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Excellent on Aristotle
on 28 August 2012
Philosophy: All That Matters is an excellent introduction to philosophy from an Aristotelian perspective. It is a reasonable introduction to philosophy of science. And, sadly, it is a poor introduction to other aspects of metaphysics.
After a lucid and compelling section on Plato and Aristotle, Julian Baggini comes up short on quotations from Stephen Hawking that "Philosophy is dead" and from Lewis Wolpert that philosophy has taught us nothing which we wouldn't otherwise know. Somehow, after being so clear cut on the Greeks, Baggini starts to dither, offering us a variety of plausible reasons why we should still be interested in philosophy, but not much to convince a sceptical scientist. Part of the problem -- I fear -- is that, in his gentle style, Baggini has only insisted in the first section that Plato and Aristotle are plausible, and therefore has little in the way of weapons to fight a purely a posteriori inductive science. That he skates over Popper's contribution and fixes his attention on Kuhn doesn't really help.
He fares little better on religion, aesthetics, moral philosophy and political philosophy. On religion, he ascribes to all religion a counter-reformation view of falsifiability, and fails to distinguish between that which is disproven (the ontological argument) and others which are simply unfashionable. On aesthetics, he concludes: "I find aesthetics to be at one and the same time one of the most interesting and one of the most pointless branches of philosophy." This, rather sadly, is a fairly good summary of that chapter. As he turns to politics, the influence of Plato and Aristotle becomes steadily more oppressive, with essentially no time given to anything after Hobbes and Rousseau.
I am personally convinced that philosophy has a lot to offer the modern world, and that stronger answers are available to the challenges of Hawking and Wolpert. Unfortunately, having explicitly stated the objections, this 'All that matters' fails to answer them adequately, and the book's decline from that point is inevitable.
Verdict: this is a book about Aristotelian philosophy -- as the author cheerfully admits. For the questions that Aristotle answers well, it has good answers. For later questions, and more searching ones, it does not have a great deal to offer.