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Review of "Answers for Aristotle"

By Massimo Pigliucci
Basic Books, 2012
Review by Ben Mulvey, Ph.D on Apr 9th 2013
Answers for Aristotle

There was a time when books by serious philosophers about serious philosophical issues targeted specifically at a non-specialist audience were more common.  I'm thinking her of authors like Mortimer Adler and Will Durant.  That they are now so rare perhaps indicates a commensurate decline in an intelligent reading public, particularly in the United States, in the latter half of the last century.  But that audience may be again growing if a recent trend in publishing is a measure of such things.  Julian Bagginini and Alain De Botton, to name only two prominent examples, seem to have had some recent success in addressing serious philosophy to general audiences.  Now Massimo Pigliucci's Answers for Aristotle offers us a similar approach.  But there is this interesting difference.  As the book's sub-title indicates, Pigliucci offers discussions of what science adds to what current philosophy has to say on a number of issues of importance to human living.

Answers for Aristotle is a sort of self-help book.  It is meant to offer human beings a way of making sense out of, and progress in resolving, a number of problems and puzzles that are an inevitably nagging part of being human.  So Pigliucci offers us what he says he's been practicing all his life, what he calls "sci-phi."  This is the "wisdom (and practical advice!) that comes from contemplating the world and our lives using the two most powerful approaches to knowledge that human beings have devised so far: philosophy and science" (2).  What he wants to help people avoid is the all too intellectually easy lapse into superstition, mysticism, and religion.  Pigliucci acknowledges that his "crucial assumption" about his reading audience, is "that you are interested in using reason and evidence to guide your life and make it better (17).  This is a major assumption indeed.

The 312-page book is divided into six parts of two to four chapters each and includes an introductory and concluding chapter, an index, and a "digging deeper" list of further reading.  The five main parts of the book deal with the perennial issues of morality, epistemology, free will, love and friendship, politics, and gods and religion.  The introductory chapter, "Sci-Phi and the Meaning of Life," appropriately lays out some of the author's assumptions and defines key terms.  Pigliuci believes with the ancient Greeks that "life is a project and the most important thing for us to do is to ask ourselves how we are to pursue it" (6).  Meaningfully facing life's problems requires, among other things, the pertinent facts and the values that guide us as we evaluate those facts (2).  Science gives us the facts, of course.  And, according to Pigliucci, philosophy clarifies and defines our values.  In fact, Pigliucci identifies philosophy as "the broadest possible discipline" as "it deals with our most basic tool for knowing and communicating things, it in some sense encompasses all of human knowledge" (13). 

"Sci-fi" is mean to offer us guidance for living, "to let philosophy (informed by science) guide us in principle, and to use science (steered by philosophy) as our best bet for implementing those principles" (220).  For the most part, Pigliucci does a good job of demonstrating this claim.  His typical approach to a chapter is to explain recent scientific studies having to do with an interesting problem of living and then to explain how philosophers have helped to clarify or make sense out of these concerns. To pick just one example from the book that might be of special interest to readers of the Metapsychology website, consider the part of the book entitled "Love and Friendship."  In chapter 11, "The Hormones of Love," Pigliucci lays out for us how scientists have found that smell and hormones play a significant role in how we choose our partners and pairs the discussion of current science with current philosophical distinctions about the concept of love.  The next chapter continues in this vein with a discussion of the science and philosophy of friendship.  These chapters, like most in Answers for Aristotle, make for a very interesting read.

I once heard someone say that everyone had an opinion about Karl Marx, but most of those people never read anything Marx wrote.  Virtually everyone I meet has an opinion about what philosophy is, but most of them have never read a real philosopher.  That, combined with my experience with thousands of undergraduate students in my various philosophy courses over the years, has taught me that there are many misconceptions out there about philosophy and its various sub-fields.   I say this to emphasize how careful teachers and authors must be in their choice of words when dealing with the kinds of issues dealt with in Answers for Aristotle.   In spite of specifically addressing some misconceptions about philosophy, I don't know that Pigliucci is always as careful as he should be in his choice of words.

Consider the title of this chapter: "A handy-dandy menu for building your own moral theory."  First, the phrase 'handy-dandy' is perhaps a bit casual.  But the rest of the title, "how to build your own moral theory," smacks of just the sort of relativism that at other places in the book Pigliucci rails against.  This chapter does not advocate anything like a simplistic moral relativism that so many people embrace.  But the title itself suggests just that sort of thing.  Consider this comment: "...I am particularly sympathetic to virtue ethics because I find the idea of flourishing as a lifelong project attractive, and because I easily recognize my own akratic tendencies" (73).  I wonder whether Pigliucci would advocate choosing scientific theories based on what his personality traits led him to find "attractive" in them.

One of the misconceptions about philosophy that Pigliucci confronts is the idea that philosophy makes no progress.  On the contrary, says Pigliucci, philosophy "makes progress when it understands better and better the meaning and implications of human concepts and how they relate to the world (15).  One would have hoped for some specific examples of how philosophers have contributed to moral progress.  In the part of Answers for Aristotle concerned with moral philosophy, Pigliucci runs through the three ethical theories most often in discussed in every intro to philosophy or introduction to ethics text books and shows how each and every one of them is more or less inadequate in offering specific guidance to us as to what the right thing to do is in any given case.  So readers of this book, like countless undergraduate readers of the standard philosophy textbooks, are left to wonder whether philosophers have contributed to moral progress at all, or have these readers just been offered confirmation of their misconceptions of philosophy.

The ordering of the topics in the book sometimes did not make sense to me.  There seemed to be no reason why the parts of the book were offered in the sequence offered.  Readers might well get the impression that one part of the book has little or nothing to do with another, when there seem to be some fairly straightforward connections among the topics that would lead to rather natural flow from one topic to the next.  For example, I would have paired the topic of morality (now Part I) with politics (Part V), as Aristotle himself suggested that there is an intimate relationship between these concerns. 

When all is said and done, Answers for Aristotle is a good read.  It is well-written, with lively and clear prose.  It makes accessible a good amount of scientific and philosophic research while managing an engaging, light style.  I believe this book would be of great interest to visitors to the Metapsychology website given its discussion of a number of interesting psychological and sociological studies.

 

© 2013 Ben Mulvey

Ben Mulvey, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of Arts and Sciences of Nova Southeastern University.  He received his doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State University specializing in political theory and applied ethics.  He teaches philosophy at NSU and is a member of the board of advisors of the Florida Bioethics Network.

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