|THE GREAT PHILOSOPHERS
FROM SOCRATES TO TURING
A review by Ted Honderich
review as it
is here is my original version. The Times, in its printed
chose to edit out Berkeley and Marx from this pantheon of philosophy,
make tentative my opinion about whether Turing counts as a philosopher
To the eternal irritation of the realistic, Socrates said a good man cannot be harmed. Anthony Gottlieb, first contributor to The Great Philosophers, makes some sense of this -- by way of the chance that a man can get into a state where all that matters to him is not doing wrong. Refreshingly useful. Plato contrasted words on a page, which cannot defend themselves, with a thinker, who can. Bernard Williams shows this is a reason for saying, as he does in his somewhat esoteric last paragraph, that it is pointless to ask who the world's greatest philosopher is, but Plato is. Also useful.
Descartes not only had the empirical good sense, not widely distributed among the French, to distinguish mind from body. He also rebutted 'angelism' about the mind, thereby weakening the distinction. John Cottingham surveys it all, and, true to the good idiosyncrasy of this book, just breezes by 'Cogito ergo sum'. Spinoza lightened the load of the doctrine of determinism that he laid on us all, by inviting us into the intellectual love of God, or Nature. Roger Scruton leaves out no definition, axiom or other proposition of his calm thinker, and is not impassioned in his defence of him.
Bishop Berkeley was not as mad as a hatter, alas, in turning us and everything else into a dream. David Berman concentrates engagingly on his experiments and thought-experiments, including nearly hanging himself. Hume is just lovely, the philosopher's philosopher. Oh to be Hume! So much better than being God. Anthony Quinton's wonderful piece on him is the very best in the book, at last an argument for the preservation of the House of Lords. The printer thought so too, and printed some of it twice.
Marx believed some funny things, and also, you might say, the most human ones. Terry Eagleton is blessedly unburdened by such philosophical ideas of interpretation as Professor Jerry Cohen's. That was that effects explain the occurrence of their causes. Instead he continues the moral resurrection of Marx. Bertrand Russell, as a philosopher of mathematics, had an exceedingly bad time with the nature of numbers, worse than with the nature of Ottoline Morrell. First they were ideal realities in Plato's heaven, and in the end little rules for the use of words. Ray Monk explains magisterially, with some sympathy.
Heidegger set out to say what it is for us to exist, where that includes our being conscious and rather more. He had ideas of intrinsic interest on the subject, some of them hard to get out of German into English. I owe this good summary, new in my life, to Jonathan Ree's confident clarity. With Ludwig Wittgenstein, we come upon one of your reviewer's many shortcomings of understanding. Might our thinking world be a better place if Luddy had stuck to aeronautical engineering in Manchester? Peter Hacker's fine essay on his philosophy of mind will save you from the idea.
Karl Popper, when not solving the problem of induction, about whether the sun will rise tomorrow, put in their places Plato, Marx and Freud, the last of these tasks requiring somewhat less effort. Frederic Raphael writes engagingly of him, taking care to address a doubt as to whether he stands easily beside the other great philosophers -- Hume, Descartes and so on.
Alan Turing was the father of the computer, and said if you can't tell from the messages coming out from behind the screen whether the thing there is a person or a computer, then, if it is a computer, it's thinking. This does not make him a philosopher, as Andrew Hodges may agree. Persecuted for being gay, he killed himself, after writing 'Turing believes machines think / Turing lies with men / Therefore machines do not think'. It's the saddest thing in the book, even if the conclusion, in the relevant sense having to do with consciousness, is really true despite the irony. Sadder than the death of Socrates, which is too far away.
These dozen essays were the little books of the series The Great Philosophers. There was excellent reason for their editors, Monk and Raphael, to bring them together under harder covers. The remit of the essayists was not to deal with all of their chosen philosopher, but an aspect. So they have, with some very honourable exceptions. The result is not another encyclopaedia but a liberated and more enticing volume. A snip at the price. Some class for your coffee table, and worth shelf-space thereafter.
The Times version of this review was published on 21 June 2000.