Good philosophy, bad philosophy

I hadn’t thought I would read Simon Blackburn’s Truth: A Guide. For some reason, I had formed the impression that it was a pop-philosophy book. While I think such books are very good things, I do not feel compelled to read them any more than a book on the physics of superheroes.

Then I happened to flip through a copy and found out it was based on Blackburn’s Gifford lectures. That was a good sign, since Gifford lectures are a good way to look into some serious contemporary religious thought. But then it turned out that Blackburn was not a believer, and that his subject had little to do with religion directly. So I got curious and picked up a copy.

It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable philosophy books I’ve read in years. It’s beautifully written, avoiding jargon and pomposity even when exploring difficult territory. It also helps, probably, that my prejudices seem to line up very well with those of Blackburn. It’s rare that I so often agree with a philosopher; it was an interesting experience to have the irritating “no; here’s where you go wrong” soundtrack in my head largely muted for a change. More to the point, the good writing and interesting discussions in the book made me more inclined to change my perspective on those occasions where I didn’t so easily fall in line.

Read it. You’ll enjoy it if you have any interest in the ongoing philosophical wars over relativism and truth. You’ll especially enjoy it if you’re irritated both by Platonic and other metaphysical ways to “solve” the problem and also the brain-to-mush syndrome displayed by too many postmodern thinkers.

And, just to restore me to my usual state of equilibrium, consisting of being pissed off at the whole philosophical enterprise, I should mention Between Naturalism and Religion by Jürgen Habermas, the German big shot. It’ll give me a few references to cite in one or two of my projects, but by an large, it’s a waste of time. It’s badly written, full of unnecessary jargon dressing up ideas that range from the trivial to the implausible. (I suspect that this is not an artifact of translation but a feature of the original German.)

Habermas, as usual, positions himself as a “postmetaphysical” philosopher, but his conception of what a philosopher is supposed to do seems much the same as in the mainstream metaphysical tradition. His views are still haunted by a ghost of transcendent Reason that delivers normative truths. And even a ghost of dualism puts in an appearance in his desultory complaints against naturalism. (Presented, as is customary, as “anti-reductionism.”)

There is one possible exception. Being postmetaphysical, Habermas says, means that philosophy gives up trying to adjudicate between rival metaphysical worldviews. But curiously, this apparently doesn’t so much mean that there is something wrong with metaphysical ways of thinking as that philosophy gives up the ability to criticize claims associated with ways of life, particularly religion, that heavily rely on making metaphysical claims. That’s an interesting point of view, perhaps, though I don’t find it very convincing.

Otherwise, if you like bullshit dressed up in jargon, this book is what you’ve been looking for.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03034292023591747601 PersonalFailure

    It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05188779170739251410 Danny Boy, FCD

    I have Blackburn’s book gathering dust in my library. Too many books, not enough time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13551684109760430351 Hume’s Ghost

    I read Truth: A Guide back when it came out and loved it.

    I thought being introduced to William Clifford’s “Ethics of Belief” essay and this Shelley quote from his “Adonais” eulogy were worth the price of the book alone:

    “Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, Stains the white radiance of eternity.”

    That line burned into my memory at first glance.


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