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on 1 May 2009
A.C. Grayling is an unfailingly compelling writer. Reasonable, clear, concise, elegant are only a few of the words that can be justly used to describe his writing and thought. This book is no exception. A collection of short, pithy, and always enlightening reflections on, as the title puts it, ideas that matter, organised so as to help the reader pursue particular interests in depth, Ideas that Matter: A Personal Guide for the 21st Century, is an invaluable source book for understanding the jumble of claims and counter-claims that swirl around us everyday.

The ideas are arranged in alphabetical order, and each entry refers to further entries that lead the reader more deeply into associated ideas. At the end of the book an appendix groups the various entries under general headings such as religion, science, politics and society, etc. For those who wish to pursue ideas at even greater depth Grayling provides an 'indicative' bibliography, pointing the reader to further sources of information on the ideas concerned, which, in turn, no doubt, will lead to futher reading and depth of understanding.

Grayling is not impartial, if by impartial be meant a desire not to offend religious believers by calling religious beliefs into question. He is, however, courteous in his dissent, no matter how strongly expressed; but, more importantly, he gives reasons for believing as he does, and rightly chides religion for its continuing failure to provide reasons why we should take religions as seriously as they take themselves. Grayling repudiates, with some justice, the title 'atheist' - this being a term of abuse used by the religious to describe those who do not believe - preferring more positive ways of describing his point of view, such as 'humanist' and 'naturalist'.
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on 28 December 2009
Prior to reading this book I was quite out of my depth in any discussion about current affairs - either squirming with boredom or inflamed by the media, generally baffled, uneasy, uninformed and incapable of sharing an opinion.

Ideas That Matter has changed that.

This book provides a solid framework for thinking about the diversity of political, economic, social and religious ideas. It is structured to be easy to dip into. Each section is written in a clear, logical style with plenty of facts and humour. The writer transforms the ghastly chore of Thinking into an engaging and interesting occupation. Grayling's writing is inspiring and should prove capable of launching any reasonably intelligent person into their own explorations and investigations.

In my opinion Professor Grayling is a fine teacher.
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Grayling has made an effort here to distinguish between ideas that were once formative such as free will, determinism and perhaps angels dancing on a pin (which he has left out), and ideas that either are newly shaping the world, such as the Internet and artificial intelligence, or old ideas with new influences, such as democracy and history. The book consists of mini essays on 130 ideas from "absolutism" to Zeitgeist," covering subjects as diverse as string theory and romanticism. Grayling writes well and displays a sharp and considered intelligence that make this book a pleasure to read. He doesn't mealy mouth around what he sees as cant, error, willful ignorance or just rank stupidity. But he is eminently fair and not interested in inciting any riots.

It is clear from reading the entries (I read most of them) that Grayling is a philosopher first and a historian and social critic second. He is the author a couple of dozen books, mostly on philosophic subjects such as reason, meaning, Bishop Berkeley, Wittgenstein, philosophic logic and so on. Some of the ideas on philosophic subjects presented here such as consequentialism, deontology, and verificationism were a bit beyond the reach of this reader, but then that would be my problem. On the subjects about which I have some knowledge I found his treatment interesting, enlightening and mostly agreeable.

The closing paragraph on "communism"may serve as an example of the sort of deep understanding that Grayling brings to his diverse subject matter:

"China is the only country to try the experiment of a capitalist economy with a communist-style unelected central party command government. Despite that party being called the Communist Party of China, it is in almost all functional respects a mere reprise of the authoritarian imperial government commonplace throughout China's history. In this it is paradigmatic of what communism has been wherever it has been put into effect in the modern world; most of the experiments in this regard have failed in what, in historical terms, is the blink of an eye." (p. 88)

Or, consider this from the entry on "consumerism":

"The joke phrase 'retail therapy' used to denote the restoration of good spirits that a shopping expedition induces--usually the forage among brand-name goods in a variety of shops, with a few triumphantly found bargains or exactly suitable items--is in fact an accurately descriptive phrase. More to the point, the word 'forage'...is also speakingly accurate: if anthropological models of hunter gatherer societies are correct, foraging among bushes and roots for edibles was an important task for women while their menfolk were away on (probably often unsuccessful) hunting expeditions."

