How to Think Like a Philosopher
A very enjoyable introduction into Western philosophy. Light, conversational, entertaining and intellectually stimulating. An excellent book for non-philosophers who are interested in learning more about the history of Western thought.
What can the history of philosophy and a look at the lives of the great thinkers of the past teach us about our lives today? This seems to be one of the questions that motivate Peter Cave’s new book How to Think Like a Philosopher, which just came out a few days ago.
Before we begin, let me get rid of an embarrassing admission: until I received his book for review last week, I had no idea who Peter Cave was. I was born in Germany, raised and schooled in Greece and lived the past decade and a half in Hong Kong, so perhaps my ignorance can be forgiven. I still have no idea how famous the man actually is.
If you are like me, perhaps you’d like to know that YouTube has a selection of his interviews and speeches, and he has written roughly one book every two years since the early 2000s. He is a popular philosophy writer, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, BBC radio philosophy presenter and generally a person who gets around. Together with David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, he supports Population Matters, a charity that promotes population control as a means to ensure the survival of the planet, which, I believe, is an excellent idea.
I am less enthusiastic about his self-identification as a “humanist,” which is a label I don’t quite like in its modern incarnation. Probably everyone who has some sense agrees that the Christian churches are problematic institutions and that religious fanaticism is not a good thing. But there is also the opposite attitude: the belief that humans are the best thing since sliced bread, and contemporary “humanism” seems to promote this idea. Embraced uncritically, this can lead to overconfidence regarding the abilities of human reason, to the hubris of the modern homo faber who thinks that the whole world is there just to amuse them and to do their bidding. I always found that modern, enlightened Christians were better, friendlier, more caring people than staunch atheists, who often come across as blind to their own failings and unable to accept that human reason might have its limits and that a bit of intellectual humility is a nice thing to have (I’m thinking of Dawkins as a prime example of this attitude). Anyway, all this has nothing to do with the book we’re discussing here, and I have no idea what kind of humanist Dr Cave is and whether or not these remarks would apply to him at all.
Back to the book.
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The selection of 30 philosophers includes not only the usual suspects, but also some who would perhaps not immediately come to mind as “philosophers” in the academic sense. Here is a list of all discussed thinkers: Lao Tzu, Sappho, Zeno of Elea, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Avicenna, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Mill, Kierkegaard, Marx, Lewis Carroll, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, Heidegger, Sartre, Simone Weil, Simone de Beauvoir, Wittgenstein, Hannah Arendt, Iris Murdoch, Samuel Beckett.
Of course, any such list can be questioned and everyone will have their own favourites. I don’t quite see the philosophical weight of Sappho, Murdoch or Beckett as being on a par with Plato and Kant. On the other hand, I do think that a thousand years of Catholic thought would have merited the inclusion of Augustine or Thomas Aquinas, but, again, that’s largely a matter of taste.
The chapter on Lao Zi (spelled in the book as Lao Tzu) seems to be a somewhat perfunctory attempt to increase the book’s cultural inclusiveness. In truth, no one is going to understand Eastern philosophy from nine pages of a Lao Zi essay, especially since no other Asian thought appears in the book – no other Daoists, no Confucians, no Buddhism. The same applies to “Avicenna” (why not Ibn Sina?), who has perhaps a little too obviously been put in there as a nod to Islamic thought.
I feel that, instead of honouring these other intellectual traditions, a book that includes two non-Western thinkers and 28 Western ones does rather emphasise the point that “real” philosophy, in the mind of the author, is being only properly done in the Western tradition. It would perhaps have been better to leave out the two fig leaves and admit in the preface that one cannot well cover all of world philosophy within 300 pages. This would have been perfectly fine, at least for me, and it would have been more honest than this pretend-inclusiveness.
