Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Philosophers in 90 Minutes (Part One)

Paul Strathern
     I doubt that Paul Strathern, or publisher Ivan R. Dee for that matter, is all that concerned with whether or not he is pleasing the prejudices readers bring to his short little histories of various figures.  He certainly does not beat around the bush with the role the Roman Catholicism played in stifling philosophy and meaningful academic advancement.  As such, people has vented their frustration that Strathern has not properly worshiped the Saints he has covered in the in 90 Minutes series.  I would point these people towards the philosophic figures he has covered, where most are personally savaged to some degree.  When it came to St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Strathern generally praises the men, ignores the religion itself, and reiterates (because I think most of us have knowledge of this by the time we decide to read anything on the topic of philosophy on our own) that dogmatic thinking is contrary to intellectualism and any advancement of understanding.
     Strathern generally fits more of the history – sometimes more focused on the individual, sometimes on the era – than the philosophic contributions.  This satisfies one of the things I want to know at the expense of the other, but I will freely admit that most of the men (I have seen one woman covered in his Authors in 90 Minutes series) have ideas that cannot be properly defined in less words than they themselves used.  Giving a nutshell – really more of a sketch – of the contributions is (in some cases) enough for the casual reader, and by always including biographical information about the philosopher in question, there is not only a context for the thought but a humanization of the thinkers.

     I started reading this series with Heidegger in 90 Minutes (2002).  Yes, I found the Swastika shadow funny.  Still do, though Strathern goes to some lengths to ensure that the reader does not easily forgive Martin Heidegger's association with them (most accounts that I have read make it clear that Heidegger was motivated by a need to not be thrown out of academia when the Nazis rose to power rather than any belief in their cause – some stating that he left the party before the Nazis invaded Poland and started WWII).  He paints Heidegger as a needy, neurotic, perhaps asocial individual who found a way to reinterpret the world through the universal fear of death.  That is taking Heidegger's phenomenology shoving it into the smallest nutshell he could find. 
     If one has read either History of the Concept of Time (1925) – translated by Dr. Theodore Kisiel, who I met while at NIU – or its logical extension, Being and Time (1927), then one knows that its is almost impossible to follow Heidegger's line of thought without an expert on call for help.  Strathern fully embraces the difficulty with Heidegger's repurposing of language; how could he not?  But he does get around to giving the reader a rough concept of how phenomenology influenced the children's classic The Neverending Story (1979).

     I was hoping for something more substantial with Strathern's Kant in 90 Minutes (1996).  Largely because I am – as much as I am any one thing – a Kantian.  Instead of giving any attention to Kant's most easily identifiable contribution to the field of philosophy, the Categorical Imperative, Strathern goes with brief overviews of some of the points of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781; 1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Critique of Judgment (1790). Not Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), or the Metaphysics of Morals (1797). 
     In a short book, it is nearly impossible to do more than state that Kant destroyed the notion of space and time as we understand them (and clearly, we have chosen not to go his route since we still understand them in a practical sense) without giving the reasoning as to how Kant came to his conclusion and why he may be right.  (Kant argues that time and space are both categories of perception and have meaning only to the extent they allow us to order our understanding and experiences.  Moreover, as we cannot be the things we perceive, we can never have real knowledge of them, but only that of which we perceive – we cannot reason things as we do ideas.  Thus our knowledge of the world is only related to the ultimate truth of the world in as much as our perceptions are flawless and sync up with proper reasoning.)
     Strathern does do a good job of both praising Kant as quite possibly the brightest mind since St. Augustine of Aquinas (and until Wittgenstein) and showing where his limitations were obvious.  This is no piece of idol worship, but Strathern does seem to hold Kant in higher esteem than most of the other figures in the series (at least as far as I've read).  Unfortunately, he does not seem especially well versed in Kantian philosophy (and Strathern seems to believe that current philosophers no longer advocate any kind of metaphysical thinking, which is not what I experienced in my time studying philosophy). 
     There is a better book by Roger Scruton – Kant: A Very Short Introduction (2001) –  and I suggest that one instead.  Not as easy a read, but more rewarding.

     Rousseau in 90 Minutes (2002) doesn't give the reader any sense of just how crazy Jean-Jacques Rousseau really was.  Indeed, it is remarkable how he tries to make him a rather sane, sympathetic figure.  Strathern also doesn't provide any great insight into the philosophy JJR.  As such, this book falls well short – and expectedly so – of David Edmunds & John Eidinow's Rousseau's Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment (2007).  Strathern does give a good general sense to the man who advocated for liberty, but not so much his paranoia or his constant battles against the system he exploited to (farcically) live life on his own terms.  Not a bad read by any stretch of the imagination, but this is not where one should end when reading about Rousseau.

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