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Customer Review

on 11 July 2012
This book, published in 2005, attempts to give the intelligent non-specialist an overview of philosophy in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century. The author is a philosophy graduate, but a journalist and writer rather than a professional philosopher. He approached his task by interviewing as many eminent living philosophers as possible, and his thumbnail portraits of these people help to make the book lively and approachable. The reader is never allowed to lose sight of the fact that philosophy is an activity conducted by living people.

Nonetheless, as the endorsements by Raymond Tallis and Hilary Putnam would imply, the subject is treated seriously. Fearn divides his book into three sections: 'Who Am I?', 'What Do I Know?' and 'What Should I Do?' Each of the thirteen chapters under these broad headings then tackles a single topic - 'The problem of the self', 'Innate ideas', 'Moral luck' and so on - and draws on the work of one or more current practitioners to show how things stand at present.

Fearn doesn't have much time for continental philosophy; the bare half-chapter devoted to postmodernism is dismissive. Nor does he care much for Peter Singer's utilitarianism and the fashionable animal rights agenda to which it gave birth. The focus is squarely on the Anglo-American tradition. However, Fearn avoids off-putting technical discussions of minutiae. His concern is to show how contemporary philosophers in this tradition still attempt to offer substantive answers to large, serious questions of the kind associated with the idea of 'doing philosophy' in the past.

One of the refreshing aspects of the book is that the author is ready to contend that in certain areas, discussion is effectively over: the public has simply not caught up with developments among the professionals. Without worshipping at the altar of science, he is prepared to show how philosophers in the past sometimes failed in their endeavours simply for lack of the right technological tools. On the other hand, where disputes still thrive, he conveys the intellectual excitement well. For Fearn, philosophy still has a point and a purpose separate from those of the more specific disciplines to which it has given birth.

This is an excellent, wide-ranging discussion of its subject: highly readable, without being patronising, and suggesting many lines of further enquiry. Doubtless it will not completely satisfy experts, but it wasn't written for them, and no book of this length could hope to be complete or equally authoritative on all subjects. It lacks only a bibliography for further reading, though one might be assembled from titles referred to in the notes. Recommended for any interested adult reader, though a motivated teenager might well cope with much of it. An acquaintance with at least the outlines of the history of philosophy and the main historical concerns would help: so not perhaps for complete beginners.
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