The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, November 3, 2002

Off the Shelf
Find your way in the maze of mind
V. N. Datta

TO think is not easy and to know how to do this is one of the highest and the most neglected branches of education. In fact, if we knew the origin, development and modus operandi of thinking, we shall have discovered one of the secrets of life. Shakespeare wrote that there is nothing good and bad, but thinking makes it so.

Simon Blackburn’s Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy (Oxford, 1999, £12.99, pages 310) tells us of the various techniques and methods adopted by philosophers to wrestle with some of the fundamental human problems that have exercised their minds through the ages. It is not so much the answers to the questions that the book focuses on as on the mode and process of thinking that philosophers use by way of analysing, understanding and resolving some of the complex problems of human life. In other words, it is the technique of analysis that the author uses to examine the fundamental themes such as knowledge, truth, mind, freedom, soul, identity, God, goodness, justice, etc.

The book, divided into eight chapters, is addressed not to the specialist but to the wider audience. Author Simon Blackburn, formerly a Fellow of Pembrooke College, Oxford, is at present Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina. His publications include The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Ruling Passions and Truth.


The present work, Think, opens with the question how knowledge is derived and accumulated as intellectual capital by cultivating the questioning spirit, of asking the how and why of things. Blackburn shows that Copernicus and Galileo by wrestling with the implications of modern scientific world-view and discarding the existing models of the solar system had laid the foundation of the mechanical science of nature. Thinking is thus a continuous motion in the intellectual sphere. Though appreciative of Descartes’ sceptical approach, Blackburn prefers the empiricism of Locke and Hume for apprehending the reality of life. But to claim knowledge is claiming a sense of relationship with the world within and without.

In the second chapter "Mind, the thinking thing tool," the author gives a primary place to the adoption of analysis as an essential tool regarded as the goal of philosophy. This brings in close proximity of philosophy the scientific method of investigation. Analysis is in the splitting up of the whole in parts under a microscopic investigation, and thinking is a matter of taking the world to be one way or the other. In the third chapter, Blackburn grapples with the problem of determinism and freewill. He examines how an individual constrained by the deterministic social, cultural and political pressures makes frantic efforts to chart a free and deliberate course. Blackburn rejects the supine, lazy Sufism that reflects a passivity of outlook by submitting to divinity. The author, however, regards the bus as a "determined machine."

Self-consciousness, soul and soul-force are the terms Blackburn examines in chapter four. Self-consciousness, another name for one’s biography, opens up a whole world of wonder and mystery. As distinct from the world without, self-knowledge or search for one’s own identity fuels our thoughts about the problems of life and death. The author is convinced that humankind has illusions for the self which thinking cannot destroy. Kant had tried to leave room for the immortality of soul because its religious dimension affects the thinking of many people in the world.

No theme has preoccupied humankind so much as God, which the author discusses in chapter five. Ontological, cosmological, design and revelation arguments are put forth to affirm the existence of God. Acquinas had considered God absolutely necessary for explaining the cosmology of the universe. The First cause argument rests on the premise that there is a cause for everything. The design notion views God as the "Wise Architect" who by his skilful engineering does not let the frame of Nature fall apart. The author emphasises that the popular design idea of the universe was knocked out by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

Connected with the question of God is the problem of Evil. If there is God, then why does Evil exist, and why the good and the noble continue to suffer the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." Where is justice, and how does God dispense it? The question of evil was brilliantly raised and viewed from different angles in the section on Job in the Old Testament. The simplest answer to the question of Evil given by the gullible is that it is not God but human beings who by their ignoble deeds of commission and omission have made the world what it is. The notion of hell and paradise tries to answer the question, but in vain. Following Spinoza, Blackburn suggests that only the moral ideas and ideals are the guiding principles for leading a good and just life, regardless of the argument in favour of or against God. Whether illusion or reality, God, largely a projection of human ambitions, tends to fulfil human needs. According to the author, not rationality or scientific spirit, but blind faith justifies the existence of God. But does blind faith, the author asks, enhance the quality of life and make human problems easier to tackle by the tenacity of will power.

It cannot be denied that some of the noblest deeds have been done by men of religions faith, while it can also be asserted that those without religious faith have also contributed a good deal to the well-being of their fellow creatures. The author also highlights the immense harm religion has done by accentuating the spirit of separatism, cultural imperialism and tribalism in the name of God.

I think that chapter VI on "Reasoning" is most illuminating. It examines the issues relating to the processes and modes of thinking by interpreting terms such as premise, analogy and conclusion, which help us to examine some of the problems of human knowledge. The issues connected with language and logic are also raised. Blackburn focuses on some of the ideas that underline formal logic. He emphasises how dependent we are on the brute faith in the uniformity of nature. Paradoxically, science contains within itself the device for correcting its illusions. Blackburn suggests the ways to test the variety of the data supplied by the senses on which we rest our opinions.

The last chapter, "What to do," deals with the purpose and meaning in life. What is really the ideal life in the topsy-turvy world? To the author, technical thinking is practical, which, by adapting means to ends, settles some of the immediate issues in the light of experience. Practical thinking consists of adjusting simple obligations that we are apt to require of each other. For a meaningful life Blackburn emphasises the cultivation of human values such as imaginative sympathy (the art of putting oneself in the place of other person), love, understanding, friendship, goodwill, appreciation of beauty and plurality of concerns for the poor and the suffering. Eventually, Blackburn relies on moral conduct as the touchstone of leading a good life directed to human welfare. There is no cant or hypocrisy in it. Essentially Blackburn is a firm and convinced humanist, who emphasises the value of humanism as a philosophy. Thinkers like Voltaire and Bertrand Russell too had regarded humanism, the religion of humanity, as a panacea of human ills.

This book is a short dictionary of Western thought. It makes a valuable contribution to the understanding of various approaches devised by philosophers and scientists to explain some of the key issues relating to the problems of human of existence. Blackburn is a free and candid thinker who shies away from giving final answers to the questions he raises. It is his flexibility of approach that is most impressive, which is reflected in his clarity of thinking. Seldom does he caste a die in his own favour—he leaves the question open for examination and deliberation. Therein lies the beauty of the book—a model of conciseness and lucidity.

NOTE: In the review titled "Endless search for God," in the issue dated September 1, 2002, the sentence "Aristotle’s pupil Plato" should have read "Aristotle’s teacher Plato." The error is regretted.