Before I turn to chapter 1, I need to say something about the bizarre author’s bio on the back cover:
Dr. Peter Boghossian is a full-time faculty member in Portland State University’s philosophy department. He was thrown out of the doctoral program in the University of New Mexico’s philosophy department. (emphasis added)
Why would somebody include such a bizarre factoid as that they were tossed out of a philosophy department in a brief back-cover author’s bio? As best I can surmise, Boghossian is either self-deprecating to a fault, or he has a vendetta against the University of New Mexico and he thinks that including this fact will embarrass the school in the same way that Cambridge University might be embarrassed if it had expulsed J.K. Rowling from its English program. Since absolutely nothing else suggests to me that Boghossian has an ounce of self-deprecation, I am left persuaded that the latter explanation is more plausible. But this merely makes Boghossian look petty, childish, and reveals him to have a desperately inaccurate self-image. By contrast, as one reads Boghossian’s book the University of New Mexico’s philosophy department looks better with the turning of each page.
Now on to chapter one, titled “Street Epistemology”. It might better be termed “Street Evangelism” (remember the “born-again atheist” theme introduced by Shermer). From this point on through the book it becomes clear that Boghossian is an atheistic equivalent of combative Christian street evangelist Ray Comfort. (Riddle: What’s the difference between Peter Boghossian and Ray Comfort? The former believes in one less God than the latter.)
Boghossian says on the first page that his book is borne out of “over two decades of rigorous scholarship” (15). (In your face University of New Mexico!) However, you’d be hard pressed to find any evidence for rigorous scholarship in this chapter. Consider, for example, this passage:
“Street Epistemology harkens back to the values of the ancient philosophers–individuals who were tough-minded, plain-speaking, known for self-defense, committed to truth, unyielding in the face of danger, and fearless in calling out falsehoods, contradictions, inconsistencies, and nonsense. Plato was a wrestler and a soldier with broad shoulders.” (16)
First off, it is difficult to imagine a more loosey-goosey category than “ancient philosophers”. Can you imagine saying “contemporary philosophers” are … (and then list a bunch of accolades). The assertion is plainly absurd. If Plato were here, surely he’d call out this as nonsense. No doubt some contemporary philosophers are tough-minded, plain-speaking, known for self-defense, committed to truth, unyielding in the face of danger, and fearless in calling out falsehoods, contradictions, inconsistencies, and nonsense. But others certainly aren’t. Indeed, some fail to make any contribution to philosophy and end up wearing a Green apron and making lattes for soccer moms at the local Starbucks. And if the ancient world didn’t have Starbucks, it certainly did have its own share of lesser lights in the philosophical firmament.
But what about Plato and Socrates (who Boghossian also lists in this paragraph). Since we only know about Socrates through Plato, and given that how much of Socrates we really get through his great student is a matter of interminable debate, let’s focus on Plato.
I agree that Plato was a great philosopher. But he was also one of the most profoundly spiritual and theologically driven philosophers of ancient Greece. If you don’t believe me, then just read Timaeus where he provides a highly speculative and richly theological account of the origins of the cosmos in relation to the timeless forms. The account includes such ethereal characters as the Demiurge — a god who fashions the world from a preexistent plenum — as well as a mystical world-soul that inhabits the created world. This speculative teaching stands at the font of a panentheistic tradition that reached fruition in Plotinus’ neoplatonism and on down through the Christian tradition in theologians from Pseudo-Dionysius to Nicholas of Cusa and beyond. Philosophically speaking, Plato shares much more with Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart than he does with Peter Boghossian.
Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy is famous for its skewed reading of the history of philosophy in accord with Russell’s own atheistic reductionism. (Consequently, for example, Russell pitches Democritus as something of a great scientist with a crystal ball, as if Democritean atoms bear some genetic link with the modern world. And yet Russell blithely dismisses Thomas Aquinas, that towering medieval Aristotelian scholastic as not a real philosopher. Boghossian likewise paints the history of philosophy to suit his interests. The difference is that while Russell at least wrote with the eloquence of a man of letters, Boghossian writes like a person who was thrown out of a philosophy program.