Now this is a very interesting book. Graham Higgins (Cambridge and Yale) wears his learning a little heavily, perhaps, but it is an impressive selection of impressively short readings. In these days of 'dumbed-down' philosophy courses, might not Porcupines be all that would-be philosophers need read? Certainly there is enough material here to satisfy most of those in search of a convenient slimmed-down philosophic library. There is Aristotle helpfully explaining in his Metaphysics, that when Protagoras says: 'Man is the measure of all things', he means that '.. that which seems to exist for each man assuredly does so.. it follows that the same thing both is and is not, and is both bad and good, and that all other opposite statements are true, because often some particular thing appears beautiful to some and ugly to to others, and that which appears to each man is the measure.' There is Bishop Berkeley's Philonous explaining to Hylas that even Hylas's brain, 'being only a sensible thing', as Hylas would have it, 'exists only in the mind'. There is Francois, Duc de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) pre-dating Nietszche somewhat in writing that 'Nobody deserves to be praised for goodness unless he is strong enough to be bad, for any other goodness is usually merely inertia or lack of will'. And there is Epicurus's (341-270 BC) call to philosophers to help to overcome suffering in the world, for the words of a philosopher who offers 'no therapy for human suffering' are 'empty and vain'. After all, as Philolaus of Croton (c. 470390 BC) gloomily puts it, the reality of a soul which has after all been yoked to the body as a punishment and it is 'imprisoned within it as though in a tomb'. Higgins selects his favourite bits, as it were, hacked like fossils from the rocky face of the Philosophical mountain. Some of the quotes are intriguing, some (rather less) are fun. Quite a few are inconsequential and too many from the latter section of the collection are proof only of the poverty of later philosophy. (Even if we try the aphorist's aphorist, Wittgenstein's, method, offered here, that sometimes 'a sentence can be understood only if read at the right tempo. My sentences are all supposed to be read slowly.') There are four fossils from Plato, two each from Aristotle, Hume, Kierkegaard, and Friedrich von Schlegel who gives the book its title (' a fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated form the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a porcupine') three from Nietzsche - the cranky sociophobe-God-hating misogynist hailed here as the master of poetic form, and given, curiously, a whole page in headline type to rant.
Higgins hopes that the aphorisms are 'shafts of wisdom'. Or 'signposts'. He includes Etienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-1780) telling the story of someone waking form a deep sleep and finding themselves in a labyrinth together with some other people who are busy arguing over general principles for finding the way out. What, tienne exclaims, could appear more ridiculous! Yet that, he says is what the philosophers are doing. 'It is more important to find ourselves merely where we were at first than to believe prematurely that we are our of the labyrinth', he concludes. So does the book make sense, or is it just a glorified philosophical phrase book, even - or shocking thought! - source book of 'thoughts for the day'? In a rather sonorous introduction, Higgins talks of the reader taking their first untrained and 'first hesitant steps' towards learning the subtleties of the philosophic dance - 'the chaste pleasures of philosophical mastery'. But this collection excludes non Europeans and indeed all women from the dance, for reasons that are increasingly hard to accept. John Dewey, the American philosopher of education, we find, wrote that 'meaning is wider in scope as well as more precious in value than truth, and philosophy is occupied with meaning rather than truth', but it is hard to see any real pattern (other than the chronological structure) or greater meaning in Porcupines. It remains, as it was when it set out, a collection of fragments. But they are, indeed, beautiful fragments. -- 'The Philosopher', March 2000