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Philosophy: The Latest Answers to the Oldest Questions [Paperback]

Nicholas Fearn
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Book Description

8 Jun 2006
Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Wittgenstein...The work of the great philosophers of the past is well known and has been discussed endlessly. "Philosophy: The Latest Answers to the Oldest Questions" is the first book to explain, for the general reader, what today's philosophers think about what it is to be human. In the search for higher meaning, Nicholas Fearn has consulted some of the world's most distinguished thinkers, including John Searle, Martha Nussbaum, Bernard Williams and Daniel Dennett (among many others). Variously, they believe that free will and identity are not what they seem; that the difference between good and evil can be a matter of sheer luck; and that, one day, we will all be vegetarians.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books; New edition edition (8 Jun 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1843540681
  • ISBN-13: 978-1843540687
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 666,569 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"'Admirable, both in style and content' Hilary Putnam"

About the Author

Nicholas Fearn, a philosophy graduate from King's College, London, is the author of Zeno and the Tortoise: How to Think Like a Philosopher, which was published in more than twenty countries. He also writes for the Spectator, Independent on Sunday, Observer and The Economist. He lives in London.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
This is an excellent book. My philosophy knowledge was limited to the main ideas of a few philosophers, but I didn’t really know whether they had been discredited or where they stood in the whole picture. This book takes a fundamental philosophical question and assesses the various solutions that have been proposed over time, from the ancient Greeks to the very latest thoughts of philosophers around the world. It is entertainingly written and flows smoothly through the debates. The author describes interviews that he had with various philosophers so you get a feel for the sense of humour, camaraderie and competitiveness among the current players. I’d long been looking for a book that would tell me just what philosophy has achieved, and this did the job – the answer is quite a lot. It’s a perfect starting place for someone looking for a readable and impartial overview of the cutting edge of philosophy.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "An audit of Western philosophy" 22 Jun 2006
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Format:Hardcover
Fearn joins the ranks of writers attempting to bridge "Established" notions of what constitutes "Western" thought and the new views challenging tradition. Although he's not the first to attempt this synthesis, his organisation and style place him among the leaders of such effort. With gentle precision, Fearn places the advocates in carefully constructed arenas. The book's three sections, "Who am I?", "What do I know?" and "What should I do?" provide the framework for his presentation. Within these arenas, the author introduces the reader to various thinkers through summations of their views. He adds a nice personal touch where he can in relating attributes gleaned through personal interviews. He must be very charming [or bears a charmed life], since he manages personal conversations with many major figures in philosophy. Not all of them are amenable to the "journalistic" approach.

Given the potentially hazardous mix of considered thought and off-hand expression, this book comes off admirably. After some introductory material on how earlier thinkers viewed the "self", Fearn tries to show how views have changed - and why. He has no qualms about "hard questions", since he opens with the debate over how the human mind and computers can be compared. Jerry Fodor's "computational theory of mind" is given a good airing, but, as usual, the model is a bit overdrawn. Equating the mind too closely with a machine has led to questions ranging from brain "transplants" to the plausibility of "Star Trek's" transporter. Fearn, in his contact with Daniel Dennett, might have been set straight on this point, but he seems to have failed to ask the proper questions.

Fearn fares better in the second section, "What do I know?" The inevitable opening, "Is life merely an illusion" doesn't keep him long.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Useful 'audit' of contemporary philosophy 11 July 2012
By Paul Bowes TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
This book, published in 2005, attempts to give the intelligent non-specialist an overview of philosophy in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century. The author is a philosophy graduate, but a journalist and writer rather than a professional philosopher. He approached his task by interviewing as many eminent living philosophers as possible, and his thumbnail portraits of these people help to make the book lively and approachable. The reader is never allowed to lose sight of the fact that philosophy is an activity conducted by living people.

Nonetheless, as the endorsements by Raymond Tallis and Hilary Putnam would imply, the subject is treated seriously. Fearn divides his book into three sections: 'Who Am I?', 'What Do I Know?' and 'What Should I Do?' Each of the thirteen chapters under these broad headings then tackles a single topic - 'The problem of the self', 'Innate ideas', 'Moral luck' and so on - and draws on the work of one or more current practitioners to show how things stand at present.

