THE THINKING PERSON’S WORLD VIEW
...And Not The Ideologues Pedantic Trivia
IDEAS THAT MATTER –The Concepts That Shape The 21st Century. By A.C. Grayling. Basic Books, NY. 436 pp. Paper, $18.99, hard cover $29.95. Kindle edition $10.44
It seems that in times of economic stress, the pressures of financial anxiety push hard against our reason, our nature and of the Bill of Rights, and bring those concepts to the point of fracture. So it is today that we have national behavior that threatens those rights, by the people who should benefit the most from them. Thus we have people and movements that, if successful and prevailing, would redound against the principles that would most protect them against future economic and social disaster. Thus we have a so-called Tea Party movement, or a Congress driven more by politics and political power than by the national good. People who would subvert the national interest in the pursuit of that power. Candidates and partisan journalists who flagrantly lie, not for ideological expression, but just, it seems, for mischief .
At the same time, we see the erosion of the once-rigid structures that have both controlled and defined the legal and accounting firm – both pillars of rectitude, stability, and probity -- for many generations. These changes in politics, economics, and society, some for good, some not, are the offspring of the evolution of ideas that had foundation that went back to the ancient Greek philosophers and beyond. One would have expected that ideas and concepts developed and debated over hundreds of years would have taught us better. The very facts of why the earliest settlers left England and Europe to found the new kind of country we are seem to have been forgotten.
To examine the views that seem to be driving our world today and possibly tomorrow – the political extremism and the politics of shortsightedness – would give cause to wonder how decades – generations -- of experience driven by powerful ideas and philosophies – have become so subverted. It’s as if the world, and particularly our nation, had been invented yesterday, with no history of either events or founding philosophies . And obviously, the professions are not immune from extreme changes.
It’s hard not to think of this while reading Ideas That Matter – The Concepts That Shape The 21st Century, by the noted British philosopher A. C. Grayling. The book is exactly and astonishingly what its title says it is -- an encyclopedic compendium and summary of the significant concepts or ideas that human beings have developed, professed, or have lived by since the beginning of recorded time.
Each idea is described and discussed in a brief summary – more than just a definition, but long enough to enlighten and inform, as in any traditional encyclopedia. Ideas That Matter may describe the most complex of these ideas in just a few paragraphs or pages, but offers enough discussion to enhance understanding. A monumental and unique work.
The real power in this book is not just the encyclopedic range of ideas that have driven or governed civilization since the beginning of recorded time, expressed in artful detail, but in its being -- says the author – opinionated, without bombast of preaching. And therefore, its descriptions of ideas and concepts are often open to debate. But it’s the debate that stings the mind – that challenges -- that elevates or dismisses ideas. The ideas are defined dynamically, but are not pedantic.
There are more than 150 concepts discussed, from politics to religion, alphabetically from absolutism to zeitgeist, virtually since the beginning of civilization, . And because ideas, like gases, expand to fill the space they occupy, the are cross referenced to appropriate ideas elsewhere in the book. They are covered in five broad categories...
“The overriding criterion for which ideas are to be included turned on whether knowing about them would enhance an informed receptivity to the event, movements and possibilities of the recent past and it’s offspring, our time,” says Grayling.
To say that the work is objective would be to ignore one’s own intelligence. And in fact, the author makes his prejudices and points of view clear. For example, “I hold no brief for religion,” he says. And while he expresses no political agenda, he favors those ideas that foster humanism, civil rights, and progress. And all without proselytizing or any attempts at preaching. At the same time, his expression of each idea, as brief as it may be, is lucid, and leaves room for one’s own choice of acceptance or rejection. There’s no sense of agenda here. Like the Three Bears’ porridge, the description of each concept is just right and despite the author’s predilections, always fair. In fact, the only difficulty in reading this book is that almost every sentence requires a moment to slow down and think – and even accept or challenge as a matter solely of the reader’s choice. This, despite the fact that it’s written without the jargon and obfuscation of so many philosophy texts or tracts. An extraordinary effort. It is, in fact, virtuosity performance.
While some ideas are simple philosophical concepts that have influenced thinkers of their times, such as cognitive science, others, such as democracy or communism, are ideas put to the test of practice.
It’s abundantly clear that the author is brilliant beyond the skills of a mere academic, and is a prodigious researcher and scholar –as well as an exceptionally lucid and entertaining writer. The result is a remarkable work, one that will be read cover to cover like a paperback mystery, and then used as a writer’s or philosopher’s referral tool for generations to come.
The author, A. C. Grayling, is a noted philosopher and professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a Supernumerary Fellow at Oxford. He is a regular reviewer for The Literary Review and the Financial Times, and writes regularly for the Observer, The Economist, Times Literary Supplement and New Statesman. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts, and is the author of several noted books of philosophy .
Ideas That Matter’s appendix gives sources and bibliography for each idea, and has a detailed index.
Is this a book for lawyers and accountants? You bet it is. After all, the professions are built on ideas – and this is a book that brings ideas, both new and old – vigorously back to life.