A dazzling display of mental gymnastics draws a good crowd
Where better to spend an hour or so on a wet and windy Sunday afternoon in autumn than watching a dazzling display of mental gymnastics by leading philosopher A C Grayling at the Wimbledon Bookfest?
Professor Grayling, Master of New College of the Humanities, drew a good crowd for his talk about his book, The History of Philosophy.
It takes a great deal of ambition and expertise to attempt to capture such a broad sweep of intellectual development encompassing different periods and cultures but, going by this event, Prof Grayling is more than equal to the task. He has an impressive ability to make a scholarly approach accessible to a much wider audience in a way that is entertaining and engaging.
His talk was peppered with amusing anecdotes and expressions which illuminated the serious subject matter. So, for example, in dealing with the issues arising from Rene Descartes’ espousal of mind-body dualism, he remarked on the curious fact that the 17th Century philosopher’s body is buried in Paris in the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Pres but his head is in the Musee de l'Homme.
In talking about the Roman philosophy of stoicism, Prof Grayling recounted a joke about a conversation purported to have been overheard between two old ladies on a bus in Glasgow, where the one tells the other: “You must be philosophical – don’t give it a second thought!”
Despite such enjoyable diversions, Prof Grayling has a marvellous economy of style and language, which allows him to get to the essence of complex subjects in very few words. So, in one of the formidable turns in his talk, he compressed major themes of not only the Iliad but also the Oresteia into to a digestible summary in just a few minutes. This was simply as a preamble to arrive at a particular phrase uttered by Athena to the Furies in Aeschylus’s Eumenides which he said captured a great moment of change in the sense of how things should be done (from justice as vengeance to laws governed by reason).
This journalistic skill of brevity while still being able to get across the substance of a story must have stood Prof Grayling in good stead in writing his book. We can look forward to a good read while at the same time trying to grapple with what Prof Grayling described as “the two great questions of philosophy”, both of which are related: firstly, what is reality or what exists? Secondly, what matters or what is of value?
By looking at the history of philosophy through the prism of these two fundamental questions, we can understand why Prof Grayling was brave enough to title his book as “The History of Philosophy” rather than “A History of Philosophy” (as some others have done). His preference for the definite rather than the indefinite article in the title is significant.
By Roger Smith
October 14, 2019