Fearn doesn't have much time for continental philosophy; the bare half-chapter devoted to postmodernism is dismissive. Nor does he care much for Peter Singer's utilitarianism and the fashionable animal rights agenda to which it gave birth. The focus is squarely on the Anglo-American tradition. However, Fearn avoids off-putting technical discussions of minutiae. His concern is to show how contemporary philosophers in this tradition still attempt to offer substantive answers to large, serious questions of the kind associated with the idea of 'doing philosophy' in the past.
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By Dennis Littrell TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
The book is in three parts: "Who Am I?", "What Do I Know?" and "What Should I Do?" These parts correspond to philosophical conundrums about consciousness, epistemology and morality, respectively. Fearn's method is to interview contemporary philosophers on these subjects and to compare and contrast their views while referring to the views of philosophers of the past.

In the first part Fearn tackles the problem of the self, free will, artificial intelligence, and the dualism of body and soul. The modern consensus, as I understand it, is that the self (as the Buddha taught) is a delusion in flux that the evolutionary mechanism has found useful for instilling in creatures such as ourselves; that free will is an illusion we can't help but believe; that artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence (but that may take longer than previously thought); and that the soul is pure information. For the most part Fearn's presentation of views and his comments are more or less in line with my understanding.

"Does the idea never thought exist?" would be my variant on Bishop Berkeley's old query about the tree in the forest. My answer goes to the heart of the next part of Fearn's book which concerns what we know, how we know it, and how much confidence in that knowledge we can have. I lie awake nights wondering where the idea never thought is. It's not on the ether wind and not in God's mind. WHERE is it? I refuse to believe that it doesn't exist.

Or is all of human knowledge merely a gigantic social construction (as the postmodernists would have it) forever distant from true knowledge? Clearly Fearn is not a postmodernist since he mostly diminishes this idea.
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Amazon.com: 3.3 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "An audit of Western philosophy" 22 Jun 2006
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Fearn joins the ranks of writers attempting to bridge "Established" notions of what constitutes "Western" thought and the new views challenging tradition. Although he's not the first to attempt this synthesis, his organisation and style place him among the leaders of such effort. With gentle precision, Fearn places the advocates in carefully constructed arenas. The book's three sections, "Who am I?", "What do I know?" and "What should I do?" provide the framework for his presentation. Within these arenas, the author introduces the reader to various thinkers through summations of their views. He adds a nice personal touch where he can in relating attributes gleaned through personal interviews. He must be very charming [or bears a charmed life], since he manages personal conversations with many major figures in philosophy. Not all of them are amenable to the "journalistic" approach.

Given the potentially hazardous mix of considered thought and off-hand expression, this book comes off admirably. After some introductory material on how earlier thinkers viewed the "self", Fearn tries to show how views have changed - and why. He has no qualms about "hard questions", since he opens with the debate over how the human mind and computers can be compared. Jerry Fodor's "computational theory of mind" is given a good airing, but, as usual, the model is a bit overdrawn. Equating the mind too closely with a machine has led to questions ranging from brain "transplants" to the plausibility of "Star Trek's" transporter. Fearn, in his contact with Daniel Dennett, might have been set straight on this point, but he seems to have failed to ask the proper questions.

Fearn fares better in the second section, "What do I know?" The inevitable opening, "Is life merely an illusion" doesn't keep him long. He quickly moves to assessing "reality" through reasoning and common sense. More to the point, he recognises that knowledge of our evolution outweighs conjecture about mystical forces impinging on our consciousness. His dismissal of Alvin Plantinga's bizarre notions is nearly as entertaining as Michael Ruse's in "Darwin or Design", although not as knowledgeable. Once we accept there are things to be known, we ascribe "meaning" to them. How do we distinguish what is innate from what we derive during life? Can the distinction actually be made? Again, Fearn mixes ancient and modern views in attempting a synthesis. He ranges from Descartes and Kant to Hilary Putnam and Tyler Burge. The dichotomy of meaning being located within the mind or somewhere "outside" takes up much of the section. "Externalism", Fearn contends, shows that philosophical problems "are more than just disputes over words or arbitary definitions". Science can provide the definitions which takes them beyond just an individual's concept of what they are. Yet langauage, that supposedly uniquely human facility, keeps definitions at the edge of perceiving clearly what we know. Fearn demonstrates how far philosophers can stretch such concepts in his dismissal of people like Jacques Derrida and the "French School", which has prevailed in the US as well.

Nobody can write on philosophy without entering the quagmire of "ethics". In his concluding section on "What should I do?", Fearn introduces the concept of "luck" in moral questions. That unexpected element is what brings events in our daily lives into the realm of moral decisions. Was Gauguin morally correct in abandoning his family to live and paint in the South Pacific? Would the loss of his genius been worth keeping the moral code of "family responsibility"? How far such questions can reach is examined in Fearn's discussion of the life and work of Peter Singer. Fearn is just short of contemptuous of Singer's animal rights views, but fails to perceive the science underlying them.

