Sep 21, 2022
What can a 2500-year-old discipline tell us about how to live better in the modern world?
Can philosophy help us with worldly troubles? Ancient philosophers thought the answer was obvious. Philosophy is a “medical art for the soul”, Cicero tells us. Its compassionate task is to lead us from suffering towards a life lived well. Contemporary philosophers are likely to be more circumspect. Wouldn’t it be presumptuous to think that my training in philosophy equips me to offer advice? The only CPR I know is the Critique of Pure Reason and the tools of my trade – a careful distinction here, some logic-chopping there – seem laughably inadequate to the fears and worries of modern living.
In his new book, Kieran Setiya disagrees. Through carefully crafted examples, he makes the case that philosophy can help us navigate the adversities of human life: pain, loneliness, grief and so on. He, too, is trained in the splitting of hairs. But this is not primarily a book of argument. It is a reflection designed to offer us new ways of thinking about ordinary hardships. Continue reading...
May 18, 2022
Translated into English for the first time, these diaries provide a glimpse into the innermost thoughts of a great philosopher
Ludwig Wittgenstein joined the army the day after his native Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia in August 1914. He had been serving for almost three months when he received word that his brother Paul, a concert pianist, had lost his right arm in battle. “Again and again,” he wrote in his notebook, “I have to think of poor Paul, who has so suddenly been deprived of his vocation! How terrible! What philosophical outlook would it take to overcome such a thing? Can it even happen except through suicide!”
Wittgenstein was an unusual philosopher. He became obsessed with the foundations of logic while an engineering student and presented himself to Bertrand Russell in Cambridge, ready to solve all its problems. His intent was to provide an account of logic that was free from paradox and his solution came in the form of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, sent to Russell from the Italian prisoner-of-war camp in which Wittgenstein was held at the end of the first world war. Continue reading...
Feb 10, 2022
How Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot and Mary Midgley arrived at a radically new philosophical approach
Metaphysical Animals is both story and argument. The story is a fine one. Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot and Mary Midgley were students at Oxford during the second world war. They found a world in which many of the men were absent. Those who remained were either too old or too principled to fight. It was a world, as Midgley later put it, where women’s voices could be heard.
Had the four arrived in Oxford before the war, they would have found a philosophical scene dominated by clever young men. Prime among them was AJ Ayer, whose book Language, Truth and Logic bore the mark of its author – quick, sharp, always in a hurry – and set the tone for the new philosophy. Ayer held that philosophy needed a boundary to stop it from straying into nonsense. That which could be said clearly and verifiably made sense; that which couldn’t was nonsense. Out went reams of philosophy, theology and metaphysics. What remained was the cold, hard world of science. Facts were one thing; values – our expressions of approval and disapproval – another. Continue reading...