The Best Philosophy Books of 2017 (Part 1)

Interviewed for the website fivebooks.com, the popular philosopher Nigel Warburton, author of A Little History of Philosophy and Philosophy: The Basics, recommends five books which, in their variety, constitute excellent guides to five different ways of approaching and studying the subject. His first choice goes to a book on the friendship between the Scottish empiricist David Hume and his friend Adam Smith, famous for his economic theory, developed in The Wealth of Nations, published in the same year as the death of his Edinburgh friend but also the year of the American Declaration of Independence (1776). The Infidel and the Professor by Dennis Rasmussen, does not reveal unpublished letters between the two beacons of the Scottish Enlightenment but it pieces together their distinctive theory in the light of their mutual philosophical influence. Hume’s atheistic positions prevented him from obtaining a university chair when Smith enjoyed a successful career at Glasgow University. Yet, Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1739) was directly influenced by Hume’s concept of ‘moral sympathy’ as expounded in his ‘still-born’ Treatise of Human Nature.

Warburton’s second choice tackles the topical issue of religious belief. Far from Hume’s sceptical approach of the subject, Tim Crane’s The Meaning of Belief sets out to expose the misconceptions of new Atheism and its conflation of cosmological stories and moral dogmas prescribing how we should live our lives. For the self-confessed atheist Crane, religion is a plain sociological fact as six billion humans subscribe to one religion or other. Faced with this situation, tolerance between faiths is the order of the day if mankind is to move beyond cultural prejudice and sectarian violence. Although William James’s psychological study of The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) remains an unsurpassed classic, Crane’s stimulating book brings a welcome contribution to the civilised debate on what continues to alienate individuals and societies from each other.

Peter Singer is, along with Michael J. Sandel, the most recognised proponent of modern utilitarianism. With his trenchant, controversial style, the Australian-born theorist has demonstrated over the years that he does not shy away from polemics as he keeps exposing our moral hypocrisy on highly sensitive issues such as euthanasia, global poverty or the inherent right of animals not to suffer in our hands. In 2017 Professor Singer published two books: the first, a series of ’82 brief essays on things that matter’, entitled Ethics in the Real World; the second one, chosen by Warburton, is A Very Short Introduction to Utilitarianism co-written with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek. The book traces the origins and developments of the most influential British philosophical movement to date. The joint authors’ cooperation dates back to 2016 when they put together a defence of moral objectivism combined with hedonistic utilitarianism. The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics is informed by their critical reading of the unfairly neglected thinker, Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900). By applying the Utilitarian theorist’s ideas to pressing contemporaries issues, de Lazari-Radek and Singer revive a crucial aspect of Utilitarianism beginnings and how it supplied a new tool to resolve aesthetic dilemmas only made more complex against a background of ever-changing moral orientations and beliefs.

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