Nigel Warburton: Best philosophy books of 2016

Sophie Roell of Five Books interviewed freelance philosopher Nigel Warburton  (bio here) on his choices for the best popular philosophy books of 2016. The choices are interesting, and I’ll read at least two of them—probably the first two. I’ll show the books and then summarize a few of Warburton’s comments (indented)

An intro:

Over the last decade there has been a huge growth in popular philosophy. The result is that you’re not just getting general introductions to philosophy, but some significant books that deal with important philosophical questions. They’re written by philosophers, but pitched at a general public, so don’t use highly technical language or too many footnotes. This year has been a good year for this sort of book.

The books:

This is the best philosophy book that I’ve read this year. It is exceptional. Sarah Bakewell wrote a brilliant book about Montaigne, several years ago, which won a number of prizes. I think, in some ways, this book is even better. She explains the philosophy and situates it in the time, but she does this with a very light touch.

What she’s managed to do is combine the story of predominantly French existentialism (focusing on Sartre and de Beauvoir as well as Merleau-Ponty) with digressions about Heidegger and others. She’s combined that with some autobiographical elements and a real passion for the subject.

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My selection of books is quite idiosyncratic. It’s the five best books that I’ve read in philosophy this year — but I’ve excluded more technical, academic monographs because I think it’s appropriate that we should focus on books that a general reader would find interesting.

For me, Peter Singer is one of the best stylists alive in philosophy. Very few people realise this. People rarely remark on his writing style, but he is the most lucid of writers. He writes about complex matters very succinctly, very calmly, so that his writing is almost transparent to what he is saying. It is not flamboyant. It is almost invisible. He manages, in these essays, to address really deep questions in just two or three pages — often saying more than other people say in a whole book.

. . . Many thousands of people have been converted to vegetarianism and veganism by his arguments. Many people have also been convinced by his arguments about effective uses of charitable donations. They have led people to give up promising academic careers and go and work in the City in order to generate more income, which they can then distribute charitably. He’s triggered some extremely rich people to make very significant donations to medical research and to medical-based charities. He’s had a big effect on the world. I would be hard-pressed to think of another philosopher who’s made a comparable impact for good in the world.

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This book gives us a glimpse of the world of the early Enlightenment period, when many prominent philosophers risked excommunication, exile, or even execution for their views. These were people who were writing, knowing very well that their views were considered heretical by the church, threatening by monarchs, and possibly even sacrilegious by the general public. Many of them were hounded from country to country. I’m thinking particularly of Rousseau—he wasn’t safe anywhere he went—but there are a number of philosophers in this book whose lives were seriously disrupted by threats from the church and the powers that be.

. . . This was a world when it really was dangerous to think. Kant described the Enlightenment as an age where people dared to think. The word ‘dare’ is important. It wasn’t just that they were being audacious in thinking for themselves, there was a real risk attached to it. To be a philosopher in that period—to be an original philosopher prepared to follow the arguments through like Spinoza did, for example—was an extremely brave thing to do, in the same sense that Socrates’s standing in Athens expressing views which his compatriots thought were heretical, was a brave thing to do, and resulted in his death.

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This is a really interesting book. Martha Nussbaum began as a classical philosopher and has immersed herself in ancient philosophy. She has read very widely in literature. She is politically engaged and she travels widely – often to India. She has a huge range of experience and understanding through life and books that she brings into this book.

Lurking behind it is Seneca: the Roman philosopher who talked about anger being a useless emotion. What Nussbaum argues in the book is that there is something confused about what we think we will get from our emotion of anger. We feel anger, anger is often used in political contexts, and anger is often praised: we feel that we should feel angry about how people have been treated, the injustice. She argues that we should get beyond anger, and the associated desire for payback, and that it usually exacerbates the evil in a situation rather than removing it. It is often more about getting a good feeling from expressing the anger than it is about bringing about beneficial results of the kind that we claim to want to bring about.

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The Path is very interesting because it’s written for a popular audience. It’s a very easy read, but it makes Chinese philosophy quite fresh. It’s written by a Harvard academic, who put on a course in Chinese philosophy that was incredibly popular with students. So he’s worked out ways to draw people into the subject. The big focus is on how you should live. That is the basic question in philosophy, the question Socrates was asking. It is not a trivial question, nor an easy one to answer.

What he does in the book is run through a number of answers given by Chinese philosophers in a way that makes them seem, to me at least, part of the same activity as the greats of western philosophy. He talks, in particular, about the philosopher Mencius, who was working in a Confucian tradition. Mencius made some important points about the cultivation of virtue, starting with the family and how important it was to recognise your place within the family before you try to extend the circle wider and include other people.

So Chinese philosophers are addressing the kinds of questions that Peter Singer addresses, for example, about how much care we should give to people beyond our nearest circle. But they do it in very interesting ways.

