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.