Nietzsche’s thinking seems destined to be mangled and misunderstood

For Mussolini’s 60th birthday, Hitler gave him a de luxe edition of Friedrich Nietzsche’s complete works, bound in blue pigskin. After the war, writers vied to revile the philosopher. Then, in the 1960s, he suddenly became philosophy’s darling. How come? Enter two erotically entangled Italians: Georgio Colli, a philosophy teacher at Lucca from 1942, and his pupil Mazzino Montinari, who in 1943-4 was beaten, interrogated and imprisoned for anti-fascist activism. Both found Nietzsche’s philosophy irreconcilable with fascism. Rumours had been swirling that the Nazifying of Nietzsche emerged from the Nachlass, a mysterious hoard of Nietzsche’s manuscripts suspected to contain forgeries that were the work of his sister Elisabeth and her

What does Christian atheism mean?

Two opposed camps can only have a fruitful debate if they agree on what it is they disagree about. A militant atheist such as Richard Dawkins is right to call out scientific ignorance in some religious settings. But at a deeper level his argument fails, because the deity he rejects is a blown-up thing, not the Creator conceived in classical tradition. Similar considerations apply to Slavoj Žižek’s Christian Atheism. When the claim that religion is no more than pious fantasy forms your starting point as well as your conclusion, then reason becomes the first casualty. This approach is as circular as beginning a book on socialism by asserting that all

Gus Carter

Daniel Dennett’s last interview: ‘AI could signal the end of human civilisation’

Do we still need philosophers? Daniel Dennett, who died last week, believed strongly that we do. ‘Scientists have a tendency to get down in the trenches and commit themselves to a particular school of thought,’ he told me from his home in Maine, not long before he died. ‘They’re caught in the trenches so a bird’s eye view can be very useful to them. Philosophers are good at bird’s eye views.’ Scientists of all sorts valued their conversations with him, ‘I think because I could ask them questions that they realised they should have had answers to,’ he said. I grew up with Dennett. First, as a teenager, watching YouTube

We have lost an unforgettable teacher and one of Britain’s great critics

Tanner, the critic RICHARD BRATBY Michael Tanner (1935-2024), who died earlier this month, had such a vital mind and stood so far above the common run of music critics that it’s hard to believe he’s gone. For a philosopher to concern themself with the inner game of opera is not unknown (think of Friedrich Nietzsche and Roger Scruton). To do it as perceptively and as readably as Tanner is rarer. For two decades, starting in  1996, his weekly Spectator opera column offered as thorough and as stimulating an education in musical aesthetics as one could hope to receive; intellectual red meat served with forensic clarity and a mischievous, subversive smile.

Flaubert, snow, poverty, rhythm … the random musings of Anne Carson

Anne Carson, the celebrated Canadian-American poet, essayist and classical translator, is notoriously reticent about her work. She agreed to just these three sentences appearing on the cover of her first book in eight years: Wrong Norma is a collection of writings about different things, like Joseph Conrad, Guantanamo, Flaubert, snow, poverty, Roget’s Thesaurus, my dad, Saturday night. The pieces are not linked. That’s why I’ve called them wrong. Not only does this suggest the range of subjects explored but also Carson’s idiosyncratic, playful humour. Of course there are links between the pieces, and of course they are anything but wrong. Wrong-footed by the blurb, it’s thrillingly difficult to find one’s

Is writing now changing the world for the worse?

How do you feel about writing? Does that sound like a bizarre question? OK, what about this? Do you worry that you don’t read enough? About the encroachment of screen time into book time? About the decline of letter-writing or penmanship? In universities, where ChatGPT has made a nightmare of written assessments, lecturers have had to fall back on viva voce interviews to determine whether students are the true authors of the essays they submit. My hunch is that writing – the idea of writing – is now more fretted over than celebrated; that what we feel towards this venerable invention is, on the whole, something like a complex of

