Review of AC Grayling's "Ideas that matter: A personal guide for the 21st century"
|A MIND MAP FOR THE WOULD-BE ENGAGED
IDEAS THAT MATTER: A Personal Guide for the 21st Century
By A.C Grayling. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 436pp. $55.
Reviewer: BRENTON HOLMES
A.C.Grayling is a workaholic scribbler. His words not mine. He writes regularly for the Observer, Guardian, Economist, TLS and New Statesman. He has written books on the philosophers Wittgenstein, Berkeley, Russell and Schopenhauer, on Chinese literature and politics, on religion, and on the poetry of the Cavalier clergyman Robert Herrick. He is also Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College and a Fellow of various august bodies including the World Economic Forum and the Royal Societies of Literature and of Arts.
Grayling is almost without peer as a serious academic who is also serious about what the French call haute vulgarisation – the rendering of complex and important ideas in a way that the general reader can understand. In Ideas that Matter: A Personal Guide for the 21st Century, Grayling offers his own dictionary of “ideas that have a bearing on an understanding of our world as the twenty-first century unfolds”.
He is motivated in part by that intellectual divide famously articulated by C.P.Snow in The Two Cultures, which Grayling calls the “gap between the natural and social sciences, on one hand, and the humanities and literary culture on the other”. The complexities and specialisms of science militate against informed public discussion of its possibilities, promises and risks. People educated in the humanities tend not to be as informed and responsive to scientific issues as they should. Scientists are not alert to the ideas of those philosophers and political and social theorists who address the wider implications of scientists’ work.
But concern for this cultural divide is merely a prelude to the main task of Ideas that Matter. Grayling is chiefly concerned to deliver “concise introductions to key ideas” that he believes people need if they are to strengthen their agency as effective citizens and flourishing individuals in the twenty-first century. Because ideas are “the cogs that drive history onward, for good or ill”, people will only be able to make sense of the world if they have some understanding of the political and philosophical influences, belief systems and theories that “shape contemporary debates or lie in the background of them”.
From “absolutism” to “zeitgeist”, Grayling’s offerings claim to be neither exhaustive nor definitive. Rather, he considers them to be the first steps of a journey, and he makes it clear that readers will need to do their own work if they are to develop a proper understanding of each topic. The book’s index is extremely helpful in this respect, as are the two appendices. One appendix groups all the topics according to relations of subject matter, with a number of topics necessarily appearing in more than one category because they relate conceptually to several arenas. Also very useful is an indicative biography, where each topic is assigned three or four key texts for further study should the reader wish to pursue the topic in more detail.
Grayling’s selection of ideas that matter is idiosyncratic but covers a lot of territory. One traverses accommodation theory, advertising, altruism and artificial intelligence before alighting at big bang cosmology, bioethics, black holes, Buddhism and business ethics – and we’ve barely covered the first two letters of the alphabet. Thereafter the terrain soars and plunges over class and cloning, democracy and deontology, epistemology, euthanasia and existentialism, arriving nearly four hundred pages later at war crimes and xenophobia.
But this book is no dilettante’s feast of intellectual sushi. Each entry is given its five or six pages of carefully crafted exegesis, and each one bears the Grayling hallmarks of erudition lightly worn, and words that chime like grace notes in their invitation to understanding.
There is also the occasional Grayling mischief that has made him such a popular columnist and broadcaster. He begins his deliberations on the Internet by citing Zhou En Lai’s response when asked what he thought of the French Revolution : “It’s too early to say”. A brief disquisition on the evolution of the Web concludes with reflections on the blogosphere, “the biggest lavatory wall in history, on which graffiti multiplies by the nanosecond”.
One of the briefest entries, on justice, is an eloquent miniature discourse on one of the most important and interrogated topics in philosophy. He says simply what justice is about, explains its intellectual roots in Greek thought, summarises Rawls’s seminal theory on the matter, and concludes with an overview of the contemporary institutional arrangements and ideas that embody and illuminate present notions of justice. Few philosophical writers – or quality journalists - can match Grayling for the economy and effectiveness of his prose.
Given the book’s intention to guide us into the twenty-first century as engaged citizens alert to its multiple and pressing challenges, many of the topics on offer come as no surprise. We would expect, for example, to encounter here discussions of terrorism, creationism, fundamentalism and string theory, just as we would in any number of broadsheets or current affairs programs. But Grayling includes topics that at first blush appear to be unusual choices with which to gird our intellectual loins.
Why an entry on the afterlife ? Why entries on virtue ethics, love and metaphysics? Perhaps the answer is that Grayling happens to find these topics of perennial personal interest. More likely, though, he has discerned through his own intense engagement with the world – which includes engagement with the intellectual and religious traditions of both East and West - that there are consistent themes with which human beings have always concerned themselves.
Such themes include those of identity, consciousness, connectedness, the place of human beings in the universe and the confronting fact of our own mortality. As we pursue our individual and communal journeys into the twenty-first century, these themes will travel with us, animating our hopes and plumping up our fears. Perhaps Grayling is wise enough to insist gently that we reflect on these things.
Perhaps he understands that when we turn our minds to those very pressing challenges of terrorism or biodiversity or euthanasia or tolerance we draw on deep, unexamined ways of being in and of viewing the world. Deep, unexamined ideas are probably our greatest impediment to effective agency and wise choice. The unexpected entries in Grayling’s book may well be those that will help us most.
Brenton Holmes lives and works in Canberra, and writes on philosophy, politics and culture.