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Philosophy as a tin opener

  • 10 February 2022
  I came to Ideas to Save your Life with some ambivalence. The table of contents lists twenty chapters, each dedicated to a philosopher or two. It was the philosophy in bulk that I felt ambivalent about. I was taught scholastic philosophy for three years. I derived some benefit from the discipline which offered a worldview on which Catholic theology could be built. I had no difficulty in believing that the comprehensive system we were taught was true and that those who differed from it were wrong. My problem was that I did not see that I would ever be able to persuade anyone outside the Scholastic club of its truth. Philosophy had given me lots of answers but no feel for the questions to which they might be an answer.

When teaching theology later I recognised that I was less interested in the logical consistency of different accounts of faith than in why people found them convincing. This had more to do to do with the way they imagined the world than with the force of discursive argument. Underlying all powerful philosophies and theologies lay a strong and compelling metaphor. In my case beyond the arguments and the metaphors lay the mystery of a world and of human life which, because they originate in love, are too big to understand but not too large to love. 

My ambivalence about professional philosophy came from my placing a high value on reason and its desire to test its own limits, but simultaneously being inherently suspicious of reasons. They are the stuff out of which the tin-soldiers of isms are created and so often used to patrol the fence that separates acceptable from unacceptable thought. Michael McGirr’s previous writing, however, inspired confidence. His natural instinct on finding a fence is always to find a gap through which to sneak, not to put barbed wire on top of it to prevent people from trespassing.

Ideas to Save Your Life focuses less on the reason-giving of the philosophers on whose work it draws than on the questions that feed their thinking and the metaphors that underlie its structure. Their questions are not asked out of curiosity but are existential questions that trouble and excite them. They arise from exigent experience of their people’s lives and world. Although their reasoning in response to these questions about the good life may be cool and abstract, the urgency of their enquiry