A bit of philosophy this time out, with what’s the philosophical equivalent of E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World (1936).
In Julian Baggini’s sweeping 2018 tome through what makes the world tick, readers get a grand opportunity to expand on their personal philosophies. Ecky thump!
Thinking Caps on for How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy
For this work, Baggini travelled the world extensively to get a better understanding of how philosophical thought differs.
As it, naturally, shifts dramatically from one country to the next. Heck, it seems to shift by county to county here in England! Reet proper.
As we looked at recently in How Do You Live?, a way of life can still transcend national traditions and have universal appeal.
But! There’s no denying us here in the west are more inclined to be ignorant of the many and varied philosophies of China, India, Japan, and the Muslim world.
Plus, there’s an interesting distinction between European and North American philosophy.
This can often be a considerable detriment, costing us a more harmonious way of life. At least arguably.
But How the World Thinks isn’t a chronological historical record of different modes of thought. It’s more a breakdown of various concepts so the layman can have a easier introduction to these ideas.
Kind of like how Carlo Rovelli does in Seven Brief Lessons on Physics.
And so Baggini takes us through various key talking points, with accessible prose to help people of different backgrounds to get to grips with things. And so, we get the likes of:
- The self
To give a sense of the prose at play, here’s a slab of text from notes on reductionism:
“The idea that each part contains the whole may be a characteristically eastern one, but the most common example of its use is occidental. It has been said that everything good, but more usually bad, about Western culture can be found at a McDonald’s. When people complain of Western cultural colonialism, they point to the globally ubiquitous golden arches. When people talk of poorly paid, menial work, they talk of ‘Mcjobs’. When health campaigners lament the poor Western diet, a Big Mac and fries is Exhibit A.
Such observations are often somewhat unfair, simplistic and lazy. In another less-noticed way, however, the fast-food giant does quintessentially Western way of thinking.”
At this point he details the extent of ingredients that go into, for example, a sachet of McDonald’s super sauce.
“Behind this information is a deep philosophical assumption that has informed Western ways of thinking for centuries: reductionism. This is the idea that the best way to understand anything it to break it down into its constituent parts, emphasising these over wholes. Tom Kasulis sees this approach manifested in pretty much every corner of Western thought: ‘The ethicist places ultimate responsibility on the smallest unit of ethical integrity (the individual agent); the physicist breaks down the universe into its smallest invisible units and their relations; the geneticist looks for the connections between the smallest genetic unit, the genes, and their relations to each other.'”
For readers new to many of the modes of thought in How the World Thinks, Baggini’s real skill is to make it all understandable.
Whether making a nod to McDonald’s or other well known stuff, for the casual reader it makes a complex world fascinating and easier to behold.
It’s this accessibility that helped make the book a Sunday Times Bestseller.
And for Baggini’s side, there was more to writing this book than simply documenting different lifestyle stances. As he concludes:
“Ideas are neither tightly tethered to specific cultures nor free-floating, universal and placeless. Like people, they are formed by a culture but can travel. If we truly aspire to a more objective understanding of the world, we have to make use of the advantages to be gained by occupying different intellectual places. Doing so with reverence but not deference to the past and present of other cultures could help us transform our own philosophical landscapes.”
So, here’s encouraging you to go out there, find out about the world, and expand your knowledge. A crucial thing at this stage in history, when many societies seem hellbent on entrenching themselves in obstinate traditions and anachronisms.
If you’re into your philosophical shindigs, How the World Thinks is an informed tour and one that may provide a heap of useful new lifestyle approaches.
About Julian Baggini
Baggini is a philosopher (well, yeah!), journalist, and author. He’s actually written over 20 books, with his goal typically being to enlighten readers.
Despite his dramatic surname, he’s very British and from Folkestone in Kent. His father was an Italian immigrant, which is where his family picked up that epic surname.
If you’re interested in How the World Thinks, there’s a full presentation on his thoughts in the above video.
Along with writing about secular beliefs and atheism, he’s also written about national identity and politics.
His latest book, from May 2021, is The Great Guide: What David Hume Can Teach Us about Being Human and Living Well.