Zen and the Art of Philosophy

A review of:

“How The World Thinks
– A Global History of Philosophy”
by Julian Baggini

All my reviews are done in the context of my own philosophical journey and often, like this one, a review done very early on in the reading, so that my own prejudices are laid bare for later analysis and a later review if I sense I learned something new worth sharing. And since “nothing new under the sun” – a perennial philosophy – is a recurring adage of my own, success in this may boil down to a pithy restatement – or aphoristic restatements – of long established wisdom for current and future times.

“Intriguing and illuminating”, as a description of what the book is, the review by Simon Blackburn in the Literary Review says it well enough. Baggini is filling a hole in his, and many a western philosopher’s, grounding by exploring in a descriptive, historical and comparative way a range of Asian and African philosophical traditions. He’s doing so in a laudably naive way by identifying this gap in the current state of his own education. And he’s proceeding to explore by reading and interviewing and by physically travelling to conferences of these non-western schools of thought. The content is therefore as substantial as that recent research exercise, which is naturally pretty thin. As I say, that naivety laid bare is laudable since he is claiming little more than a prerequisite first step towards a mere introduction to the topics.

The point, of course, is to cultivate sufficient interest in, and recognition of the significance of, the parallels and differences between alternatives to western received wisdom when it comes to ways of looking at the world. In that, I believe, he succeeds.

And for me, he also succeeds in some interesting new summary statements of what it is about non-western world-views he wants to bring to our attention. Which is good because, if nothing else, Baggini has his own way of engaging with”intellectual and spiritual generosity” which is essential “for our fractious and dangerously divided era” as Richard Holloway’s cover-blurb comment attests.

All those people out there who believe real world progress depends on pursuing critical debate to its natural conclusions between objectively well defined options or, god forbid, between partisan identity-politics positions, would do well to savour Baggini’s more generous style.

Personally, as someone who came into philosophy late in life via Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and as someone who only noticed any need for philosophy at all after decades of perceiving an ineffable incompleteness – something’s missing that I can’t put into words – in the received wisdoms of everyday western techno-socio-economic business life, I don’t need the gap pointed out. The gap is where I started. I do however appreciate Baggini’s summary restatements of lessons learned.

He quite comfortably uses Karl Jasper’s idea that classic traditions of philosophy arose independently in parallel in Greece, India and China in the 500 years or so up to around 300 BCE, the so-called “Axial Age”. I say comfortable because, as I learned from hearing reaction to the same concept used by Rebecca Goldstein (an influence Baggini and I both share), it’s controversial to reduce so much complex history to a single idea. But then as Baggini points out the need to generalise common aspects whilst taking account significant differences is a fundamental philosophical – human – trick in any tradition. That’s material for a whole text by itself.

Having started there, not surprisingly the Indian and Chinese classics behind the subsequent histories of eastern philosophies and religions are a focus of the work. Despite a richly documented heritage, both place much lesser emphasis on words – spoken or written – than the western tradition. With even less documented traditions, African references are of course much more sparse, and so far as I can see there is no reference to any native American traditions, north or south.

This is part of what I call the Catch-22 of philosophy. Thanks to Gutenberg, not to mention modern electronic and social media, any ideas that can be – and are – represented in symbolic language, have a natural memetic advantage in their spread and adoption over those that are nevertheless lived by all humans around the world. That advantage says nothing about how good the world-view is, simply that it is easy to represent accurately, which is only fine if you believe transportable linguistic representation is the most valuable measure of a philosophy. Catch-22 as I say, or Procrustes bed if you prefer.

Anyway, Baggini notes that before he (and Pirsig), plenty of western philosophers have noted and grappled with this. It takes the nuanced readings of Spinoza, Kant and Wittgenstein to appreciate workable ways of fitting the omission of eastern ideas to western thinking to create any truly integrated global world-view. I say integrated because holding onto the idea some single monolithic world-view – the one true metaphysics – might result, is part of the problem.

Baggini obviously chooses the sources he references and anyone reading could choose their own preferred alternative sources of similar if not much the same content. But, beyond critical debate on exactly what P meant when they wrote X and whether that might be true or not according to which arguments, the real value here is in identifying the ongoing significance of the classic east-west gap to a global philosophy for modern life. Baggini’s specific contribution – beyond his generous and readable style – has to be the neat taxonomy of the subject matter in his (mostly) one word choices of chapter headings; Insight, Logic, Tradition, Time, Unity, Self, Harmony and Virtue; to name just a few examples.




14 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Philosophy”

  1. Thanks Bruce.
    Yes there is plenty of stuff out there / gone before. It’s kinda my “perennial” point as you know, and one reason despite the “quality” of Julian’s writing, the content so far is naive and very thin. But to give him credit, he says this, and claims nothing more than the tiniest step towards an introduction.

    [PS Julian and I (and Pirsig) have crossed paths on this topic before, and I have some more prepared if he finds the time and will to interact on it. I’d like to encourage a “public” philosopher to take this further.]

  2. Good luck with that , Ian.
    You may find Peter Adamson , at the ” HoPWaG” link above , more responsive and better informed. I’ve enjoyed a couple of brief exchanges with him.

