Does Julian Baggini Think Like a Philosopher?

As my readers know, I love philosophy and eagerly read as much as I can about it and write about it and promote it as much as I can. I don’t like sounding cynical, but even more, I dislike being dishonest. So, with apologies and regret, I have to sound cynical to be truthful. Here goes.

I recently received a book on philosophy called How to Think Like a Philosopher. It’s a common theme, and this time used by Julian Baggini, his third book on the same topic. He is a philosopher, or rather one type of philosopher. That’s one of the things he forgets in his book, but I’ll get to that later.

Scribbles from on high, in the end, empty. (Source: University of Chicago Press)

I have complained at length about the dangers of dumbing down philosophy, most recently here. Baggini is guilty of that in this book. Worse, though, is that he is using as his dumbing down template Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, the regressive tome deservedly much ridiculed. Baggini invents his 12, often similar, rules for what he believes defines thinking like a philosopher.

At least Baggini doesn’t include posture in his 12 rules, but all in all they aren’t much better than Peterson’s platitudes. Here are Baggini’s 12 rules.

  1. pay attention;
  2. question everything;
  3. watch your steps;
  4. follow the facts;
  5. watch your language;
  6. be eclectic;
  7. be a psychologist;
  8. know what matters;
  9. lose your ego;
  10. think for yourself, not by yourself;
  11. only connect;
  12. don’t give up.

The rules are generic enough to avoid direct criticism, but they are so generic it is debatable they are what defines philosophy as Baggini wants us to believe. You can apply these rules to any endeavor, from going to kindergarten class to bowling a cricket match. There’s nothing there that points to the specifics of being a philosopher. The four short paragraphs of Descartes’s Four Rules for thinking contain more insights into how philosophers think than Baggini’s 336-page book does.

This exercise in simplistic platitudes is only Baggini’s latest effort in a career of simplistic answers that has made him a darling of TED talks and the establishment media. He doesn’t dig too deep, doesn’t engage with any significant social or personal problems, doesn’t ruffle any establishment or Ivory Tower feathers. Granted, he is a deft writer, using lucid prose to make it seem like he is saying more than he is.

Comparing Baggini to Peterson is also pertinent in terms of their basic attitudes toward the world. The structure of their thinking is similar, although their targets are at times different.

Peterson is the reactionary moralist, aghast at “wokeness” and cultural diversity. He chastises us rabble who don’t understand his elitist quasi-Christian, pseudo-rationalist amour propre.

Baggini is not as overtly condescending as Peterson is. Baggini’s moralism is also pseudo-rationalist amour propre, but he chastises anyone religious, spiritual, or willing to think and act outside of his narrow conception of analytic philosophy.

That’s Baggini’s glaring weakness and paucity of thought. He seems to feel that only the British tradition of analytic philosophy is legitimate. You see this myopia throughout his books and articles. For example, he has written multiple books on the concept of self. He considers only analytic approaches. Well, he mentions some religious and spiritual ideas about the self, only to dismiss them as nonsense. He ignores many non-analytic philosophers who have done significant and insightful work on the nature of the self and what it means to be a person.

He has also written multiple books on his philosophy of food. Food would be a fabulous topic, except that in Baggini’s books food is not a joy. He sets down an almost puritanical subjugation of food under his “rigorous thinking-through” of food (The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think). As the book title indicates, Baggini doesn’t celebrate the glorious diversity of people’s creativity and experience of food; he is telling us what and how we should think about it. Obviously, we should think about the implications of food, but those are implications in the real world, not self-indulgent rationalism. (Yes, I was very disappointed in Baggini’s book, thus my sounding cynical.)

Baggini’s 12 rules are similarly an analytic reductionism detached from the world and lived experience. Is that how a philosopher thinks? A self-constipated group of British analytics think that way, yes. But just as one political party does not define all political thought, Baggini’s analytic approach is not all of philosophy. He is only one type of philosopher, a type that seeks to reduce the philosophical enterprise to a moralistic rationalism.

Philosophy is about engaging with the world and trying to improve our lives. It is a journey, a temperament, a life lived. It is far more than the self-absorbed word play and detached thought experiments that Baggini gives us. He at least acknowledges the reality of human free will, which places him well above his analytic tribesmen, but I dare say, he falls short of his own platitudinous rules. He should begin at his Rule #1: pay attention to the rest of the world. There is so much more out here. I will never give up saying that.





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