Insularity is a professional vice among academic philosophers. It is not so much that the British read British philosophers (and some ancient Greeks), the Germans read German philosophers (and some ancient Greeks), and so on across the world. It is rather that we become trapped in little bubbles of problems and approaches, and find it difficult to recognise alternatives as the real thing: philosophy as well as something else, such as literature or religion. The habitat we have settled into provides enough interest and nourishment, and it is rather daunting to imagine any other. Some of us, feeling a little guilty about this, suppose that one day, when we are less busy, we might travel, just as someone newly retired supposes that he or she might eventually take a cruise, perhaps to India, China or Japan. But often enough, we do not manage to turn the wish into the deed. And if we do, we often find ourselves to be mere tourists, gaping at the surfaces of things, unable to comprehend the life underneath them.
Julian Baggini, a prolific and engaging philosophical writer, is made of sterner stuff, and this fascinating book is the result. He has not only undertaken to acquaint himself with different traditions of thought, but has also travelled to different countries and institutions, attended multicultural conferences and workshops, and interviewed representatives of different traditions. He has done so in the spirit of a genuine traveller rather than a tourist, and the results are always intriguing and often illuminating.
He is, of course, aware that the undertaking is fraught with problems. At the beginning of such a quest, we can only hear the words of other traditions through translation into our own. The question of what is real understanding and what is an imposition of the concepts and