Thursday, August 25, 2011

Walking the Tightrope of Reason (2003) (Review)

     Robert Fogelin's Walking the Tightrope of Reason: The Precarious Life of a Rational Animal (2003) is not the most accessible book on the shelf.  While it starts out quite well and is very engaging, Fogelin eventually gets lost in the very subject he is exploring and ends up coming away with little to contribute to the discussion of the problems facing rationality.  It also ends up requiring the reader to have a fair grasps of the philosophical concepts he introduces to keep himself from reaching a satisfactory end.
     I would recommend this book on the strength of its Introduction and first two chapters (the first 67 pages).  It does a great job of showcasing the typical deadfalls in the everyday exercise of logic and reason, and of breaking down Wittgenstein to a pretty basic level.  Where it goes wrong is where Fogelin has to account for Kant and Hume's views on the inherent problems of purely intellectual enterprises.  Neither is particularly easy to express in lay terms, so Fogelin doesn't.  Not being a Kantian, he doesn't indulge in Kant's complicated systems for understanding – this would have been more rewarding for me as Kant's views have largely been adopted by Cognitive Psychology in explaining how human beings process perception in order to formulate ideas and interpret the world.   As a Humean, he somewhat over indulges in Hume's explorations of the problems of skepticism, and not in a way that makes it accessible to those who are not well acquainted with Hume.  (I would like to thank Dr. James King of Northern Illinois University, himself a Humean, for instilling in me – I think – enough of an understanding of Hume to understand the points Fogelin is attempting to make in the later chapters.)
     At a list price of $13.95 this isn't overpriced for a philosophy text, but it is for a casual read.  It is far easier a read than a Hume, Kant, or Wittgenstein treatise.  It also has something to offer, at least in a cautionary manner, about how supposedly rational thought can go wrong.  It just would have been better if he had made it more applicable to everyday life and less to the dogged pursuit of knowable truth.

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