Review of The World Philosophy Made: From Plato to the Digital Age by Scott Soames
Scott Soames’s book, The World Philosophy Made: From Plato to the Digital Age, provides an extended response to concerns raised in a New York Times opinion piece entitled “When Philosophy Lost Its Way” by Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle. Here, the authors argue that philosophy’s entrance into research institutions in the 19th century, alongside natural and social scientific disciplines, resulted in a “purified” version of philosophy divorced from the disciplinarily mixed-up “mangle” it once was. They conclude that philosophy should be getting its “hands dirty” in the world of everyday people living outside the pristine corridors of the ivory tower.
Soames, however, disagrees with this assessment, arguing that Western academic philosophy has not “lost its way” but “was continuing its record of impressive success both in laying the conceptual foundations for advances in theoretical knowledge and in advancing the systematic study of ethics, political philosophy, and human well-being.” (ix) This book’s project is to refute Frodeman and Briggle’s thesis by explaining the various ways philosophy has supported and contributed to various areas of human inquiry.
The volume begins with a couple of rather cursory chapters on ancient and medieval philosophy where Soames recognizes how ancient philosophy provided guidance for human well-being and insight into the meaning of life. He then claims that medieval Christendom took over these questions of meaning and flourishing, which set philosophy free to focus on the acquisition of knowledge about the world and ourselves. The third chapter continues the history lesson with a more detailed account of the rise of modern science from Copernicus to Newton. Chapter four explains enlightenment political and economic philosophy with particular attention to Adam Smith’s account of free markets. It is at this point that the book shifts from an historical to a topical structure. The remaining topical chapters continue the story of philosophy with an emphasis on 20th and 21st century analytic philosophy and its contributions to the natural and social sciences. The point seems to be that philosophy has not lost its way but has touched all our lives through science, technology, politics, economics, law, etc.
This approach, however, points toward a very conservative, Anglo-American understanding of philosophy and its relation to the world at large. First, it is clear that Soames’ comfort zone is the history and impact of analytic philosophy on the sciences. This project takes up more than two-thirds of the book and is presented in a way that is largely inaccessible to the layperson. The writing style quickly falls back on analytic philosophy’s penchant for logicizing natural language through the specialized jargon of the field. In fact, most chapters are strewn with variables tied together with esoteric symbols for various logical functions and relations that are intended to lay bare the logical structure of natural language stripped of its content. This aspect of analytic methodology serves to “de-mangle” or “purify” language in a way that clarifies concepts for academic philosophers while also walling it off from those not versed in its customs.
The book also contains a political element that is both alienating and misleading. In chapter eleven, Soames continues his discussion of free markets from chapter four with an erudite discussion of Friedrich von Hayek’s account of free choice, free markets, and the benefits of capitalism. Yet, when Soames’s attention turns to Karl Marx, the account is largely uninformed with a focus only on its negative effects, such as Marx’s “failure” to predict a communist revolution or the authoritarian regimes that arose in nominally communist countries. The negative effects of capitalism, like severe income inequality in the US, and the positive effects of Marxism, like extensive social safety nets in many European and Scandinavian countries, are not mentioned at all.
As it stands, Soames gives the impression that (a) capitalism is the only beneficial economic system, (b) Marxism is only harmful, and (c) this is what a rational person should think. It is clearly a lopsided account in favor of the author’s preferred political and economic positions. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own political points of view. But a scholarly work purporting to demonstrate philosophy’s influence on the world should be more judicious with opposing views and their effects on the world – both positive and negative.
Another troubling feature of Soames’s book is its almost exclusive focus on white male philosophers. Some women philosophers are briefly glossed or mentioned in passing, while non-white and non-western philosophers are excluded entirely. A more even-handed approach would recognize the contributions to the world from thinkers like Wollstonecraft, Beauvoir, Nussbaum, Alain Locke, Dubois, Appiah, Fanon, and Laozi, to name just a few. To exclude them is to imply that only white men are capable of philosophically shaping the world. A claim that is empirically false.
To conclude, Soames does an excellent job explaining analytic philosophy’s contributions to many scientific fields. Every chapter is packed with explanations of the issues, theories, and the canonical (white, male) thinkers that populate a particular area of analytic philosophy. It is a very informative volume for those with the appropriate interests and training. However, in the end, Soames does not adequately refute Frodeman’s and Briggle’s thesis. Instead, this book leads the reader on a guided tour of the cold, hard labyrinthine halls of analytic philosophy’s ivory tower. This is a clean place of sterile analysis for the select few. It is a place where philosophy influences the world at a distance and only indirectly through the sciences while safely tucked away from the “mangle” of everyday life.
The World Philosophy Made: From Plato to the Digital Age by Scott Soames. Princeton University Press. 2019. 439 pp.