For all Fearn's efforts, the "audit" is incomplete. His concentration on "philosophers" blinds him to the science replacing those classical outlooks. A good many of Fearn's puzzles might have been resolved had he been aware of cognitive science, but the term appears to have escaped his ken. He failed to enquire among researchers such as V.S. Ramachandran, Steven Mithen or Antonio Damasio, who might have expanded on this issue, but restricted his search to those dealing directly with more "classical" outlooks. He does introduce Paul and Patricia Churchland, but on an entirely different question. The humanities haven't been replaced by cognitive science, but philosophy can no longer afford to ignore its findings. He should have provided an overview of this research at the beginning of the book. It is, after all, what is helping us redefine "Who we are". [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and readable but a bit shallow in parts 9 Oct 2007
By Dennis Littrell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The book is in three parts: "Who Am I?", "What Do I Know?" and "What Should I Do?" These parts correspond to philosophical conundrums about consciousness, epistemology and morality, respectively. Fearn's method is to interview contemporary philosophers on these subjects and to compare and contrast their views while referring to the views of philosophers of the past.

In the first part Fearn tackles the problem of the self, free will, artificial intelligence, and the dualism of body and soul. The modern consensus, as I understand it, is that the self (as the Buddha taught) is a delusion in flux that the evolutionary mechanism has found useful for instilling in creatures such as ourselves; that free will is an illusion we can't help but believe; that artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence (but that may take longer than previously thought); and that the soul is pure information. For the most part Fearn's presentation of views and his comments are more or less in line with my understanding.

"Does the idea never thought exist?" would be my variant on Bishop Berkeley's old query about the tree in the forest. My answer goes to the heart of the next part of Fearn's book which concerns what we know, how we know it, and how much confidence in that knowledge we can have. I lie awake nights wondering where the idea never thought is. It's not on the ether wind and not in God's mind. WHERE is it? I refuse to believe that it doesn't exist.

Or is all of human knowledge merely a gigantic social construction (as the postmodernists would have it) forever distant from true knowledge? Clearly Fearn is not a postmodernist since he mostly diminishes this idea. Most philosophers and other thinkers that I have read, believe that human knowledge is an ever-widening sphere going out into a larger unknown. We learn more and more about ourselves and the universe we live in, but we have no way of knowing how distant or close to Absolute Truth we might be, or could possibly be. Furthermore, we cannot know with certainty that we know anything at all. Descartes might have thought he found something true in "Ego cognito sum," but actually he assumed the "I am" in the "I think" and proved nothing. And nobody, if I am reading Fearn rightly, has gotten any further than that.

In the final part there are some bits about "moral luck," e.g., Johnny got drunk, drove like an idiot but hit only an old tree stump and walked away with only a scratch, while Frankie, also under the influence, hit a child and killed it. Morally speaking Frankie is feeling kind of low while Johnny hasn't a clue. This is moral luck.

All in all this is a most interesting book, but to be honest, I think Fearn is a little short of a mature understanding of some of the questions. In particular I don't think he realizes that the subjectivity of the experience of color or taste or any sort of feeling is absolute. I can never know exactly how you experience the color red or the taste of black walnuts. I assume--and we all do--that your experience is closely similar to mine. So no problem. But when we get to the larger experience of consciousness in its bedeviling complexity, our assumptions may lead us astray. Almost certainly the consciousness of a dolphin or a whale is difference from ours in some very important respects and in ways we cannot know. But the philosophic problem of consciousness is really like the problem of "seeing" things smaller than photons: it's something that we can never do. Subjectivity is forever subjective. Or to use another example, we can never measure something so accurately that we can be sure that it is exactly one meter long. In fact, the every idea of exactly becomes muddled as we approach the limits of our senses and descend toward the Planck limit.

Fearn also seems a little askew when it comes to the "Swampman" thought experiment. Swampman is an exact replica of philosopher Donald Davidson. Davidson opines that Swampman, despite having exactly all the same molecules in exactly the same arrangements as himself, is different from himself because Swampman "can't recognize my friends; it can't recognize anything, since it never cognized anything in the first place." (p. 103)

Fearn goes along with this, not realizing that the play on words (recognize and cognize) has no meaning here. Fearn calls the memories that Swampman has "pseudo-memories" (p. 104). But where are the "real" memories that Swampman and Davidson have of the past? They are in, and only in, the brains of Swampman and Davidson, and they are identical!

