In pursuit of truth

Can't tell your rigid designators from your deontic logic? Ray Monk zips through the philosophy book with all the answers : The Oxford Companion to Philosophy ed. Ted Honderich Oxford, pounds 25
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With over 1,000 pages, nearly 2,000 entries, many of them several thousand words long, and about 250 contributors, including some of the most famous philosophers in the world, this is an impressively substantial piece of work. But who, and what, is it for? In his Preface, Ted Honderich claims its purpose is threefold: to provide "authoritative enlightenment" to general readers; to supply professional philosophers with a "scrupulous guide" to their subject; and, in a less austere spirit, to satisfy "a curiosity owed just to a page that falls open".

Not that all three purposes are served by all 2,000 entries. The last, in particular, seems to be in some tension with the other two, providing merely an excuse for a number of self-consciously "light-hearted" entries that sit oddly with the rest of the book, giving the effect of a straight- faced and scholarly reference work occasionally interrupted by the vain attempt to disguise it as one of those collections of entertaining ephemera that people leave in the lavatory to while away the odd moment. Thus, under the heading "tar-water", one finds out that the great empiricist philosopher, Bishop Berkeley, considered a mixture of tar and cold water to be an all-purpose medicine with "extraordinary virtues". One almost expects the entry to end: "Not a lot of people know that". In a similar spirit is a series of entries, too short to have anything very interesting to say, on lines of poetry - apparently chosen at random - that happen to mention philosophy: Swift's "Philosophy! the lumber of the Schools", Keats's "Philosophy will clip an angel's wings", Milton's "How charming is divine philosophy!", and so on. The expositions offered of these lines are invariably superficial and occasionally staggeringly banal.

The justification for such stuff is Honderich's notion of what a "companion" is. "It diverts. It suits a Sunday morning", he says, and so, lest we find explanations of such things as the predicate calculus, Godel's Theorem, "rigid designators" and "deontic logic" insufficiently diverting, he has thrown in a sprinkling of lighter stuff to keep us amused. He needn't have bothered. The few entries specifically designed for this purpose do nothing to alter the essentially scholarly nature of the volume, and not even the worst pub bore is going to start a conversation with: "Did you know that 'rigid designator' is the term introduced by Kripke to characterise an expression which has the same reference in every possible world in which it has any reference at all?"

The entries supplied as "Sunday morning diversions" do little to remedy or even to disguise the book's central weakness, which is that, where it matters, it is rather too austere for its own good. Many of its explanations of the more technical parts of contemporary analytical philosophy, in particular, are given in such a way as to be completely unintelligible to the general reader. The entry on "Craig's Theorem", for example, invites us to suppose, first that "T is a formal axiomatic theory", and second that "O is a restricted part of T's vocabulary", and then tells us that: "Craig's Theorem states that there is a formal axiomatic theory T* such that (i) the axioms of T* contain only terms in O and (ii) T and T* imply the same O-sentences". Perhaps some of the space given up to tar-water and the like could have been used to explain what this is all about and why people have found it interesting.

The longer, more general entries on the great philosophers and the great issues in philosophy are, on the other hand (for the most part at least), genuinely helpful to the uninitiated. They vary enormously, however, in style, content and accessibility. An especially excellent one is Thomas Baldwin's engaging summary of Jean-Paul Sartre's work, which, quite appropriately, includes discussion of his fiction as well as his philosophy (similarly excellent is Baldwin's entry on Existentialism). Mark Sainsbury's entry on Bertrand Russell, however, though elegantly written, is overly dry, and his concluding comment that Russell's work will continue to be discussed for its insistence that "quantifiers and quantifier phrases function quite differently" will, one suspects, mean little to anyone outside the profession.

The chief advantage that this Companion has over its closest rival - the Pan paperback Dictionary of Philosophy edited by Anthony Flew - is its much greater bulk, which allows it to include entries on a correspondingly greater number of philosophers. Disappointingly, however, despite the publisher's claim that all notable philosophers from antiquity to the present day are included, it is not difficult to find significant omissions. The most serious of these is, perhaps, John Ellis McTaggart, the great Cambridge Idealist, who, unlike dozens of indisputably lesser figures (Shadworth Holloway Hodgson? Hastings Rashdall? not to mention the vast number of obscure contemporary academic philosophers included), does not even merit a short paragraph.

An advantage of its size that is fully and admirably exploited is that the book can afford to take a much wider and more generous conception of its subject than previous dictionaries. Thus (though the emphasis remains firmly on the mainstream, analytical tradition), we have helpful guides to all the major figures of the continental tradition of philosophy, as well as entries on many of its terms of art, and on aspects of feminist philosophy, and socialist philosophy. There is even the occasional nod towards mysticism and Eastern philosophy. A necessary drawback (if it is a drawback) of such liberal heterogeneity is a fundamental inconsistency as to the nature of the subject. In an entry on "wisdom", for example, it is lamented that, though "wisdom is what philosophy is meant to be a love of", little attention has been paid to it in modern Western philosophy, an attitude apparently at complete variance with that of the long entry on "philosophy" itself, which, over four pages and without any hint that something is missing, never once mentions the love of wisdom.

Though Honderich might have done something to improve the style of some of his contributors, he was no doubt right to leave such glaring inconsistencies to stand as evidence of the essentially and irredeemably controversial nature of philosophy. What he might have provided, however, among the list of extremely useful appendices he includes on such things as logical symbols, maps of philosophy, and chronological lists, is a table to indicate where one might find the entries of the eminent contributors listed at the front. In the case of one of the most eminent, Michael Dummett, I have been unable to find a single contribution. Honderich might also have explained the principles of the somewhat eccentric alphabetical order in which he has arranged the entries. Why, for example is "Russell's paradox" listed under "R" but "Hume's fork" under "F"? If a consistent principle had been used, perhaps there would have been less need for the numerous entries of the sort: "Meaning of life: see life, meaning of".

Neither such quibbles nor the more serious shortcomings I have mentioned should obscure the fact that this is the most far-reaching and the most authoritative single-volume reference work on philosophy yet published.