2018 Review #1 How the World Thinks by Julian Baggini


Have you ever thought? If so, you should read this book. If you’re interested in thinking (and you must be, having reached the third sentence of this review), then you should definitely read this book. Buy it now.

It offers a single-volume, easy to read survey of the philosophical bases for thought across the world, saving all of us the decades of research needed to understand these for ourselves. Indian, Japanese, even oral philosophies are covered without preconception or prejudice. What is special about the book is that Baggini refuses to privilege Western philosophy; indeed, the whole book is a direct call to resist that temptation, and to learn what other cultures and modes of thought have to offer us. What is refreshing is Baggini’s intellectual modesty, his willingness to place himself in the position of a student striving to make sense of approaches and processes that start from a different basis to Western thought.

The result is a book about philosophy, not of philosophy. Grounded in Baggini’s own experience – chapters often start with personal anecdotes – it explores the history and essential components of a range of great systems of thought. I appreciated the focus on Chinese and especially Japanese philosophy, because the latter in particular is so alien to our own. And Baggini is fastidious (as a philosopher should be!) about the precision with which he tries to summarise an entire system: ‘ To say that Japanese philosophy is aesthetic rather than conceptual is not primarily to say that it is concerned with appreciation of beauty – artistic, natural or otherwise – but that it is centred on the experiential.’ He then continues: ‘When I first drafted that last sentence I wrote “the experiential rather than the intellectual” and then almost added “based on feeling rather than thinking”. That was a mistake, and an instructive one.’ It is that kind of honesty, and that kind of precision, which makes the book so illuminating.

In this way the reader is led to a clear appreciation of the philosophical underpinnings of culture and societies across the globe. The writing is non-technical and aimed at the general reader, but Baggini is not afraid of specifics where appropriate; listing, for example, six ‘valid pramāṇas (sources of knowledge)’ in Indian philosophy.

By the end of the book the reader’s understanding is enriched, and one can appreciate more fully Baggini’s early comments on the weaknesses inherent in Western philosophy, and by extension in Western democracy: ‘The problems of Western democracy are a kind of allegory for the problems of Western philosophy. Its pursuit of the clear distinction between true and false creates a default either/or mindset. … And when there are several plausible views, a binary mindset finds it hard to manage the complexity that creates.’ His conclusion is that, by exploring alternative modes of thought, we may find ways of thinking that can be melded with our own to form more fruitful approaches. The only people who wouldn’t benefit from reading this book are those whose minds are closed, or those whose minds are already as open as Julian Baggini’s.

The book does have an inevitable weakness. Being written by a philosopher, it tends to overrate the importance of philosophy. Baggini doesn’t maintain a clear separation between people’s philosophies – what they think – and Philosophy as an academic subject. The truth is that any individual’s thinking is an appalling mish-mash of unscrutinised, unsystematic and frequently contradictory ideas, opinions and feelings. I may love kittens, yet eat meat. I may deplore theft, and then still fare-dodge, and so on. Further, almost nobody’s thinking is derived from philosophy – sorry, Julian. It’s derived from their family and acquaintances, from stories, from poetry, from song. Almost everybody can quote a line or two from Shakespeare – all the world’s a stage, after all – but almost nobody can quote a line of Kant. I can’t. And most people’s thinking is more affected by popular music than philosophy, Madonna rather than Marx. We are living in a material world.

The reality, of course, is that philosophy, like grammar, is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It seeks to systematise ways of thought that exist in the world. As a result it may succeed in articulating principles that actually matter to people, such as harmony in Confucianism or karma in Indian thought, however diversely individuals may interpret such concepts. In the end, however, each individual’s understanding, beliefs and patterns of thinking will be just that – individual. As Heraclitus puts it, ‘Though wisdom is common, yet the many live as if they had a private understanding.’

None of this is to detract from the value of the book. Indeed, my personal response only highlights its value. I’ve read quite a lot of philosophy, but I’ve read vastly more poetry and fiction. It’s inevitable that my way of thinking will be my own, based on my own experience, predilections and tendencies. My gratitude to Julian Baggini is that he has shown me how many other ways of thinking there are out there, waiting to be explored, appreciated and assimilated. Fortunately, his book is easily available in good bookshops from Sandwich to Sidmouth (I’ve seen it there), so support your local bookseller and buy it today!

‘If, relying on the guidance of your steadfast mind, you contemplate these things with good will and faultless care, they will remain with you in great abundance throughout your life and from them you will gain much else.’ – Empedocles (tr. J.P.Edwards RIP)