Passing the time
Peter Cave is irritated by Gallic philosophy
Freedom and love; God and death; atheism and art well, what can one say? Reading ponderings on these bewilderments, at the very least, passes the time. And while Samuel Beckett's wise observation "Time would have passed anyway!" springs readily to this reviewer's mind, ComteSponville's book presents a timepassing means superior to those of vacantly gazing at grounded planes, when delayed at airports; watching EastEnders; or reading typical newspaper leaders, even if of the quality press. Minimally, when this book is open, philosophical perplexities are there, right there, in front of readers' eyes. Mind you, to those already philosophically and reflectively attuned, blank starings, soap operas' tales and newspapers' non sequiturs themselves provide an abundance that can stimulate both musings metaphysical and engagements of an ethical nature.
You see, this book from CS (if I may refer to him thus) needs handling with care. It won't explode, but, if you lack care, you might fall for his silver tongue and some of his wily wonderings that are best not fallen for after all, he is French. If you're not careful, you might believe what he says when he says, for example, "If everything is false, everything is permitted " and "If it is possible to think anything, it is possible to do anything."
Now, if everything is false, then presumably it is false that everything is permitted and false that everything is false (as earlier he notes, but then forgets). Of course, it is also false that not everything is permitted. In any case, why raise the question, for whoever in his right mind ever suggested that everything is false? Neither the sun, sea, nor local goat can be false; and if it is false that two plus two equals four, is that then a truth that is itself false? Moreover, however much thinking you might do, I bet you won't manage to balance the stars on your head, count an infinity of numbers, or (arguably) find a reliable plumber at midnight in Soho. (I'd better not add: or discover the sheep of your wildest dreams.)
Although some of CS's suggestions are Alice in Wonderland stuff that lacks both Alice and much wonder, his writing and reasoning are not remotely as bad as some writing and reasoning which are passed off as good philosophy among today's intellectual elite of la nation Française. (See, for example, Julian Baggini's review of Debray in New Humanist, May 2004).
At the beginning I might have been read as suggesting that CS integrates his topics, but the book collects solely forewords, albeit expanded, from his other edited collections. The work, therefore, loses some continuity otherwise expected; and, one suspects, something has also been 'lost in translation' or maybe gained? when we are told that Spinoza writes that men are devoid (sic) if they think themselves free and that Kant's Categorical Imperative is to act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a general national (sic) law. This reviewer, though, has only an uncorrected proof, so those prepared to go into battle with this book should see if such errors persist.
The book is offered as an introduction, with a fair scattering of oneliners from the likes of Montaigne, Heidegger and Sartre. It is an introduction that, in addition to the topics cited, lets us into bafflements over quite what we know, how we ought to live, and about the nature of time. In so doing, it provides its own bafflements when telling us: "Humanity is not a game, it is an issue", and implies, with no good reason, that we can never know another's intentions.
"When I'm good, I'm good," purred Mae West, adding, "but when I'm bad, I'm better." Well, I am reluctant to describe this as a good introduction to philosophy. You need to have your wits about you in reading it to spot the errors and to ask the right questions and, if you are being introduced to philosophy, you might well feel in no position to take on CS in this way.
To be fair to author and potential readers alike, while I warn off those readers who seek careful reasoning, philosophical handholding, or even just good prose, those in need of some philosophical stirring might find its good bits reasonably good and, paradoxically, its bad bits better for the bad bits certainly do make you think. Of course, they can also irritate and so to those with high blood pressure: caveat emptor!