Grayling is particularly sharp on religions, believing that overall they do more harm than good. He has entires on Buddhism, Catholicism, Christianity, creationism, fundamentalism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Protestantism, and religion in general. Typically he presents a brief history, highlights the religion's major tenets, and then sums up and gives his opinion. In the final paragraph on Catholicism he writes: "For a thousand years it stood at the centre of European history, for good and ill both; but in the judgement of this writer, mostly the latter." On Islam he concludes, "...it is the faith which at present anyway has an extremely violent fringe from which murder has come, continues to come, and can all too readily come in response to perceived insult or threat." (p. 194) Interesting in this regard is this from Grayling's entry on the fallacies of informal logic, where he is referring to the fallacy called argumentum ad baculum, which is the "appeal to force: "'believe what I say (do what I tell you) or I will beat you up'...; this, though it puts the matter more bluntly than usual, is the essence of divine-command moralities.)." (p. 219)

Grayling even finds fault with deism calling it a "fudge" "reached for." He writes that "to answer the question 'why does the universe exist?'...by saying 'because Fred made it' obviously does not constitute an answer, for who or what is Fred?" He adds, "[T]he arbitrary, ad hoc invocation of something to serve as the first term of a putative explanation is no good, but neither is substituting the word 'God' for 'Fred'--for a substitute is all it is." (p. 320) Spoken like a true philosopher!

On science: "It is a magnificent achievement of the human intellect, indeed it is the greatest of all mankind's achievements...even though some of what science has done (or rather, has been made to do in the more perverted interest of politics and war) cannot be regard as good." (p. 320)

The entry on vegetarianism might very well serve as either a satisfying rant or as providing material for PET activists, so very strongly and effectively does Grayling express his opposition to meat eating.

I found it curious that Grayling has an entry on "sociobiology" but doesn't even use the more contemporary term "evolutionary psychology." He might have explained why.

The 130 (if I counted right) entries are in alphabetical order. There is a short bibliography arranged according to the entries, and an index. I think it is a fine thing that Professor Grayling took the trouble to write this book. His scholarship and wisdom are evident throughout.
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on 15 December 2009
The book considers a broad range of issues that are pertinent to modern life. A 'further reading' section, where reference is made to other works and viewpoints, is included. I think that the author's intention was to encourage the reader to consider all the evidence before deciding whether what one is told has any truth or validity. This is particularly relevant in his references to the State and Religion. I liked the book. It largely confirmed my own beliefs and has encouraged me to examine this area of knowledge more closely.
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on 20 October 2012
I find Professor Grayling's work admirable as he puts forward a calm but truthful analysis of the questions which are very relevant to today. The layout of headed chapters also means one can follow related subjects for further clarification.
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on 9 May 2014
and if you want to become a proficient essay writer, there is a model or every kind of essay in here that you could wish for, and expertly done. even reading the whole book a few times will massively improve your a essay writing abilities.
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on 9 August 2010
This is a splendid summary of some of the most important issues of our time. It will, predictably, be unattractive to the religiously inclined as it is dismissive of all superstition. Highly recommended.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 14 August 2011
Asked to suggest a list for a guide to ideas of the twenty-first century, AC Grayling would always be on the shortlist, very near to the top. He brings a philosopher's clarity of thought, a range of reading which is encyclopaedic (cf "A Short Indicative Bibliography", pp 393-413) and a use and love of language which makes the reading so enjoyable. (I have always found philosopher's to be wonderful users of language and can still remember where, why and with whom I heard certain words for the first time in philosophy seminars.
Arranged in alphabetical order, this work of reference can be dipped into, read in sections, started on one idea to follow the suggested links or just read for pleasure.
Knowing AC Grayling helps. It is "A Personal Guide" and, as such, is flavoured with his own bias.
Take an intellectual journey from "Absolutism to Zeitgeist" in the company of one of the great philosophers and intellectuals; like a high quality SatNav, you will find your way through some complex ideas with clarity.

Recommended
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on 27 March 2014
Will take a lot of study, so am tackling it in easy stages. Somethings are simple others need a good bit of thinking about. But it is a good range of modern thinking if you want to get your ideas up to date
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on 9 May 2011
For potted explanations of various human ways of thinking and behaving this is a useful book. Recommended reading for the bathroom as each entry is quite short, but engaging.
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