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Philosophy and the Good Life: Reason and the Passions in Greek, Cartesian and Psychoanalytic Ethics [Paperback]

John Cottingham

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Book Description

23 July 1998
Can philosophy enable us to lead better lives through a systematic understanding of our human nature? John Cottingham's thought-provoking 1998 study examines the contrasting approaches to this problem found in three major phases of Western philosophy. Starting with the attempts of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics and Epicureans to cope with the recalcitrant forces of the passions, he moves on to examine the fascinating and hitherto little-studied moral psychology of Descartes, and his effort to integrate the physical and emotional aspects of our humanity into a rational blueprint for fulfilment. He concludes by analysing the insights of modern psychoanalytic theory into the human predicament, arguing that philosophy neglects them at its peril if it hopes to come to terms with the complex relationship between reason and the emotions. Lucid in exposition and unusually wide-ranging in scope, Philosophy and the Good Life provides a challenging perspective on moral philosophy and psychology for students and specialists alike.


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' … a book of innumerable pleasures, of which Cottingham's careful eclecticism is perhaps one of the most unexpected. Anyone writing in the analytic tradition who can see as much (if not more) value in Lacan as in Locke deserves credit … Fittingly, this is not just about reason and the passions, but it is also written with plenty of both. It should not only refresh the jaded senses of those who feel they've read enough on ethics for one lifetime, but could also persuade those not of a philosophical disposition that maybe there's something to be said for the old discipline after all'. The Philosophers' Magazine

' … offers first thoughts on questions of real depth and importance.' Times Literary Supplement

'John Cottingham's masterful book is [written] … with pungency, elegance and an unpretentious seriousness. Few philosophers could read this book without learning a lot, and without wanting to think further about the important issues it raises.' Roger Crisp, Philosophical Books

'Rich and wise and emotionally engaged … Cottingham's book is humane, learned, ambitious, original and beautifully written. Read it.' Timothy Chappell, Philosophical Quarterly

'Fascinating … an excellent instance of a historically oriented treatment of a number of important substantive issues in ethics … Cottingham is to be warmly applauded for his humane and resounding defence of the project of [exploring how] philosophy and psychoanalysis can converge or cooperate in advancing our thinking about how we want to live.' Raymond Geuss, Philosophy

Book Description

Can philosophy enable us to lead better lives through a systematic understanding of our human nature? John Cottingham's thought-provoking 1998 study examines the contrasting approaches to this problem found in three major phases of Western philosophy. His study provides a challenging perspective on moral philosophy and psychology for students and specialists alike.

