Monday, June 30, 2014

Who am I? and if so, how many? – book overview

Who am I? and if so, how many? A philosophical journey by R.D. Precht originally written in German and translated by Shelley Frisch. A 2011 edition printed by Scribe Publications and borrowed from the local library.

In the introduction, Precht writes about how his initial introduction to the study of philosophy was stymied by the dry and difficult to access ‘text books’ on philosophy. These text books largely took an historical journey, meandering through the various philosophers. His book uses a thematic approach, bringing up one of more philosopher/ neuroscientist / palaeontologist as the need arises.

After the introduction, the book has three sections – What can I know? What should I do? And What can I hope for?

The first section, covers the foundations of philosophical thought in 9 chapters. These 9 chapters provide a concise but also critical overview. Precht does not just report various philosophers’ approaches but updates and brings in viewpoints from contemporary scholarship. In particular, findings in neuroscience, palaeontology and psychology either support, replace or introduce new ways of looking at the world. The work of Nietzche, with the call to view humans as not a ‘superman’ but an ape with evolved capabilities opens this section. Human evolutionary journey and the workings of the brain are summarised in the next 2 chapters. The work of Descartes ( of - I think therefore I am) leads the discussion on dualism and its effects. Then Mach’s work on ‘who is ‘I’’ discussed. Freud’s concepts are debunked followed by chapters discussing the frailities of our memory system, what are feelings, subconscious and language (Wittenstein’s contributions to philosophical thought on language’s role).

The second section has 15 chapters discussion various moral dilemmas posed by living. Discussed are various questions of why do we need others? Should we help others and should we be ‘good’ and does it ‘pay’ to be good? Is there morality in the brain and if so, why does it sometimes not reign in behaviour that leads to the detriment of others? Discussion also on should we become vegetarians? Allow euthanasia, cloning, designer babies? Pros and cons are introduced with the challenge to the reader to find their place in the continuum and pose their own substantiations.

The last section of 9 chapters provides some direction for the confused. Discussion on ‘what can I hope for’ discuss a range of big questions including: Does god exist? Does nature have meaning? What is love? What is freedom (of choice and free will)? Do we need possessions? What is just? What is a happy life? Can happiness be learnt? And Does life have meaning? All very weighty questions we mull over now and then when we lift our heads up from our busy lives. In short, life and the meaning of life is what we make of it. As individuals, we are only here for a short time. We can make that time miserable, or happy. Live in harmony with others or not. Mostly, we have a choice (sort of , within the bounds of our hereditary and social means) and each needs to make the best of what life throws at you.

I found the book to be readable, using contemporary examples and analogies to bring to life, the concepts of various philosophers. Each chapter covers the ground of various philosophical questions, posing more questions at the end for the reader to contemplate and reach their own conclusion. The book is never preachy but provides the basis of philosophical thought as perceived, argued and sometime empirically proven but various scholars. Each chapter may be read separately but there is some merit in working through the book as it is laid out so your philosophical journey is better scaffolded. Overall, the book provides a good introduction to the reader interested in gaining a better understanding of Western philosophical thought who does not just want to be ‘talked at’. The book encourages one to question one’s belief system, to select the ways individuals may become contributors instead of takers, and to live a ‘good’ life.

Notes from each chapter provide resources to follow up on. There is an index but no reference list as such.

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