book magic

The best kind of book, to my mind, is  the kind of book you can have an argument with. Not a book so wrong that I want to throw it across the room, but one that I disagree with and yet find challenging enough to force me to re-examine my own views, and often to put down my disagreements in writing to help me better to clarify them. So, here are five books for me to argue with over the next few months. And a sixth that I hope everyone else will be arguing about.


Joshua Greene,
Moral Tribes:
Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them

greene tribes

The contradictions of our moral lives, psychologist and philosopher Joshua Greene suggests, lies in our evolutionary history. Our brains were designed for tribal life. But we live in a globalized world that creates conflicts of interest and clashes of values that we find difficult to negotiate.  Not only are we caught between the landscape of our evolved minds and the reality of the modern world, we are also caught between two mechanisms for moral thinking. Like a digital camera, human morality can work both in ‘auto mode’ or in ‘manual mode’. In automatic, point-and-shoot mode, the camera can take pictures quickly and easily, but often goes awry in difficult conditions. In manual mode, the camera can be fine-tuned to take perfect photos in even the trickiest conditions. But such fine-tuning is fiddly and takes time. Auto mode, in other words, is fast but inflexible, manual mode highly flexible, but slow and tricky to set up. The same is true, Greene suggests, of moral thinking. Normally we rely on point-and-shoot moral answers, responding quickly, instinctively, almost unthinkingly to moral problems. Our fast, instinctive point-and-shoot moral snapshot answers have developed against the background of our evolutionary history. We can, however, also step back from our intuitions, and reason our way to a moral answer. Perhaps most contentiously Greene suggests that the answers of auto mode are akin to Kantianism, those of manual mode to utilitarianism. I tackle some of these issues, and my disagreements with Greene, in my forthcoming book The Quest for a Moral Compass. If I have time, I might turn that into a proper review of Moral Tribes. In the meantime here a couple of essays and reviews on the subject of science and morality: a talk I gave at the ‘Talking Brain’ conference at the Einstein Forum in Potsdam on ‘Science, morality and the Euthyphro dilemma’; my review of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape; and my critique of Alex Rosenberg’s moral nihilism.


Larry Siedentop,
Inventing the Individual:
The Origins of Western Liberalism

siedentop individual

‘If we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?’ So asks the combative final line to Larry Siedentop’s retelling of Western intellectual history. What makes Western tradition distinct, Siedentop suggests, is the importance of the idea of the ‘individual’ in philosophical, political and social debates. The concept of the individual, and the origins of liberalism which draws upon that concept, emerged, Siedentop suggests, not with modernity, and through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, as is often suggested, but lies at the heart of the Christian tradition, and was wrought in particular by the lawyers and philosophers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  I am currently reviewing this book; I will publish the review – and my argument against Siedentop’s thesis – later this month.


Jonathan Israel,
Revolutionary Ideas:
An Intellectual History of the French Revolution
from The Rights of Man to Robespierre

israel revolution

Revolutionary Ideas is the fourth in a series of monumental books through which Jonathan Israel has sought to rewrite the history of the Enlightenment using as his frame the distinction between the mainstream and the radical Enlightenments. I am, as anyone who has read Pandaemonium for a while will know, a great admirer of Israel’s work, and of his excavation of the history of the Radical Enlightenment. But we also have our differences, some of which we chewed over when I interviewed Israel last year. I suspect that this volume, on the French Revolution, may be where our differences become clearest.


Roger Scruton,
The Soul of the World

scruton soul

Roger Scruton is one of the thinkers I always find a pleasure to read, and often greatly enlightening, even though I almost always disagree with him.  In The Soul of the World, according to the blurb, Scruton ‘defends the experience of the sacred against today’s fashionable forms of atheism’. For Scruton, ‘To be fully alive – and to understand what we are – is to acknowledge the reality of sacred things’. The book is not ‘an argument for the existence of God, or a defense of the truth of religion’ but ‘an extended reflection on why a sense of the sacred is essential to human life – and what the final loss of the sacred would mean… A world without the sacred would be a completely different world–one in which we humans are not truly at home.’ This is another book I will be reviewing. In the meantime here are two recent pieces that touch on this issue: my essay on what is sacred about sacred music and my tribute to ‘the haunting grace of Marilynne Robinson’.


Nicholas Wade,
A Troublesome Inheritance:
Genes, Race, and Human History

wade troublesome

New York Times science correspondent Nicholas Wade has long, often controversially, sometimes dubiously, argued for the idea of race as a biological reality. ‘The more human populations are kept apart’, Wade argues in A Troublesome Inheritance, described as ‘an explosive new account of the genetic basis of race and its role in the human story’, ‘the more they evolve their own distinct traits under the selective pressure known as Darwinian evolution. For many thousands of years, most human populations stayed where they were and grew distinct, not just in outward appearance but in deeper senses as well.’ Wade apparently  claims a ‘genetic basis’ for ‘what we might call middle-class social traits – thrift, docility, nonviolence’, and appears also to argue that certain ethnic groups, such as the Chinese and Ashkenazi Jews, have come to be naturally more intelligent. This is another book that I probably will be reviewing. In the meantime, here is my essay on why both sides are wrong in the race debate.


