- Plato's Sun
In Plato's Sun Andrew Lawless combines an 'introduction to philosophy' with a sophisticated presentation of philosophical issues, ideas, and thinkers in the Western tradition from antiquity to the present day. In addition to covering several major areas of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics, and philosophical issues of language) Lawless uses the historical development of each issue as a major theme, though he does not stick with strict chronology in each chapter. He wants to reveal philosophy as a struggle, as 'the aporetic exercise of trying to think the unthinkable and knowing that you are' rather than a set of pronouncements. Thus he makes the introduction of philosophy analogical in style and substance to the prisoner's journey in Plato's allegory of the cave, from darkness to the sunlight of insight or wisdom, [End Page 140] returning throughout the text to Plato and to the details of the cave specifically.
This is an ambitious project and Lawless comes as close to success as one might, given the restrictions of an introductory text. His writing is lucid and engaging and his mode of enquiry is open-ended, as is the goal of the book, concluding provocatively with a question, What is philosophy? rather than a set of pat answers. Overall, Lawless's discussion reminds us of what it means to be a philosopher, especially in his commendable bridging of the so-called analytic-continental divide. Although perhaps just slightly more analytical than continental (chapters on logic and language with a definite analytic focus), Lawless balances the clarity of much analytic philosophy with deconstructive skepticism, an emphasis on aesthetic imagery and its philosophical role, and an appreciation for some of the larger questions 'continental' philosophy has put on the agenda for the twenty-first century.
On a smaller scale there are summaries of each chapter, helpful glossaries of names and terms, as well as a good index, and also a list of further readings for each chapter. Moreover, the endnotes are extremely detailed and would be helpful to both philosophical novices and advanced students.
With all these virtues in mind, there are some definite problems with an otherwise enjoyable and insightful discussion. Lawless writes at such a sophisticated level in both style and substance that one doubts whether first- or even second-year students will readily follow him, though if they do one could expect very stimulating class discussion. An exception is the section on logic, which is accessible and engaging while bringing out the philosophical significance of issues in logic. Moreover, a book of primary readings (from Plato, Descartes, etc.) geared to each chapter would be necessary to make Lawless's own text really helpful at the introductory level (other introductory texts often have a supplementary book of readings or have the primary texts embedded in the introductory text).
Thus, in comparison with other introductory texts, Plato's Sun has both advantages and limitations. For example, many introductory texts are more geared toward first- and second-year students, either presenting material in a direct chronological order (the ancients, the moderns, etc.) or by putting the chronology within issues (Ethics: Aristotle, Kant, Mill, feminism, etc.). These rarely aim at the sophisticated level of discussion Lawless reaches but they make the material more 'digestible' and often have helpful tools such as study questions, timelines, and relevant contemporary material (e.g., literature) or reference to such material. Of course, they also have precisely the limitations Lawless is trying to transcend, generating didactic philosophical understanding (of a given author or position) and also generating the impression of philosophy [End Page 141] as a buffet from which one can choose rather than an impassioned intellectual struggle one engages in. With Lawless, students will definitely get a sense of this struggle, provided they are able to make their way through the details of his text.
So for a thoughtful, mature friend, or a particularly interested student wanting to learn more about philosophy, I would recommend Lawless's book enthusiastically. However, for a large class of newly hatched first-year students I might hesitate. This...