Archive for March, 2018


Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and Sophies world provided a really interesting way in to philosophy. They provided a way of answering the question asked by one bookgrouper which is – what is philosophy?

Sophie‘s world is a novel but it’s essentially a 101 on philosophy disguised as a novel, a young adult or teen novel at that. So it’s an easy read but at the same time a very scholarly and comprehensive history of ideas. Admittedly it is limited to the history of western ideas but as another bookgrouper said it even acknowledges that it’s a history of Western ideas not the rest of the world.

Interestingly, even though it was written back in the nineties and was a best seller back then it seemed quite up-to-date to me in terms of recent philosophy. For example it has a good attitude to the role the Arab world played in bringing Greek and Roman ideas back into the western world after a 1000 years. This is a common view amongst scholars today but i thought it had only become common very recently.

Similarly its a very clever example of meta-writing, a book about a book, which is definitely a much more recent phenomenon than the 90s. Unlike practically all the recent examples of meta-writing, such as recent bookgroup read Commonwealth, it uses that device for a purpose, not just to confuse/entertain. It uses it to illustrate one of the most fundamental questions in philosophy – which is how do we know what we know? How do we know we are not living in a virtual reality matrix like Keanu Reeves.

It is one of the oldest philosophical ideas out there – that we are just dreams, or characters in a computer simulation. In this book the example used is that we may all be characters in the book written by somebody else. Half way through the book when you are well and truly bought in and identifying with the main characters they turn out to be exactly that – characters in another book. This has been an underlying theme in philosophy for thousands of years. So its very clever to find a clear and effective way to communicate it.

Overall i thought it was fantastic. Comprehensive and scholarly, while also being very brief. It covered a number of the schools of thought in the history of philosophy that I haven’t read much about and seemed to do a great job on them. It also covered the ones i did know and did them very well. It was also really interesting the order it put things in and the selections it made of which aspects of each big thinker it chose to pick out and focus on.

The most impressive thing about it was the way it used the novel form to illustrate the most difficult ideas. I have mentioned how it uses what critics now call meta writing to illustrate the idea popularised by the movie the matrix. That was a great way to illustrate a difficult idea but its not the only example. Marxism is also beautifully illustrated in a similar way and quite a few others.

I have to confess though, perhaps one of the reasons i liked it was that it confirmed my prejudices about different types of philosophy: 20 century French philosophy was a waste of space; as was 19th century German philosophy; and really Hume and Locke back in the Scottish and English enlightenments were the ones that got it right.

I was also very pleased, and surprised, to find that the book finished with modern physics and cosmology, and also that it included a lot of Darwin. It is not obvious that this would be the case in a philosophy book but it is very impressive that it was and more philosophy writers should follow the author’s lead in this.

Science has taken over a great deal of the work for that was done by philosophy. This was beautifully illustrated in the final few pages of the book where it talked about modern cosmology directly replacing and removing the idea of alienation due to the Copernican revolution. Philosophers for centuries have been saying we are all lost and angst ridden since Copernicus told us we were not the centre of the universe. Modern cosmology tells us we are literally made of stardust. The book argues that this told us we are part of the universe again. I also thought that chapter was really up to date even though it was written along time ago now back the 90s.

If updated today it could add a chapter on neuroscience. The book spends a lot of time talking about rationalist v materialist philosophers. This could be augmented by a chapter on the new neuroscience, with the idea of the biological brain. This science really does away with Descartes Freud Plato and all the other non-materialists.

If I had a disappointment with the book it was that it included quite a few pages on Freud which was completely unnecessary and pointless given what we now know about Freud. But perhaps in the ‘90s Freud still had some currency so maybe we should give the author some slack on that front.

Another quibble you could have with the book relates to the ending. Alberto and Sophie are the two main characters, the book takes us on the full journey through philosophy with them, and in the final chapters they embark on an epic existential struggle to become real, to escape from just being figments of the imagination of the author. But in the end they just seem to give that up and accept that they belong to an imaginary world of other famous literary characters – red riding hood, mother Hubbard, Batman etc.

As i read this it seemed like a cop out. It seemed like the ending was pure fantasy and step away from the philosophical journey that was the whole book up to that point. However on reflection it’s perhaps the perfect ending for the book. We began in Greek antiquity with Plato and his ideal forms that supposedly existed in a separate world, and our world just contains echoes or reflections of the perfect chair, the perfect tree etc. A world of iconic literary characters living in a non-material plane is literary Platonism. So you could argue it was really the perfect way to conclude the book – bringing it full circle.

