Book Review: Ideas To Save your Life. Philosophy for Wisdom, Solace and Pleasure

Many people think that philosophy is about a fixed subject matter like physics, but it is nothing like that. Michael McGirr, early in the book, writes that philosophy is a carnival of ideas, possibilities, suggestions, connections, history, and tricky questions, although he tends to overstate the last of these.

If one were to read this book and ask, “What does it all add up to?” one would not get an answer. It would be like asking what chalk, cheese and railway sleepers are about. The nineteen chapters in the book are about different topics, which suggests that it is a book to dip into rather than read straight through.

McGirr wrote it when he was, as they say, “between jobs,” and when he was writing his sixteenth job application he realised how hard it is for people over fifty to find a job. He in fact does an excellent job writing clear, homely introductions to those he is writing about, anchoring them in common life. He writes that the mind is the safest passageway to the heart, and that untempered by thought, our emotions can turn into bullies, which McGirr may well have learned in the school of hard knocks.

With respect to contemporary philosophers, Martha Nussbaum in the United States writes about anger, where its relevance is obvious. McGirr disagrees with her about the need for a public ritual for forgiveness; he is there considering a wider field, the success of the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa. About Michel Foucault, who writes on illness, McGirr brings to bear his own extensive experience with AIDS victims. He says that he never met a dying person who thought that their life was some kind of social construct. [p.261]


The book gives a useful introduction to people whose names may be familiar but whose work is not. Thus Iris Murdoch is well known as a novelist, but not as a philosopher and author of a heavyweight work “The Sovereignty of Good.”

Given such a large parade of thinkers, it is likely that some of them write about a field addressed by earlier philosophers, and this is the case in a field where we would least expect it – physics. The book has a chapter about matter which raises a problem which surfaced in the nineteen sixties and seventies when physics enjoyed something of a triumphal period when it seemed that everything could be described in its own language.

But there were things which didn`t fit in, the immediate objects of the senses, colour in the case of sight, sounds in the case of hearing, flavours in the case of taste, smells etc.  Some physicists replied that, for example, the blueness of the sky just consists of electro-magnetic radiation of a given wavelength and frequency. However, people had seen colour for aeons without ever noticing them. That touched off a lengthy debate which had been beautifully recorded in the writings of Democritus. He introduces the intellect having a debate with the senses about what is real: “Ostensibly there is colour, ostensibly sweetness ostensibly bitterness, actually only atoms and the void”, to which the senses retort: “Poor intellect, do you hope to defeat us while from us you borrow your evidence? Your victory is your defeat.” The objects of the senses appear not to fit into physical reality, the atoms and empty space, but they may be objects of another reality, the minds which apprehend them. That is the beginning of an argument about the separateness of mind and body.

The book should appeal to a wide readership.

Ideas To Save your Life. Philosophy for Wisdom, Solace and Pleasure, by Michael McGirr, published by Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia. 2021. P.304.
ISBN 9781922330871 [Hardback]

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