How To Think Like A Philosopher

Julian Baggini

Granta, £16.99

Review by Susan Flockhart

The public is being thanked for their generosity in contributing to the Turkey/Syria earthquake fund. But are we really being generous if our donations still leave enough in the bank for cappuccinos and foreign holidays at a time when devastated survivors face homelessness and starvation?

The question occurred to me while reading Julian Baggini’s new book, in which he examines the popular trope that “you can’t put a price on a human life” and asks if that implies societies should stop paying for public libraries or private indulgences and instead channel all their resources towards alleviating human suffering. If that seems ludicrous, then the argument serves as a “reductio ad absurdum” – a philosophical tool used “to show that a belief is wrong by arguing that it logically leads to an absurd conclusion”.

But as Baggini points out, it’s also possible to “bite the bullet” and accept the conclusion, as the philosopher Peter Singer apparently does. He once argued that each of us is morally compelled to “give as much as possible at least up to the point at which by giving more would begin to cause serious suffering for oneself and one’s dependents”. How we define “serious suffering” is a moot point but cappuccino deprivation is unlikely to make the cut and Singer believes most of us could (and presumably should) be giving away half of what we earn.

Singer made these remarks during a 1998 conversation with the author and the book includes fragments of several interviews Baggini conducted for The Philosophers’ Magazine. A respected philosopher in his own right, Baggini has spent most of his career outside of academia and How To Think Like A Philosopher is the latest in a long line of books dedicated to helping ordinary mortals make sense of the world. Subtitled Essential Principles For Clearer Thinking, it shows how to distinguish between valid and invalid arguments, while identifying common sleights of logic such as begging the question (exercise is healthy because it’s good for you) and affirming the consequent (cats are furry, Fido is furry therefore Fido is a cat).

In lively and engaging prose, the book distils some of history’s most important philosophical ideas. Aristotle, Hume, Wittgenstein … all the big beasts are here but so is Gwyneth Paltrow, who stands accused of committing the “naturalistic fallacy” because she once said: “I don’t think anything that is natural can be bad for you” (poisonous fungi being the obvious rebuttal). Edinburgh-based author Alexander McCall Smith is quoted more flatteringly as is Skye-born musician Mylo, a former philosophy PhD student credited here with dismissing academic thought experiments as “a load of b******s”.

Baggini doesn’t entirely agree but he is no fan of formal logic, whose quasi-mathematical formulae bring him out in “a cold sweat”. And while his introduction appears to contain a subtle nod to Robert H Thouless’s 1930 book, Straight And Crooked Thinking, which alerted a generation of armchair logicians to the dodgy rhetoric of orators, advertisers and politicians, Baggini argues that “critical thinking skills are little more than high-brow party tricks” unless accompanied by the right kind of attitudes.

So what are those? Partly, good thinking is a matter of “faffing about”, by which Baggini means we should check our facts carefully and pay close attention to others’ arguments – not simply in order to knock them down, but in a way that makes us genuinely open to understanding other people’s viewpoints and perhaps even changing our own minds. At a time when public discourse is becoming ever-more polarised, he wants us to resist making assumptions about other people’s arguments based on what we think we know about their motivations (this person’s a unionist/nationalist, a lefty/Tory) and – even if we think they are wrong – consider what laudable reasons they may have for their beliefs.

He warns against group-think, confirmation bias and above all, arrogance. What I love about this book is its lack of hubris. Baggini is critical of thinkers who are too fond of their own high-blown ideas and admires philosophers like Philippa Foot and Mary Warnock, who were “models of intellectual modesty” yet did hugely important work (Warnock chaired two ethics commissions, most recently on embryology and human fertilisation).

Doubt, of course, has long been at the heart of elementary philosophy courses, which often feature the Meditations in which Descartes challenged himself to doubt everything, including his own existence, but famously thought he’d proved the latter with his Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) axiom. Baggini actually warns against excessive scepticism, with its links to conspiracy theories and “flat earth” zealotry, but he thinks everyone, including academic philosophers, could use a little more self-doubt.

He knows this is heresy within a culture that urges us to “believe in ourselves” and venerates those who convey certainty and supreme confidence. But, convinced losing one’s ego is among the keys to clear thinking, he bravely fesses up to some of his own past mistakes – including conclusions he reached in a previous book about the morality of the 2003 Iraq War.

He also draws on contentious contemporary issues including assisted dying and the ethics of animal farming. On the thorny issue of gender identity, he argues that much disagreement hinges on semantics. “Are ‘woman’ and ‘man’ categories determined by objective biological sex, or are they social constructs that could be used by someone with none of the prototypical biological markers?” he asks.”The obvious answer is that they are both: a person has both a sex (biological) and a gender (a socially constructed identity). If we agree with that, the disagreement then becomes not about how things are but how we should best socially regulate the use of these categories.”

And that, surely, is a far more useful question than whether someone is a “real” woman or, indeed, “pretending to be trans”.

More liberal use of real-life ethical dilemmas like these might have helped this reader to navigate the often complex abstract territory being explored. Yet undoubtedly, this is an important book. Much more than a guide to critiquing other people’s arguments, it explains how we can each sharpen up our own act by becoming more attentive and – crucially – more generous in our thinking. It should be required reading for commentators, politicians … and anyone who risks becoming too enamoured with their own rectitude.