Thursday, August 18, 2011
A Brief Intro to Philosophy by one of the Best in the Field Today
“What Does it all Mean?” by Thomas Nagel is an excellent introduction to the task of philosophy for Junior high students to college students. I know one very respected Professor who uses it to introduce Western Philosophy to Foreign Students from the East.
It has been about a decade since I was first introduced to the writings of Thomas Nagel via a review of his book “The Last Word” in the back of First Things. He stands in the tradition of analytical philosophy, and shows himself to be an erudite thinker in everything he writes. He is at best an agnostic, tending towards atheism, and though he deals thoughtful critique of religious thought, he is fair and not malignant in his treatment of religion. This is perhaps why I like him so much. Here is a professor of Law and Philosophy, who though not believing in God, has the cojones to write that there is no reason not to teach intelligent design in even public schools, as evolution doesn’t answer the most basic questions regarding the beginnings of life, and it is not overstepping the separation of church and state to teach such an alternative and plausible explanation for life’s beginnings.
Yet, he can make a religious, and especially a Christian thinker think through their cliché answers as to what is right and wrong, and the necessity of God to uphold morality, or for the meaning of life. He shows in a very lucid manner the shortfall’s of much of what passes for a Christian answer to these ultimate questions, though freely admitting the flaws in the opposite answers.
This book takes you through Nine chapters and an introduction all introducing another facet of western philosophical problems. “How Do We Know Anything?” “Other Minds” “The Mind-Body Problem” “The meaningof Words” “Free Will” “Right and Wrong” “Justice” “Death” and “The Meaning of Life.” It is written simply, with little to no reference to past Philosophers or their thoughts, but merely outlining the thoughts that occupy the minds of those we call Philosophers, and sometimes Theologians. As such the text does not get bogged down in philosophical shop talk, and terminology.
I think it would be an excellent book for the inquisitive teenager, but it would probably be helpful for the parent or teacher to read through the book first. Though I like the hard questions he asks of religious thinkers, there are answers to his objections that are not explored. Indeed I think that is one of the greater weaknesses of this book, is that he seems to think the only religious answers are those that are often parroted by fundamentalists who themselves rarely understand anything of the Biblical message. His last chapter on “The Meaning of Life” might be wonderfully pared with the book of Ecclesiastes which affirms that life is indeed absurd, and wonderfully so.