Instructions for an examined life

Four introductions to philosophy for the nonphilosopher to ponder

Everyone loves his or her own opinion best. But what reason do we have for holding our own view of reality in any particular esteem?

The ancient art of philosophy is famously incapable of giving quick or definitive answers. Ambrose Bierce defined it as "a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing." However, if your aim is to persuade others to give your views a second look, several new introductions to philosophy could serve you well. Be warned, though, that these books may inspire you to give your own views a second look, too.

Having tackled the topic for children in "The Philosophy Files" (2002), Stephen Law now sets himself to a much more challenging task: introducing the examined life to adults. The Philosophy Gym consists of 25 freestanding chapters. Each presents a concise overview of the arguments surrounding a particular philosophical problem and concludes with suggestions for further reading. Each debate takes the form of a Platonic dialogue between witty characters with interspersed commentary.

Law, editor of the popular philosophy journal "Think" and a professor at the University of London, wisely chooses crowd-pleasing big questions. Old favorites like the origin of the universe and the question of free will are well represented and accompanied by more contemporary ethical concerns, such as designer babies, homosexuality, and vegetarianism.

"The Philosophy Gym" covers some controversial material and gives both sides of every dispute a fair hearing, but it doesn't pander to contrived notions of balance. Some debates that rage in society at large are largely settled within the philosophical community - at least for the moment. Law is not afraid to point out when one position has stronger arguments than its competition, as when he considers if morality needs a religious basis, or if creationism is scientifically viable (no on both counts). But his book - short and fun, though never dumbed down - is more concerned with opening up lines of inquiry than closing them. A reader looking for a self-paced introduction to philosophy could hardly ask for more.

Being Logical, by D.Q. McInerny, and Logic Made Easy, by Deborah Bennett, approach the same objective in two very different ways. Logic is philosophy boiled down: the reduction of thinking to formal, abstract structures that can be applied with mathematical precision. It's a necessary prerequisite for any scholarly study of philosophy, but as these authors point out, it's also useful for rooting out fallacies in our everyday lives.

McInerny's work is a thin volume, a testament to the concision that comes naturally to one who loves logic's discipline. Sadly, brevity is not without its price. If your attention lapses for even a moment while parsing a sentence like this, you'll be lost: "If we look at that same term in the major premise, we see that it is the predicate term of an affirmative proposition, which, we recall from section 14, is always particular in extension, or undistributed."

"Being Logical" also suffers from a shortage of robust, concrete examples. As a result, only readers with an unusual gift for abstract reasoning are likely to find it consistently illuminating.

"Logic Made Easy" is more casually paced and flush with examples. It covers the same ground as "Being Logical," and much more, including logic's history, from Aristotle and the Stoics through Lewis Carroll and on to modern-day computing. And Bennett often attempts to render logic graphically, especially "Euler circles" and Venn diagrams.

She also presents the results of studies in cognitive psychology that illustrate how people think and use language - not merely how logicians think they should. Along the way, you can try a few of the puzzles these test subjects faced. One tricky example requires determining, in the fewest number of moves, if a stated rule about four cards is true.

Christopher Phillips is the founder of the Society for Philosophical Inquiry, a nonprofit organization that facilitates the formation of community groups called Socrates Cafés to encourage philosophical thinking in a nonacademic context. Six Questions of Socrates draws from his experiences with these Socrates Cafés in various international locales.

Enabling questioners may be the Society's raison d'être, but providing answers seems to be the final goal of "Six Questions." Phillips's method is intriguing: He poses the same questions ("What are virtue, moderation, justice, good, courage, and piety?") to groups from disparate cultural backgrounds. By culling their responses, he unearths themes that he believes point to universal human excellence.

In examining virtue, for instance, he draws parallels between the Navajo concept of hozho, the classical Greek concept of arête, and the Japanese principle of Wa. These three words convey a notion of virtue grounded in harmonious interrelationships between individuals, society, and nature.

In another chapter, he explores the notion of "the good" with Arab and Israeli students in the US as well as with inmates in a maximum-security prison. Both the American inmates and the Middle Eastern students identify goodness with the refusal to deny essential humanity to any person. The vignettes serve to demonstrate that some thought processes may well find their root in human nature, irrespective of cultural background.

If "Six Questions" has a flaw, it is that Phillips never admits that his philosophical conclusions are heavily informed by his social agenda. His vision of a collectivist "excellent civilization" - in which morally upright masses reject the excesses of ambition to elevate the poor - is widely shared.

It is similarly widely rejected, among thinkers both naïve and sophisticated, yet those voices are not to be found at the Socrates Cafés chosen for this work. Does the politics follow the philosophy, or the philosophy the politics? We cannot know, but are left hoping that Phillips, by returning to the methods of the first Western philosopher, has created a template for philosophical exploration that many others will emulate.

Darren Abrecht works on the Monitor's website.

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