20 January 2010

Astonish Yourself: 101 Experiments In The Philosophy Of Everyday Life

101 Experiments In The Philosophy Of Everyday Life: A book with an undeniably great title, at least until they shoved 'Astonish Yourself' in front of it and republished. Still, it incorporates that magical number, 101, and (more importantly) incorporates that other magical word: philosophy. A scary word, in truth, to the uninitiated, but at least it's tempered here by the words everyday life. One of those new, and currently fashionable, popular philosophy texts, the emphasis is on experimentation and fun, eschewing completely the idea of relating the book to established schools of philosophy. This will either thrill you, or disturb you, depending on whether you feel philosophy can, or indeed should have a more frivolous aspect. I suppose, on reflection, it may leave you entirely unmoved; who can say?

Each of the 101 experiments is presented in the same, simple manner. Duration, required props and the intended effect are followed by a short exposition on the experiment itself. The tasks range from deep and meaningful experiments on the relation of oneself to the universe (See The Stars Below You, in which one imagines oneself to hang above the infinite depths of space.), through to the more whimsical or potentially perverse: Watch A Woman At Her Window.

Other experiments invite you to Kill People In Your Head, in case the less serious Run In A Graveyard doesn't appeal. Whatever your state of mind, however you feel about philosophy, there is something in Roger-Pol Droit's book that you can do, whether you wish to go wild in public and Tell A Stranger She Is Beautiful, or you'd rather stay at home and Make A Wall Between Your Hands. The effect of those, if you're interested, is to induce fireworks of some description, and to cause a sense of 'doubleness'.

Roger-Pol Droit produced the original work in French, a fact which has caused at least one reviewer to dryly comment on the humorous qualities of the book, as though a Frenchman should be incapable of such wit. There is, you see, a large dose of humour involved, but however bizarre the notions are, however foolish one may feel carrying them out, the potential for philosophical thought is undeniable. It may be that the only effect is to have you thinking why, but at least that's a start. At least half of the experiments are whimsical, and to a large extent involve the utter desertion of what is considered normal behaviour. A further quarter are sinister beyond words; visualising a pile of human organs (Effect: pitiless) does not come naturally to the majority of us. Nevertheless, trying an experiment and then reading Droit's dry, insightful prose is a delightful way to indulge in a little popular philosophy. You may not agree with Droit, of course, but that's all part of the experience...

You may well be among those who have found popular philosophy to be a life-changing experience. Alain de Botton's books may crumble in your hands due to excessive re-reading (though I doubt it). It's unlikely that this will do the same, regardless. It's a wonderful book, well worth a dip into, but it's hardly a guide to living. Of course, you may be one of the enlightened few who realise that this is the whole point of popular philosophy. On the outside it's designed to appeal to the 'common man', whomever and wherever he might be, and on the inside it's supposed to afford miraculous effects with minimum exertion. Treat 101 Experiments In The Philosophy Of Everyday Life as an entertainment and you'll be fine. Expect miraculous, life-affirming experiences, and you're heading for disappointment.

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