Silence Please

Posted on by David Gelber

The canon of Western philosophy contains some very odd books, but none is odder than the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It was the work of a wealthy young engineer from Vienna called Ludwig Wittgenstein, who completed it while serving in the Austrian army during the First World War. His aim was to yoke together two different topics, […]

Enthusiasm and Its Discontents

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

We think of the Enlightenment as a movement dedicated to the clearing away of prejudice, superstition and all the delusions that obstruct the rule of reason and the achievement of happiness. The great enlighteners – Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, Kant, Wollstonecraft, Bentham – in the usual presentation were reflective and principled men and women, a ‘party […]

Sage of Sepharad

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Did you know that John Milton cited the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides to justify his radical views on divorce after Mary Powell, his estranged wife, left him? On Maimonides’s authority, Milton reported that Moses had ruled that ‘peace and quiet in the family’ are more important than holding on to a mismatched union. It’s one […]

Was He Apollo’s Son?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Contrary to many people’s perception of him, Plato did not spend his entire life listening to Socrates philosophising in colonnades in Athens or writing dialogues meandering through complex ideas. He was once captured in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and put up for sale in a slave market. The reason we seldom hear about this is the same reason there hasn’t been a stand-alone biography of Plato in English in nearly 200 years. The sources for his life are untrustworthy and fiendishly difficult to interpret.

Freed from Desire

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Good morals and tranquillity aren’t the first things that come to mind when we think of diehard hedonists, whether it’s Don Juan or Dorian Gray. But Epicurus, the greatest champion of hedonism in antiquity, seems to square the circle. Only pleasure, he argues, makes life worthwhile. And if we do pleasure right, we will also […]

Philosophy for the People

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

For Aristotle, to think well is to live well. Julian Baggini shares this conviction and his guide to ‘clearer thinking’, based on twelve principles, frequently slides from epistemology to ethics. To think more like a philosopher is to ‘become the best versions of ourselves’, Baggini writes. Philosophy is, importantly, an activity rather than merely a […]

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He Wept at the Mention of Bach

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

How far do we expect philosophers’ ideas to reflect or reveal their personalities? The theories of philologists, fungus experts and chemists, said Nietzsche, can be quite distinct from their lives and interests, but a philosophical theory, however abstruse and metaphysical, can never be impersonal. Spun out of the philosopher’s deepest drives, it is ineluctably ‘a […]

Who’s Afraid of Ludwig Wittgenstein?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Oxford philosophy was quite the thing in the 1950s. The Third Programme (the cultural arm of BBC radio) gave ample airtime to its leading personality, Gilbert Ryle, while the snappily dressed A J Ayer (temporarily stranded in faraway London) made a splash on television. In those days, philosophers enjoyed a certain mystique – their position […]

In Man We Trust

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

To be a humanist in the early 21st century might seem to require as least as much faith as to be religious. Belief in either a benevolent deity or the fundamental goodness of humankind does not sit well with knowledge of what we have done over history to ourselves and the planet. The horrors of colonialism, Nazism, Stalinism and the Cultural

Nothing is Real

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

We easily and often apply the label ‘postmodern’ to particular artworks, architecture, activities and ideas; it is harder to specify some common quality of postmodernism that they all share. Far more than other historical phases, ‘postmodernity’ seems almost to have been concocted by those who write about it. The term suggests an impossible realm – after the present yet somehow already present itself; the concept, judging by the copious literature on it, is precisely about imprecision

Strife on Earth

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Philosophy in the early modern period sometimes does not seem so modern. True, much of what now constitutes epistemology and philosophy of mind was initiated by René Descartes. He and his 17th-century colleagues Thomas Hobbes, Pierre Gassendi, Baruch Spinoza, Robert Boyle, John Locke, Nicolas Malebranche, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and others, like Galileo shortly before them, […]

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Letting Go of God

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

‘Are you religious?’ and ‘Do you believe in God?’ are notoriously difficult questions to answer. The problem, of course, is that one is not sure what is being asked, and especially what is meant by ‘religious’ and ‘God’. Must one even believe in God, in whatever sense of the term, in order to be religious? Could not an atheist-, someone who is not merely agnostic about the existence of a deity but who positively denies that there is any such thing, nonetheless sincerely and legitimately claim to be a religious person? In her wonderful new book, Spinoza’s Religion, Clare Carlisle addresses these questions from the perspective of

We Must Cultivate Our Gardens

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

From opposite ends of the metaphysical spectrum, these two books deal with questions that seem of heightened importance at present: how to be happy and where to find meaning in life. The Fourfold Remedy, by the philosopher John Sellars, makes no mention of coronavirus, so had presumably gone to press when the first wave struck; […]

How Deep is Your Love?

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Mining the resources of Christianity for a secular age might seem like a fool’s errand. Even François Jullien, the man who set himself this task, says Christianity is ‘a collective embarrassment’. With its blood-drinking rituals and tales of miracles, it can be hard to see how this ancient cult even made it to the 21st […]

Quill & Sceptre

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Frederick the Great, who ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786, was that rare entity, a philosopher-king. Even before he came to the throne he not only sought out philosophers, corresponding with Voltaire, perhaps 18th-century Europe’s foremost man of letters, but also made his own contribution by publishing many philosophical essays, some of which are presented […]

Christ Laid Bare

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

One day, Jesus meets a rich young man. They discuss the way to inherit eternal life, somewhat at cross-purposes, and at the end of their conversation, Jesus says this: ‘Go, sell all you have, give the money to the poor, then come and follow me.’ Perhaps you are rich, young or a man. I am […]

Deconstructionist Deconstructed

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

When I went to university in 1982 to begin my degree in French, the philosopher and writer Jacques Derrida, who was then in his early fifties, was a kind of pop star. Peter Salmon notes this fact, remarking that the then fashionable band Scritti Politti had even written a song about him. The lyrics ran: […]

The Verification Code

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In 1952, Philipp Frank came to the attention of the FBI director, J Edgar Hoover, as a possible communist sympathiser. Frank, an immigrant, had been a member of the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers that had met from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s. Visited by FBI agents, Frank showed them the passage in one […]

Meetings with Disaster

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

I don’t know if misery loves company but I’m convinced that failure does. Losers like us are prone to revel in the losses of our enemies and to draw comfort from the failures of family and friends. If they have survived, so can we. When his projects fall flat, my son likes nothing better than to […]

The Poetry of Reason

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

If you want to become a better person, you ought to study the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. That at least is the message of Steven Nadler’s delightful new book, and it may seem rather surprising. Spinoza’s bottom line was that mind and body are inseparable, that the entire world is a single unitary substance and that everything in it, from the stars and planets to our bodies

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