This book was a Christmas gift from an old friend who clearly knows me well. Despite having studied philosophy reasonably intensively in the past, this little book of thought experiments was both entertaining and engaging. One of the things that I love about philosophy is that it can be read and understood at many different levels and this book is no exception. Baggini has taken 100 famous philosophical conundrums, re-written them in his own words and then added a brief discussion of the topic at hand. These can be used at face value, as short sharp ideas that you may not have thought about before or as a starting block for more serious thought and contemplation. In this way, the book will suit all levels of philosophical ability, from beginners to the more advanced.
This book has been widely criticised for lacking in philosophical depth and in some ways, this could be seen to be true. Debates that have gone on for centuries are summed up in just a few pages. However, it very clearly is not meant to be a deep philosophical work but rather, an accessible overview of some of the most famous, most potent, and longest-running problems in philosophical history. They are not meant to be deep evaluation in themselves but rather, a springboard for greater discussion – they are the thought experiments, the results and consequences of which are found within the reader rather than in what is being read: which brings me back to the issue of philosophical depth. The depth depends on what is put into it from a reader’s point of view and the experiments are not intended to be read passively. Surely the depth is derived from the reader (or thinker if you will) rather than from the issues in themselves – you get out of it what you put in to it. I believe that Baggini intended to hold up a mirror, that he is the messenger and is showing these problems for the reader to work on themselves.
One thing that Baggini does do particularly well is to make old and often stuffy philosophical ideas more relevant to modern society and more easily accessible than other long, stodgy works of philosophy. He does this by re-working the concepts into relevant tales, referencing characters from television, books, and films as well as including modern technology such as televisions, automatic weaponry, and virtual reality computers. A good example of this re-hashing is when he turns the old adage “if a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a noise?” into a tale of aliens, movies, and unusual sensory experiences.
Overall, this book is an excellent starting point for a budding philosopher that leaves out all the usual stodge and gives a wide-ranging view of many different schools of thought and ideas. The book is also a lovely little trip down memory lane if you are a more advanced philosopher, taking a fresh look at all those old conundrums that got you interested in philosophy in the first place. On top of this, it is just plain entertaining.