How to Think Like a Philosopher Book Summary - How to Think Like a Philosopher Book explained in key points
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How to Think Like a Philosopher summary

Peter Cave

Scholars, Dreamers and Sages Who Can Teach Us How to Live

4.2 (203 ratings)
18 mins
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    How to Think Like a Philosopher
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    Thinking in contradiction: Lao Tsu and Spinoza

    Imagine starting a book by saying that you can’t possibly speak about its subject. Pretty strange, right? But that’s precisely how the Tao te Ching of Lao Tsu begins – it declares that words can’t express the full meaning of Tao, loosely translated to mean the way

    Since its emergence in China in the sixth century BCE, this enigmatic and poetic text has confused many with its contradictions and puzzles. It declares that Tao, or true reality, is unknowable and beyond description. So when humans try to grasp it, it slips through their fingers. 

    Its author, too, slips through our fingers if we try to grasp for a historical person. Lao Tsu translates simply to old master, and was likely not a single author. Like Tao, the author is unknowable and unnamed, but that doesn’t lessen their impact.

    This ancient text uses enigmas and strange metaphors as a way to point at things beyond understanding. It’s full of strange comparisons – like saying that governing a large country is like cooking a small fish, in that it’s easy to overdo things. Or that the Tao is like water, because it flows into the deepest crevices and nourishes everything equally.

    These cryptic verses point to a particular way of being, one where nature is the true window into reality. A certain quietness of mind and spirit is needed to truly observe, though. Freeing yourself from desire, like in Buddhism, is necessary to observe the mysteries of reality. Because of its focus on the way, the book has often been viewed as a religious text – despite it noting that religion only arises when humans lose sight of Tao.

    If the true nature of reality is so ungraspable and unknowable, then philosophy is bound to run into religion in more places than just ancient China. Let’s consider the experience of seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch, or Bento, Spinoza.

    Born in Amsterdam in 1632 to Jewish immigrants from Portugal, Spinoza’s philosophy was radically different from that of his family and the Jewish community. He believed that any idea of God couldn’t be separate from the natural world. Like Lao Tsu long before him, nature and the universe itself were true reality for Spinoza – and he paid a steep price for it.

    Excommunicated from the Jewish faith at the age of just 23 after his publication of Deus sive Natura, or God or Nature, he became a total outcast. His Jewish heritage already excluded him from Dutch society, and his excommunication from Judaism left him without any community.

    Spinoza’s response in the face of this suffering was to become kind. His personal experience of suffering grew his compassion for others. His outcast status helped further his philosophical work in some ways. Freed from outside influences, he developed a view of reality that was almost pantheistic – everything around him was a part of God, even those who rejected him. 

    For this, he was vehemently declared both a godless atheist and a religious zealot. He anonymously published a treatise in 1670, called Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, but everyone who read it immediately knew it was Spinoza. In it, he argued for things like freedom of speech and a secular society. It was then that he was labeled blasphemous – quite an accomplishment for an author formally rejected from religion!

    So how can you think like Lao Tsu or Spinoza? Open your eyes to nature and the world around you with wonder, and quiet your mind so you can take it all in. 

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    What is How to Think Like a Philosopher about?

    How to Think Like a Philosopher (2023) draws from the lives and work of thinkers through history to reveal unique perspectives on beauty, truth, and the nature of reality. It presents philosophy as an all-too-human search for meaning, and encourages everyone to do the same.

    Who should read How to Think Like a Philosopher?

    • Deep thinkers looking for inspiration and wisdom from the past
    • Those curious about the ideas that have shaped the ways we approach life 
    • Anyone craving new ways to think about things

    About the Author

    Peter Cave is a philosophy writer and speaker who’s a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts. His many books include The Myths We Live By, The Big Think Book, and Free Speech and Other Liberal Fictions.

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