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By Sam Vaknin
Author of "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited"


Stevenson, Jay, P.D. - The Complete Idiot's Guide to Philosophy - Alpha Books, 2005

Philosophy is the attempt to enhance the traits we deem desirable and suppress the traits we deem unwanted (a matter of judgment) by getting better acquainted with the world around us (a matter of reality). An improvement in the world around us inevitably follows.

To qualify as a philosophical theory, the practitioner of philosophy - the philosopher - must, therefore meet a few tests:

1. To clearly define and enumerate the traits he seeks to enhance (or suppress) and to lucidly and unambiguously describe his ideal of the world

2. Not to fail the tests of every scientific theory (internal and external consistency, falsifiability, possessed of explanatory and predictive powers, etc.)

These are mutually exclusive demands. Reality - even merely the intersubjective sort - does not yield to value judgments. Ideals, by definition, are unreal. Consequently, philosophy uneasily treads the ever-thinning lines separating it, on the one hand, from physics and, on the other hand, from religion.

The history of philosophy is the tale of attempts - mostly botched - to square this obstinate circle. In their desperate struggle to find meaning, philosophers resorted to increasingly arcane vocabularies and obscure systems of thought. It did nothing to endear it to the man (and reader) in the post-Socratic agora.

Enter "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Philosophy (Third Edition)" by Jay Stevenson, Ph.D. (Alpha Books).

It is a delightful and structured excursion into the terrain more convolutedly trodden by "Sophie's World". It is a vade mecum in the true sense of the word. It gently holds you by the hand and unflinchingly introduces you to the one intellectual giant after another.

The author knows how intimidating philosophy can be. He, therefore, avoids professional jargon. He talks to the reader, rather than talk at him. The text is peppered with brief insets titled "philoso-facts", "wisdom at work" (how to apply what you have learned), "reality check" (where philosophers disagree with each other and with reality), and "lexicon". Two appendices comprise a glossary and further reading.

The book is an amazing feat. It covers all the major schools of thoughts and philosophers in c. 350 eminently readable pages. New chapters provide extended coverage of the latest developments in post-structuralism and post-modernism.

If this book does not make you fall in love with this tortured discipline - nothing will.

More about this topic here:

http://philosophos.tripod.com/

http://samvak.tripod.com/film.html



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Comments

The following comments are for "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Philosophy"
by samvak

Philosophy
What does it mean when a philosopher reads an explanation of what philosophy is, as found above, only to discover that it bears little or no relation to philosophy as taught, discussed, written, and practiced? That was my experience just now!

I suppose there are probably a few philosophers who would characterize their discipline the way you (or the book you're reviewing) did in the first paragraph, but I haven't encountered them.

Similarly, I don't understand where these criteria for philosophical theories come from. There are plenty of attempts to explain what a philosophical theory must do, floating around out there, and no one of them is accepted by even a slight majority. What you have here seems to be an odd mix of postivism and vague mysticism.

Your claim that the history of philosophy is some sort of parade of failure seems to follow from the idiosyncratic way in which you've characterized philosophy, not from any actual history of the discipline. Are there "arcane vocabularies and obscure systems of thought" in philosophy? Sure! Most, however, are accesible to any literate person willing to spend a few hours of effort learning about them. Arcane vocabularies and obscure systems of thought can be found in most, if not all, other disciplines as well.

I'm not sure how much of this is your thought and how much is Stevenson's, but it doesn't fill me with hopeful anticipation. If this is what people get out of Stevenson's book, then it's a hopelessly misleading muddle we'd best avoid.

( Posted by: Viper9 [Member] On: June 21, 2005 )

Viper9/ on "Philosophy"
Is this "epistemological" satire?...Does this "count?"...Is this really telling us anything? If so, what? How do we know? And how do we know that we know that it is?

Have to agree with V9 on this one...Am not, in all-inclusive scheme of seeking understanding of things, teeming with anticipation.