The problem with westerners seeking oriental enlightenment

Call it a prejudice if you like. Living in Japan in the 1970s, I had a slight aversion to a particular type of westerner. He – for it was mostly a he – usually lived in Kyoto, sometimes wore a kimono and liked to sit in ancient temples chasing after that presumably blissful moment of enlightenment, awakening, satori, or whatever one wishes to call it. These seekers were less interested in Japan as a society of human beings. They wanted to float in higher spheres. As Christopher Harding explains in The Light of Asia, the Zen adepts, the Buddhist chanters, the rock-garden worshippers, the kimonoed fools (in my no doubt

Why we need a biography of philosopher Bryan Magee

When I was a philosophy student at King’s College London in my early twenties, I came across a book called Confessions of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee. A history of western philosophy told through the story of the author’s relationship with it, it opens with a three- or four-year old Magee trying to catch himself falling asleep every night. Try as he might, he can never experience himself crossing the threshold from wakefulness into unconsciousness, a conundrum that keeps him in a state of ‘active mystification’. Magee spent the rest of his life like this, wrestling with the mysteries inherent in everyday experience. Far from being a fusty academic discipline

Why were masters of the occult respected but witches burnt?

It has long been acknowledged that alchemy, however bizarre its premises, is the fore-runner of modern chemistry, compelling a figure as rational as Sir Isaac Newton. Other aspects of Renaissance thought are harder to assimilate. In his study of five crucial figures of the 15th and 16th centuries, Anthony Grafton aims to demonstrate that astrology, angelology and conjuration were, if not central to the era’s world view, at least hard to extricate from its more respectable concerns. His first subject, Faust, is little more than a sideshow, but significant in establishing the magus as a not entirely respectable figure, from which ignominy Grafton seeks to rescue him. The four who

The invisible boundaries of everyday life

Norman Shrapnel, the wise and kindly parliamentary correspondent of the Guardian back in the day when it was a readable newspaper, tried never to give a book a bad review. He liked to say that anyone who had taken the time and trouble to write about anything at length deserved to be given the benefit of the doubt, and so he generally dipped his reviewer’s pen in honey rather than vinegar. I must say that on picking up Maxim Samson’s Invisible Lines, I felt quite otherwise. I wanted at first (an important caveat) to paint my laptop’s entire screen with vitriol. Within two pages I’d begun to loathe the author’s

Too many tales of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle

A book about hedgehogs is not the obvious next step for Sarah Sands, the former editor of Radio 4’s flagship news programme Today, and before that editor of the Evening Standard. But then Sands has had a rough time of it lately. In The Hedgehog Diaries, she recounts the death of her father, Noel, the news broken to her by her brother, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, who had to climb through a window of her Norfolk house to do so since she wasn’t answering her phone. Hesketh-Harvey, who was a writer and performer and a great favourite of the King, died not long afterwards of heart failure. Julian Sands, the actor made

What should we make of the esoteric philosophy Traditionalism?

Last August a bomb tore through a Toyota Land Cruiser outside Moscow killing its 29-year-old driver. Darya Dugina, a pro-war TV pundit, had been returning from a conservative literary festival where her father, an ultra-nationalist ideologue, had been giving a talk on tradition and history. Quite possibly he was the intended target. Alexander Dugin was called ‘Putin’s Brain’ by Foreign Affairs magazine and ‘Putin’s Rasputin’ by Breitbart. He had advocated conflict with the West and told Russians they should ‘kill, kill, kill’ Ukrainians. Ukraine denied responsibility for the attack. If you haven’t heard of Traditionalism, that’s not surprising, since it’s hardly devised to be generally understood One way of thinking

Can the ancient Greeks really offer us ‘life lessons’ today?

Adam Nicolson’s seductive new book –a voyage around early Greek thought – opens with a lovely passage. Moored with his wife off the island of Samos, Nicolson rises at first light, with ‘only the cats awake’, to find that other boats have come in during the night and laid their anchor lines over his. Our action-man author dives in and swims down ‘the 12 feet or so to the sandy sea floor, hand over hand and link by link down the chain, looking for the tangle that needed to be undone’. It’s a metaphor for the task he sets himself in How To Be, which aims to separate out the

