course, such brevity has its potential drawbacks. The original posts were not intended to give comprehensive accounts of the topics they discussed: many questions are left unanswered, many objections unvoiced. Sometimes, I wished that, instead of reading a chapter from the book, I was sitting in a philosophy class, having the chance to say: ‘Right, but how about…?’ Several short pieces left me with the appetite to discuss the issue further. But rather than a flaw, this could be seen as a merit: philosophy is by definition a never-ending enterprise, and the book does justice to its capacity to foster reflection. I even got to the point of discussing a few chapters with some friends, which felt like completing the book’s trajectory: 1) offering stimulating content, 2) getting people engaged, 3) (crucially) encouraging them to share their thoughts with others.

A lot of thought is put into the arrangement of the individual pieces. Many a transition from one piece to the other is cleverly devised. Chapter 4, for instance, argues against the right to own arms by means of a thought experiment; Chapter 5 is a response to such an argument, tackling the issue from a different perspective and dismantling the thought-experiment. At other times, however, the material is not as successfully arranged. The section on languages, speech and freedom includes a slightly random assemblage of articles discussing Islam, disability, nudity, porn, Orientalism – the ‘freedom’ link was rather tenuous. Nevertheless, most sections are admirably cohesive, and respond to the challenge of ordering such a heterogeneous material.

Overall, the book is a commendable effort to make philosophy widely relevant. Indeed, if philosophy remains a philosopher’s prerogative, then philosophising is somewhat vain. Instead, thinkers should strive to reach out to wider audiences and enlarge the number of people thinking about life’s questions. The book succeeds in bringing philosophy to the public, and in making it palatable for non-philosophical audiences. As well as for their variety and conciseness, the articles are striking for their clear terminology and engaging tone – both essential qualities to get the non-academics engaged.

More than anything, the book invites us to stay alert about what goes on in the world around us. It encourages the reader to be inquisitive, actively searching for truth, even in the most mundane issues: is it morally acceptable to ‘check people out’? As Janet Radcliffe Richards states, “The trouble with technological advance is that it keeps forcing us to make decisions in totally new circumstances”. I would suggest that not only technological advancements, but contemporary society in general, is a constant challenge to our convictions. Hence the need for philosophers, and indeed for everyone, to get to grips with the ongoing issues that arise in our world, whether they concern politics, current affairs, medicine, ethics, advertising, friendship, or sport. Philosophers Take on the World paves the way for people to become independent thinkers, more mindful of the philosophical implications that lurk behind all corners of our lives.

Anna Zanetti

‘Philosophers Take On the World’ is published by Oxford University Press, RRP £12.99

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