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.