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The Meaning of Things by A.C. Grayling

The Meaning of Things (original 2001; edition 2002)

by A.C. Grayling

Series: Things (1)

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367648,913 (3.74)4
A refreshing distillation of insights into the human condition, by one of the best-known and most popular philosophers in the UK. Thinking about life, what it means and what it holds in store does not have to be a despondent experience, but rather can be enlightening and uplifting. A life truly worth living is one that is informed and considered so a degree of philosophical insight into the inevitabilities of the human condition is inherently important and such an approach will help us to deal with real personal dilemmas. This book is an accessible, lively and thought-provoking series of linked commentaries, based on A. C. Grayling's 'The Last Word' column in the GUARDIAN. Its aim is not to persuade readers to accept one particular philosophical point of view or theory, but to help us consider the wonderful range of insights which can be drawn from an immeasurably rich history of philosophical thought. Concepts covered include courage, love, betrayal, ambition, cruelty, wisdom, passion, beauty and death. This will be a wonderfully stimulating read and act as an invaluable guide as to what is truly important in living life, whether facing success, failure, justice, wrong, love, loss or any of the other profound experience life throws out.… (more)
Title:The Meaning of Things
Authors:A.C. Grayling
Info:Phoenix Press (2002), Edition: New Ed, Paperback
Collections:Your library

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The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life by A. C. Grayling (2001)



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Years after reading The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, I found this. This, to me, is a more practical take on the material you'll find in The Prophet. This has replaced The Prophet as my go to book. It is functional, doesn't have the poetry and artistic flourishes, and gets straight to the point. Presents the topics in an easy to digest form. ( )
  StevenJohnTait | Jul 29, 2019 |
"It is not necessary to arrive at polished theories on all these subjects, but it is necessary to give them at least a modicum of thought if one's life is to have some degree of shape and direction. To give thought to these matters is like inspecting a map before a journey. Looking at a map is not the same thing as travelling, but it at least provides orientation... A person who does not think about life is like a stranger mapless in a foreign land." (pg. viii)

A life-affirming and thought-provoking book about applying philosophical ideas to one's own life. It is very cleanly and concisely written, comprising of a series of short (two or three pages) discussions of various concepts (love, leisure, hope, perseverance, loyalty, betrayal, happiness, etc.). It is not a chancy self-help book like many are in this vein; instead, it offers mature and intelligent summaries of various philosophical approaches to life's problems, serving as primers or 'sketch maps' for thinking about these topics. All are worth reading (and, as they are short, one does not have time to become tired of them) and the quotations are plentiful and well-chosen. It is a bit disjointed at times, betraying the book's origin as a series of articles written for the Guardian newspaper. This provenance also shows through when Grayling unwisely imposes his own left-wing political views on the topics at hand. He treats his own personal standpoints as moral absolutes (or, to be fairer, his writing occasionally gives this impression) and consequently we are told that opposition to closer European union is 'blind' and that bombs and bullets, without qualification, kill 'indiscriminately' (both come from the chapter on nationalism). Regardless of one's views on this, they cannot be considered self-evident truths. One can oppose closer European union if said European body is unrepresentative, bureaucratic and resistant to reform (charges that could all be fairly laid at the door of the EU). One needs a less reductionist view of why humans choose to go to war: democratic governments don't pass motions to explicitly kill innocents, and if bullets kill indiscriminately, there would be no need for arms manufacturers to ever fit gunsights.

My criticism here is not solely because I have personal reservations about Grayling's pro-EU advocacy and his reductionist view of warfare. Even where I agree wholeheartedly with him, I find the approach unworthy of a book aiming for universality. For example, he writes extensively here on anti-religious topics and advocates reason and freethinking, which chime with my own sceptic and atheistic worldview. Nevertheless, the amount devoted to the errors of religion is disproportionate in comparison to the rest of the book, to the extent that even I wanted him to change the record.

That said, Grayling's missteps are infrequent and leave little in the way of a footprint. The vast majority of the book is objective and clear-sighted, allowing for an almost uninterrupted sequence of brief but illuminating discussions. Some of the pieces are exceptional: the chapter on prudence stood out for me as it is not a quality that one would consider exciting, but Grayling ennobles it. The chapter on racism eloquently argues that our contemporary obsession with putting people into identity boxes is divisive, encouraging rigidity and an enduring sense of grievance. If you live life defining yourself as "a black man" or "white" or "a Muslim" or whatever (or, to expand Grayling's argument, a "liberal", a "feminist" or any other label), you're throwing your lot in with one interest group at the expense of everyone else. You're voluntarily taking on this historical and ideological baggage, rather than seeing yourself as an individual. As Grayling says, this prejudice "will end when individuals see others only in individual terms." (pg. 82). Unfortunately, few people seem to want to commit to being a true 'citizen of the world' as Socrates would have us.

