Baggini’s How the World Thinks

Julian Baggini How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy Granta 2018

Julian gave a very timely and thought-provoking talk at the local book cooperative. As a guide to how the world thinks he seemed very insightful. As history, it seemed very parochial, lacking a global view of the history of philosophy. But Julian seems to go well beyond the conventional concerns of his chosen academic discipline, genuinely considering his subject as if it mattered. I had to buy the book.


Julian notes that:

[Values] and beliefs begin to sediment in the minds of people … so that we mistake the build-up for an immutable riverbed.

Western philosophy is so parochial that it is Balkanised.

He quotes Tom Kasulis:

Although philosophy is itself a cultural phenomenon, it can not only understand but also change culture.

Julian claims:

[We] cannot understand ourselves if we do not understand others. … If cultures are to meet rather than clash, we need to understand not just how others differ from ourselves, but how we differ from them.

My … intention has been to find out what we need to understand in order to begin to understand.

We are often told we should put ourselves in the shoes of others, but … .

The most fundamental of these [foundations] concern how the world knows.

Julian also quotes Xu Zhiyuan. It seems to me that if you ‘buy’ the introduction then you must already be somewhat open-minded, beyond the confines of narrow Westernism as perceived from the East (and South).


Julian offers us many ‘straw men’. Apparently:

the earliest philosophers were … implicitly following a rational principle that none had yet articulated:

namely William of Ockham’s razor, which Baggini states as:

You start with the simpler explanation – that everything is governed by the same principles – and only complicate matters if it turns out not to work.

Also, the project of understanding the universe only makes sense if the universe is understandable. …Assuming a kind of unity is a prerequisite for any serious attempt at systematic understanding.

… Reason – meaning rationality – is in essence the giving of reasons, ones which can be scrutinised, assessed, accepted or rejected.

… Only in Greece, with the creation of logic, was systematic reason developed in any great degree. … Each classical tradition that emerged had its own ideas about the right methods for philosophising.

Julian notes that outside China the early philosophies developed within a dominant religious constraints, whereas in the Far East:

In the absence of growth in religious authority, there was a gradual intellectual evolution … .

… Enlightenment took the nascent naturalism of early philosophy its logical conclusion, driving the last remnants of religious and mystical thinking from the philosophical mainstream. (sic) … Most influential [developments] have been the philosophies that suggested concrete action, which were seen by many as offering a challenge to traditional philosophies that were increasingly used to maintain the status quo.

[Philosophy] is a loose category, what Wittgenstein called a ‘family resemblance’ concept. We can’t set out strict rules for what does or doesn’t count as philosophy, but we can see that it has a set of shared features and that intellectual tradition should be treated as philosophy if it shares enough of them. … The nature of philosophy is itself a philosophical issue and so there must be a debate about this too.

[If] we fail to see how to what [alternative philosophies] say applies to here and now, we are doomed to waste or misuse them.

Part One: How the World Knows


“All philosophy is assumed to be an art”

[The] Buddha, like Confucius, was explicitly not concerned with ultimate questions of metaphysics, reflecting a fault line that runs through the world’s philosophical traditions … the difference between ‘truth seekers’ and ‘way seekers’.

… Whereas Western truth is ‘absolute, eternal and ultimately true’, the Chinese dao is ‘not present; it must be generated through human activity’.

Way-seeking chimes with [the idea of] ‘shu, a strategy or technique that enables one to function effectively in any given circumstance’. … Philosophy in the West has always aspired to be more of a science: rigorous (sic), precise, describing reality as it is. … If you are a truth-seeker fixed on getting your understanding of the world right, you are not going to be satisfied with conceptual vagueness, unclarity or ambiguity. If you are a way-seeker … you might not only accept such limitations but embrace them.

… [Truth-seeking] has been remarkably fruitful for science and technology. …

… [A] way to distinguish between global traditions [is] between those who use language as a guide and those who use it as a reference [i.e.] words pick out aspects of reality.

… India seems to occupy an intermediate position [between way-seeking and truth-seeking], but one closer to the way-seekers.

… [Way-seeking] and truth-seeking are not incompatible.

… [Different] traditions are often … asking different questions.

My comments

If this had been written in 1900 I would probably agree with it whole-heartedly. But didn’t the insights of Whitehead et al change both ‘western’ philosophy and science? Or have we really regressed to the point where we have negated such progress? (See, for example ‘The scientific world-picture of today’ (as of 1929).

Part Two: How the World Is

From time to time scientists opine that science has made philosophy redundant. Baggini differs.

[The] study of the structure of the world of experience [phenomenological metaphysics] would remain a proper subject of inquiry even if our scientific physics were complete.

