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Making Sense

| 14.6.06
Making Sense: Philosophy in the Headlines, by Julian Baggini

I was originally drawn to this book because of the title, "Making Sense" with its constructionist overtones. While the book is more an overview of philosophical thinking and how it can be applied to understanding current events, I still think it was well worth my time.

First, this was a great book for explaining philosophical concepts and critical thinking without getting weighed down in big terms. I took one philosophy class in college. We read Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, and others. My mind quickly glazed over in that way that only philosophy can make a young mind glaze over. Baggini, on the other hand, is very practical in his approach to philosophy. In this book philosophy is a means to an end; used to think clearly and help unravel the assumptions behind the issues for major news stories of our day. Of course the fact that utilitarianism seems to be Baggini's core philosophical assumption doesn't hurt his presentation!

Most of the book is devoted to taking specific examples and thinking through them in a rational manner. The Clinton sex scandal, the war on terrorism, stem cell research, abortion, and genetically modified foods are just a few of the issues he tackles. In each case he carefully asks questions aimed to deconstruct the arguments used for and against. Disassembled in this way, the reader can take a look at the various pieces that make up an argument and decide for themselves what is compelling and what is not. Even when you don't agree with Baggini's conclusions on the matter (and often I did not) his process helped me think through issues in a more reasoned way.

The strongest part of the book was Baggini's contrast between rhetoric and reasoned argument. Watch closely the next time you see a politician speak on TV. Do they assume their conclusion (rhetoric) or do they provide evidence to support drawing their conclusion (reasoned argument)? If every voter could make the distinction between reason and rhetoric there would be a revolution in the way people think about issues! While it may not end up affecting the outcome of elections (for I think reasoned arguments can often be made on many sides of an issue) I think it would inoculate us against some of the more extreme positions out there, and foster better domestic and foreign policy.

Baggini's treatment of religion, on the other hand, was somewhat weak. I was raised as a fundamentalist and trained to see reason and faith to be in strict opposition; now I'm an Episcopalian who sees reason and faith as complementing each other. Baggini critiques the fundamentalist view of religion, but seems unaware of any alternatives to this other than atheism. Most people of faith lie somewhere in the middle, and it was disappointing to read Baggini paint them with such a broad brush.

Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (January 15, 2004); ISBN: 0192805061

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