News Dr Andrew Davis claims rival camps in the debate over how to teach children to read are acting like 'religious fundamentalists'

Children who are fluent readers are being damaged by the Government’s insistence on using synthetic phonics in the classroom, a leading academic warns today.

John Rentoul: Ed Balls's contribution to philosophy

The Education Secretary* has caused a fuss by saying on the Today programme this morning, speaking for "the Government": "None of us wanted to see the release of al-Megrahi."

Simone de Beauvoir, By Ursula Tidd

Reaktion has published a distinguished series of these shorter critical appraisals of famous literary figures, or "leading cultural figures of the modern period" as it would have it: Kafka, Joyce, Dalí and Baudelaire all feature in its list of 21 biographies.

Just Me, By Sheila Hancock

The Two of Us was Sheila Hancock's first foray into memoir writing, offering a tender account of her life with late husband and actor, John Thaw, and their 28-year marriage.

Erin Norman: in praise of Bertrand Russell

Do you remember the excitement of discovering someone who shocks you, inspires you, makes you laugh in wonderment, makes you nod in agreement?

Philosophy, ed David Papineau

Philosophy has six sections – World, Mind and Body, Knowledge, Faith, Ethics and Aesthetics, and Society – and every one is written by a professor in the field. It is printed on thick, luxury-quality paper and lavishly illustrated, with colour pictures of famous philosophers and mood pictures of outer space, book-lined studies, running horses... It is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. But the inevitable result of squeezing all of philosophy into one book is a loss of detail: Kant is compressed into three pages (though he is referenced elsewhere in the book). Sometimes explanation is simply not there, as in: "It seems there can be infinities of different sizes". Seems? (The explanation is well-known in mathematics – the set of fractions is of a greater order of infinity than the set of integers, for the latter could not be mapped one-to-one on to the former).

The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons From the Wild, By Mark Rowlands

The United States once pursued a policy of eradicating its wolves; shooting, poisoning and trapping them until there were almost no free wild wolves in the country, says Mark Rowlands. However, with the policy now abolished, they are again roaming through parts of Wyoming, Montana and Minnesota. They are also prowling in abundance through the pages of literature, in the strikingly vivid Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow and Joseph Smith's hauntingly beautiful debut, The Wolf.

Nothing to Be Frightened Of, By Julian Barnes

This is a thoughtful and elegantly written memoir, as one would expect from Julian Barnes: an account primarily of his lifelong fear of death, but also of his relationship with his parents, his philosopher brother (the word "rivalry" is never mentioned, but one can feel it) and with several dead writers, most notably Jules Renard of Poil de Carotte fame.

Politics and the Occult, By Gary Lachman

Gary Lachman has certainly done his research. This history of how the occult has influenced national politics – and not just wacky, fascist politics but mainstream and progressive political movements too – includes detailed discussion of the ideas of Johann Andreae, Dr John Dee, Francis Bacon, Emmanuel Swedenborg, Comenius and the rest of the gang, not forgetting the alchemists, Gnostics, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, and our mysterious friends the Knights Templar. It could be fascinating, but the prose is stodgy, and the actual aims of these secret societies, where revealed, are often uncontroversial and bland – to create a better world, that sort of thing.

Study shows happiness 'is contagious'

"Hell is other people," wrote the French existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, in one of his most famous lines from Huis-clos (No Exit). Half a century later, research has shown exactly the reverse may be true.

The Ten Best Ethical Gifts

Spare your conscience and opt for ethical gifts for your friends and family this Christmas.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, By Muriel Barbery, trans. Alison Anderson

A cuddly tale of philosophy and beauty – with nasty barbs

The Meaning of Life, By Terry Eagleton

Eagleton pre-emptively announces on page one that he's not a philosopher, but anyone tackling this subject is de facto a philosopher; the question is, how good? Eagleton indulges in some needlessly laboured analysis of terms, but is less interested in philosophical argument than in sticking it to his enemies, those pesky liberal humanists.

The great philosophers guide - free with the print edition

The Independent has created a 14-day series on ‘The Great Philosophers’, covering the lives and work of some of history’s greatest thinkers.

Paperback: I Am, Therefore I Think, ed. Alexander George

Sceptre £7.99

First Night: The Life of Galileo, Olivier National Theatre, London

Star performance takes Brecht's Galileo into a different orbit
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