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Date: 10 June, 2004

Making Sense cover

To buy any of the titles, click on the title or cover

'If an object can only ever be in one place at one time, how anything ever be moving? Or if you replace every component of a ship piece by piece, at what point does it become a different ship?'

Making Sense
Bad Thoughts
101 Philosophy Problems
Philosophy: A very short introduction

Steve Tomkins thinks long and hard about philosophy books. Or does he?!

Philosophy. Men with long beards and women with short ones, discussing incomprehensible subjects in impenetrable prose. The kind of writing that you assume would hurt your brain, if you could actually figure out what the words meant.

But there is another way of doing it. In this radical alternative, philosophy is simply thinking straight about things that matter. Read this kind of book, and your brain is sharper, you think (and listen) more clearly and you're more likely to be right - about good and bad, life and death, God and George W - or at least to be wrong for good reasons. You are quite possibly a better person.

Read one of the other kind, and all you gain is an insight into how much stupider than the author you are (depending on how humble/gullible you are).

So, this month let's round up the best recent books for doing your brain a favour.

Making Sense: Philosophy Behind the Headlines
Julian Baggini
Oxford University Press

Julian Baggini's writing is a perfect example. Making Sense: Philosophy Behind the Headlines takes us through a dozen of the real life issues that the papers confront and confuse us with every day (if you read the paper every day), and uses philosophical skills to help us think straight about them.

Were the Afghanistan and Iraq wars moral? Should we trust GM food? Is a cult any worse than a world religion? Should Clinton have been impeached? Does "persistent vegetive state" warrant euthanasia? Did things get better with Tony?

The great thing is that Baggini does not simply offer logical arguments for his own answers to the questions; neither does he give you a few pointers and tell you to make you own mind up. What he does is cut through the tangled-up thinking that makes our attitudes to these issues muddled and muddied.

For example: We're all in favour of equality (some more than others), but do we have in mind which kind? If you give everyone equal opportunity in the workplace, some will make more money than others: an unequal outcome. If instead you want everyone to have equal wealth you have to limit my opportunity to earn more than you (some chance). We can't have complete equality of both opportunity and outcome, so what kind of equality do you believe in?

Another example: It's common to distrust medical research as contradictory and changeable - what food's bad for us this week? But if science progresses by doing hundreds of studies and then looking at the overall picture, then obviously one study will differ from another. If every week newspapers offer a new story about findings that "contradict" last week's, it doesn't mean that scientists keep changing their minds, it means that we should read the paper a bit more philosophically.

Bad Thoughts: A Guide to Clear Thinking
Jamie Whyte
Corvo Books
Bad Thoughts cover

Bad Thoughts is a book of warnings. Jamie Whyte lists the logical fallacies and traps that we are always falling or being pushed into, so that we can watch out and think straight.

There's the authority fallacy, that something is true because someone says it is. If your paper tells you a proposed drugs law is a good idea because bereaved parents say it is, watch out for the snare.

The shut up fallacy is pretending to beat someone's argument when all you've done is silence them or diverted attention. When Kim Howell, Minister for Culture, denounced Turner Prize art as "cold conceptual bullshit", the prizewinner replied that Howell's own painting was "insipid middle class kitsch". Touché - except how does that stop Turner prize art being bullshit?

Also check out hooray words, like "justice", that can be used to get doubters on your side without making remotely clear what you mean by them.

The book's weakness is Whyte's ferocious anti-Christianity. I normally find, as a Christian, that this gives a pleasant spiciness to a book; and the majority of books on this list are explicitly atheist, which tells you something about current philosophical orthodoxy. But unlike Baggini, whose atheism is compellingly measured, Whyte's antipathy blunts his tools.

He argues that all educated Christians are guilty of intellectual dishonesty because the doctrine of the Trinity is self-evidently false. But the doctrine as he explains it - that the Son and the Holy Spirit are both "identical with God" is not what educated Christians actually believe, so he is shooting at a straw deity - another major logical fallacy. Perhaps that one will be in the sequel.

101 Philosophy Problems
Martin Cohen
101 Philosophy Problems cover

Martin Cohen's 101 Philosophy Problems will never leave my toiletside. What a book. Challenging, funny, irreverent, it's Viagra for the brain, only more fun.

More than any of the other books, it's about getting you to think rather than telling you what other people think. If an object can only ever be in one place at one time, how anything ever be moving? Or if you replace every component of a ship piece by piece, at what point does it become a different ship? At the end you get all Cohen's own thoughts on the questions, always thought-provoking, lucid and iconoclastic about the whole business of philosophy. Buy it and transform your toilet experience.

Philosophy: A very short introduction
Edward Craig
Oxford Paperbacks
Philosophy: A very short introduction cover

The one that most reads like a philosophy book is Edward Craig's Philosophy: A very short introduction. This is the one that's actually trying to get you to read Plato, Hume, "an unknown Buddhist" etc. And, by Hobbes, it works. He picks some particularly readable passage on a particularly pressing issue - Plato on what to do, Hume on what we can know, anon. Buddhist one who we are - he talks you through it, breaks off to start another chapter, and leaves you sprinting down to the secondhand bookshop to find out what happens next.

If Philosophy: AVSI is the most orthodox, 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life by Roger Pol-Droit must be the least. Unlike the others, this is about doing stuff, and only then reflecting on your experience.

It has you phoning random numbers, for example, to see what happens, drinking while taking a leak to explore how it feels, giving someone the lightest possible caress to... well, what reason do you need? We're moving on here, from thinking more clearly to broadening our perception, sailing into the mystic.

Bon voyage. culture index