books book reviews

more miscellaneous philosophy books

reviewed by T. Nelson


Just the Arguments

by Michael Bruce and Steven Barbone
Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, 409 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

T hese days, the authors say, the corpus of philosophy literature is so vast it's impossible for anyone to read it all.

Let's leave aside for the moment the question of whose fault that may be, and concentrate on their solution: take the 100 most important ones, boil them down to their essentials, and give each one two to four pages, with little discussion. What we get is a great introduction to Western philosophy.

Removing all the repetitive commentary, the obfuscating asides, and the jargon has its drawbacks. Maybe it's an occupational hazard: many of the authors clearly believe the arguments they're discussing are invalid. Others, which the authors defend, look like nonsense when presented naked. Does that mean the argument is wrong, or was it just presented wrong? Decide for yourself: here's Richard Swineburne's argument for the existence of a soul in Ch. 24:

p = I was a conscious person and I existed in 1984.
q = My body was destroyed in the last instant of 1984.
r = I had a soul in 1984.
s = I am conscious and exist in 1985.
Therefore, something noncorporeal exists to carry my soul from 1984 to 1985.

Now, this may or may not be logically valid, depending on how you define soul, and maybe Swineburne just used it to describe his quantified propositional modal logic. But it seems to me that as an argument it's not much different than this:

p = Everything omniscient and omnipotent is God.
q = I am omniscient and omnipotent, as I proved last Thursday.
Therefore, I am God. (modus ponens)

Of course it could be that Richard Swineburne's body really was destroyed in the last instant of 1984 and that he was reincarnated in an identical one in the next instant. If so, the papers missed it. But if you accept a false premise, you can argue to any conclusion. In both cases, 'q' is dubious at best.*

But never mind. The goal of philosophizing is to open one's mind to new ideas, and this book is a great way to fill in the holes in your philosophy background. The beginning of each chapter has one or two authoritative books you can read to get the whole argument. Best of all it's concise. The authors are to be congratulated for that, even though it must have created an epidemic of bitten tongues.

Some chapters are well written. Presents all sides of the arguments. PC language style.

nov 21, 2016

* Note added Feb 04, 2017: Swineburne's argument was probably based on the old idea that the molecules in his body in one year were different from the ones in the next, so what this really suggests is that some of the arguments in this book were presented in an incomplete way.


Philosophical Writing: An Introduction, 4e

by A. P. Martinich
Wiley-Blackwell, 2016, 221 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

C reating a clear, coherent argument isn't just for philosophers. Scientists do it. Political activists do it. Even writers of book reviews do it.

Suppose, for example, you wanted to write an essay on equality. No reasonable person, you might think, could be opposed to equality. Convincing them ought to be a slam dunk. But it turns out that equality has multiple conflicting meanings. Without defining your terms precisely, you could end up leaving some readers confused, some inexplicably disagreeing with everything you say, and others simply unconvinced.

And that's really the goal of writing an essay: your job is not to convince the readers who already agree with you, but to convince those who don't. Preaching to the converted is a waste of time.

There are many ways a writer can screw this up. One, adopted by the author, is to invent a bizarre scheme to deal with those scary third-person singular pronouns. In his scheme, the professor is always referred to as “he” and the student as “she.” That this scheme doesn't work would be evident the first time the author tried to talk about a female philosophy professor (perhaps there aren't any!). It's also likely to induce general agreement: readers of both sexes will complain that it is sexist, and they will both be right.

Eventually Martinich seems to recognize that this scheme is untenable and largely abandons it.

After a brief introduction to logic and syllogisms, he describes the structure of an essay. For instance, although the parts may sometimes be obscured, the ‘beginning’ of an essay always needs a few essential parts: [p.54]

  1. Orientation
    1. Specify what general topic will be discussed.
    2. Report what previous writers have thought about this topic
  2. State what is to be proved.
    1. Report who has held a similar view.
    2. Report who has held different views.
  3. Motivation: explain why the topic is interesting or important.
  4. State what you will assume in your essay without argument.

Next, he gives a brief introduction to style—how to write clear, non-repetitive sentences. For example, you would not write “Descartes was a great philosopher” or “The problem of free will has challenged the greatest minds of philosophers for centuries” because these are statements of the obvious and don't convey any new information. The general idea is the same as in Strunk and White: Waste no words. Use active voice. Avoid prepositional phrases. Simplify your sentences. Decontextualize Eliminate abstract nouns.

He illustrates each stage of evolution of a typical essay with examples. Your writing skill need not be at the level of GK Chesterton, but whether you're writing for a grade in philosophy 101 or for clicks on the Internet, a well constructed argument beats snark and purple prose every time.

In the chapter on analytic writing, he talks about dilemmas, scenarios, and counterexamples, and the importance of avoiding tendentious writing. For example, arguments like the following seem to come up a lot in philosophy:

Suppose that Smith and Jones have their brains interchanged. Then Smith has Jones's brain, and Jones has Smith's brain.

This is a type of question-begging, says Martinich, because it's making an assumption already about whether a person can “have” somebody else's brain, which is something you need to prove.

If the author could fix up his own writing, this could be a useful book—not just for philosophy students, but for anyone, even a skilled writer, who would like to compose a convincing essay and make a cogent argument. But then again, if you're a philosophy student, bizarre pronoun schemes will be the least of your problems.

apr 27, 2019