A butler's work

Zeno and the Tortoise: how to think like a philosopher

Nicholas Fearn <em>Atlantic Books, 187pp, £

Introductions to philosophy fall into two categories: those with gravitas and those without. It is unfair to expect the writers of such works to emulate the brilliant simplicity of Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy, the definitive introduction to the subject; on the other hand, it is hoped that the tedious frivolity of the bluffer's guide will be avoided. Nicholas Fearn, a philosophy graduate, has written a brief introduction that manages to fall somewhere in between, summarising some of the methodologies of philosophy without trivialising them. The result is a book that, along with many other secondary texts, may find itself in the rucksacks of forlorn students of philosophy, or in the hands of the more speculative commuter.

The book is divided into 25 chapters - brevities would be a better description - each devoted to a methodology and a particular philosopher associated with it. The idea is that one chapter can be read during the journey to work. This may or may not be a good thing: it is not difficult to imagine the effect of, say, Cartesian doubt on a stockbroker who is convinced that the fall in interest rates is only an illusion brought about by a malignant demon - and refuses to act on it. As the book's subtitle indicates, Fearn's particular interest is the methodology, that vast weaponry with which the trained philosopher can assail (or defend) the commonplace prejudices and conceits of even the most unreflective butler. These include reductionism, relativism, Socratic interrogation, analogy and allegory, hypothesis, Ockham's razor, induction, systematic doubt, Hume's fork, dialectic, even common sense. Each chapter outlines the method, its uses and flaws, together with a capsule biography of its chief exponent. Of those methods mentioned above, perhaps none enjoys more popularity in our casual discourse than relativism, the doctrine that right and wrong are meaningful terms only within cultures, rather than across them. This doctrine, as Fearn notes, originated with Protagoras, the first of the sophists, the rhetoricians who taught wisdom for money. The problem is easily stated: if truth is relative - as a relativist/sophist would claim - how can this be an objective (not relative) fact? Similarly, if all cultures are held to be equally valid, then how can there ever be any kind of moral progress?

Many western liberals adhere proudly to the position of tolerance of other cultures. This is itself a social custom from within a particular culture that has a clear purchase beyond that culture; to adopt this position is to admit there are laws that apply across cultures. If tolerance applies across the board, then why not right and wrong as well? Notwithstanding this, it usually tends to be a tolerance that extends only to cultures similar to its own. A few pages of this book read in the morning on the way to work would remove the sophistry and illusion of a number of commonplace beliefs.

Zeno and the Tortoise is both instructive and humorous. A marvellous example of the latter is the anecdote about Wittgenstein's application for citizenship of the Soviet Union so that he could live like a peasant. The writing enjoys a lightness and clarity that is appropriate for its audience. Fearn is eager to show how philosophy may be applied to one's own life and to the events that encircle it (not least to relationships that seem to have baffled him to the point of tortured philosophical analysis). The centrality of philosophy to our lives is inescapable. Perhaps the book's most instructive property is the bibliography pointing to the corpus of reading that awaits those who are sincere enough to take the subject on. There are not many works in the canon of philosophy. The problem is that, while they may not take a lifetime to read, they certainly take a lifetime to understand.

Henry Sheen is completing a book of stories set in Lisbon

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The war that Bush cannot win