Bonus Book Review: Julian Baggini, How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy

(This is the third of my “bonus book reviews” on the works I’m reading as part of an online discussion group–AKA an online book club. In case you missed them, you can find my review of Camilla Townsend’s Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs here and my review of Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements here.)

The work under consideration in this month’s review is Julian Baggini’s How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy. Without spoiling too much just yet, I found this to be the most enjoyable and the most effective of the three books we’ve read so far, so let’s dive in.

Baggini, a philosopher and journalist and the co-founder of The Philosophers’ Magazine, sets out in How the World Thinks to craft “a selective history of global philosophy, one which excavates the often hidden foundations of how the world thinks today.” (p. xix) Key to Baggini’s approach is a comparative methodology which pulls together not just Western philosophy (which, as Baggini persuasively argues, has often been treated by Western academics as the sum total of philosophy!) but also Japanese, Indian, Chinese, and Islamic written philosophies along with the oral philosophical traditions of Africa and Australia and a brief interlude (p. 333-336) on Russian philosophy. Such a comparative methodology, he notes, has generally been “left almost entirely to people working in anthropology or cultural studies” (p. xiv), yet this approach is also quite effective in describing the process of “sedimentation,” or the ways in which philosophical worldviews are adapted and adopted by the wider cultures which gave rise to them. The end goal of Baggini’s project is not simply to find common ground between the traditions or to offer a synthesis disconnected from any particular place in the world, but rather to move us toward a trio of perspectives–cubist, disaggregating, and pluralist–which together allow us to “build a more complete picture of the world and a more objective understanding of it…” (p. 338)

Julian Baggini, How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy (London: Granta Books, 2018).

After a brief prologue (which is, as this historian might note, the most distinctly historical part of the book–more on that later), Baggini divides the majority his work into four main parts. The first, “How the World Knows,” explores the epistemologies of the world’s philosophical traditions, seeking to better understand how those traditions have legitimized belief and knowledge through the ages. Next, “How the World Is” offers a comparison of their metaphysical and cosmological views, helping readers see how the various approaches to philosophy have understood the world and its operation. Following that, the third main section, “Who in the World Are We?”, hones in on human nature and self-understanding across the philosophical schools, while the last, “How the World Lives,” gets into the philosophical traditions’ prescriptions and proscriptions for human behavior. A short fifth part, “Concluding Thoughts,” offers exactly what is promised, including the aforementioned discussion of the cubist/disaggregating/pluralist approach to comparative philosophical study which Baggini champions.

How the World Thinks offers a remarkably broad view of global philosophy, aided by Baggini’s status as a non-expert on several of the traditions featured in the book. (“Having a certain distance makes the broad outline clearer than it is to those working close up,” he notes on p. xx, “who in studying the unique features of every tree often forget that they are all of the same species, the one that gives the whole forest its distinctive character.”) The writing is highly accessible even when Baggini discusses difficult or unfamiliar abstract concepts, and readers who lack prior philosophical training will still find much of value here.

Again, my overall impression of the book is highly positive, though I do have two main areas of criticism that I feel the need to address. First, while the book is billed as a “global history of philosophy,” very little of How the World Thinks is actually focused on the history of the world’s philosophical traditions or on the discipline of philosophy as such. There are occasional asides about the development of this or that idea, but the main focus is on comparing and contrasting the ideas themselves, so readers looking for a start-to-finish narrative history will have to look elsewhere. This isn’t a criticism of the work per se, but there is somewhat of a discrepancy between what is promised on the cover and what is delivered in the text.

Second, and more substantially, while I greatly appreciated Baggini’s thoughtful discussion of the relationship between theology and philosophy in chapter three, particularly with regards to the Islamic tradition which does not always draw a clear distinction between the two, I found some of his other discussions of religion lacking. For instance, Baggini argues that the fact that “Christianity is the only major world religion named after its founder” is evidence of how “In the West… individuals are always placed at the heart of intellectual, political or social history.” (205) I spot at least three major inaccuracies. First, the claim that Christianity is the only major religion named after its founder totally ignores the Baháʼí Faith, as well as the historically important Zoroastrian religion and the eastern system of Confucianism, which is often considered a world religion in its own right. Second, while the moniker “Christian” has obviously been adopted by adherents of the faith, the term originated outside of the community as a description (likely pejorative) of those who followed Jesus, not within the community as a lifting up of the individual leader. And third, one could just as easily point to several other Western religions (notably, Judaism and Islam) or philosophical distinctions (continental vs. analytic philosophy) which are not rooted in individual names or personalities.

Similarly, Baggini comes close to relying on the vastly overstated “Dark Ages” trope when he asserts in the prologue that during the Middle Ages, “In the West, philosophy took a step back” in its goal of moving toward a “more rational understanding of the universe” because philosophers were primarily concerned with the work of apologetics (supporting revealed religion) rather than challenging folk myth and superstition. (p. xxvii) Baggini cites as proof the career of Thomas Aquinas, who he claims was “the most significant and influential philosopher of this period.” Aquinas may very well deserve that title, but where does that leave the likes of Duns Scotus or, perhaps more directly challenging to this portrayal of medieval philosophy, William of Ockham, whose famous “razor,” Baggini approvingly cites elsewhere, argues that “it is never rational to postulate the existence of more things than are necessary”? (p. xxiii)

That I am taking exception to these kinds of claims, though, should not dissuade the reader from checking out How the World Thinks, as the above inaccuracies are mere asides rather than central contentions of the book. Even though the book’s subtitle does not give a great sense of what the volume actually contains, those contents are still quite excellent, and Baggini has done the world a great service through offering such a clear, compelling, and (even at nearly 400 pages) concise comparison of the world’s philosophical traditions. A lofty goal, to be sure, but Baggini has hit the target.

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