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Endless forms most beautiful
on 10 April 2010
Much scholarly work can be dry and difficult (Kant, Heidegger). Many recent works of scholarship are much lighter without losing the quality of intent or seriousness of the work - Diarmaid MacCulloch's recent History of Christianity comes to mind, as beautiful to read as it is interesting despite my complete rejection of the faith. Professor Grayling's Thinking of Answers is not such a singly focused work. Reading it feels, for all intents and purposes, rather like listening to the poetically infused and erudite thoughts of a great scholar working through a set of interesting 'problems'. I found myself being entertained, seduced and enriched.
The quality of these 101 brief essays is difficult for me to capture in a review, so eloquently written are they. Furthermore, they are equally difficult to pick excerpts from to present examples. The aptness of a particular turn of phrase may fit perfectly within a given essay, but loses it's punctiliousness when removed from it's intended environment.
Grayling convincingly articulates his sense of delight in the acquisition of knowledge and the uses to which it can be put. In 'Thinking of Answers', he proposes, not answers as such, but gives the reader insight as to how he (Grayling) goes about the task of thinking about what sort of form a good answer might take. For those steeped in Karl Popper and his general outlook, which can be summarised using one of his book titles (Conjectures and Refutations), one becomes wary of arguments or conclusions that discount the possibility of more information coming to light that may require us to re-examine our hypotheses. Grayling never crosses this line.
The most startling article, for me, was about gender. It was a shock to learn that '...as many as one in a hundred people have bodies that differ from the male and female standards, if one includes XX and XY chromosonal abnormalities such as chromosomal mosaicism and the Klinefelter and Turner syndromes, androgen-insensitivity syndrome, adrenal hyperplasias, ovo-testes (formerly so-called 'true hermaphroditism'), genital agenesis, 5 alpha reductase deficiency, gonadal dysgenesis (Swyer syndrome), hypospadias, iatrogenic influences (for example, medical mistakes in pregnancy), and more.' p. 122, 123. Grayling doesn't dwell on the details (I'm thankful that wikipedia exists) but urges us to consider these things in our wider philosophical journey through life.
Darwin drew our attention to the grandeur in the view of life that accepts these 'endless forms most beautiful'. Grayling does some justice to this statement with a broad view of philosophy that acknowledges the variety inherent in nature both outside ourselves as well as inside. In pursuing pleasure, one could do a lot worse than reading A C Grayling.