Mel Thompson : Understand Philosophy

This book in the ‘Teach Yourself’ series was certainly worth reading, and I did learn a thing or two from it, but my final impression was still one of slight disappointment. I was probably hoping for too much. So far I’d picked up most of my general information on Western philosophy haphazardly, indirectly and via-via, from the background information offered by people writing on related or much more specialised subjects. I’d read a rather difficult book on the philosophy of time (Craig Bourne’s A Future for Presentism), a book on logic, and over the last four decades countless books on Eastern philosophy, meditation, astrology, psychology, politics, etc., etc., etc., written by or about people as diverse as Aldous Huxley, Colin Wilson, George Gurdjieff, Carl Gustav Jung and the Dalai Lama, to mention just a very few examples. You can’t read all that (plus a wide range of literature and literary criticism) without picking up a fair bit of information about people like Plato, Kant and Marx, and in more recent years I’d read countless Wikipedia articles on most of the better known Western philosophers and their ideas. And last but not least I’d read Sophie’s World twice! I’m pretty certain, however, that this was the first general textbook I’ve ever read on the subject, the first book written for adults which claimed (in its very title!) to enable me to ‘Understand Philosophy’, and for some reason I seem to have made the unconscious assumption that this book was going to change my life…

(details below)

Unfortunately it didn’t – well, no more than Sophie’s World had anyway. In actual fact, reading this book made me realise just what a good introduction to Western philosophy that other one is, in spite of the fact that it was supposedly written for teenagers. The approach is slightly different, in that Jostein Gaarder starts with the pre-Socratic philosophers and works his way through the history of Western thought, while Mel Thompson divides his subject up into more specialised areas and examines the history of each one in turn. Both approaches have their good and bad points, and the main thing to be said in favour of Understand Philosophy is its breadth and the immense variety of subjects covered. Thompson seems to have wanted to say at least something about every conceivable branch of pure and applied philosophy, going from those dealing with the obvious big questions on the nature of reality, free will and determinism, via the philosophy of religion, politics, justice and ethics to that of aesthetics and education, and to at least mention every conceivable school of thought, up to and including feminism, structuralism and post-modernism (although, interestingly enough and in contrast to Gaarder, he doesn’t devote a single word to romanticism). Given the number of subjects, thinkers and schools of thought covered, he can’t possibly give more than an extremely brief outline of each. As a result, although it provides a lot of information, the book tends to be slightly disjointed and to jump around from one specialised field of enquiry to another. Gaarder covers a much smaller area, but I found he provides a better picture of the general sweep of the history of Western thought, showing how it has changed through the ages, often in a pattern of ‘two steps forward, one step back’.

What both books have in common as far as I’m concerned is a strong tendency to treat religion much too indulgently. Gaarder devotes a long chapter to monotheistic religion, and includes a detailed and uncritical account of Judaism and the birth of Christianity, giving much more space to these particular schools of thought than to others which in my opinion, even if they’ve been less influential in practice, are much more deserving of the label ‘philosophy’. The special treatment which Thompson gives to religious thought, however, is more qualitative than quantitative: having talked about “the search for truth and knowledge” and “clarity and rigor” of thought, and having said “To philosophize is to think clearly and accurately” (introduction, p.xi,9), he then forgets all this and goes out of his way to redefine philosophy so as to ensure that religious beliefs can be taken seriously, regardless of whether they have anything to do with truth, knowledge, clarity or rigor, never mind reason or logic. OK, he’s entitled to put unreasoned belief on the same level as rigorous philosophical enquiry if that’s the way he really sees things, but I don’t see him doing that in the case of astrology, for instance…

It’s unavoidable that a book which aims to cover such a large area will be very basic and very brief, but I felt that this one could sometimes have been slightly clearer. I didn’t always agree with the writer, and on many occasions I’d have loved to have had him there in front of me so that I could shout “yes but…”, “hang on a second!” and occasionally even “rubbish!”. And one last criticism: the book makes a very bad first impression, starting as it does with an introduction, obviously thrown together quickly for this edition, which is absolutely full of cut-and-paste errors, while a single quick read-through would have been enough to correct them. A bit sloppy to say the least!

So much for the book; now for the philosophy… Just as with Sophie’s World, while I read this book I found myself constantly comparing the ideas of the great philosophers of the past with my own, watching out for points where they overlapped and hoping to find my own viewpoints expressed in a clearer or more convincing way, although I’d have been just as happy (well, almost!) to have found someone coming out with something to contradict or throw doubt on them. As usual I found various aspects of my ideas reflected here and there, but I didn’t come across any single philosopher of whom I could say: ‘he said it all before’. I’m pretty sure that not one of my ideas is original in the sense that no one has ever thought of it or written it down before, but I’ve yet to see them put together in quite the same way or leading anyone to quite the same conclusions. And, logically enough, as I hadn’t found my philosophy as a whole stated by anyone in the past, neither was it ever refuted or criticised. Here are a few examples of philosophers whose ideas seem to overlap quite well with mine:
– Kant, surprisingly enough, who said that the world is shaped by our own means of perceiving and understanding it, and that space, time and causality are products of the mind (p.24). I hadn’t had a very positive impression of Kant up to now, and I still don’t as far as his morality and his ‘Categorical Imperative’ are concerned, but he seems to have had some very intelligent things to say about the relationship of mind to external reality and subjective to objective.
– Bertrand Russell, who accepted the objective reality of an object (e.g. his table) on the basis of the fact that it can be seen by a number of different people at the same time, in other words shared experience is taken as a basis for objectivity. I can’t think of any better (or, in fact any other) way of deciding the extent to which something objectively exists!
– Wittgenstein, Ayer and the logical positivists, who said that only the evidence of our senses, with logic applied to it, can tell us anything about the nature of reality. They concluded that “Metaphysics and theology are literally ‘meaningless’ – since such statements are neither matters of logic (and therefore true by definition – a priori) nor are they provable by empirical evidence.” (p.71). They therefore decided that philosophy should be reduced to the analysis and clarification of other disciplines, but I wouldn’t quite go that far. They’d set the limits of what we can know, and made clear that anything beyond that is nothing more than speculation, but speculation about what we cannot know for certain can still be interesting – and perhaps even useful.