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Warburton on the value of philosophy:

There are some popular philosophy writers around at the moment whose books could just as easily sit in the self-help sections of bookshops as under philosophy. Some have their source in Roman philosophy, which put a big emphasis on studying philosophy to improve how you live. The problem with that for me is not so much that people are writing these books, but rather that they give the impression that this is what philosophy essentially is – a set of psychological techniques gleaned from great thinkers of the past that will make things go better for individuals. In contrast, I see philosophy as enquiry: you can’t prejudge the outcome. It is an on-going enquiry into the way things are, and how best to cope with them; but you can’t know in advance that following that enquiry—thinking about the nature of reality, the limits of your knowledge and how best to live—will actually improve your life or make you happier than you would otherwise have been. It might make things worse. You might get a glimpse of the abyss and find life unbearable.

There are some popular philosophy writers around at the moment whose books could just as easily sit in the self-help sections of bookshops as under philosophy. Some have their source in Roman philosophy, which put a big emphasis on studying philosophy to improve how you live. The problem with that for me is not so much that people are writing these books, but rather that they give the impression that this is what philosophy essentially is – a set of psychological techniques gleaned from great thinkers of the past that will make things go better for individuals. In contrast, I see philosophy as enquiry: you can’t prejudge the outcome. It is an on-going enquiry into the way things are, and how best to cope with them; but you can’t know in advance that following that enquiry—thinking about the nature of reality, the limits of your knowledge and how best to live—will actually improve your life or make you happier than you would otherwise have been. It might make things worse. You might get a glimpse of the abyss and find life unbearable.

. . . Philosophy aims to give a clearer picture of how things are, and how we might live better. It may or may not achieve those things. It’s an on-going conversation aiming to reduce our ignorance, a subject with a 2,500 year history. It is not a subject of neat little answers that will, if applied to your love life, bring amazing outcomes. If that’s what you want, I recommend studying empirically-tested psychology. Philosophy is still a wonderful subject, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to put anyone off exploring it. But we should recognise it for what it is.

29 Comments

  1. kelskye
    Posted December 1, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    I have acquired The Dream Of Reason as an audiobook, but haven’t listened yet. Based on Warburton’s recommendation I’ll get At The Existentialist Cafe too.

    • bric
      Posted December 2, 2016 at 3:54 am | Permalink

      Sarah Bakewell’s book is excellent, as is her book on Montaine ‘How to Live’ (the new one could have been called ‘How to know you are living’).

  2. Rob
    Posted December 1, 2016 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Just recently read Singer’s “Ethics in the Real World”. Easy read, yet left me with ideas I’m still churning over, thinking about, and discussing.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted December 1, 2016 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      I’ll endorse the Singer book as well. Very lucid and compellingly argued.

      My one reservation is that he tends to think of ethics primarily in terms of reducing the amount of misery in the world, which is certainly a laudable goal, but it can’t be the whole story. There’s also something to be said for increasing the availability of positive and emotionally enriching experiences, which is something I try to do by supporting the arts.

  3. Carl
    Posted December 1, 2016 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read Gottlieb’s The Dream of Enlightenment. It covers Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Bayle, Leibniz, Hume, Voltaire, and Rousseau. It’s a follow on to his previous volume The Dream of Reason covering the Greeks to the Enlightenment.

    This is a “survey” history and quite a good one. However, if I could influence anyone to read one book on the Enlightenment, it would be Nature’s God, The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. It is more limited in scope, but much richer in detail – getting down to the bedrock of why this period in history is so immensely important.

    • Marilee Lovit
      Posted December 2, 2016 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      I’m reading Dream of the Enlightenment now. Your other recommendation sounds interesting too, but it might be depressing to compare those origins with what is happening in the American republic today.

  4. Edward Hessler
    Posted December 1, 2016 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    There was a profile of Martha Nussbaum in a relatively recent New Yorker. I learned that she is on the faculty of the Chicago law school. I wondered then whether you have ever heard her. I was struck by the range of her intellect as well as her experience although this is not to say I’m going to read this book.There is one I want and intend to read.I was glad to see Warburton’s enthusiasm for Sarah Bakewell’s book. He is also right about Singer who can write.
    Thanks for the list.

    • Posted December 1, 2016 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I’ve heard her give talks and have had a one-one-one conversation with her once. We share a common interest in India. She’s one of those people who you know, no matter how hard you work, that you’ll never be as smart as.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted December 1, 2016 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

      I have enormous admiration for Nussbaum. She has written wonderfully well on Greek tragedy, among other things, and in a way that demonstrates very clearly that good literature embodies a great deal of knowledge and thought and is certainly not a mere matter of expressing feelings or hearing emotions.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 1, 2016 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

      Nussbaum Must be Smart – she has that Classics background.😉

    • Posted December 2, 2016 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      Looking through Nussbaum’s long list publications — she seems to be prolific in half a dozen unrelated fields – emotions, cloning, Indian religion and politics, a 450 page book on Aristotle’s Motions of Animals….

