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A Reasonable View
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Anthony Gottlieb

      . . . journalist and philosophy enthusiast. Mr. Gottlieb is executive editor and former science editor of "The Economist" magazine and author of The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance. He studied philosophy at Cambridge University and University College London, has been a Visiting Fellow at Harvard and writes regularly on philosophy for the New York Times Book Review. He is hard at work on Volume Two of The Dream of Reason, which will stretch from Descartes to the present.

Excerpts3:25 secs

      Philosophy is the human mind at play and we all have a deep hunger for it, Anthony Gottlieb believes. Just look at how children pose philosophical questions to the point of being tiresome, he says, confident any parent knows whereof he speaks. But children's questions are tiresome in the way all philosophical questions are, Mr. Gottlieb contends. When we grow up, too many adults underestimate themselves, shy away from addressing those big questions.

      So Mr. Gottlieb, a journalist who was bitten early by the "philosophy bug" and has never recovered, set out to write a general audience book that explores the fruits of great minds all the way back to the dawn of Western philosophy. He maximized his journalistic distrust of secondary sources, taking more than a decade to read the primary sources. His job of exploration then became one of translation, he says, because the distant past is like an alien civilization. Rather to his surprise, what Mr. Gottlieb found was remarkable continuity from that time to this. Consider how the three giants of the ancient philosophical world approached problems. Socrates was the argumentative, questioning individual. Plato was the inspirational, imaginative, creative thinker. And Aristotle was the great teacher and ultimate academic who writes the text books. Sound familiar?

      Is the continuity really so surprising? The organ which produces and addresses the questions -- our human brain -- has not had time to change much in twenty-six hundred years, Mr. Gottlieb reminds us. Even though we've put a lot more into that brain, he believes we still think in the same ways and still have the same basic problems. We're born. We die. And we want to know why things happen.

      What drives and defines philosophy, Mr. Gottlieb thinks, is an appetite for rational understanding and explanation. We dream of reason -- it's what we're aiming for and a goal. But philosophy, he acknowledges, does often go wrong and, as he says repeatedly, deserves to be made fun of. It falls short of its goals and is just an illusion. Hence the title of his book, The Dream of Reason.

      What was Mr. Gottlieb's reward for this arduous journey? An increased sense of historical perspective, to be sure. In studying the history of philosophy, he was studying the history of thought. By spending a lot of time trying to explain how a variety disciplines, especially science, came out of philosophy, he found the origin of many other ideas. And there was more. Philosophy, he says, teaches one how to stand back from one's everyday styles of thinking, to question those styles. And that questioning can, over time, change one's life.

      Philosophy does progress, he believes. But each time one makes progress, with any luck, what you are doing is creating new questions for yourself. So if you too are bitten by the philosophy bug, you'll never run out of intellectual work. And you'll always be great at a dinner party.

[This Program was recorded November 8, 2001, in New York, New York, US.]

Conversation 1

Anthony Gottlieb compares being executive editor of "The Economist" and writing a book on the history of western philosophy for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Mr. Gottlieb describes profound continuities he sees in the story of philosophy.

Conversation 2

Mr. Gottlieb agrees that other disciplines still have a lot to learn from philosophy, but urges us not to get imperialistic about it. He recalls what he did not know about ancient philosophy when he began his book and relates his experience as a journalist to why he concentrated on primary sources. He wonders what people were thinking about during the times described only by archeologists. Mr. Gottlieb shows how the religious interests of early philosophers were both similar to and different from others. He applauds philosophers' bravery on several counts and assures us that pursuing philosophy requires a sense of humor. He describes how his own philosophical thinking has expanded.

Conversation 3

Aristotle's "breathtaking" accomplishments, contributions and continuing influence are described, Mr. Gottlieb confident they cannot be overstated. He expands on why he spent a year and a half studying Aristotle alone. Mr. Gottlieb contrasts the life of the mind in Europe before and after the printing press. He talks about the reasons he was drawn to Socrates and gives an example of Socrates' approach to undermining traditional ideas. The ideas of Socrates, Aristotle and Plato are summarized. Mr. Gottlieb remembers the arduous work required to write his book. He tells us what is so "wonderful" about ancient philosophy. He describes the big slow-down we think of as the Dark Ages.

Conversation 4

The profound conceptual break brought on by Francis Bacon is discussed, moving from "How ought I to think about these things?" to "What ought I to do?" "Who or what do we trust" is added to the mix. Returning to the theme of continuities he found, Mr. Gottlieb assures us that the search for the foundation of knowledge is a lot older than Descartes. There isn't enough skepticism around today, Mr. Gottlieb says, drawing on another idea with a deep history. Accounting for the continuities he found, Mr. Gottlieb assures us philosophy is forever because it is the human mind at play. That organ hasn't changed much, he says, nor have structural similarities in people's lives -- we're born, we die. He explains what drives and defines philosophy and explains the title of his book. He compares his study of philosophy to his work as a journalist.

Conversation 5

Philosophy, Mr. Gottlieb believes, teaches us how to stand back from everyday styles of thinking and question them. He expands. He suggests how we might look to people two thousand years in the future, relating it to the foreign-ness of the times 2,000 years ago. He explains why he saw his task as one of translation. Children, he says, are all interested in philosophical questioning and so are most adults, many of whom he thinks underestimate themselves when it comes to thinking about philosophy. He compares British and American ways of teaching philosophy. He puts Western philosophy in the context of the world's thought, then suggests popular scientists would do well to study philosophy rather than trying to preempt it.

Conversation 6

Mr. Gottlieb summarizes how very much he learned in writing his history of philosophy. He puts his interest in and pursuit of philosophy into the context of his journalistic career, comparing writing about philosophy to when he was science editor at "The Economist." He assures us that the intellectual work of philosophers will never run out.


Mr. Gottlieb has done the world a service with The Dream of Reason. We thank him for applying his prodigious journalistic skills to timeless and timely philosophical subjects which are as fresh today as they were twenty-six hundred years ago. And we thank him for the 10 years of work it took to get it done.

Mr. Gottlieb and his New York staff at "The Economist" were graciousness itself during our visit to record this program. We thank them all.

The day Carolyn Sawyer, Mr. Gottlieb's publicist at W.W. Norton, and Paula began to make arrangements to produce this program, tragic events were befalling New York City. Ms. Sawyer had the grace and good judgment to focus on the work of spreading powerfully positive ideas, rather than succumbing to the fear and darkness which are also part of the human condition. She has our admiration and thanks.

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The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance is published by W.W. Norton & Company.

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