Readers interested in Heidegger might come away disappointed by the treatment he gets in this book. It is pretty clear that Peter Cave does not particularly like or understand Heidegger, and, except for existentialism, no “continental” philosophy in the Husserl/Heidegger tradition is included in the book – which is a pity, because there is so much interesting material there that would fit perfectly into such a book. The chapter on Heidegger mostly dwells on the man’s Nazi past and makes fun of “das Nichts nichtet,” which, although I guess it deserves to be made fun of, cannot be the total of what makes Heideggerian philosophy remarkable. One wishes that Peter Cave had perhaps read a little more Dreyfus and had tried a little harder to understand what lies hidden behind the funny language.
Peter Cave’s writing style is attractive and easy to read. You can get quite a good idea for his style by watching some of his appearances on YouTube. There, as here, he seems to be most attracted to making associative connections between seemingly unrelated thinkers while pursuing his own thoughts.
This can sometimes be taken to an extreme where the discussion of a topic looks more like an experimental cooking session: a dash of this, a teaspoon of that, and then let’s also throw in a handful of those weird leaves from the back of the cupboard. This tendency is more pronounced in his talks than in the book. As one example, in his talk “Reasoning: On Knowing When to Stop,” he talks about Buridan’s ass, Spinoza, choosing a toothbrush, capitalist consumerism, the obligation to save drowning people, the utilitarian choice about whom to let drown, impartiality versus loyalty to family as a moral principle, Thomas Hobbes, Wittgenstein, the existence of the universe and explaining things by invoking God – all within 16 minutes.
In the book, this leads to chapters that are a lot more lively and interesting than one would expect of a philosophy book. I can imagine few topics in philosophy less attractive to the casual reader than Leibniz, but Peter Cave manages to talk about everything from chocolate biscuits to Peter the Great’s trade with China, to whether a flock of sheep is one thing or multiple – and in the end, he also slips in windowless monads and the pre-established harmony. Before we can come up for breath, we have had eight pages of Leibniz and it has been quite a bit of fun.
“How to think?”
The flip side of this is, of course, that there has to be a trade-off between amusement and educational aspiration. Yes, the book is easy to read. Yes, it does give a good overview of some of the themes in Western philosophy and how they developed from ancient times to today. And it does so in an easily digestible format that is entertaining and interesting, without being overwhelming.
But in the end, one has to ask whether the book can really justify its title. It does not really teach the reader “how to think like a philosopher.” It discusses some topics and arguments, and in the end, the reader will have some acquaintance with the lives and thoughts of 30 more or less important thinkers. Still, I feel that the title’s promise is not fulfilled. I feel that the book could have been more appropriately titled “30 philosophers you should know about,” or “30 thinkers and their ideas,” or something like that. This is what the reader really gets: 30 essays, one on each thinker. They are interesting, entertaining and insightful – but they do not really teach anyone how to think. This is not an introduction to philosophy for students who want to know how to do philosophy themselves. This is a book to read on a holiday, or perhaps on a commuter train, even something to learn from – but what one learns are facts, not methods or skills. In terms of that blasted Bloom’s taxonomy that university admins are so in love with, Peter Cave’s book covers the lower rungs of “remember” and “understand” in an excellent way, but leaves out the higher levels of “analyse,” “evaluate” and “create.”
This is not a criticism, just a clarification. There are enough other, more technical books on critical thinking or philosophical methods that will serve other audiences. It is just a little unfortunate that the title might confuse the occasional buyer who might expect something different from this book.
And since we’re now into criticising the book, let me also briefly add two other points:
First, that cover. I had already complained about another Bloomsbury cover recently, and I feel bad doing that, because I really like the books they are publishing. But because I like the books, I feel all the more the pain of seeing a good book paired with a cover that looks like it was designed by a younger family member in the 1990s… using MS-Paint. The cover shows, between text set in an indifferent, neutral font with inconsistent letter spacing, the faces of three philosophers: Kant (recognisable, but with a drugged expression), a bearded man that could be Plato or Epicurus, and what I take to be Simone de Beauvoir. The drawings are not particularly accomplished, they fail to capture the characteristic looks of the people they supposedly depict, and the blue paint is randomly splashed across their faces without hinting at consistent lighting or shadow effects. I don’t understand why Bloomsbury cannot give one of their bestselling authors the tasteful, attractive cover that this book deserves.
