Think by Simon Blackburn is subtitled "A compelling introduction to philosophy". And, even if the book is only compelling to somebody who already feels a compulsion to think, it's still a fast and fun survey of many central ideas in life. The chapter titles give a good sketch of its coverage:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Mind
  3. Free Will
  4. The Self
  5. God
  6. Reasoning
  7. The World
  8. What to Do

Blackburn commences with a nice description of what he does for a living:

... I would prefer to introduce myself as doing conceptual engineering. For just as the engineer studies the structure of material things, so the philosopher studies the structure of thought. Understanding the structure involves seeing how parts function and how they interconnect. It means knowing what would happen for better or worse if changes were made. This is what we aim at when we investigate the structures that shape our view of the world. Our concepts or ideas form the mental housing in which we live. We may end up proud of the structures we have built. Or we may believe that they need dismantling and starting afresh. But first, we have to know what they are.

Quibbles? Think slips at times into severe word-gamesmanship. It often ventures into the tar pit of introspection, and accepts as true that which is merely obvious. It frequently applies the common philosophical tactic of using tools (e.g., logic, reason, observation, shared common knowledge, existence, consciousness) in order to undercut themselves --- sawing off the tree limb on which it is perched. And it has a rather strong anti-religious bias in many places.

But despite such shortcomings, Think is an fine book, provocative and entertaining. It quotes extensively from classic writings of Descartes, Locke, Leibnitz, Hume, and others, and is quite successful in stirring up desires to read more of the originals. Blackburn turns repeatedly to one of my favorite metaphors, Otto Neurath's "We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom." (cf. AtSea (24 Aug 2001) for a slightly different translation) In other words, our beliefs can be consistent and coherent --- a self-supporting structure --- without having a "foundation" somewhere upon which everything else is built, but which depends on nothing. That's comforting. (at least to me!)

Blackburn tends not to reach many conclusions; he asks questions but often fails to answer them. But he ends Think on a mildly optimistic note:

I believe the process of understanding the problems is itself a good. If the upshot is what Hume called a 'mitigated skepticism' or sense of how much a decent modesty becomes us in our intellectual speculations, that is surely no bad thing. The world is full of ideas, and a becoming sense of their power, their difficulty, their frailties, and their fallibility cannot be the least of the things it needs.

TopicPhilosophy - TopicLiterature - TopicThinking - 2002-08-29

(correlates: AtSea, ReallyGreat, LearningFromAdversity, ...)