A C Grayling
Thinking of Answers
Bloomsbury Publishing (Allen and Unwin)
$35 (hardback)
978 1 4088 0598 5

Despite its unimaginative title, A C Grayling’s collection of philosophical essays, Thinking of Answers, is a thoughtful and a thought-provoking book. Grayling – a professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a regular contributor to The Times, Economist and Literary Review – doesn’t hide away in philosophy’s common musty stomping ground, but leaves the ivory tower and happily steps into the bustling marketplace of ideas, where he turns his impressive intellect to a variety of topics, from robots and stem cells to the idea of remorse, Shakespeare, civil liberties and goodness.

If you are someone who regularly curls up with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or Heidegger’s Being and Time, or if you read Wittgenstein over your cornflakes, you might turn your nose up at these essays, which are rarely longer than a couple of thousand words. But despite their brevity, they are not simple and, more importantly, not simplistic. Each essay has a title and deals with a question such as ‘Climate Change: Why does climate change not prompt more alarm?’ or ‘Stendhal on Love: How much light does Stendhal’s On Love throw on the subject of love?’ The bite-sized snippets do not provide answers to these questions as much as a framework of considerations and arguments that might be useful for thinking of answers.

Grayling draws on a broad range of material and one of the great pleasures of the book is the way it sends you scuttling to the library (or Wikipedia) to read more. In the time I read the collection, Grayling’s excitement inspired me to read Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, revisit Peter Singer writings, dig up an unread copy of Hazlitt’s Libor Amoris and do some research into robots in Japan and Korea designed for cleaning and bathing the elderly and babies. And there are still others I haven’t yet followed up.

The book is as much an argument for the need for philosophy to get out of the ivory towers of universities and engage in debates, and for philosophers to take up their roles as public intellectuals, as it is a collection of opinions. Grayling’s knowledge and interest in debate are reflected by the breadth of topics he engages with as well as his curiosity about and use of other areas of knowledge than pure ontology, epistemology, metaphysics and the other bewildering ‘ologies’ that philosophers usually befuddle the majority of us with.

He considers what neuropsychology and neuroscience can offer to moral debates, looks to Confucius, Kant, Mill, Locke, and mines society and history for gems of knowledge. One of the great advantages to this wide approach is that as well as exploring ideas, Thinking of Answers sends stories and ideas skittling in all directions, opening up possible avenues so the reader can wander on alone – to read up on the current situation in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the founding moment of the Red Cross Societies, when Henry Dunant rushed to the aid of the wounded of both sides in the 1859 Battle of Solferino.

If it sounds like there is too much here for any depth, it’s true. These are seeds rather than fully grown trees, but they are a wonderful starting point for more reading.

In the introduction to his polemical essays Against All Gods (which I also ended up buying), Grayling says:

Public debate about matters of moment takes place mainly in newspapers and magazines and on radio and television, and the nature of these media imposes limits on how long (not very long), how detailed (not very detailed) and how complicated (not very complicated) contributions to the debate can be. This often has the effect of over-simplifying and polarising matters too far, but it need not: it is not impossible to make one’s case economically and clearly…

Grayling seems to genuinely believe in the possibility of considered debate that engages not just experts, but the intelligent population in general. He is not a philosopher in the vague sense of someone really clever who thinks a lot about strange and useless things, but in the etymological sense of a lover of knowledge. However, he doesn’t like this definition of philosophy, preferring the idea that philosophy is enquiry into the questions of what there is in the world; and of those things, what matters – though who would have though robots would have been one of the things that matter?

Most readers will find something new or interesting in here and it is an enjoyable read that can be dipped into then left on the bedside table, which is good because it tends to send you looking for other books – for the best possible reasons.

Daniel Fox has worked as a journalist and driven a truck moving furniture around in Melbourne.