If Minds Had Toes, by Lucy Eyre

The trouble with philosophy
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The Independent Culture

When Alain de Botton began to write about philosophy, he was condemned by academics because he claimed that the object of their studies was to make people happy. More fool them, because his books seem to have done the trick for plenty of middle-aged readers who fancy philosophy as an alternative to yoga. There is now another branch of pop philosophy that aims at excitement rather than relaxation. Arguments and paradoxes are served up to appeal to the audience's nerdishness and egotism, but almost invariably the result is clever-clever without being clever.

Lucy Eyre's first novel is no exception. The story follows the progress of a wager between Socrates and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who reside with their fellow-philosophers and acolytes in the afterlife's World of Ideas. This is a bland place where the food has no taste and the characters seem to have no personality. Socrates puts his presidency of the realm at stake in betting that philosophy can improve the lives of ordinary people.

His beautiful assistant Lila is dispatched to Earth to find a suitable test subject. She opts for Ben, a 15-year-old who works in a fish-and-chip shop. Ben is brought to the World of Ideas and involved in a series of debates about perception, morality and freewill. When philosophy's Big Names decline to help out, his guide decides that Ben will get a more rounded education from amateurs.

He will indeed on this showing, for some ill-advised dialogue has the great philosophers talking exclusively in clichés. No less a master of the simile than Wittgenstein complains that relating his ideas is like "casting pearls before swine". As if it is not enough to present someone whose worst crime was to give bad career advice to his students as a conniving villain, he also uses "'whatever" as an exclamatory shrug. Thomas Hobbes, now a heavenly spin-doctor, advises that all political messages should be, wait for it, "nasty, brutish and short". Hegel is put in charge of newsgathering from the land of the living so that the author can describe his reports as "a Hegelian synthesis". To an adult, these lines are clunking, but to a young reader they will be merely baffling.

This is not to say there is no good material: there ought to be, with the entire history of philosophy to plunder. There is also a rather good thought about how to get one's head around the number of victims of the Rwandan genocide: many times worse than every individual you have ever met - all the colleagues, schoolmates and shop assistants - being murdered in under three months. But this is not enough. The central character often wonders whether he should be out chasing girls rather than debating metaphysics. Done like this, the answer is yes.

Nicholas Fearn's 'Philosophy: the latest answers to the oldest questions' is published by Atlantic

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