How the World Thinks – a global history of philosophy

Tim Whitmarsh in The Guardian:

Ancient Greeks often wondered whether non-Greeks could do philosophy. Some thought the discipline had its origins in the wisdom of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Some counted itinerant Scythian sages or Jewish preachers as philosophers. Others said no: whatever the intellectual merits of neighbouring peoples, it is a distinctively Greek practice. A new, angrier version of that ancient debate has arisen amid the culture wars of the last 50 years. Is philosophy an exclusively western phenomenon? Or is denying it to non-western peoples a form of neocolonialism? Or does the imperialism lie, rather, in folding non-western thought into a western category? Difficult questions, and the answers are not always obvious.

Julian Baggini’s contribution is an engaging, urbane and humane global history. “History” here is a misnomer: this is not a systematic, chronological exposition of different intellectual traditions (anyone wanting that is better off with Peter Adamson’s podcast series Philosophy Without Any Gaps Baggini’s strengths lie not in history (as is revealed, for example, when he ill-advisedly ticks off the Greek archaeological authorities for not advertising the Areopagus as the site of Socrates’ trial) but in a clear-sighted ability to boil complex arguments down to their essentials, and so to allow many different voices from across the world to converse in a virtual dialogue. In his view, people everywhere grapple with the same moral questions, which are fundamentally about balancing contradictory imperatives: individual autonomy versus collective good; the social need for impartial arbiters of truth versus awareness of subjective experience; adherence to rules versus commonsense flexibility; and so forth. The differences between people lie not in the issues they face, but in the positions they end up adopting on the scale between the extremes. The analogy he draws is with a producer in a recording studio: “By sliding controls up or down, the volume of each track can be increased or decreased.” All cultures play the same song, but some prefer the cymbals higher up in the mix.

More here.