Second, and this is a minor point, but it fits with what I was saying earlier, every chapter ends, with quasi-religious regularity, with two sentences of the form: “How to think like X? [Do this].” I can only guess that this was some marketer’s idea after realising what I said earlier, that the book kind of lacks the “how to” character advertised in the title. Unfortunately, these very brief sentences fall completely flat and seem more like mockery than a serious attempt to educate the reader. Look at this:
How to think like Leibniz? Pay attention to possible worlds and seek a reality that is determinate.
Seriously? How does one “pay attention to possible worlds?” And even more puzzling: How to seek a “determinate reality?”
Or this one:
How to think like Berkeley? Focus on your experiences – and don’t forget the tar-water.
And that’s all. This is not an introductory quip after which would follow an explanation. Such are literally the last two sentences of every chapter in the book.
Superhero Thought Experiments, by Chris Gavaler and Nathaniel Goldberg, is a very enjoyable book that presents classic arguments from philosophy by discussing examples of superhero comics.
I don’t like to focus on a few negative remarks when a book is as entertaining and educational as this one. It is really great fun to read, and Peter Cave’s way of connecting seemingly unrelated thoughts within one chapter makes for interesting surprises, even if one already knows the thinkers he is writing about.
I can imagine recommending this book (or giving it as a gift) to someone who might be interested in culture and philosophy but who has not yet had the opportunity to learn more about Western thought or to see its development in a more comprehensive way. This book does a good job at introducing the main ideas that connect these thinkers, and its selection, for example the sequence Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Berkeley, Hume and Kant, provides a good overview of the beginnings of modern philosophy and its topics that stay relevant to this day. One will always miss one or the other of one’s favourite philosophers in such a selection, and I think, for example, that the Stoics should have been covered, especially since they are so relevant again today – arguably more so than Epicurus. But one can’t have everything.
As an introduction to the main ideas of Western philosophy this is a really good, clear, thoughtful and fun book to read. I find it better, more entertaining than any other book of this type that I have seen, and it will not overwhelm the casual reader with too complex thoughts or arcane historical details. One must be aware that much of philosophy is missing, especially everything that has to do with phenomenology, psychology, psychoanalysis, philosophical sociology and philosophically-minded theology. But that’s okay, although one could wish that this had been made more clear in the book’s introduction and back-cover blurb. As it is, the book presents a sensible but quite “mainstream-Western” view of what philosophy is, with the addition of a few odd intellectual outliers.
All in all, despite the inevitable selection biases in this kind of book, I can heartily recommend it to its target readers: non-philosophers with an interest in the history of Western thought.
Peter Cave (2023). How to Think Like a Philosopher. Scholars, Dreamers and Sages Who Can Teach Us How to Live. Bloomsbury Continuum. 304 pages. ISBN: Hardcover: 978-1-3994-0591-1; eBook: 978-1-3994-0592-8.
Peter Cave’s “How to Think Like a Philosopher” is a very enjoyable introduction into Western philosophy. Light, conversational, entertaining and intellectually stimulating. [UK readers click here]
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Peter Cave is a popular philosophy writer and speaker. He read philosophy at University College London and King’s College Cambridge. Peter is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Honorary Member of Population Matters, former member of the Council of the Royal Institute of Philosophy and Chair of Humanist Philosophers - and is a Patron of Humanists UK. He has scripted and presented BBC radio philosophy programmes and often takes part in public debates on religion, ethics and socio-political matters. His philosophy books include This Sentence Is False: An Introduction to Philosophical Paradoxes (2009), and three Beginner’s Guides: to Humanism, Philosophy and Ethics. More recent works are The Big Think Book: Discover Philosophy Through 99 Perplexing Problems (2015) and The Myths We Live By: A Contrarian’s Guide to Democracy, Free Speech and Other Liberal Fictions (2019).