Checking and balancing,
Robert William

( Posted by: Bobby7L [Member] On: June 21, 2005 )

What Philosophy? Viper-Bobby
As usual, this type of discussion is way over my countrified head.(I thought about saying (country-fried). But since I've never been enlightened by illicit drugs I'd like to hang out for a moment in the philosophical world for a moment. The mere fact that a person could read a work by an author explaining the theory and practice of philosophy gives me hope, contrary to you,Viper, and you, Bobby. Isn't all philosophy opinion? Would not the exploration of such a treatise cause an intelligent discussion amongst folks here? I would be interested to hear your theories, or any theories for that matter. If there is such a thing(in reality)(whatever reality is) as unwanted traits and , shall we daresay "behaviors" then I want a lucid and compelling explanation of it from anyone with any credentials. (I know you wrote a book on philosophy,Viper.) And does the lack of credentials (in theory) disqualify one from expending their opinion of life? Just asking.

williamhill

( Posted by: williamhill [Member] On: June 21, 2005 )

Philosophical Questions
Charlie- My lighthearted philosophical "questions," asked satirically, were from perspective of one who has indeed heard (and been taught) "theory" and "practice of philosophy," from/by various university professors. A number of them, were "experienced," although I'm not sure if they were "enlightened," by use of "illicit drugs."

With all due respect to Sam Vaknin, I find his pieces to be both entertaining and "enlightening." ...

Note, he refers to philosophy as a "tortured discilpine."...That may be understated.

Robert William

( Posted by: Bobby7L [Member] On: June 21, 2005 )

Phillie Willie
Like you, Will, I'm all for a book that explains philosophy to a curious lay audience. This one doesn't appear to do the job, if we're to judge by Sam's review.

Your questions:

"Isn't all philosophy opinion?"

No. Not in the sense of "That's just my opinion". What we're looking for in philosophy are justified, reasoned, opinions. Like I tell my students, "Back it up or shut it up".

"Would not the exploration of such a treatise cause an intelligent discussion amongst folks here?"

That's possible, sure. Does what we're doing now, count? :) Not sure about you, but I've had some great discussions based on absolutely stupid books.

"If there is such a thing(in reality)(whatever reality is) as unwanted traits and , shall we daresay "behaviors" then I want a lucid and compelling explanation of it from anyone with any credentials."

This one's easy - -an unwanted trait is a trait that you don't want. Just like an unwanted person is a person you don't want (Out of my home, Chuck Woolery!). You can generalize the idea by saying that a generally unwanted trait is one that most people don't want. Excessive flatulance might fit the bill.

"And does the lack of credentials (in theory) disqualify one from expending their opinion of life?"

Fuck, no!

I should apologize if it seemed as though I was unloading on Samvak -- he didn't write the book!

I'm feeling much less pissed off now. I'm irritated by the state of the general public's knowledge of philosophy. It's not really the public's fault, because they don't know they're being un/misinformed. But, Jesus, check out the "philosophy" sections in any of the major book chains and you find nothing but Chicken Soup for the Soul, Ayn Rand, New Age bullshit, and the like. There's almost never any actual philosophy in there.

Thankfully, in my area there are some bookstores run by people who actually know what they're doing, and they put real philosophy books in the philosophy section. That's why I spend money there instead of at Barnes and Noble or Chapters.

( Posted by: Viper9 [Member] On: June 21, 2005 )

"Checking and balancing"
Charlie: My reference at end of first comment was to Locke, who phrased "checks and balances," as "system"- (labor theory of value)..the mind being blank page.

"Knowledge is perception of agreement or disagreement of two ideas." -John Locke


Robert William

( Posted by: Bobby7L [Member] On: June 21, 2005 )

Philosophy
Ahhh... what a subject to start on tonight...
First, Sam, your writes are always tight. I have checked out your site, too.
As for philosophy, I am not schooled, but have studied, and come to the (temporary) conclusion that philosophy changes with circumstance.
-Now temperment, combined with philosophy can be interesting-
I have "Philosphy for Dummies". It's good to have a good, general reference book on hand, become familiar with; know what the hell hemlock can do.
As far as philosophy- I am cynic, optimist, realist?
Sam, what am I?
(that feels Suessian)

-and how might Dali interpret me?

