December 10, 2007
Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski's Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?: 23 Questions From Great Philosophers was supposed to be longer. Or rather, it is longer in the original Polish: the English-language version (or at least the American version) drops seven philosophers, leaving twenty-three thinkers and their questions. The questions span the whole range of philosophical concern: What is the human spirit? How is knowledge possible? What is evil? What is the source of truth? Many questions are variations on what we can know and how we can be certain of anything (i.e. epistemology.)
The author is a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford and an eminent philosopher and historian who has written extensively on Marxism, among other things. Knowing the American market well, he warns that the book is not an encyclopedia or primer of any kind: "If a student attempted to sit an exam on the basis of these essays, he would be disappointed: he would fail." The Descartes chapter, for example, is not a summary of Descartes' thinking, but rather an examination of one of the questions with which Descartes dealt: "How can we achieve certainty?"
Far from a dry exegesis on ponderous philosophical arguments, Kolakowski's book is full of wit and whimsy and is eminently readable. Kolakowki's prose is peppery and funny. Although his book is clearly the result of deep and broad learning, it is easy to understand -- Kolakowski must be a good professor.
St. Anselm (1033-1109) came up with the so-called Ontological Argument for the existence of God. Kolakowski writes:
The argument itself, though a thick layer of commentary has grown up around it, is not difficult to understand. Briefly summarized, it goes as follows. Let us imagine a being such that no greater being can be conceived. Anyone hearing this description, Anselm says, will understand it; one needn't be particularly clever to grasp it. Now it is not hard to demonstrate that a being so conceived -- and we can all conceive of it -- cannot just be conceived, but must actually exist. For if it is conceived, and thus exists in our minds, we can imagine that it really exists; but a being that really exists is greater than one that is merely conceived by us and exists only in our minds. In other words, a being than which nothing greater can be conceived would, if it did not really exist, be a being than which something greater could be conceived (namely something really existing; it would therefore be self-contradictory, an impossibility. In order to avoid self-contradiction, we are compelled to admit that such a being must exist: that it exists necessarily.
Whatever you think of Anselm's argument, this is an admirable description of it. Kolakowski then goes on to detail the main criticisms of the argument with the same admirable concision. Of Schopenhauer (1788-1860), author of The World as Will and Representation, he writes:
... 'the world as will'? What can it possibly mean? The word 'will', as we habitually use it, does not refer to any independent entity; we understand it to be an attribute or an activity of some entity, some subject, human or divine. Moreover, when we say things like, 'this is my will', or 'that is God's will', we assume that this will contains some intention, some aim.
For Schopenhauer, however, 'the world as will' is not a metaphorical phrase or a spurt of extravagant language. He would have us believe that the world really is will. But not divine or human will; it is not the will of anyone or anything at all. Nor is it something with an intention, a direction, an aim or a plan. It is just a blind, aimless, impersonal, all-powerful force on which everything depends but which itself depends on nothing an no one; it just is. For Schopenhauer this truth -- discoverable through acts of self-consciousness -- seems utterly obvious, and he thinks it very odd that it should never have occurred to anyone before.
Kolakowski's compact little book (a mere 222 pages and about 4 inches by 6 inches, the size of a photograph) makes great reading for anyone looking to brush up on the big issues of Western thought. If you know very little about philosophy you will learn a great deal. If you already know a lot, you will be delighted and refreshed and learn more. Those interested in possible intersections between Buddhism and western thought should particularly check out the sections on Schopenhauer and Heraclitus (c. 540-480 BCE), who spoke of the 'constant change' of the cosmos. Kolakowski's book is no Sophie's World, but it will do.
Another new book on philosophy is What Would Socrates Say? Philosophers Tackle Questions About Love, Nothingness, and Everything Else, edited by Alexander George. This book takes some of the many exchanges from AskPhilosophers.org (between the questioner and the professional philosophers answering them) and puts them in book. Obviously the question and answer exchange has a long and distinguished history in philosophy going back to Plato and Aristotle. The questions in the book range from the banal to the erudite and all the answers are entertaining and interesting. All proceeds from the sale of this book after taxes will be donated to educational charities through the Ask Philosophers Fund at AskPhilosophers.org.
One last bit of philosophy: a funny movie in the style of our present enlightened political discourse (i.e. attack ads) vs. Immanuel Kant.
- Philip Ryan, Web Editor