REVIEW: The Human Touch by Michael Frayn

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Nov 4, 2006, 9:58:27 PM11/4/06
TITLE: The Human Touch
AUTHOR: Michael Frayn
PUBLISHER: Faber (Nov. 2006)
ISBN:0 571 23217 5 PRICE: $59.95 (hardback) 505pages

Reviewed by Ann Skea (
You have to admire Michael Frayn's courage. He has taken on all the major
problems that philosophers have argued about over the centuries; all the major
assumptions about the universe which underlie the scientific experiments on
which we spend billions; and all the ethical credos on which we base our
judicial system; and he has come to the conclusion that we make it all up.

He may, of course, be right. But his totally anthropocentric view of the
universe - a sort of unified field theory of philosophy - suggests that none
of the truth we think we have discovered over the centuries is necessarily
true: that whatever is out there (and he agrees that there is something out
there which we see, feel, smell, hear etc.) may, for all we know, just be
meaningless chaos.

It is difficult to determine what sort of reader this book will satisfy. It is
too esoteric for the casual reader. It probably covers too many highly complex
arguments in simplified form for those who like thought-provoking books. And
most serious philosophers will find it prolix.

Of course, Frayn writes fluently and well. And he adopts a ploy that is common
in philosophical argument, which is to try and make extremely complex,
abstract ideas more understandable by using concrete examples drawn from
everyday life. So, philosophers talk about the behaviour of billiard balls; or
the existence of their left sock (as Tom Stoppard demonstrated in Jumpers);
or, as Frayn does, about their choice of marmalade on their breakfast toast
and the seemingly automatic rising of a man's cock. He does follow his
arguments through and he offers interesting scenarios drawn from myth and
literature as freely and easily as he uses philosophical, psychological,
scientific and religious arguments. He is no novice to philosophy and he
covers a huge amount of philosophical debate with admirable ease and

Yet, although this book discusses such fascinating human dilemmas as how,
exactly, we make the decisions we do make, and whether we can or do control
our lives, Frayn's discussion is shaped, always, to lead to his own conclusion
that "every path eventually leads us back to where we started": that the human
touch ("our part in the creation of the universe", as the subtitle of the book
says) prevails and we make it all up inside our own heads. If that is the
case, then why bother with the arguments in this book at all? Clearly, most
people don't, and they get along just as well as those who do. Those who are
curious about life, however, and want a quick overview of Philosophy, might
just as well read the first and last pages of each chapter to see what Frayn
is discussing, then think things out for themselves. That meticulously careful
thinking and arguing process is what philosophy is: and it can't be learned
from books, however persuasively they are written.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2006

Ann Skea
Website and Ted Hughes pages:

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