[The] way we structure experience is in part due to the innate structure of our minds and in part because of the way our minds and societies structure each other.

Quoting Kant:

There will always be metaphysics in the world, and what is more, in every human being, and especially the reflective ones.

Part Three: Who in the World Are We?

The contrast between relational and atomist selves reflects a… fundamental distinction between Western and East Asian cultures … .

Baggini presents some interesting visualisations and examples.

In the West … objective truths or judgements are those that can be made publicly and impersonally.

There are countless examples of where a desire to promote autonomy has undermined belonging.

Western culture needs rebalancing.

Part Four: How the World Lives

Ideas are parts of living ecosystems and when you try to move them to a strange context they can wither and die.

Baggini offers the metaphor of the music mixing desk:

The goal is not to come up with a mix that will be the favourite of everyone in the world but to make our own the best it can be.

Concluding Thoughts

How the world thinks

[In China] The virtuous person must be good at quan: weighing up the merits of each case and making discretionary choices about what ought to be done. There is no algorithm to do this, not least because the right thing to do is always dependent on the precise context.

… We can’t know the nature of ultimate reality and that really doesn’t matter. … Yinyang reflects the sense that everything is in active interrelation, creating a dynamic system in which nothing is ever settled for long.

[From an Indian perspective] One problem with writing about ultimate truth is that it is beyond not just language but any rational understanding. Language is itself a framing of experience [which] transforms and distorts it. … [Conventional] reality has an appearance eof solidity even though t is really impermanent and in flux.

… [What] we call the Western world has for reasons noble and ignoble been the dominant force around the globe.

Western philosophy … starts with the assumption that our primary task is to understand the world as it really is. It upholds the ‘autonomy of reason’ … .  [The] natural world is taken to be scrutable … . [Empiricism is] based on careful observation of the world … [Rationalism is] based on reasoning from first principles of logic.
Its primary mode of reasoning is based on logic. Philosophy in this mode is aporetic: it identifies contradictions generated by our imperfect understanding and attempts to remove them. … One major manifestation of this approach is the reductionist tendency to understand things by breaking them down tom their smallest possible units and to see these, rather than the wholes to which they belong, as the fundamental foci of observation.
Ethically, this has tended to generate rule- and principle-based ethics which have impartiality as a central value.

[But] Pragmatism’s emphasis on what works gives it a practical orientation that is even more marked than the British empiricism from which it is descended … [it holds that] truthg is nothing more than what opinion converges on … .

[The Russian] Orthodox ideal of kenosis … entails the belief that the individual does not have the resouirces to reach ultimate truth and that to attempt to do so alone and by reason is hubristic.

[The] place of the individual was taken by the collective. …

However, the centrality of social harmony seems rooted as much in fear … as it is in pride for what it sees as its moral superiority.

A sense of place

[Various folk hope] that if philosophers around the world genuinely work together it will lead us out of our local silos. There would be something insincere about working together, all the while intending to remain in our niche, as if we believed we could learn from each other, but only up to a point.

We have to give up the idea of the view from nowhere and accept that a view is always from somewhere. [We] can build a more complete picture of the world and a more objective understanding of it by taking multiple perspectives. [We] seek views from everywhere, or at least everywhere that is accessible.

In this vein, Baggini describes the cubist, disaggregating and pluralist perspectives. But

pluralism is not relativism

and the perspectives are to be taken enlightenedly, not too rigorously or constrainingly.

My Comments

These are reactions based on a quick skim of the sections quote above, and subject to revision. Please advise if they are in any way problematic.

Positive comments:

  1. Based on my own experience, I think we would all be better of if people of influence had been influenced by this book.
  2. I can’t immediately see any immediate dangers in anyone taking these ideas and running with them, as long as they don’t take them more literally than the author seems to.

Quibbles (there are always some):

  1. Unfortunately, that last caveat seems to me a huge one. But maybe that’s just me.
  2. I see the metaphor of the mixing desk (part 4) as well short of the mark. The metaphor of a jazz band might be better. How do the parts get to be harmonious? By prior design? or by some mysterious process in which the mixing desk is but one part? Hence:
  3. How are ‘philosophers’ around the world to ‘genuinely’ work together? How is this to come about? How are we to judge the success? I can see this book as helpful to this agenda, but what else might be needed.
  4. Finally, while Baggini’s notion of ‘philosopher’ is quite broad, my experience is that one would need to include some ‘practical men’ who have struggled with these issues but avoided being labelled as philosophers, or even intellectual. (I.e., ‘natural’ philosophers!)

Maybe more to follow when I’ve digested this a bit more.


Dave Marsay


%d bloggers like this: