Socrates' Children:
Thinking & Knowing in the Western Tradition

354 pages,
ISBN: 1551110938

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Ten Sets of Neurons Firing?
by Paul Thomson

Reader, before going further, think about the title of this book. Now what did you just do? What is the activity of thinking? Were the title of the book in French, or Chinese, and you a native speaker, would your thought have been a different kind of thought? Do women think differently from men? Could we build a machine that could think about Socrates' Children? Usually we pay no more attention to thinking than we do to breathing, and when we do think about thinking, we are usually only aware that it is something that happens in the brain, yet also seems to be more than just neurons firing. Trudy Govier set out to see what we could learn about thinking by examining some of the greatest thinkers in the Western philosophical tradition. What she discovered was that "it is not possible to understand or explain what a given philosopher had said about thinking without working through his or her ideas on a host of other subjects." The result is a highly selective, mostly historical introduction to philosophy, with ten chapters devoted to individual philosophers, and a final chapter treating four contemporary areas of philosophical activity.

Two things set this book apart from the many other introductory texts available. First, the theme of how these philosophers think is explicitly addressed throughout the book. Each chapter has a section entitled "Observations", in which Govier tries to distill some advice from these philosophers about how we might think about thinking and also about various issues that confront us today. (Govier is also the author of a text in critical thinking, A Practical Study of Argument.) She also engages in what we might call metaphilosophy: an examination of how the various philosophers see the project of philosophy. For example, Aristotle takes as his starting-point the endoxa, the opinions of the many and the most respected, while Descartes' starting-point is the complete rejection of the very same thing. But Aristotle and Descartes share the view that philosophy can be done by the individual in isolation, while Plato and Socrates seem to prefer a dialectical, more communal style.

The other remarkable thing about Socrates' Children is that of the ten philosophers treated in depth, two are women (Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir), and one of the four contemporary issues in the final chapter is feminist epistemology. (The other eight philosophers are Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Wittgenstein. The three other issues are "Artificial Intelligence", "The Informal Logic-Critical Thinking Movement", and "Deconstruction".) In a book written from an historical perspective, it is difficult to ensure that the voices of women are adequately represented. The inclusions in this book do much to rectify that imbalance.

Each of the ten chapters devoted to individual philosophers begins with some warm biographical notes which situate the philosopher both intellectually and personally. Scholarly notes for each chapter are grouped together at the end of the volume, and contain information on texts, translations, contemporary scholarship, and related readings. Quotations are amply employed throughout the book, and are adequately referenced and explained.

There are three chapters devoted to ancient philosophy, one each to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Myself, I think the best introduction to Socrates, and perhaps even to philosophy, is to begin by reading Plato's Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. These texts are quite accessible without a gloss, so I confess that I was a bit impatient with the first chapter of the book. On the other hand, as Govier notes in her preface, the book was written in part for people who want to know more about philosophy, but who "find the prospect of delving into Aristotle's Metaphysics...to be entirely daunting." And indeed, for people who do not have the luxury of enrolling in a good philosophy class or an indulgent reading group, the chapters do make the more difficult ideas of the philosophers quite accessible.

From Aristotle the book jumps to Descartes with hardly a mention of intervening thinkers, save St. Thomas Aquinas. I would have liked to have seen a bit more by way of transition between the chapters, even if it had only been a few lines devoted to each of the more important philosophers and philosophical positions. After all, the book is intended to introduce and entice.

The chapter on Descartes carefully treats the method of doubt, the famous cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am") argument, and does a tremendous job with the argument for the existence of God in the Third Meditation, one of the most difficult pieces that a student will face in an introductory course. The chapter also covers the circularity of that argument, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of Cartesian dualism (the view that the mind and the body are two very different kinds of substances that are nevertheless united in human persons). I was a bit surprised, however, that Descartes' scientific realism did not receive more treatment. This is the view that the true nature of physical objects does not consist in their sensory qualities such as taste and feel and colour, but in what John Locke called their primary qualities and what today we might think of as their molecular structure. The sensory qualities are regarded as mere ideas, mere effects of the primary qualities, and the primary qualities are studied by a science that describes a reality of quarks and leptons quite different from our everyday world of the senses. The shift to a recognizably contemporary scientific world-picture seems to me the most dramatic episode in early modern thinking, and so to be deserving of more attention.

