So what does it all mean, then?

Philosophy. Now there's a subject that can put us on the right path. Paul Vallely talks to the editor of a major new guide and (below) seeks answers from some of the world's greatest thinkers
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When I was at university, one of the philosophy professors disappeared for three days. Eventually, they broke down the door of his lodgings to find him sitting in his overcoat, unmoving, staring into the empty fire grate, his brain on overload with some labyrinthine piece of formal logic. His wife, also a professional thinker, had not long before been reprimanded by the social services for leaving their baby in a pram for seven hours outside the university library, into which she had popped to return some books and, somehow, got absorbed in something she found on the returns counter.

Welcome to the world of philosophical speculation, of category mistakes and deontological ethics, and an atmosphere so rarefied that the rest of us cannot survive for long without oxygen. Wrong, says Ted Honderich, who glories in the baroque title of Grote Professor of Mind and Logic at University College London. He has just finished editing 249 of the world's most esteemed thinkers in almost a million words of the Oxford Companion to Philosophy (OUP, pounds 25). Philosophy, he insists, has something important to say in 1995. "It has not only the universe but the universe of our concerns as its subject matter."

There is an entry in the book on the meaning of life, but it does not tell us the answer. "It might be a question with no answer," chuckles Honderich. "Anyway, you get 600 words on why there isn't one."

The Grote Professor is pleased that over the course of three years' intensive work on the book (the manuscript was more than two feet high), he dealt with at least 400 philosophers and fell out with very few: the exceptions were a couple who were upset at the space allocated (70 words for definitions, 135 for small concepts, 300 for noted thinkers, 600 for influential ones, 1,800 for large ones, 3,000 for the greats).

But can philosophy help us to discover how to be compassionate about single mothers without creating structural disincentives to welfare dependency? Can it help us to achieve a balance between what we spend on a dinner party for our friends and what we send to famine relief? What about Bosnia?

"A good piece of philosophy ought to provide you with the principles underlying those dilemmas," says Honderich, pointing us to the entries on loyalty (an inconstant virtue), consequentialism (the approach that judges actions by their global consequences) and agent-relative moralities (the idea that people can "devote attention to their own concerns in a manner disproportionate to their value considered from an impartial perspective"). Those who take the trouble to read them will find these entries - as with so many in the hefty tome - immensely rewarding.

"You should be able to look at them and get a suggestion of the general principles involved. You can get a clearer view of the issues by philosophical reflection. But that isn't going to make these questions easier. These are hard questions precisely because they pull us in different directions. Anything which produces the answer like a Mars bar out of a machine is by definition a bad method. Too much Conservatism is precisely along those lines - the production of stark, clear answers about what should be done to single mothers or in Bosnia. Anything that finds these things not difficult is essentially simple minded."

So isn't philosophy, therefore, just stating in many words what everybody knows anyway? "Demonstrably not. In politics, rights we now take for granted owe their beginnings to philosophical speculation. The politics of the present is the child of forgotten philosophy. You can't expect all philosophy to interact with common sense concerns now. Some, like ethics, does. The rest of philosophy takes a while to seep down into ordinary thought. But eventually, it does."

Sex, lies and dilemmas: what the book says

What is the meaning of life?

This is one of those Big Questions about Ultimate Things that 20th century philosophers have so often been accused of neglecting. ... Another version of the question [is] what is the point of it all? ... An implication of this, in the spirit if not in the letter, seems to be that without some overall purpose in things all our own projects are somehow worthless. But why should this be so?

(from Life, The Meaning Of; entry by Dr Alan Lacey, King's College London)

Hang on, we do the questions, and philosophy does the answers

General guidance about the conduct of life is what is colloquially meant by the word "philosophy" and is what most people expect from philosophers and are, for the most part, disappointed not to receive.

(Popular Philosophy; Professor Anthony Quinton, Trinity College, Oxford)

OK, well, let's try something easier. What does philosophy tell us about sex?

Few philosophers have developed an ethics of sexuality as something other than an appetite requiring regulation.

(Sexual Morality; Dr Paul Gilbert, University of Hull)

So what did they say?

Two questions arise: what sexual acts are morally permissible? With whom are they permissible? The view that some kinds of sexual acts are morally wrong can spring from several sources. The most obvious employs the consequentialist (qv) test of whether they cause harm. A more widely acceptable criterion condemns some acts as failing to treat those with whom they are performed, or oneself, as persons rather than as objects. ... The restriction of sex to love implies an ethics of care (qv). And the person-centred approach emphasises an ethics of virtue (qv).

