I picked this up in a used bookstore because it purported to be McGinn’s “Journey through Twentieth-Century Philosophy”. I have a layman’s interest in philosophy (my humanities concentration at MIT was in the field), and was curious as to what some of the developments in the twentieth century were. Plus, it was cheap.
McGinn structures the book as an intellectual autobiography, where he traces his own thinking throughout his academic career, from a struggling student rejected from Oxford to his present day work as a professor at Rutgers. It’s a very quick read (I read it in a couple hours on BART to and from work), thanks to McGinn’s light style. The book does not go cover any philosophical topic in depth (most topics are summarized in a couple pages), but he provides a good overview that appears to be as true to the original topic as possible without delving into obfuscatory terminology.
The thing I like the most about the book is the way McGinn captures the curiosity about ideas that philosophy entails. He describes it as such:
“Perhaps that is one of the primary pleasures of philosophy: arriving at an idea and figuring out what its logical consequences are. This is much like the pleasure of archaeological excavation – you dig deeper and deeper into the conceptual soil, seeking intellectual treasure. The power of one idea to lead to another is a never-ending source of fascination for me.”
He provides some great examples of such archaeology, from his meditation on what an object is (How can you describe an object without referring to its qualities? Is an object nothing more than a set of qualities describing it? But then, what do we mean when we say something is really something? Are we referring to a Platonic ideal of that object?) to proper names (At first glance, proper names would seem to be just a reference to a thing, like a pointer in programming, where we could just substitute the reference with the thing without changing meaning. However, it can’t be as simple as that, because then we can’t explain how “Marilyn Monroe” and “Norma Jean Baker” refer to the same person, but bring up vastly different connotations). Depths of philosophical thought open up everywhere, lurking just below the surface of everyday conversation.
I really liked this book. It’s breezy and short, but does a good job of covering various topics in contemporary philosophy at a manageable level. I’m sure it simplifies the discussion (several reviews on Amazon tear it apart for that), but it successfully captures the sheer wonder of philosophy. I like the concept of intellectual excavation of ideas; I think that is a large part of what I try to do with this blog, taking an idea and playing around with it until I’ve sucked all the marrow out of it and bored my readers to death. Anyway. Fun book. It’s such a quick read, though that I’d recommend either borrowing it from me, or getting it from the library.