Hume and his empiricism (the view that all our knowledge is ultimately derived from sense experience) and Kant's self-styled "Copernican Revolution" with his critical philosophy are the subjects of chapters five and seven. My only complaint about these chapters is that they are concerned almost entirely with these philosophers' views on epistemology and metaphysics, while their views on moral philosophy receive scant attention (Kant's famous "categorical imperative" receives only a paragraph). It was the intervening chapter on Mary Wollstonecraft that made me feel this omission, for the transition from Hume to Kant is a natural one and the introduction of Wollstonecraft at this point seemed forced. But aside from being interesting in its own right, what the chapter shows (perhaps inadvertently) is how far some of the problems in metaphysics and epistemology are from the concerns of everyday life. So a reader who is struggling with, say, Hume's problem of induction and wondering why he or she should care about it can look at Wollstonecraft's arguments concerning equality for women, ending human misery, the beauty of the natural world, and the like, and say, "These are real issues." Perhaps because of her relative obscurity, the biographical section of the Wollstonecraft chapter is longer than the others.

Although I didn't count the number of lines, my impression is that the proportion of quotations in the chapter on Hegel was somewhat smaller than in the other chapters. This will not be surprising to anyone who has read Hegel! Despite the difficulty of the Hegelian position, however, Govier does a good job of explaining Hegel's idealism and his dialectic, using examples from ecology and economics.

In chapter nine, Govier not only describes existentialism, carefully rooting it in both Hegel and Kant, she also moves Simone de Beauvoir out from under the shadow of Jean-Paul Sartre. A lot of care is taken in the chapter to distinguish Beauvoir's version of existentialism from Sartre's, her version containing a more cheerful view of our relationship to nature and to others. Attention is also paid to Beauvoir's theoretical work on women.

Ludwig Wittgenstein is the final philosopher treated in detail, and in this chapter we encounter the early (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) and late (Philosophical Investigations) Wittgenstein, and along the way we are introduced to logical positivism. This chapter, the longest of the book, also reviews Wittgenstein's "solution" to the problem of skepticism (by dissolving, and not answering, the problem), his anti-private-language argument (language is essentially a social institution and meaning is rooted in shared usage of words), and has an extended discussion on the relationship between language and thought.

The four topics of chapter eleven all receive very brief treatment. I take it that the intention is to whet the appetite, and the interested reader can consult the notes for further information. The section on artificial intelligence (AI) reviews the Turing Test, a proposal by Alan Turing according to which a machine that imitates intelligence (by fooling a person into thinking that they are having intelligent communication with another person) really is intelligent. This section also canvasses the various camps in the AI debate. The section on informal logic is a report on ways in which the critical and constructive argumentative skills that are central to philosophy can be applied to other areas of the academy and beyond. The third section characterizes the deconstructionist movement, at least to the extent that it will sit still long enough to be characterized. I confess that I am one of those philosophers, mentioned by Govier, who are not very sympathetic to the "anything goes" mentality of deconstructionism. The paradoxical position that says "The only rule of interpretation is that there are no rules" is sometimes quaint as humour, but so it should remain. The section on feminist epistemology is a nice catalogue of recent feminist contributions to our understanding of knowledge. Of particular note is the contribution in science and the philosophy of science. There, a radical movement has helped to improve the institutions it began by criticizing: the inclusion of more women in science not only has societal benefits (more equality of opportunity, more chance that specific concerns of women will receive scientific attention), but also has benefits to science (the inclusion of multiple perspectives at the level of theory construction increases the chance of hitting upon theories that work).

Let me conclude this review with two general remarks concerning the suitability of Socrates' Children for use as a text in an introductory course. First of all, there should be no complaint about the contents of this book. On the other hand, I wager that everyone will discover some crucial omission, but that is the nature of a book such as this, and the omission of one of my favourites merits no apology from the author. No doubt the plethora of introductory monographs and anthologies available today is in part due to the belief of each author that he or she has finally found just the right combination. My own view is that in an introductory course it is quite legitimate for content to take a back seat to form; we should be interested more in developing philosophical and argumentative skills than in learning the views of this or that particular philosopher.

My final remark has to do with using any book such as this in introductory classes, as against using original texts exclusively. To be sure, the choice between an original text and a textbook version of the argument is a matter of taste and teaching style, but I confess that I still ask my students to struggle through the sometimes tortured prose of the great philosophers. That way they can experience the nuances and complexities that are of necessity obscured in someone else's version of the argument. That way they really get to know how the philosophers think. 

A native of Hamilton, Ontario, Paul Thomson is associate professor of philosophy at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.


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