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This ambitious statement, from an early seventeenth-century text-book, the Composite System of Philosophy in Four Parts, encapsulates a view of philosophy that was widespread at the time, and had a long ancestry. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Review of philosophy's struggle with "what is the good life" 27 Mar 2001
By Michael Guttentag - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book is a wonderful resource for someone interested in philosophical discourse about the good life, and more specifically about how the tension between reason and passion enters into that discourse. Cottingham also sets out a way to integrate psychoanalytic thought into the philosophical discourse about the good life. But I wish Cottingham had provided more insight into what the good life is once one accepts the psychoanalytic "working through" he prescribes.
In "Philosophy and The Good Life" John Cottingham starts with the question: "can philosophy enable us to lead better lives?" In the first section of the book, he chronicles why this challenge to "provide an authentic blueprint for human flourishing", seemingly the most basic of philosophical endeavors, had mostly been ignored in recent philosophical discourse. What an encouraging way for a senior professor of philosophy to start.
In the second section of the book, Cottingham details how classical philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and Epicureans defined the good life as "inextricably intertwined" with rationality. But, Cottingham argues, these thinkers did not adequately address the fact that emotions could obscure the tools of reason or acknowledge the essential role that emotions play in "making us human."
In the third section, Cottingham examines the moral psychology of Descartes, on whom Cottingham has written extensively. First, he notes that Descartes rejected the dominant Aristotelian notion of an ends or teleological based morality, and that instead Descartes argues "we are in the important respects on our own." Next, Cottingham details how Descartes, along with Hume and Kant, became increasingly focused on the anthropology of morality. From this study Descartes came to view the passions as an integral part of the human experience. "Life's greatest pleasures are reserved for "those whom the passions can move most deeply"." To Aristotle's concept of habituation Descartes thus adds the eerily modern notion of a "therapy" for the passions.
The last section of the book brings us fully to modern times. Cottingham addresses modern concerns about the superiority of rationality in ethical discourse, highlighted for example by existentialist philosophers such as Heidegger. To address these concerns Cottingham takes psychoanalysis as a starting point. With psychoanalysis Cottingham wants to find a way to incorporate the tools of reason even if the human psyche does not follow the rules of deliberative rationality assumed by Aristotle, Kant and Bentham in their ethical analysis. He looks to the psychoanalytic process of "recovery and rehabilitation" to better "know thyself." These tools, Cottingham argues, provide a superior way to understand the relationship between reason and passion, and so are necessary elements in following the path to the good life. But, as I said above, this feels to me as if we are left by Cottingham at just the start of the process of discovering the good life.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not for beginners! 16 Mar 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book provides a general overview of three major philosophical systems and how they relate to what is referred to as the "good life". However, it does not try to give advice on how we should live the good life, it is trying to explain how philosophy has developed over time in relation to its goal of helping humans lead fulfilling lives. Specifically, Cottingham contrasts the ratiocentric systems of the early Greeks, the moral philosophy of Descartes, and modern psychoanalytic theory in an attempt to show how philosophy has progressed in helping us lead the good life.
As a philosophical neophyte, this book was a bit too academic for me, assuming a basic knowledge of the key names in philosophy (Jung, Kant, Descartes) and their systems. Fortunately, however, Cottingham revists earlier conclusions in later chapters, allowing the reader to better grasp the differences between the philosophical systems under review.
Overall, this book is not recommended for those just starting to investigate philosophy, but for those with a basic understanding of the subject may find this book a good overview of philosophy in relation to its goal of helping us achieve a complete life. For me, it was like starting a race in the middle, not knowing where the course had started or where it was going. But this book is interesting enough to encourage me to go back to the starting line to begin a more serious study of philosophy.
1 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars How To Live The Good Life. 26 Sep 2006
By Betty Burks - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Four theories for acquiring and living the good life include the active lifestyle where life is to be lived, not just thought about. Great heroes don't think of themselves as heroies; "it was my job" -- saving others, utterly selfless. There is a pleasure of accomplishing something but sometimes actions may be misperceived. There's a long overdue justice coming your way today -- perhaps someone who wronged you will get their comeuppance, or perhaps all your honesty will finally be valued. You have satisfaction and great joy because you are dealing with real life, real people, real music of the soul. The active life is that of the survivor. If you have been overactive, apologies may be in order. Not only are people more receptive to what you have to say, but that any headway you make actually leads to enduring improvements. Get out there and do it; happiness will occur when one is flourishing. The esteem in which oneholds oneself, as perceived by others who have pride you are one of them. If you find that something you thought you really wanted no longer seems to desirable, this is the day to admit that to yourself and let the old dream go.

Contemplative is an unexamined life some would feel is not worth living. Your empathy skills are strong and will be key in helping you connect with the people around you. Ideas are as intoxicating as first love. Specify the sort of life you wish you were living somewhere down the road. Love God himself. You often think "if I were as good as that person;" some people think they are Jesus and get all emotional with delusions of grandeur. There is such a thing as programming wherby life's experiences and cultural resources aid in becoming comtemplative. You want to be magnificant, but you wonder "what is this music all about?" Some dream of doing things which they haven't yet experienced.

Sometimes fatalistic is thinking that your future is already known and uninterrupted, that you are going to lose no matter what and things won't work out anyway. You feel that your time on earth is transitory, just for the moment and have to be given back. The inevitabilities guide you through the perils and sadness; you forfeit the good life as your desires can never be acquired and you are not responsible for the outcome. You reject sentimentality. You feel like there is an irrelevance and put on God-like behavior. It is resignation that your search for happiness is not fated and you are unable to obtain it. Your nervous system defeats aims and ambitions due to problems of stress.

Hedonist people have unrequited desires, wanting what you cannot have. You live in a state of security which lessens anxiety and have some peace that you are helping others. Be realistic because most of us can't reach the level of saints who are continually working for others to justify one's existence. Hedonism is pleasing themselves at the expense of others and up to no actual good. You have pain along with the well-earned pleasure. You're not morally at fault for not living in poverty by being sacrificial and saying "I am not a saint." These individuals want to be praised and adored for their good works.

Using philosophy to show the way people do and can live makes things understandable and easier to handle. It is best to live the good life and bloom in the place God has placed you. We are here for a purpose but finding it takes time and effort. Hiding behind closed doors never accomplished anything. There will always be the poor who don't know how to get on; thus, we are burdened by the homeless and less fortunate. That is life. Jesus' misson on earth was to care for the poor. We are not etheral, and must do what we can and let that be enough. Due to circumstances and background, they were not able to become educated or trained vocationally. They will always be among us to show compassion for and to look down on, but trying to do too much will backfire. They must learn to fend for themselves to the best of their abilities.
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