How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy Hardcover – 4 Oct 2018
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About the Author
Julian Baggini's books include Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind, What's It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, the bestselling The Pig that Wants to be Eaten, Do They Think You're Stupid?, The Ego Trick, The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think, and Freedom Regained, all published by Granta Books. He has written for various newspapers, magazines, academic journals and think tanks. His website is microphilosophy.net.
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I particularly enjoyed the section on pragmatism, which is an American philosophical tradition. Advocates of the school, such as John Dewey and William James are discussed and Baggini uses a number of relevant quotes from each philosopher, following them up with clear and concise explanations so they are less confusing to the general reader. The chapter also has a contemporary feel to it, as Baggini, towards the end of it, links American pragmatism to contemporary politics.
Other sections of the book focus on: How the world is, Who in the world are we? And how the world lives. A final section, Part 5, concludes by asking How the world thinks; and there are a brief few pages at the very end of the book titled: A sense of place, which rounds the book off rather nicely.
A notable feature of this book is that it covers the subject of world philosophy thematically. This is a much better approach than covering individual philosophers, as similar-type books do, with snippets of text accompanying each that often leave the reader in the dark as to how arguments and concepts have developed over time.
The book runs to approximately 450 pages, including notes and further reading. This is a little short for my liking. I’d have personally liked to see a tome of 750 pages or more, something to keep me going for a good couple of months. But this is me and not everybody else.
How the World Thinks is a very good book. Anyone with the slightest interest in philosophy, I’m sure, will enjoy this book. And others, perhaps new to the discipline, will find in Baggini’s text a wonderful starting point for pursuing this highly interesting subject further.
I hope you find my review helpful.
It offers a single-volume, easy to read survey of the philosophical bases for thought across the world, saving all of us the decades of research needed to understand these for ourselves. Indian, Japanese, even oral philosophies are covered without preconception or prejudice. What is special about the book is that Baggini refuses to privilege Western philosophy; indeed, the whole book is a direct call to resist that temptation, and to learn what other cultures and modes of thought have to offer us. What is refreshing is Baggini’s intellectual modesty, his willingness to place himself in the position of a student striving to make sense of approaches and processes that start from a different basis to Western thought.
The result is a book about philosophy, not of philosophy. Grounded in Baggini’s own experience – chapters often start with personal anecdotes – it explores the history and essential components of a range of great systems of thought. I appreciated the focus on Chinese and especially Japanese philosophy, because the latter in particular is so alien to our own. And Baggini is fastidious (as a philosopher should be!) about the precision with which he tries to summarise an entire system: ‘ To say that Japanese philosophy is aesthetic rather than conceptual is not primarily to say that it is concerned with appreciation of beauty – artistic, natural or otherwise – but that it is centred on the experiential.’ He then continues: ‘When I first drafted that last sentence I wrote “the experiential rather than the intellectual” and then almost added “based on feeling rather than thinking”. That was a mistake, and an instructive one.’ It is that kind of honesty, and that kind of precision, which makes the book so illuminating.
In this way the reader is led to a clear appreciation of the philosophical underpinnings of culture and societies across the globe. The writing is non-technical and aimed at the general reader, but Baggini is not afraid of specifics where appropriate; listing, for example, six ‘valid pramāṇas (sources of knowledge)’ in Indian philosophy.
By the end of the book the reader’s understanding is enriched, and one can appreciate more fully Baggini’s early comments on the weaknesses inherent in Western philosophy, and by extension in Western democracy: ‘The problems of Western democracy are a kind of allegory for the problems of Western philosophy. Its pursuit of the clear distinction between true and false creates a default either/or mindset. … And when there are several plausible views, a binary mindset finds it hard to manage the complexity that creates.’ His conclusion is that, by exploring alternative modes of thought, we may find ways of thinking that can be melded with our own to form more fruitful approaches. The only people who wouldn’t benefit from reading this book are those whose minds are closed, or those whose minds are already more open even than Julian Baggini’s. Buy it now.
I would have given five stars but for two points:
1. He lumps Camus in with Sartre and de Beauvoir as an existentialist, which he simply wasn’t. It’s a small thing, but when the whole book is about the importance of understanding the origins of the perspectives of others, it is important not to place a philosopher in a school he didn’t subscribe to, particularly when it wasn’t necessary to mention him at all for the otherwise fascinating relevant text.
2. Mr Baggini talks about what could be the philosophical underpinning of our views on depression, including attitudes towards antidepressants. The section is fascinating. But antidepressants are written off with a wave of the hand as if their efficacy had already been disproved. Given the stakes involved with mental health, and the dangers associated with any sudden withdrawal of antidepressants, I would urge Mr Baggini to review the wording in this section. I am not asking him to change his own view, but maybe just to make it clear that no one should take what he has written as medical advice. It may seem like one of those obvious things, but you just never know.
Despite the above, I really did seriously love this book, and had a number of ‘Oh my goodness, I never thought of X like that’ moments. I really recommend reading it.