Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Why is there something rather than nothing?

This is the title of a short book by Leszek Kolakowski which I have been reading very slowly over the last year or two. It is published, in translation, by Penguin.

In it he concentrates on 30 great philosophers and one idea they introduced or discussed which is, in some respects, still current and still being talked about. It is not (as he categorically says in the introduction) a history of philosophy and he warns any student attempting to treat it as such that they will fail their exams.

It is, especially for those of us who enjoy the exercise of thinking for its own sake, a great challenge. Fantastic to strip down life's great questions to such as:

Can we know anything?
How can we achieve certainty?
Do we need the church?
What is human existence?

It is equally interesting to read a summary of what the world's great thinkers (the list is the author's choice) have made of these questions. At the end of each chapter Kolakowski lists further questions and issues that are raised by the particular philosopher's views.

I loved it. And in passing I note how many of the world's great thinkers have given no answers whatsoever but merely raised questions that others have then gone on to think about in detail. Friends and colleagues will be aware of my dislike of answers and love of questions. Shoulders of giants and all that.

Cost me £8.99 through the Guardian book club.

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