This argument hints at Grayling's whole philosophical approach in the book: that of thinking for yourself. He is, for the most part, gently introducing these ideas and encouraging readers to develop their own thoughts on the matters at hand. The raison d'être of this book is to encourage people – as individuals – to make their own choices and enjoy the beauty of the world and the fruits it has to offer. He correctly surmises that this approach to life can only bloom through self-awareness and compassion and confidence in one's own intelligence; qualities that can only be promoted by education (his chapter on education is an eloquent tour de force). In the pursuit of this worthy goal, The Meaning of Things is a commendable encouragement. ( )
  Mike_F | Jun 3, 2016 |
This was an excellent set of essays that are very thought provoking. It's worth taking the time to read just a few at a time and spend the rest of your time pondering each. I look forward to reading the other books in this series. ( )
  speljamr | Jan 27, 2015 |
I'm not sure how to go about reading this series of books by Grayling -- do I sit down and read a number of these short essays in one sitting, or do I savour them by reading one at a time, giving myself time to think about the contents before embarking on a new essay which feels completely different? I'm guessing the latter method, in which case these would be good for short commutes or perhaps before falling asleep if you're not *too* tired, but I didn't have the willpower to put down the book then get up and pick the same book up again, though I did try. I at once appreciate the brevity of the essays while at the same time wishing for something more thought-provoking, in which case a 'longread' form is necessary.

After reading most of the essays in two extended sittings, I say, 'Yeah and meh, he's basically right about stuff and has a knack for collecting quotes.' ( )
  LynleyS | Feb 8, 2014 |
I intially bought this book because Grayling writes a series of articles in New Scientist that are informative speculation on the wider remit of science and society. It's hard to express just how much this book annoyed me. It's really quite poor, hopelessly naive, unsupported meanderings of no purpose. Perhaps it is best to obey Godwin's law and abandon the discourse at the first mention of Hitler/Nazi which doesn't take long at all. Stupidly I perserved, despite many indications that it wasn't going to get any better - which it didn't.

A compiliation of 'Last Words' from the weekly Guardian newspaper articles. The intent is to make you think about everyday things that we take for granted around us - Peace, War, Religion etc. However I found the writing and particularly the arguments so poor, all I could think was WRONG, even when in the majority of cases I was actually in agreement with the point being made. For the most part these seem simply to be Grayling stating his opinion, which perhaps is fair enough, but opinions are like arseholes, everybody has one, and there's no particular to bare it to public scrutiny. Sometimes in perhaps half of the topics, he feels that a tiny bit of justification for his opinions might be required. This is better, although quite why he feels only half need justifying is not explained, are these the weaker half that need propping up? Or the only half for which there are justifcations? In any case his attempts to do so are pityfully poor. Some of the sources are works of fiction! Others are historical utterings which may or may not be fiction but are hardly relevant. The fact that ancient grecians once experienced similar insights does not make their answers any more correct just because they thought of them x thousand years ago. We might have hoped to have progressed since then. Finally there are appeals to 'facts' of the 'everyone knows' variety. Which are sometimes completely wrong, and at others very much open to debate and in any case really require some form of source or evidence, if you are going to build cloud castles a solid base is still required - otherwise all you are doing is engaging in daydreams, fun but not the point.

Then of course there are the wild tangents. Probably acceptable in a full discourse upon a given subject, but when you are focusing and distilling complex thoughts into no more than few paragraphs they are just distracting. For example in a discourse upon reading and the intellectuial advantages in can beget when 'properly' conducted we suddenly jump through honey to a child's corpse and then to love. Maybe I just haven't read enough but I think it's fair to say if this left me beweildered then there was poor hope for the intended audience of guardian readers.

Then of course sometimes Grayling takes bizzare positions, he is in favour of prostitution and non-mongagamous relationships, large extended families etc, which while philosphically they may be admirable, Grayling completely fails to realsie the wider social and environmental consequences of his position. Indeed this is a widespread gratuitous failing across all his naive thoughts. As single utopian ideas they perhaps have some merit, but you can't build a society or even exist as a person by collecting disparate ideas, they have to welded together into an annealed whole. Something that Grayling alludes to, but completely fails to impliment with his own thoughts.

Good points - well there weren't any really. I agree with many of his ideas, but all of the arguments were poor. Even the easiest of targets, religion gets a misguided treatment. There are one or two superb diatribes against the folly that is modern religion, but they suffer all the faults of the other articles, poorly if at all supported by evidence, containing logical faults and irrelevancies. More in the nature of rants really, rather than philosophical arguments to convince another listener.

Don't forget during all this criticism I basically agree with most of the points he was trying to make. As a liberal,anti-corporate, male athiest I had no problems with the thoughts Grayling was attempting to engender, it is solely the approach he has taken to doing so that fails completely. I dread to imagine how badly this book would be recieved by someone who may profit from the ideas suggested within it, ideally exactly the sort of person Grayling should be attempting to converse with. Instead it is a woefully out of tune and grating sermon to the converted.

Leave it on the shelf there is much much better out there. Hopefully some it even written by Grayling. ( )
  reading_fox | Nov 19, 2008 |
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In the preface to his little book of miscellaneous essays called Guesses at Truth, the nineteenth-century cleric Julius Hare wrote, 'I here present you with a few suggestions...little more than glimmerings, I had almost said dreams, of thought...' (Introduction)
A moraliser is a person who seeks to impose upon others his view of how they should live and behave.
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