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WHAT PHILOSOPHY CAN DO by Gary Gutting Kirkus Star


by Gary Gutting

Pub Date: Sept. 8th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-393-24227-0
Publisher: Norton

It can’t take you to the airport, but philosophy, as this spirited book argues, can do all sorts of great things—including contribute to our happiness.

An introduction to “public philosophy,” which Gutting (Philosophy/Notre Dame Univ.; Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960, 2011, etc.) defines as “an application of and a complement to the more technical and specialized work of academic philosophers,” this well-argued book begins a daunting task: making political arguments less stupid and more humane. Those arguments, writes the author, tend toward practical or epistemic circularity, a less folksy way of saying that they preach to the choir: if you believe that George W. Bush was a dunce, then it follows that anyone who believes that he was a great president is also a dunce. Gutting counsels greater generosity of spirit in advancing our political views, which fuel debates that are central to attaining knowledge about our social world, therefore allowing us to make better choices about what policies to pursue. If all that seems a touch ideal, so do the author’s informed critiques of capitalism, which similarly draw on the “principle of charity” while showing how our self-interest is traduced: “The amount of instrumental work [capitalism] demands leaves us little time for work that’s valuable for its own sake, and it pushes us to want things we think will make us happy even though they won’t.” By inference, capitalism thus works against our happiness, for all the protestations of the free market purists. Gutting’s applications of philosophical and scientific principles to such questions as abortion and the existence of God are bracing. One hopes that these pieces, which grew from the author’s blog posts for the New York Times, might encourage better argumentation. Besides, it’s nice to see both Richard Dawkins and climate change deniers get slapped around a little, if always politely.

Somewhat less supple than Simon Blackburn’s Think (1999) as a general introduction to philosophy but an excellent, readable, and eminently practical guide.