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Monday, October 11th, 2010
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Ideas That Matter: The Concepts That Shape the 21st Century

by A. C. Grayling

A Dictionary of Thinking

A review by Justin E. A. Busch

The one-author dictionary of ideas has been a fixture on the Western intellectual scene at least since Pierre Bayle's Historical and Critical Dictionary in the 1690s, but has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent decades. Few modern authors are as ambitious as Bayle, who wrote multiple volumes, but most follow his tendentious approach, with the entries selected in accord with this or that overall view of how things ought to be.

The English philosopher A. C. Grayling, author of this latest example of the genre, brings to his project a wider range of interests than many contemporary academic philosophers, having written or edited books on, among others, Bertrand Russell, Arthur Schopenhauer, William Hazlitt, and the love poetry of Robert Herrick. Nonetheless, in Grayling's eyes most of the ideas that matter come from only two (admittedly broad) areas of human activity, philosophy and science; there is very little here on the arts (literature and cinema, say) or even the technology of entertainment (e.g., television, though the Internet does get an entry). The result is a provocative book which will engage, and at times outrage, most thoughtful readers; the entries here, Grayling avows in his introduction, "are a preface to the reader's own enquiries, and not a preliminary to a course of study devised by me."

Logic is central to Grayling's project. "Much that matters most in human affairs appears to be far beyond the reach of logic," Grayling admits, "and yet without it we would lack almost every advance that humanity has made in the direction of science and civilization." He grows almost evangelical in his defense, and not without justification; it is skepticism about logic which keeps nonsense in existence, he insists, asserting also that the evils of ignorance can be cured by the application of "logic in the general sense of reason," but only "for the few brave enough to use it, and to follow its lead." There is much truth here, but the sad chaos into which the lives of many logicians have descended suggests that reason is not the only foundational component of the good life, a suggestion made concrete in the entry on Love; after cataloging various types thereof, and analyzing the related brain states, Grayling avows that love "can summon everything that is truest and best in the person who so loves." But empathy and imagination, not logic, evoke and maintain love.

The stress on logic and science is echoed by a constant refrain of disdain for religion, grounded in part on the frequent obscurantism of its devotees: "What horrors can be justified by appeal to the authority of the non-rational, the traditional, the superstitious, the suppositious, the evidentially unsupported, and so forth, history too often bloodily teaches." Presumably he means that history teaches how bloody these things are, as, apart from English public schools where whipping was regularly used as an educational tool, history rarely teaches anything bloodily -- but the infelicity of expression echoes a certain degree of laxity as regards fact. His attack on the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who argued that God created the best of all (logically) possible worlds, for instance, simply misses Leibniz's point: that there is no possible world in which no evil could exist. To use the existence of evil itself as a refutation of Leibniz is therefore simply irrelevant (more to the point would be an argument based on the idea of good in itself, as Leibniz, in having God make a moral choice, has actually privileged goodness over deity, and thus left open serious questions regarding the relevance of the latter to questions of good and evil at all). Likewise, the assertion regarding Christianity that "in most of the more mature and educated parts of the world, from Europe to the east coast of the United States, it is a minority and diminishing avocation, despite the vigorous efforts of evangelicals and fundamentalists to impose themselves on society and to influence the laws and morals of the communities in which they are minorities," is a classic example of a philosophical fallacy known as equivocation, in which one term (here, evangelicals) silently replaces another (here, Christians) as if it meant the same thing, though what is true regarding the former is not yet true as regards the latter. Grayling's claims about the dangers of religious belief are vital ones that need to be introduced, but his ire occasionally leads him to make assertions too easily refuted to carry the argumentative weight they require for such an emotional topic.

When Grayling's rhetoric is controlled, though, he makes important points with great verve and power. Regarding slavery, he notes that "in the West every week people unknowingly touch something wholly or partly made by forced labour in China's huge gulag of prison camps where millions are incarcerated... Despite the importance of forced labour to China's economy, the international community chooses to ignore its existence." Even more striking is his slashing entry on Vegetarianism. Having described the process of decomposition which makes meat edible, he ends with an ironic dismissal: "Perhaps you like filling your mouth with rotting flesh full of injected hormones and vaccines, pullulating with microbes and covered in microbe diarrhea. All these things, plus a carcinogenic finish of heat-damage caused by the cooking process, add up to a tasty morsel, after all; and who can deny it?" Few readers will easily forget the imagery, and some perhaps will reconsider their diets.

The subjects are listed alphabetically, but the reader may begin Ideas that Matter anywhere (a helpful appendix lists the subjects under broader classifications, allowing quick checks on related topics). There is much to enjoy here, much with which to argue, and for most readers, at least some things from which to learn.

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