The philosophical puzzles of the British Socrates

Imagine your donkey and mine graze in the same field. One day I conceive a dislike for my donkey and shoot it: on examining the victim, though, I realise with horror I’ve shot your donkey. Or imagine a slightly different scenario. As before, I draw a bead, but just as I pull the trigger, my donkey – perhaps more invested in this vale of tears than yours – steps out of the firing line and I shoot your donkey. Now here’s the question. When, in either case, I turn up on your doorstep with the remains of your donkey, how should I frame my apology to you? In his 1956

The improbable genius of John Venn

There aren’t many mathematicians who can claim to have bowled out Australia’s number one batsman. But then John Venn, who died 100 years ago today, was no ordinary scholar. Born in Hull and brought up in Highgate, he was also an Anglican priest – the ninth consecutive one in his family – with a magnificent Victorian beard. He won gardening prizes for his roses and white carrots. He was a keen advocate of women’s rights. And as the founding father of Venn diagrams, still the world’s most beloved tool for representing set-relationships, he can probably boast greater name-recognition than any other modern mathematician.  Next time you’re in Cambridge, pop into Gonville and Caius

In search of the peripatetic philosopher Theophrastus

Publishers lately seem to have got the idea that otherwise uncommercial subjects might be rendered sexy if presented with a personal, often confessional, counterpoint. The ostensible subject of Laura Beatty’s book is the pioneering Greek botanist and philosopher Theophrastus. He was a friend of Aristotle’s, and was once thought his intellectual equal, but is now little known except to a few classicists and historians of science. But since no one wants to publish a straight book on Theophrastus, we get instead a book that is at least as much about Laura Beatty, her library researches, her travels in Greece and her kitchen garden. Her publishers describe the book as ‘genre-defying’.

The amazing grace of Bruce Lee’s fight scenes

Early on in Enter the Dragon our hero, the acrobatic Kung Fu fighter Bruce Lee, tells a young pupil to kick him. Needless to say, the kid’s kick comes a cropper. ‘What was that?’, Lee sneers, clipping the lad’s ear. ‘An exhibition? We need emotional content, not anger.’ Even at 12, when I first read about this scene (in the poster magazine Kung Fu Monthly, whose first 26 issues are handsomely reproduced in Volume I of Carl Fox’s Archive Series), I thought it sounded like a load of chop suey hooey. An exhibition is precisely what I’d have wanted, if by some miracle I could have wise-guyed my way into

What exactly do we mean by the mind?

Given the ingenuity of machine-makers, said Descartes in the 17th century, machines might well be constructed that exactly resemble humans. There would always, however, be ‘a reliable test’ to distinguish them. ‘Even the stupidest man’ is equipped by reason to adapt to ‘all the contingencies of life’, while no machine could ever be made with enough pre-set ‘arrangements’ to be convincingly versatile. But suppose it could? In 1950 Alan Turing proposed a test remarkably similar to Descartes’s. A computer and a human are asked questions, each being invisible to the questioner, and their respective responses compared. If the computer’s can be mistaken for the human’s, displaying equivalent versatility and apparent

Life’s great dilemma: Either/Or, by Elif Batuman, reviewed

In this delightful sequel to her semi-autobiographical novel The Idiot (2017), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Elif Batuman returns to Harvard to follow her protagonist Selin during her sophomore year. Selin has spent the summer of 1996 teaching English in Hungary, trailing her friend Ivan. Her crush on him remains unrequited and unconsummated, but she is determined to make up for lost time by having ‘interesting love experiences’ this year. The Idiot was preceded by The Possessed, a New York Times bestseller about Batuman’s fascination with Russian literature. While her first two books take their titles from Dostoevsky, Either/Or refers to Kierkegaard’s treatise on the pros and

Know your left from your right: the brain’s divided hemispheres

The dust jacket of The Matter With Things quotes a large statement from an Oxford professor: ‘This is one of the most important books ever published. And, yes, I do mean ever.’ Can any contemporary work withstand such praise? The ‘intelligent general reader’ (the book’s target audience) should, however, not be discouraged, for Iain McGilchrist has to be taken seriously: a Fellow of All Souls, eminent in neurology, psychiatry and literary criticism, a thinker and — it’s impossible to avoid the term —a sage. His previous book, The Master and His Emissary, was admired by public figures from Rowan Williams to Philip Pullman. Some consider McGilchrist the most important non-fiction