Stuart Jeffries

Oddballs and outcasts

Jonathan Rée’s beguiling history includes vignettes of the eccentric Bertrand Russell and of Thomas Davidson, the Aristotelian turnip-hoer from Aberdeen

Charles Kay Ogden once proposed that conversations would be conducted more efficiently if participants wore masks. Apart from confirming the hypothesis that Britons don’t care much for philosophising but rarely miss an excuse to dress up, this made me think if only Theresa May had visited Brussels as Darth Vader to meet Jean-Claude Juncker in his Princess Leia mask, Brexit would have been sorted out years ago.

Ogden, who not only translated Wittgenstein but wrote a book offputtingly called The Meaning of Meaning, also had the idea that English could be boiled down to 850 words — which, as you know, is 830 more than you’ll need to take part in a football phone-in. The language, called Basic, could be learned in days and, he hoped, would pave the way to peace by reversing the curse of Babel.

Jonathan Rée’s beguiling history of philosophy in English, from Hamlet reproving Horatio for his imaginative limitations in 1603 to the publication of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations 450 years later, seethes with such potty vignettes. There’s Bertrand Russell searching under his desk in Cambridge to prove there is no rhinoceros in the room. There’s the sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, pseudonymous American author Ragnar Redbeard, whose 1890 book Might is Right or the Survival of the Fittest, both misconstrued Nietzsche’s will to power and applied Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism. The book also impressed Jack London, worried Tolstoy and paved the way for Ayn Rand and Gordon Gekko. More importantly, it depicted the author as a moustachioed übermensch in tights on the cover surrounded by his decapitated victims. Which is the publishing wheeze Alain de Botton’s people should consider for his next book.

For those of us still traumatised after spending university years banjaxed by such questions as ‘Could God make a bowl of porridge too big to eat?’, Rée’s book may well be the most fun we’ve ever had with anglophone philosophy.

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