on 27 August 2010
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.