Marcus Aurealius’ meditations were very much the opposite end of the spectrum of philosophy. This type of philosophy is not concerned with big questions like who are we or how do we know something is true, but with how we should live.

It was all about doing the right thing in deed and thought. In that sense it was much more practical than Sophie’s world. I was surprised how practical and familiar its ideas were. We were saying in the group that everything in it is quite recognisable from the era of our parents, the depression generation born in the ‘20s and ‘30s. It was full of the things that they would say – like everything in moderation; be nice to one another; be a good citizen; be thankful; dont boast or abuse people.

All very sensible and obvious you might say but it is remarkable to see that they were all written down so clearly over 2000 years ago. And not only that but by a Roman Emperor. The Roman Emperor has no reason to treat people well or behave well in any way, and most of them didn’t. That this guy chose to not only think about it, but write about, and presumably live it, is both mysterious and extremely impressive.


March 23, 2018 at 11:41 am Leave a comment


Eleanor oliphant is completely fine is written in first person from the point of view of Eleanor. So we see her part of the world, which appears to be the inner suburbs of Glasgow, through her eyes. And what entertaining eyes they are.

Maddeningly eccentric, self perceived as entirely rational but deeply socially unaware, and populated with large and strange fantasies. It was like being in the company of someone a fairly long way down the autism spectrum, but also deeply damaged, and deeply romantic.

The explanation for this eccentricity turns out to be a childhood of abuse with no friends or family anywhere in the world, and none of the social skills needed to obtain any.

She had the intellect to get educated and now has a job. She has social housing to put a roof over her head, public transport to get her from home to work, and Marks and Spencer for food and booze. Most importantly she has a daily and weekly ritual of movement connecting all these elements of her life. Same routine each working day and then a specific weekend routine.

Hence the title – Eleanor is completely fine. This is what she tells the social workers who come to visit every 6 months.

However all this is about to change. A chance event where she bumps into the new IT guy from work outside of work. They are on the street and arrive on the scene to rescue an older man who has had heart attack. As a result she ends up spending some time with the IT guy and his family, and the older man and his family. These are simple everyday things but entirely new experiences for Eleanor. And seeing them through her eyes makes them new for us to.

At the same time she develops a bizarre fascination for a local pub singer and decides he is ‘the one’. So, rationally in her eyes, she begins to prepare for their inevitable meeting and betrothal – her word.

The result of these two plot lines is that Eleanor starts to learn about people, and starts to learn about her own abilities, starts to enter the world.

The language with which this story is told is Eleanor’s – because she is the narrator. The character of Eleanor that the author has created has spent her whole life reading high end books, and nothing else, because she has no friends or family but studied English literature at university. As a result the language is rather formal in an olde worlde 19th century style. She admits at one point that Jane Austen is her favourite and she has read and reread them all many times. So she speaks quite a lot like a character from an Austen novel. I found it very entertaining. I found myself starting to speak that way after reading the book for quite some time. It was most amusing i must say. Rather like a diverting afternoon spent in the company of one’s acquaintances in the drawing room.

It was also a really interesting juxtaposition with her every day life, which was filled with working class Glasgow accents, and the lifestyles and family complexities that go with it. It was also great to compare her obviously rational but cold descriptions of these behaviours with her emotional reactions to these behaviours. It was obvious to the reader that being part of this world, for the first time really, clearly made her feel good, even though she says she doesnt value all this strange behaviour, and she makes it sound like she doesn’t understand it and thinks its all silly – tight jeans, high heels, hair dos, Brazilian wax jobs, family pictures on the wall – you name it.

if you want to quibble about the book you would question whether the kind of abuse Eleanor suffered in her childhood, and then constantly moving schools and moving foster homes, would really result in someone with the personality characteristics that she has – autism spectrum type character.

But really that would be missing the point. The point is that it is easy, and a lot of fun, to spend quite a few hours in the company of this eccentric and damaged character. Her outsiders view on the world is really interesting because its alien, but ultimately it is also surprisingly sympathetic.

This gives the book a feeling of redemption. At the end it seems like she will be getting better and coming into the world. It also seems like she is giving us permission to be forgiving and affectionate towards ourselves, despite all our irrational obsessions and inexplicable emotions.

So I would recommend it. For me it was a lot of fun and most bookgroupers agreed.

March 11, 2018 at 11:21 am Leave a comment


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