Friday, February 19, 2016

Book Write-Up: Philosophy in Seven Sentences, by Douglas Groothuis

Douglas Groothuis.  Philosophy in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic.  Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

In Philosophy in Seven Sentences, Christian philosopher Douglas Groothuis discusses the thought of seven Western philosophers.  Groothuis focuses on seven quotations.  The quotations (in whatever translations Groothuis is using) are as follows:

Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things.”

Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Aristotle: “All men by nature desire to know.”

Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in you.”

Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.”

Pascal: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

Kierkegaard: “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.”

There were things in this book that I already knew, from my undergraduate education and personal reading.  But I did learn things that I did not previously know (or know too well), such as Pascal’s emphasis on knowing apart from analytical reason and Kierkegaard’s views on the self.

The book is a decent introduction to Western philosophy.  It gives details about the seven philosophers’ lives and their significance within the history of Western philosophy.  Overall, it summarizes and interacts with their thought clearly, though a few passages may require a little more concentration on the part of the reader (i.e., in my case, brief passages in the chapters on Descartes and Kierkegaard).

Perhaps the most endearing quality of the book is how Groothuis brings himself into the discussion.  He talks about his teaching experiences, his students’ reactions to some of the philosophers, the philosophical insights he particularly loves, and his experiences as a student.  He writes with a sense of humor.  He evaluates the quotations from his Christian perspective, yet he appreciates each philosopher and tries to understand the philosophers on their own terms (though he largely disagrees with Protagoras).  Groothuis’ book is introductory, yet he clues readers in about the larger discussions and debates within the academic community.

Groothuis’ tone was pleasant, as if he were offering readers things to think about rather than dogmatically trying to force them to believe a certain way.  I think of the final chapter in which Groothuis is discussing what he gains from the insight or perspective of each philosopher.  He disagrees with Protagoras because, if all we have are ourselves and our own perspectives, can we rise any higher than ourselves?  Good question.

There were occasional times when I winced a bit.  Groothuis was talking about the law of non-contradiction and was using that to argue that we cannot say that all religions are right, or that no religion is wrong.  True, but can one embrace some form of religious pluralism while still believing in the law of non-contradiction?  Groothuis says that Socrates at times referred to God rather than a specific god.  I was not sure what Groothuis was implying in saying that: Was he implying some overlap between Socratic thought and Jewish/Christian monotheism?  The Greeks often spoke of God in the singular, while still believing in many gods.  Groothuis may have done well to have included an endnote explaining this phenomenon.

I am still trying to wrap my head around at least one point that Groothuis makes.  Groothuis raises the question of whether Descartes has undermined empiricism.  Empiricism states that “all knowledge is based on our experience of the space-time world of objects, events and processes” (Groothuis on pages 89-90).  In essence, under empiricism, knowledge is gained solely through one’s senses of the outside world.  But Descartes claimed that he arrived at a truth through reason alone, apart from the senses: “I think, therefore I am.”

Of course, one could say that there are still truths that people gain through the senses, and even that some knowledge that certain philosophers believe are ascertained purely by reason (a priori) actually have their roots in sensory experience (i.e., I believe 1+1=2 because I have seen examples of that in real life).  But Groothuis, perhaps like other philosophers, believes that the debate is more absolutist than that: if one can find any example of knowledge that is not empirical, then that undermines empiricism, which claims that all knowledge is empirical.  Is self-consciousness an example of knowledge that is not empirical?  I wrestle with that, somewhat.  Granted, I am not aware of my thoughts or my existence specifically through the five senses, even though what I learn from the five senses does provide things for me to think about.  Would I say, then, that “some knowledge is given to the self apart from the outside world” (page 90)?  Maybe, but self-consciousness is pretty basic, isn’t it?  Groothuis also refers to Noam Chomsky’s view that “basic structures of grammar are innate”, as in “hard-wired” into us (page 93, Groothuis’ words).

Although Groothuis is more advanced than I am in the academic study of philosophy, I was comparing what he said with my own experiences in philosophy and religion classes, and that was enjoyable.  Groothuis criticized how some philosophers focus on Descartes’ skeptical discussions while ignoring how Descartes tries to get people out of skepticism through a belief in God (i.e., one believes in a good God who does not deceive us but places us in a knowable world).  Groothuis later talked about an atheist professor who ignored spiritual aspects of philosophers’ thought: Kierkegaard’s Christianity, or Hegel’s belief in a world spirit.  Fortunately, I had an atheist philosophy professor who did not ignore the spiritual dimension to philosophy.  She did not find Descartes’ argument for the existence of God to be convincing, but she did appreciate the dilemma that Descartes was presenting: either there is solipsism, or a God who makes a world that is knowable to us.

I would like to offer a few areas of disagreement with Groothuis, primarily on matters of taste.  First of all, Groothuis laments that the TV show Dexter is popular, for it heroizes a serial killer.  Contrary to what may be Groothuis’ understanding, the show is not really saying that people can do whatever they want, whenever they want.  Dexter does wrestle with a moral code, which requires him only to kill murderers.  Second, Groothuis does not care for Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz.  I love that book, even though I would agree with Groothuis that it falls short of Augustine’s Confessions!

Groothuis says in an endnote that he may write a similar book about the Eastern philosophers.  I look forward to reading it!

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

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