  3. Been browsing around HopWag to see what’s there.
    I can see Classical, Later Antiquity and Mediaeval; Islamic, Byzantine and Africana, and thorough Indian (incl Nagarjuna) but
    No Chinese / Japanese / SE Asia [Though I see Stanford (SEP) has these.]
    No Americas,
    No Pacific.
    Is HoPWaG a work in progress?

  4. That review raised a couple of issues worth comment , Ian.

    The contrast with HoPWaG reveals the necessarily superficial and reductive nature of “How the World Thinks.”
    The apparent omission of the Islamic tradition is at odds with its role in the history of philosophy.
    But I’ve only read the reviews !

    “The most influential philosophical tradition produced by the 20th-century US was the pragmatism of Richard Rorty, arguing that truth is merely what works best as truth for a given community. Baggini connects this to “something in the American psyche”, a “folk pragmatism” that “is unconcerned with intellectual niceties and focused on solutions”. Every culture has its philosophies, in the form of characteristic tendencies in decision-making. Philosophies are embedded in the material fabric that surrounds a people, in its architecture, its utensils, its experience of landscape.”

    This quote will find favour with some of the “Pirsig Bulldogs” who insist on seeing pragmatism and Pirsig’s perennialism as expressions of American virtues . This despite William James spirited defence of Fideism : “The Will to Believe” which was a response to WK Clifford’s : ” The Ethics of Belief ” , itself encapsulated by this quote : “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Clifford was English but obviously far too pragmatic for James.

    It would seem that “World Philosophy” is a major growth area in academia and Baggani’s book is timed to gain wide readership . It may even appear pivotal in the ensuing shift of focus. It’ll probably lead many to read Adamson’s books too.

    The efforts of these guys , and their funding , should help too. http://www.murtylibrary.com/

    I commend the trend .

  5. Hi Bruce, I too commend the trend.
    Fascinating times.
    (For the record, Baggini’s books doesn’t overlook the Islamic contribution, just not part of the “Axial” origins – it is covered in the overall introduction, and I’ve not completed my read yet.)
    Your additional contributions & suggested reading / links much appreciated.

  6. Indeed Ian , HoPWaG is very much a work in progress ; may it never stop. I’ve listened to many of the podcasts but I still haven’t got hold of the books which followed them , but I assume the same quality prevails in them , and I intend to read them.

    I’ll be interested to hear your views on “How the World Thinks” when you finish it. And I imagine our chances of grasping the history of philosophy in oral cultures is slight. From them we lack even the fragments that exist from the pre-socratics .


  7. Hi Bruce, two things …
    (1) Yes, I’m getting the impression HoPWaG majors on Indian Philosophy, and
    (2) Your comment re difficulty with undocumented oral & physical traditions. The unspoken reason I’m interested in Native American traditions is of course because it was behind Pirsig & Dusenberry work, the Chautauqua movement and the whole Ayahuasca / Peyote / LSD early beat-generation “stuff”. Pirsig’s second book non-PC working title (before it became Lila) was “Them Pesky Redskins”.

    And, if it’s not already obvious, the reason the unwritten stuff is my primary interest is because the written stuff has an “unfair” memetic (evolutionary) advantage in being shared and adopted globally. The Catch22 in this post. This is key to my agenda.

  8. And BTW Bruce:
    On the amount of reading available – online and in books.
    Don’t stop sharing references,
    but I subscribe to two concepts:
    One is Eco’s library of unread books.
    The other is Pirsig’s psychiatrist who said, stop reading and thinking (it’ll just drive you mad) and “just write something” 😉
    Writing as therapy.

  9. Sorry if I gave the wrong impression with regard to HoPWaG’s focus , Ian . The link I sent also leads to this prior blog by Adamson.


    My comment on oral cultures was prompted by your mention of Pacific philosophy . I do live in NZ , Aotearoa , after all. My grandchildren are Maori . But I’d say that it’s hard to champion a philosophy of which only a faint trace , but no record , remains.

    The “whole Ayahuasca / Peyote / LSD early beat-generation “stuff” may not be oral but the experience is ineffable.
    Enough said . Literally.

    Pirsig’s love of Americana got away on him at times . “Chautauqua” was the hardest of the undefined terms in ZAMM to fathom. It’s very hard to find in dictionaries, and the internet didn’t exist back then.

    And his great rave in favour of laconic speech , with it’s transcription of a taciturn western movie scene ; which places this phenomenon as an American Indian trait , ignores the fact that it was called “laconic” after the Spartans who came from Laconia.

    I too suffer from bookshelves weighed down by unread books. And like you and Eco I regard many of them as friends, familiars or touchstones .

    The “just write something” quote strikes a chord as I’ve just been in touch with Douglas Hofstadter about the writing task he posed in “Le Ton Beau de Marot” ; to attempt a translation of a short poem with minimal loss of content and form.

    I’ve been tempted to mention “Pirsig’s Brick” to him , more than once . Hofstadter also pushes the notions that tightly constrained micro-domains can highlight the aesthetic element of preference that underlies perception and that these constraints will , counterintuitively , inspire creativity. Attempting the task set by Hofstadter brought this home to me , like never before.

    And yes it’s been very therapeutic .

  10. Hofstadter, another hero of mine – most tangibly the evolutionary consciousness line with Dennett. Wrote somewhere a while ago that Hof has quite a lot of the Americana / Eastern-Mystic in his background too, and I noticed that meta-interest in translation as a thing in itself. No end of fascination 😉

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