And finally…

malik quest

…a book I hope gets everyone else arguing. The Quest for a Moral Compass, my global history of moral thought, will be published in April. More about it in time…


  1. Wow, does Israel know how to write a book shorter than 800 pages? I really appreciate you turning me onto his work, but at roughly 1000 pages per book (for the Enlightenment trilogy), it is an enormous slog to get through!

  2. Michael Fugate

    Larry Siedentop’s “Inventing the Individual:The Origins of Western Liberalism” appears as if it will be another attempt to rehabilitate mediaeval Christianity much akin to James Hannam’s “God’s Philosophers.”

    • My thoughts exactly…I doubt he will have any more success than Hannam, as did countless others before him, at history cum apologetics. I find this whole historicist, genealogical approach to history, for all its bluster about radical skepticism and “critique” no more than an sophisticated category error – a misguided attempt to import sociological and epidemiological theories into the discipline of history for ideological purposes. It’s a clever attempt to smuggle in the genetic fallacy where either the crimes of the past are used to discredit the present or vice versa.

        • I have a lot of sympathy with James’ gripe. Returning to Siedentop, there is much on which I agree with him, and much on which I disagree. But his book, like Hannam’s, is an important part of the debate and needs to be treated as such.

        • Wow…your timing is amazing – almost as if you had a google alert set for your name 🙂

          I was intrigued by your suggestion that a reader mistook you for an atheist but having stumbled into that ultramontane catholic form before, nothing would surprise me. So, I followed your link and I fear you misinterpreted the commenter. He/she actually linked to a glowing review of your book by a rather notorious “atheist” Tim O’neil, who posts regularly on a catholic apologetic site . I say notorious because he shtick seems to be trolling atheist blogs and defending theists. In fact, his review of your book was picked up and plugged all over the religious blogosphere a few months ago. In fact, O’neil seems to show up quite frequently in blog comments to defend your book in particular so he must have been extremely impressed by your work.

          As far as your implication that I lack the requisite expertise to express an opinion on your scholarship, you may well be correct in so far as your PhD certainly trumps my lowly BA & JD. However, my argument was not really with the veracity of your historical claims but with the implication that they have much relevance to contemporary disputes over the role of faith in a secular society, especially when it comes to science and public policy. I’ll be the first to admit that many atheists play the same game but I view them no differently.

          Anyway, I do appreciate your comparatively moderate views on gay rights but I do wish the prelates of your church were of a similar mind. Unfortunately, the US Bishops over the last decade or so have become much more conservative and now not only oppose gay marriage but any even basic laws against discrimination in employment, housing, etc. In fact, there have been a number of gay teachers recently who have been fired from Catholic schools simply for being gay. We even had an Archbishop perform a ritual exorcism when gay marriage was approved in Illinois I believe. Being a former Anglo-Catholic myself, I could appreciate the drama but he did camp it up just a bit too much.


          Jimmy Green

  3. Fair enough Jimmy. It does seem to be Tim rather than me the commenter is referring to. I do know Tim online although we’ve never met. I can assure you that you don’t need scare quotes to call him an atheist. But he clearly finds tweaking other atheists’ tails more fun than theists’.

    I’m a classical liberal to obviously don’t have problems with gay rights or even unmentionable things like auto-googling. But I’m totally confused as to what all this has to do with my book. The only point I make that might have modern relevance is that science and religion can get on fine. Given these are two of the most powerful cultural forces on the planet, that is a good thing. That doesn’t mean they have to agree. Nor does it mean that we need to except the extreme versions of either. Nonetheless, a history book must stand or fall as history. And the Middle Ages have been pretty effectively rehabilitated by far more distinuguished scholars than I.

    Best wishes

  4. Michael Fugate

    Here is an interesting exchange over some of these ideas:
    That middle ages society was almost completely dominated by the church is without doubt – was is is the idea that there was something particular about Christianity that led to the scientific explosion that followed. We have largely Christians arguing that Christianity was necessary for western science and largely non-Christians arguing against it. We have individuals down-playing the repressive aspects and up-playing the creative ones and vice versa. As usual, the picture is neither as rosy nor gloomy as some would like. Tim O’Neill tries to argue that Christians never repressed “scientists” or suppressed scientific ideas which seems odd given my reading of Jonathan Israel’s books on the enlightenment. Now the issue is whether these actions are due to the church as a religious entity or as a political one or if we can even separate the two. I find it difficult to imagine what life would have been like in a world where the natural and supernatural worlds were so tightly intertwined – a world of agency. It is also difficult to isolate what individuals thought from what they wrote down.

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