( Posted by: emaks [Member] On: June 21, 2005 )

Philosophy 101
I think I understand you both. The problem I have is not with nature or science, but the concept of evil which all(I think I can safely say)religions have had to deal with in some fashion. Viper, if you say get thee behind me Chuck Woolery and he skeedattles, that's fine, but it isn't the point. It seems to me that the natural ability to do your neighbor (and yourself) wrong is inherent in man alone. It seems that without religion that there is no philosophical explanation for that particular phenomenon. Yes? No? How do you know whether men were *born* to be good or learn to be good? Can't the same be said of evil? Somewhere there is a reason for everything, and an explanation for everything. I really believe that. So if that is true, where is the intellegence to answer all questions? It doesn't appear in our rational thinking or we would know. Correct? I have heard that Perception is Reality. Whose perception? Whose reality. Doesn't the question of philosophy (for mankind) lie with the origin of evil and its dictates? Isn't that the crux of the issue?

Just asking.

williamhill

( Posted by: williamhill [Member] On: June 22, 2005 )

Lots o' questions!
Hey Will, I don't know where to begin! There are a lot of questions in there, and I can't answer any of them well in the space allotted here. I'll put in my two cents, and be warned: it probably isn't worth much more than that.

"It seems to me that the natural ability to do your neighbor (and yourself) wrong is inherent in man alone. It seems that without religion that there is no philosophical explanation for that particular phenomenon."

Well, we're the only species with language to call something wrong or evil or what-have-you. But most of the things that we call wrong or evil are done by other species as well. They just don't call it that, and we've no reason to think they'd understand the concept. Other animals kill, steal, etc.

There have been, and will likely continue to be, lots of different attempts to explain "evil" -- some religious, some secular. Religion certainly has no monopoly in the area, and it hasn't had much success, either. That was one of the major reasons for the rise of atheism in the 18th and 19th centuries: people found themselves unable to buy the answers religion was providing to what's called "The Problem of Evil".

The answers you get are determined by the questions you ask. Some questions have no answers (Are the boundaries of the universe squishy?), some lead to very limited or useless answers (What's Tom Cruise's favourite vegetable?), some questions are inappropriate (Why is duck?).

When we ask, "What explains evil?" we ask a question that contains a lot of assumptions. Probably the most important assumptions are that there's something in need of explaining, and that we're all on the same page regarding what that thing is. Things happen that we call "evil". Are we asking why people do the wrong thing? That seems to be a matter of psychology. It also has a lot to do with what we're calling wrong -- that changes the whole context of the question.

For instance, if I believe that it's wrong for women to leave the home without wearing a burkha, when I ask, "why do people do the wrong things?" my question has implications much different than those of someone who doesn't share this particular belief.

One response to that would be to say, "It doesn't matter what particular people believe is wrong. What matters is what is TRULY wrong". The problem with that is that there's no reliable way to tell the difference.

"How do you know whether men were *born* to be good or learn to be good? Can't the same be said of evil?"

Depends on the above.

If we could figure out precisely what it meant to "be good" or "be bad," we could test for these characteristics just as we test for any other characteristics, to determine whether they are biologically or socially acquired. Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate" is full of discussions about such studies.

"Somewhere there is a reason for everything, and an explanation for everything. I really believe that. So if that is true, where is the intellegence to answer all questions? It doesn't appear in our rational thinking or we would know. Correct?"

I don't see any reason to believe that, so it isn't an issue for me.

"I have heard that Perception is Reality. Whose perception? Whose reality?"

Hey man, just because someone says it, that doesn't mean it's true! When people make this claim, they usually seem to be saying that we take as real only the particular things that we perceive. So what we call reality is the sum of our past and present perceptions. Thus, things that we have not perceived we exclude from what we call "reality". That may be true to an extent, but I doubt it's the whole story.

"Doesn't the question of philosophy (for mankind) lie with the origin of evil and its dictates? Isn't that the crux of the issue?"

Not if you ask most philosophers. I think it's an interesting question, but there are thousands of other interesting questions, too.

That's my off-the-cuff response -- take it with a grain of salt!

Hey, where's Samvak? Why isn't he chiming in?

( Posted by: Viper9 [Member] On: June 22, 2005 )





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