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May 1st, 2007

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11:55 pm - Book review (sorta long)
Confessions of a Philosopher: A Personal Journey Through Western Philosophy from Plato to Popper, by Bryan Magee

This is essentially a memoir that touches on a lot of the big landmarks of philosophy and the author's feelings towards them.

A couple things stood out for me. For one, the problems that come with professionalizing philosophy. Though he probably spends a bit too much time on it, he pretty much rips apart the philosophical tradition that dominated Oxford at the time of his education. That tradition boiled down to analyzing language to the exclusion of everything else. The bitterness comes from them wasting precious moments of his life on this. Though this was bad, the system that he says was supplanting it he also criticizes pretty harshly, so the larger issue seems to be how useless it all can be, rather than any specific useless one. The point is that there are really very few people who advance philosophy in some lasting way, and maybe everyone else should try to wrap their head around those works instead of churning out work that will never be of any lasting value.

Another striking thing is how much philosophical problems mean to him. How he literally believes he would die without philosophers to help guide his thinking about these problems. I think I've had glimpses of that kind of thing -- why does anything exist, why do I exist, what does it mean to be able to think -- but they pass before too long. I can't quite imagine what it's like to live constantly in the grip of those thoughts, but he provides some description of it. And really, maybe that's how it should be. They do seem like rather important, fundamental issues. However, I think I really just don't feel like that. Questions about why I'm here seem dwarfed by the fact that I, indeed, am, so any investigation of that will be more of a hobby than anything I feel urgently.

It's also interesting how many of the big names of the recent philosphers he's actually met and befriended: Russell, Schopenhauer, Popper, probably more I can't think of. That intimate of a brush with such famous thinkers definitely piques interest in reading their works.

That all said, I do find some things to object to. For one, I think he takes the belief mentioned above about only paying attention to the masters, and takes it further than it really should go. In his view, the only things really worth examining are the questions posed and examined by Kant, and anyone who looks at anything else isn't doing himself any favors. He says that someone like Neitzsche did contribute significantly to philosophy, but that for his own personal benefit, Neitzsche really should have just focused on Kant's questions. That seems rather presumptuous, and apparently it's advice that we should hope no one follows, because there are so few people who can advance Kant's questions that there might be one good contribution to them in 50 years, if we're lucky.

Second, and this one really bugged me, I found his rejection of determinism to be really inadequate, and I'm still baffled by someone who's studied philosophy all his life could make (what I view as) such completely specious arguments against it. His counter-arguments boil down to this: one, it really feels like he makes decisions on his own, and two, determinists don't really act like what they say they believe. That is, if you poke one with a stick, he'd say that you oughtn't be doing then, and so would be appealing to making a moral choice.

Let's tackle #2 first. Only a philosopher would say that someone would tell another person that he ought not poke him with a stick. What that person would really mean is that he doesn't like it and wants you to stop. Morality might be tried as a way to pressure the other person to stop, but that's hardly a conclusive case for free will. You do what you can to get the goal you are after, and if everyone has had some sense of morality instilled, then that is a tool to use. Even if determinists were being hypocritical, I hardly see why that proves determinism false. Newsflash: people can be hypocrites, get over it. For me, determinism isn't about a lack of morality or license to do whatever I want, it's just what seems true. I have no problem with having moral beliefs even if this is true. After all, how could I have a problem? If I have them, I had no choice in the matter whatsoever. That's what determinism is. Magee trots out the old "can society punish someone if he had no choice but to commit his act" line, but this ignores that if those members of society punish someone, that THEY have no choice in the matter either.

As for #1, yes it really does feel like I mull things over in my head and make my own choice. But I don't see how that's incompatible with determinism at all. He goes onto say that he recognizes there are very sophisticated arguments that this is indeed compatible, but goes on to say that if he is wrong about making moral choices, then he really knows nothing, because it's something he feels more strongly than just about anything. That's funny, because I feel that one of those fundamental things is that everything about us is in the realm of this world, and controlled by it. He says that there must be a realm where our minds reside that is beyond the material, because that is what would be needed for free will, and he believes that we simply must have free will. He goes on to ask some very good questions about this realm -- for example, how do our physical selves get attached to it? what happens when our physical bodies die? where did our mental selves come from in the first place? -- but then says that someone else should investigate this, rather than the obvious, namely that these questions prove that the idea is rather silly and falls victim to Occam's razor. As science has shown recently, our moral choices can change when specific parts of our brains are damaged. If that's not an extremely powerful argument for our minds being confined to the material world, I don't know what is. If that's not true, then why do our mental selves change in the exact same way as our physical selves, if they're not the same thing?

But aside from those couple issues (and as you can see, that last one really does bug me), it's definitely worth a look if you're so inclined. It's also a good springboard for thinking about some other (first hand) philosophical works to read.

And if you don't see your own book here, I'm working on it.

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