(Gilbert, op cit)

Is that it?

Nagel [Thomas Nagel, influential contemporary American philosopher] bravely maintains that "bad sex is generally better than none at all". (ibid)

Oops, sorry. OK, let's forget sex. But what about the other great issues in life? What, for instance, is the meaning of shopping?

Some economists picture consumers as free when there are no restrictions on the goods and services they can choose to buy in a free market. Hegel thought this an utterly superficial notion of freedom because ... it does not ask why individuals make the choices they do. He even anticipates, by more than a century, the modern critique of the consumer society as creating needs in order to satisfy them.

(Hegel; Professor Peter Singer, Monash University)

So shopping is bad for you?

In the modern world ... we proceed on the assumption that there is a frontier between public and private life; and that, however small the private sphere may be, within it I can do as I please, provided this does not interfere with the similar rights of others, or undermine the order which makes this kind of arrangement possible.

(Liberty; Sir Isaiah Berlin, All Souls College, Oxford)

So shopping is good for you, so long as no one else gets upset. How about the National Lottery? Can philosophy help me win that? Does probability theory tell me that if I don't win one week I should change my numbers?

The game-show host Monty Hall conceals a prize behind one of three curtains, A, B, or C. Asked to guess which the prize is behind, you choose A. Monty opens B and shows it's not there, and offers you the choice of sticking with A or switching to C. ... Bayes's theorem shows that the probability it is behind A is 1 in 3, so the probability it is behind C is 2 in 3. Assuming your original choice is wrong two-thirds of the time, you will win by switching two-thirds of the time, so you should switch.

(The Monty Hall Paradox; Professor John Heil, Davidson College)

Hmm. Let's try politics. Is it really fair to expect Japan to apologise now for wartime atrocities?

Shame is the focal point of ethics in many ancient and non-Western philosophies. ... The Judaeo-Christian tradition and many modern theories place considerable emphasis on guilt. The difference is profound. Guilt ... is a highly individualistic emotion, a matter of self-scrutiny and self-condemnation. Shame is a highly social emotion, and has to do with violating a common trust, "letting the others down".

(Shame; Professor Robert C Solomon, University of Texas)

I get the idea. We have to forgive them, but they don't have to forgive us

Forgiveness is, perhaps, only appropriately granted by those affected by the offence. However, the relationship of forgiveness to both contrition and punishment (qv) is imprecise.

(Forgiveness, Patricia Walsh, King's College London)

Nor in contemporary history. So who are worse - the Serbs or the Croats?

The usual basis of the claim [to land] is a long history of residence and a sentimental attachment. ... In principle, self-determination can be claimed by any collective self. ... It helps in establishing this bond if blood has actually been spilled in defence of the land. ... Sometimes two groups of people ... claim the same homeland. ... It is radically unclear how to adjudicate disputes of this kind.

(Homeland, Right To A; Professor Michael Walzer, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University)

OK, it's messy. But ethics is philosophy's home turf. So is abortion wrong?

The central argument against abortion may be put like this: It is wrong to kill an innocent human being. A human foetus is an innocent human being. Therefore it is wrong to kill a human foetus.

Defenders of abortion usually deny the second premise of this argument. Opponents of abortion challenge others to point to any stage in the gradual process of human development that marks a morally significant dividing line. Those who wish to deny the foetus a right to life may be on stronger ground if they challenge the first, rather than the second premise, [taking human to mean] a rational and self-conscious human being.

(Abortion; Professor Peter Singer)

What about the other end of life? Do parents have the right to ask doctors to end the life of a deaf and dumb child in agony?

The first argument [against this] is straightforward: killing patients is inconsistent with the roles of nursing, care-giving and healing. ... The second is more complex ... the social consequences of sanctioning practices of killing would run serious risks of abuse and misuse, and on balance would cause more harm than benefit.

(Euthanasia; Professor TL Beauchamp, Georgetown University)

Aha, the slippery slope argument!

The slippery slope is ... an argument based on a certain view of human nature, not on logic.

(Slippery Slope; Mary Warnock, Girton College, Cambridge)

Ouch! So why do you philosophers even try to engage in dialogue with us mere mortals?

Only the most austere of professionals nowadays seem able to resist enticements to explain themselves to a wider public.

(back to Popular Philosophy; Anthony Quinton)