Deep Thought: 42 Fantastic Quotes that Define Philosophy by Gary Cox

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Deep Thought: 42 Fantastic Quotes that Define Philosophy by Gary Cox

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Charlie Pullen
Reviewed by Charlie Pullen
Summary: Quoting a philosopher may seem impressive, but what happens when someone asks what you mean? This entertaining and intelligent book of quotations is an excellent introduction to a vast and complex history of thought in the Western world that will leave you wiser for having read it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: September 2015
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1472567260

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Who really knows what Cogito ergo sum means? Yes, you may know that Descartes said it, and that it translates as 'I think, therefore I am', but what was it the French philosopher was trying to say about human existence when he said this most quotable and definitive phrase? And, for that matter, where did he say it? Was it in the seventeenth century or the eighteenth? If these are the sort of questions that keep you awake at night, then Gary Cox's Deep Thought: 42 Fantastic Quotes that Define Philosophy will be a welcome addition to your library.

Deep Thought is a witty and instructive introduction to the history of Western thought that takes for its starting point those aphorisms and one-liners that we all seem to know without truly being able to pinpoint their meaning or significance. And there's good reason for our not knowing – because philosophy is hard. More than this, as Cox shows, there are numerous contestations of what these philosophers actually said, which are aside from the debates about what the nuggets of wisdom actually mean. In this slim book, however, Cox moves through some of the great thinkers in history – Plato, Wittgenstein, Hume, and more – discussing famous quotes that serve as a gateway drug to their broader, more slippery and complex philosophical ideas.

This is not, though, an encyclopaedia or a history of philosophy. It is nothing so large and detailed as to be called, by Cox's own admission, 'a dictionary of philosophical quotations', whereas it would best be thought of as a brief explanation, again in the author's terms, 'of who certain key philosophers are and what they meant when they said what they said.' To my mind, this modest purpose is what makes Deep Thought work: it is entertaining and accessible, yet I finished it knowing a lot more about philosophy than when I started.

It is not an academic book but it is seriously intellectual. Coming with a bibliography, Deep Thought shores the reader up to learn more about the ideas and theories it introduces. And you might really consider moving on to those books, because Cox demonstrates how practically relevant philosophy is to our daily lives. Take, for example, a feeling which plagues so many people – fear of heights. With Kierkegaard and Sartre, Cox reveals that feeling of anguish when standing at the top of a building to have profound meaning concerning human nature. With Cox, looking over a balcony can be philosophical.

Cox's arrangement is simple enough, with the 42 quotations organised alphabetically by the philosopher who coined them. Fans of Douglas Adams will be attuned to the particular significance of that figure (as well as the title), but actually 42 is a worthy choice in allowing for a solid selection of philosophers that does not run the risk of getting arduously lengthy.

It is a fantastic line-up. Cox includes those famous heavyweights of philosophy alongside those who are more obscure. It is a creative ensemble, too, with surprise appearances from the likes of Douglas Adams and John Keats. Organised as a kind of thinker's A-Z, you can move through 'Deep Thought from beginning to end, which does lead you in a surprisingly cohesive journey from medieval saints to existential radicals and back again. It is worth noting that the non-chronological order really does succeed, partly because it lets you spot those connections and relations between the thinkers, but also because it makes for a lively read. Cox does, however, include these further reading notes and page references that encourage a freer trip through the many theories, concepts, and arguments. So, if you struggle with Hegel, you can follow the signposts to get some assistance. This is especially helpful, since Hegel is notoriously hard to read – Marx apparently likened reading his work to 'eating dry rocks'.

As many people know, the ancient Greeks, the French, and the Germans dominate philosophy, and Cox even makes a joke about the latter's startling ability to churn out critical thinkers: 'Long before they produced great cars the Germans produced great philosophers'. Laughs aside, what some readers may find genuinely limiting or disappointing about this selection is the lack of diversity. It is very much a book on the white, European, and (in a few cases) American / Australian tradition of philosophy. It is a snug and cohesive book because of this selection, but perhaps it would be worth asking for a series of these texts, companions which take on the thinkers from other parts of the world. For readers looking for more philosophy: The Complete Philosophy Files by Stephen Law is another accessible introduction to complex philosophical questions; The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View by Richard Tarnas, however, is a much more robust account of the history of Western thought.

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