  5. Tim Harris
    Posted December 1, 2016 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    “embodying” emotions, not ‘hearing’ them… I don’t know why that happened.

  6. somer
    Posted December 1, 2016 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Re Martha Nussbaum –

    Martha Nussbaum wrote an article for The Religion Portal on the ABC (they have since removed all comments banned all access to comments on that site). It was called “The Burqa and the new religious intolerance”
    http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2012/05/22/3507845.htm
    there were about 220 comments – 3/4 or more unfavourable -but as i said all comments have been shut down on the religion portal.
    I do not believe in banning religious clothing – but some of her arguments against this are just classic regressive
    ” It hardly needs to be said that the people who make this argument [for banning] typically don’t know much about Islam and would have a hard time saying what symbolizes what in that religion. But the more glaring flaw in the argument is that [western] society is suffused with symbols of male supremacy that treat women as objects.” FALSE EQUIVALENCE
    Like the arguments for keeping and extending Sharia courts in britain right now. – ignores that the social climate is way more conformist and close and that the honour concept that actually socially approves of oppression of women is different.
    I object to the constant reference to high principle above physical and other constraints – high principle can wind up becoming the opposite of what it aims to achieve it its not informed by what is materially possible or by feedback of actual social thought currents of the population.

  7. Vaal
    Posted December 1, 2016 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    Cool, thanks Jerry.

    I’ve been an avid listener of Warburton’s podcast Philosophy Bites for a long time.
    I’ll have to check some of those books out too.

  8. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 1, 2016 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    I really like existentialism. My favourite existentialist quote from Mad Men from Don Draper: “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons”

    • bric
      Posted December 2, 2016 at 3:50 am | Permalink

      Oh my that’s depressing first thing in the morning!

  9. ToddP
    Posted December 1, 2016 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    What Nussbaum argues in the book is that there is something confused about what we think we will get from our emotion of anger. We feel anger, anger is often used in political contexts, and anger is often praised: we feel that we should feel angry about how people have been treated, the injustice. She argues that we should get beyond anger, and the associated desire for payback, and that it usually exacerbates the evil in a situation rather than removing it. It is often more about getting a good feeling from expressing the anger than it is about bringing about beneficial results of the kind that we claim to want to bring about.

    I could not agree with this more. The payback impulse is so prevalent these days, on all sides. And anger is now a religion.

    person A: “I’M ANGRY!!!”
    person B: “Okay, here’s what we can try…”
    person A: “DON’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO! I’M ANGRY!”

    Thanks for the post, Jerry. I’ll definitely pick up some of these books.

    • bric
      Posted December 2, 2016 at 4:01 am | Permalink

      This is the Feline Response

  10. Charles Sullivan
    Posted December 1, 2016 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, PCC.

  11. Posted December 2, 2016 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  12. Posted December 2, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Hm, I must be getting out touch – I know about Nussbaum (her book on political emotions, for example, was interesting to read) and Singer, of course, but …

    The Dream of Enlightenment seems to have an interesting cast. I wonder if there will be a follow-up with Diderot, Holbach, etc.

    • Carl
      Posted December 2, 2016 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      Gottlieb is working on a next (final?) volume in the series.

    • Carl
      Posted December 2, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      If you want a truly detailed accounting of Diderot’s and h’Holbach’s contributions to the modern world, Jonathan Israel’s three volume treatment of the Enlightenment may be to your liking.

      If you aren’t familiar with this work, fair warning, “detailed” is an understatement. It contains much original research and delves into the minor (or less well known figures) as well, including radical, moderate, and anti-Enlightenment thinkers.

  13. bric
    Posted December 3, 2016 at 4:52 am | Permalink

    Can I recommend a very short philosophic novel, an ideal stocking-filler:
    Wittgenstein jr, by Lars Iyer

    “made me feel better about the Apocalypse than I have in ages” – Hari Kunzru

    “A droll love story… Existential angst is rarely this entertaining.” – Kirkus Reviews

    “Curiously profound, strangely touching, and, best of all, deeply insulting.” – The Observer

  14. Red Allover
    Posted December 3, 2016 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    Ms. Bakewell writes that Sartre supported the French Communist Party because he believed in regimes that were carrying out “utopian schemes”–i.e., the USSR–and reiterates the cliche that such political foolishishness is typical of intellectuals.
    If you read the collection of his articles THE COMMUNISTS AND PEACE, however, you will find the real reason Sartre supported the French Communist Party was because at that time they represented the majority of French people,being the party of the working class.
    Whether pro (like Sartre)or con (like Heidegger) Marxism was a central concern for the existentialists and it is a shame American intellectuals are so deliberatrly ignorant on the subject.


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