Reading this book made me realise just how big a subject philosophy is, what a wide area it covers, how its different branches interact with one another, and how much there is to be said about every one of these many branches. It would be very easy to get lost in the maze, and to spend a whole lifetime looking at the details of any one of these branches, while losing the overall picture, and I don’t intend doing that. So, where should I go from here? Maybe Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy ? I started looking for it on-line…

And to finish with, a couple of interesting points, unrelated to this book or to anything else in particular, but this feels like an appropriate place to put them:

  • In the free will / determinism debate, it might be interesting to compare human action to chance. If we assume that the way a dice falls is determined by physical factors (right down to atomic level), then theoretically it could be predicted. Imagine a very accurate dice-throwing machine, protected from all outside influences (including even the slightest change in gravity or air pressure), which, starting with the dice in a given position, would be capable of throwing the same number again and again – in other words the number which will come up can be predicted. If there’s an element of ‘true’ chance, a sort of cosmic random number generator which would make prediction even theoretically impossible (which is undoubtedly true, if you take what’s happening at the quantum level into consideration), then such a machine is impossible and the way a dice falls can never be predicted. In the same way, human actions are the result of everything which has gone before, and may therefore be theoretically predictable. On the other hand there may or may not be a totally unpredictable ‘free will’ factor – the psychological equivalent of the element of ‘true’ chance – which makes prediction even theoretically impossible. But all this is only of academic interest. In practice, even if such a dice-throwing machine could be constructed, the way a normal dice falls on a normal table cannot be predicted, so from our point of view chance does exist. In actual fact this only means that all possibilities are equally likely (assuming it’s a good dice) and that we don’t know which way it will fall. One of the possibilities is actually different, in that it is the one which actually will become reality, but we don’t yet know which one that is. This becomes obvious, in my opinion, if we look at the situation at a given point in the past, and assume that time is symmetrical, i.e. that there is no qualitative difference between two particular points in time (not that everyone would agree with that statement). Getting back to human action, even if it’s theoretically predictable, in practice it remains unpredictable. And although, out of the many possible futures which exist at any given moment, one is different in that it is the one which actually will become reality, we don’t know which one that is. So, from our perspective free will really exists, just as chance really exists.

  • I recently thought up a new meaning for the term ‘original sin’ – and I reckon it makes a lot more sense and is a lot more useful than the traditional Christian meaning. As far as I’m concerned ‘sin’ means doing that which is not a good idea, i.e. which is not good for you and/or for others, and is the result of a lack of information and/or a lack of reasoning power – you could also say, a lack of civilisation and of wisdom. The necessary information has been acquired, and the necessary reasoning power developed, over a period of many thousands of years of human cultural and biological development, but unfortunately for us and for the rest of life on Earth, each individual has to repeat this process. Just as embryonic development in the womb mirrors evolution, so each individual has to complete the difficult task of rising from a primitive, animal, emotion-driven state to our present level of civilisation, and some individuals achieve it better than others – I’d even go so far as to say that a large part of the world’s population never gets any further than the Dark Ages. Even if such cultural and biological development might be inherited to some extent, the least we can say is that each individual has to repeat most of it. In other words, each individual is born not with the guilt for something one of his ancestors did, nor with some sort of a ‘stain on their soul’, but simply with an inbuilt ignorance and lack reasoning power – which we might usefully call ‘original sin’. And the cure for this new sort of ‘original sin’ is not ‘salvation’, but education, development and (especially, I would say) self-development.

  • Just to expand slightly on what I refer to above as the acquisition of information and the development of reasoning power… The process by which the human race has advanced and become more ‘civilised’ can usefully be divided into two distinct parts: on the one hand the gathering of ever more – and ever more accurate – knowledge through the technical advancement of science (e.g. the invention of the telescope, the microscope, the thermometer, etc., etc., etc.), and on the other hand all the advances which have been made in the area of pure reasoning power, quite independently of the above-mentioned technical advances, for instance in the fields of logic, mathematics and philosophy, including the development of the ‘scientific method’. These are simply advanced and improved forms of the two methods available to any individual conscious mind for knowing anything about the world: the information coming to us via our senses and the processing of this raw information by an intelligent brain. It’s interesting to look at how these two aspects of progress are related: the first of them (the gathering of information by technical means) has expanded exponentially over the last few centuries whereas the second has been going on steadily for thousands of years (the development of mathematics, for instance), although they interact in a complex way, information-gathering providing material for reasoning, and reasoning directing the process of information-gathering. Although it would seem logical to expect information-gathering to precede reasoning (in the case of an individual conscious mind, if there were no information coming from the senses then the brain would have nothing to work on), it seems to me that reasoning has tended to take the lead more in recent centuries. Whereas in the middle ages people did experiments and then tried to explain the results, Einstein’s discoveries were made on paper, and only confirmed (sometimes much later) by physical experiment. And the advanced physics which is at the cutting edge of science these days is driven almost entirely by mathematics. Maybe I should have become a mathematician…



author Mel Thompson
title Understand Philosophy
first published 1995
this edition 2010
language English
publisher / version read Hodder Education / Teach Yourself
ISBN 978-1-444-10499-8
read 25/07/2013 – 08/08/2013


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