This is a wonderful thought experiment that has been done many times in slightly different ways. What I think we can learn from such an experiment is that--hold on to the steering wheel--we don't really exist as we think we do! If Davidson is dissolved and Swampman comes home for dinner, clearly Davidson is not going to get anything to eat, but no one including Davidson will ever know the difference. Well, Swampman if he had been told he was a duplicate or had seen Davidson might know, but guess what? Swampman would remain convinced that he is Davidson.

Fearn includes this wonderful quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein: "Death is not an event in life; we do not live to experience death." (p. 208) Unfortunately Fearn goes on to miss Wittgenstein's meaning when he remarks that he can see beyond our experience of death and so it matters. But Wittgenstein's point (and that of Eastern religions) is psychological and very powerful; however it requires us to simultaneously understand that (1) we do not exist in a way different than Swampman; and (2) death is not an experience we ever have except in the anticipation.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The latest opinions/speculations about the oldest problems 4 Mar 2007
By Roy E. Perry - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Through the centuries, great minds such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Locke, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, have sought the Holy Grail of wisdom. In their own ways, they sought to divine the nature of the Good, the True and the Beautiful.

In our postmodern age, however, a time of relativism, skepticism and "suspicion," the Holy Grail seems ever more elusive. Nietzsche said that the closer one gets to a subject, the more problematical it becomes. Indeed, it is no longer apparent, as it seemed to be to thinkers of an earlier time, what exactly constitutes Beauty, Truth, and Goodness.

Nicholas Fearn, a philosophy graduate from King's College, London, and the author of Zeno and the Tortoise: How to Think Like a Philosopher (2002), seeks to shed light on perennial philosophical puzzles by asking: What do living philosophers have to say about life's greatest mysteries?

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) wrote, "All the interests of my reason, speculative as well as practical, combine in following three questions: (1) What can I know? (2) What ought I to do? (3) What may I hope?"

The threefold division of The Latest Answers to the Oldest Questions are similar to Kant's concerns: Who am I? What do I know? and What should I do?

In Part One, Fearn discusses the problem of the self, free will vs. fate, minds and machines, human consciousness and artificial intelligence, and bodies and souls.

In Part Two, he tackles the problems of knowledge and meaning, innate ideas, the language of thought, postmodernism and pragmatism, and the limits of understanding.

In Part Three, he deals with moral luck, the expanding circle (animal rights and vegetarianism), and the meaning of life and death.

If Fearn's book actually provided answers to such problems it would be a marvel. The "answers" in this book, however, are more in the nature of various and conflicting theories held by contemporary thinkers who disagree, and whose arguments and debates remain unsettled.

Calling his project "an audit of Western philosophy," Fearn consulted more than thirty of the world's most distinguished thinkers, among them John Searle, Bernard Williams, Daniel Dennett, Martha Nussbaum, and Peter Singer, for their insights on the human condition.

According to Fearn, his book "assesses the current state of the philosophical art, taking a wide view of what has been achieved in recent years in the most hotly contested areas, and examines the latest approaches to problems that were first tackled in the ancient world."

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell observed, "To learn how to live with uncertainty, yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy can do."

Reading Fearn's current philosophical venture does little to relieve uncertainty. The title of his book is overly optimistic, promising more than it delivers. A better title would be The Latest Speculations, or Opinions, Concerning the Oldest Problems.

One should not come to this work, therefore, expecting to find some Copernican revolution in thought, some epiphany of philosophical wisdom. It is enough to eavesdrop on contemporary intellects and ponder their disputations, even if no definitive conclusions are reached.

Consider three experts in musicology disputing who is the greatest classical composer: Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart. Each could give excellent reasons for his or her choice, but no persuasive "answer" could be established.

Some philosophers propose the humbling theory that our brains, evolved over millennia to cope with survival in the day-to-day world, are not sufficiently equipped to solve the basic riddles of the universe. In short, we are not smart enough to arrive at "a theory of everything." Others would issue a caveat: At least not yet.

Fearn sprinkles his work with humorous anecdotes and witty quotations, such as this one from the great 21st-century philosopher Donald Rumsfeld: "As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know."

Such profundity assures us that reason has its limits.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A little disappointing 12 Nov 2012
By Richard - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
Most of this are not old questions. I thought it was too focused on artificial intelegence and too little on ethics, leading a good life and other age old questions.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Wrong focus 31 Mar 2007
By W. Mathewon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The author spent more time covering his philosophical views than those of the "world's greatest thinkers" ----- assuming Fearn does not put himself at that level.
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