Doing Philosophy: From Common Curiosity To Logical Reasoning by Timothy Williamson

The Blurb On The Back:

For those who are new to philosophy the methodology for philosophical thinking may seem almost mystical.

And yet the processes are more familiar than we may initially fear.

Drawing on examples throughout the history of philosophy’s successes and failures, Timothy Williamson demonstrates how philosophy begins with common-sense curiosity, and develops through our capacity to dispute rationally with each other.

As he shows, philosophy can clarify our thoughts.  This depends on the development of philosophical theories, which can be tested by imaginative thought experiments, and compared against each other by standards like those in science.  Overturning the widely held dogma of the special nature of philosophy, Williamson unravels its methods, uncovers both their power and their limitations, and assesses the future of philosophy.

From thought experiments to deduction to theories, this little book will make you rethink what philosophy is.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order DOING PHILOSOPHY: FROM COMMON CURIOSITY TO LOGICAL REASONING by Timothy Williamson from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Timothy Williamson is the Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University.  His book aims to explain how to do philosophy well by cantering through various schools, including the history and science of philosophy, to set out how they approach problems.  I found some parts (e.g. the history sections) easier to follow than others (notably the logic section) but if you’re thinking of studying philosophy it’s definitely worth a look.

In the introduction, Williamson says that he hopes to convey the pleasure he gets from philosophy more than the frustration and I think that he does accomplish this.  Although I did find this a frustrating read at times and parts of it went over my head (which I’ll set out more below), you do get his love of the subject and he puts his 40+ years of experience to good use given that he writes fluidly and covers an impressively wide scope given that this is such a short book.

He begins by looking at common sense and philosophy, which he uses to discuss evidence and appearances and reliability.  He then moves on to looking at disputes and philosophy as ideas are tested through argument and counter argument, which Williamson says is central to philosophical practice.  I was particularly interested in the section on adversarial philosophy, which he compares to legal arguments between a prosecutor and defender and which takes place in a system of procedures and judges and which he uses to make the point that although it is competitive, it also makes you better at making your argument and improving your theory.  

He goes from there into looking at logic games and I confess that this is where I started to find myself a bit out of my depth.  I simply didn’t understand the rules of the game and I think it’s one of those things where I need to see it actually being performed in front of me and simultaneously explained so that I can get my head around it.  What might have helped though, is if Williamson had actually run through a hypothetical game explaining what’s happening and each point in it.  I got a better idea of what Williamson was talking about when he moved on to dialogues, ironically because he does use hypothetical examples.

In chapter 4 Williamson focuses on clarifying terms and setting out concepts.  Again, I found this interesting because Williamson uses current topics of debate (e.g. what is a woman) and links in science issues about things like mass.  However when he moves onto mathematics and talks about sets, he’s assuming that the reader knows what that means and as someone who worked very hard to get a GCSE grade C in the subject, it was again over my head, which means I really didn’t understand what he was saying.

Chapter 5 examines thought experiments.  Again, I found this quite easy to follow as he runs through real life experiments, thought experiments, knowing by imagining and examines what intuition is and how biases can affect your perception.  Equally easy to follow is his chapter on comparing theories where he runs through how theories work against each other and how to test and compare them.

Chapter 6 looks at deducing and again, I found this tricky to follow as Williamson moves back to his wheelhouse of logic and mathematics.  I could follow what he was saying about deduction in philosophy and validity and soundness but once he started on abduction in logic and mathematics my brain did begin to freeze and again, it’s because he has this assumption that the reader is automatically familiar with what he’s talking about.  Equally his chapter on model-building left me a bit bewildered, although it does build on ideas he has talked about in earlier chapters.

Williamson’s chapters on the history of philosophy and using other fields (e.g. anthropology, linguistics and psychology) in philosophy was much more in my lane and I thought that Williamson was very persuasive about the strengths that they bring to the field.

All in all I did get a lot from this book in terms of understanding what philosophy is and how it operates, but I did wish that the logic/more mathematical sections had been broken down a bit more in order to be accessible to the casual reader.  Ultimately, if you’re thinking about studying philosophy more seriously (including at university), then I think you’ll get a lot out of it but even if you’re not and just have a cursory interest in trying to understand it more, then it’s still worth a couple of hours of your time. 

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