Janna Thompson

We academic philosophers get annoyed when people suppose that the purpose of philosophy is therapeutic. But we need not deny that philosophical enquiries into the nature of mind, knowledge, and the good can be sources of personal inspiration or solace. In his earlier work, Books That Saved My Life (2018), Michael McGirr, teacher, aid worker, and former priest, explained how literature and poetry can enrich our lives. Now it’s the turn of philosophy.

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Archaeologists can tell us about the tools, diets, shelters, art, and burials of humans and other hominins who lived during the Pleistocene, the geological period lasting from two million to twelve thousand years ago. But what we most want to know is hidden from view. How did they communicate? What was it like to be them? How did they become us?

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George Berkeley (1685–1753) proposed a radical solution to the conundrums of modern philosophy. By denying the existence of matter, he dismissed the problem of how we can know a world outside our minds. Only minds and their ideas are real. The problem of understanding how mind and matter interact is dissolved by Berkeley’s immaterialism, and so is the difficulty of explaining how causation works. The source of all that we perceive, he believed, is God. Few philosophers have ever accepted this position. But the brilliance of his arguments for it earned him a place in the Western philosophical canon.

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Philosophers attending a conference in the Swiss resort of Davos in 1929 eagerly anticipated a debate between Ernst Cassirer, a celebrated member of the academic establishment and a supporter of progressive liberalism, and Martin Heidegger, whose radical break from tradition had impressed younger philosophers. For those who expected a clash of titans, the result was disappointing. There were no denunciations, no rhetorical bolts of lightning. The true parting of their ways came later, in 1933, when Cassirer, a Jewish supporter of the Weimar Republic, was forced out of his position and into exile, and Heidegger, now a member of the National Socialist Party, told students of Freiburg University to be guided by the Führer.

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Catharine Macaulay (1731–91), a celebrated historian in England, was acquainted with leading political figures and intellectuals in Britain, America, and France. American revolutionaries were influenced by her republican principles, and the feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft was inspired by her views. Today she is a largely forgotten figure, at most a footnote in histories of the period and not regarded as significant enough to be included in the Enlightenment pantheon among the luminaries she supported or criticised. Melbourne philosopher Karen Green claims that the neglect of Macaulay is not only an injustice to a historian and philosopher whose works deserve attention. She regards her as an important advocate of a form of Enlightenment thought that cannot be reduced to an apology for the possessive individualism of capitalist society.

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After his success in forcing the British Natural History Museum to return skulls and bones of Tasmanian Aboriginals, the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson was asked by the Greek minister of foreign affairs to ascertain whether international law could be used to induce the British to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. Although the project found favour with a succession of Greek prime ministers, the Tsipras government decided not to act on Robertson’s recommendations. This book is a revised version of his report, along with a discussion of demands for the repatriation of other cultural treasures.

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Mary Ann Evans arrived in London from country Warwickshire in 1851 into an environment of intellectuals who believed in the progress of the human spirit through criticism of superstition and the application of science. Working first as a translator and critic, she became for a time the editor of the Westminster Review, a journal that had been turned by John Stuart Mill into a forum for philosophical radicals. Evans had plans to write a critique of the doctrine of immorality but her partner, George Lewes, who was famous for a work on the lives of philosophers, encouraged her to write fiction. She began with sketches of rural life using the name George Eliot.

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Philosopher Derek Parfit claimed that nothing matters unless ethical and other normative beliefs are objectively true. Parfit, who died on 1 January 2017, wrote a three-volume work, On What Matters (2011–17), because he believed that the meaningfulness of his life, and the lives of others who devote themselves to ethical thought ...

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David Hume earned his place in the philosophical pantheon mostly because of the uncompromising empiricism of his early work A Treatise of Human Nature (1738). He looked ...

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Our perceptual world is rich in colour and sound. We think and imagine. We experience repugnance and longing. Meanwhile, in our brains neurons are firing and chemical reactions are taking place. Conscious experience and brain events are obviously related. Reputable Australian philosophers insist that they are one and the same. But how can events with such different ...

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