One of my favourite sections of Hall’s is the philosophy section, and not just because it is fitted into our broader “Science and Social Sciences” case alongside astrophysics, folklore, economics, sexology, and the Greek and Roman classics – in putting these together, we’ve returned philosophy to its eclectic roots. The first Greek philosopher, Thales, hypothesised that everything was not really, as it appeared to be, a series of solids shapes like human beings and guinea pigs and wood and so on, but that the primary substance of nature was actually a complicated and constantly reforming type of water. Obviously we’ve modified his views somewhat since then, but equally, since we now believe that the primary substance of nature is an enormous cloud of up-, down-, and charm-quarks, amongst others, which we cannot directly observe without changing, it is not obvious that we have become any less unclear about the questions that he was originally asking.
Already a digression. To get back on point, in recent years a major movement has begun to return philosophy to another one of its lost roots as self-help. Chief in this regard is Alain de Botton, many of whose works we stock on a fairly regular basis. Founder of the School of Life (http://www.theschooloflife.com/london/) and a key architect behind a number of its initiatives, (for example the now sadly defunct newspaper and constant satire of The Daily Mail, http://thephilosophersmail.com/) de Botton has articulated a number of times the importance, not of forcing people to pay attention to a distant and academic philosophy, but of bringing philosophy back into the lives of ordinary people, to speak to the concerns that we all share. As part of that project, here are a list of entryways into philosophy that I have found useful, and which will hopefully encourage you to see the philosophy section in a new and more positive light. There are of course lots of, as it were, philosophy books on the subject, but I’m assuming, for the purpose of this blog, that if you find those interesting and helpful already then you are already supplied with ideas of your own, and have your own recommendations. These particular recommendations are therefore non-traditional, highly parochial, and occasionally a little out of the box.
Firstly, for those who enjoy novels – and I think, at this point that’s a fairly safe assumption – there’s the splendid Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. Sophie, the protagonist, finds a packet of papers and a misaddressed postcard in her letterbox one morning. This leads her to encounter the mysterious philosopher Alberto Knox, and to question everything. The novel hails from Norway, and was reportedly the best selling book in the world in 1995. That means there is little excuse for not having read it at this point.
Secondly, for those who enjoy film, I’d recommend Richard Linklater’s weird but beautiful rotoscoped film Waking Life, a remarkably calm narrative about the nightmare of never being able to wake up from a dream. Again reportedly, on watching this people sometimes come to fear going to sleep, which sort of negates the whole point of the film – which is that you might already be asleep. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to give that away. Linklater has gone on to make a number of ambitious and brilliant films, including Boyhood, A Scanner Darkly, and Me And Orson Welles – which might also be good reasons to see this piece of fascinating cinematic innovation. This is also a step up from the more commonly recommended philosophical film, the Wachowski’s gun-toting blockbuster The Matrix – thought that is also quite fun, as is their very current Netflix series, Sense8.
Thirdly, out of a field of very worthy candidates, and a little deeper into the philosophical quagmire, is the podcast The Partially Examined Life (https://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/). PEL has the advantage of being philosophical in form as well as in character, as its a dialogue between four people who “were once set on doing philosophy for a living but then thought better of it”. There are plenty of episodes to choose from, it’s not important to hear them in a chronological order and, though they break it almost constantly, two of the major rules are not to assume that the audience has read what they’re discussing, or to assume that they’ve read any other philosophers.
Finally, a book on ethics that people might want to read because it will actually help in day to day life is Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save. Singer sets out to discuss one philosophical problem that has very serious implications – why should we give money to charity? Once he has (spoilers) argued that we should give money to charity, he goes on to discuss the interesting and practical question of which charities we should give our money too. This was also the subject of his follow-up book released earlier this year, The Most Good You Could Do.
All of these recommendations are supposed to be interesting on their own – you don’t have to come away from them convinced of the value of philosophy in shaping your sense of eudaimonia, your vision of the good life. But on the other hand, they might make it more interesting in surprising ways, and if they do, the philosophy section is the middle shelves of the first bookcase on the right as you come in the main door. I may see you there, or you may be being deceived by an evil demon into thinking you see me there.