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Books for Beginners

Jane O’Grady reviews six introductory tomes.

Unlike the neophyte scientist or linguist, the person beginning philosophy in a sense already has all the data he or she needs – her intuitions, or ‘clear and distinct ideas’ as Descartes called them, which are the ultimate court of appeal in reasoning. But philosophy is also a set of defined, refined, cumulative arguments about problems endemic to human existence, and the never-satisfactory solutions to these defined problems which forever force their redefinition. It is also the developed skill of arguing itself. Any introduction to philosophy needs to present philosophical issues in such a way as to tap into the reader’s already-existing but inchoate sense of them without trivialising their depth and complexity.

In the past, perhaps, introductory philosophy teaching, and introductory philosophy books in so far as they existed, erred on the side of presenting philosophy primarily as a series of discrete issues and Great Thinkers, which sometimes failed to connect these either to one another or with the students’ own preoccupations. The fact that it seemed so detached from the rest of their lives may partially account for why some ex-philosophy students claim (apparently correctly) to have forgotten any philosophy they learnt. As a reaction to this insulation, American philosophy teaching in the sixties and seventies tended to concentrate on the students’ own concerns, which threatened to reduce philosophy lessons or introductions merely to diffuse discussion, eliciting and reinforcing muddled alreadyheld opinions without helping students to develop their thinking or inspiring them with thinkers who combined imaginative fluidity and hard-edged precision. Introductions written around this time can often be identified without a glance at the publicationdate simply by virtue of their containing the Black Panther manifesto, and displaying a photo of the longhaired, male author sitting under a tree with longhaired, curiously innocent-looking students dressed in flairs.

John Hospers’ excellent Introduction to Analytic Philosophy, written in 1967, and subsequently revised, is an obvious exception to this rule, and these six (mostly American) philosophy introductions have mostly adopted his method – tackling philosophy as demarcated but interlinked issues, with major philosophers mentioned and quoted where appropriate, and occasional gestures to chronology. They typically begin with a chapter on what philosophy is and its origins, often go on to a section on logic and reasoning, and precede or follow the chapter on ‘metaphysics’ (perhaps called ‘Reality’) with one on if, what, and how, we know; then proceeding to other branches of philosophy. Most of them are too expensive for students individually, but all in one way or another contain useful material for teachers, though they fail adequately to tackle relativism – a vital omission since it is an ingrained prejudice of most students.

Purists may find Ed L. Miller’s Questions that Matter: An Invitation to Philosophy offputting, not just for its title but because it has a coffee-table consumerenticing format – hard glossy cover, shiny pages, tabloid newspaper-type insets of philosophers’ sayings or potted biographies, pictures of philosophers, a few cartoons. In fact the text – wellwritten, fresh and clear without shirking complexity – could hold its own in a more orthodoxly intellectual format. And what might at first appear gratuitous gimmicks serve it in a disciplined, comprehensionassisting way, the cartoons, for instance, being not so much light relief as a brisk, conclusive means of summing up fallacies. Each chapter ends with a useful note-form summary of its general ideas, a test and questions. I still have qualms about whether the book draws too much attention to itself as an object, and that it elicits relish more of the butterfly-collecting than philosophical type, generally distracting from the pursuit of abstract thought even if aiding specific instances of abstract thinking; yet I couldn’t help being seduced by its sensuous appeal.

Velasquez’s Philosophy is of the same character, but, as a whole, less successful. The organisation of the chapters on metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of mind, and the material included in them, seems arbitrary, muddled and muddling, sometimes shallow and only semi-accurate – a mistaken attempt to grab interest when there is good reason for the more standard organisation and material. But there is an excellent attempt to give the readers a sense of philosophy by history as well as by issue: each of the eight chapters contains a ‘historical showcase’ – an account of (usually) a couple of important philosophers, starting with the Pre-Socratics for chapter 1, followed by Plato and Aristotle, and ending with Marx and Rawls. And the Hume and Kant sections are clear and illuminating, as is much of the material on ethics and political philosophy.

Velasquez’s unevenness is probably due to his writing a book on what is in a way not one but a series of subjects. Reflections on Philosophy, a collection of essays on the different branches of philosophy, avoids this problem since each is written by a university lecturer belonging to the appropriate field. The authors, who wrote the essays specifically for their students, are not just philosophy teachers but professional philosophers who can justifiably refer to books and papers in which they are thrashing out the latest controversies. And therefore, as well as being scholarly, Reflections lacks the schoolmasterlyobserver stance of most student manuals, and has a shop-floor feel to it: Philosophy seems not so much a solidified subject of the past as a discussion progressing into the future. Less of an introduction than the others, because demanding a higher degree of seriousness and knowledge in the reader, the book is not uniformly excellent but is worth having just for the Philosophy of Mind chapter in which John Heil gives a state-of-the-art summary of the mind/body problem, which is admirably clear and concise, and manages to anticipate and eliminate the reader’s likely confusions. Also good are the opening chapter, which actually manages to present rudimentary logic in an undiluted but appealing way, and the chapter on philosophy of religion.

To look through the five editions of Solomon’s Introducing Philosophy is to see a history of fashions in thought. His earlier versions made obeisance to Buddhism; the 1993 edition also bows to political correctness. However he is no mere faddist. The blurb refers, as well as to his books, to ‘numerous teaching awards’, and his selection and exegesis of texts is testimony to this – a combination of the objective/ scholarly with a personal sense of truth seeking which is rare in professional philosophers and exactly what this sort of book requires. Often, too, although I think he overdoes the inclusions of feminist and Eastern philosophy, his combination of traditional and unusual is illuminating. It works particularly well in the Philosophy of Mind section, though I wish he hadn’t integrated the self and mind/ body problems, which were separate in previous editions.

Thiroux’s Philosophy – Theory and Practice is well-organised and has some useful summaries of arguments for and against abortion, euthanasia and other issues in practical ethics. But there is too much Thiroux, and not enough primary sources – which is particularly unfortunate as he sometimes seems to make elementary mistakes. Even when he does quote or cite other philosophers, the source is usually the quotations or summaries in Hospers’ Introduction.

Another way of introducing philosophy is to present it purely by means of texts. The advantage of this is that you side-step the Thiroux problem, managing to have ideas conveyed by those who originally propounded them rather than mediated by some inevitably less than first-rate philosopher (Bertrand Russell, in Problems of Philosophy, being an honourable exception). Perry and Bratman’s exemplary selection of classic and contemporary readings, organised by issue, and with a short exegetical summary of five of the six sections, both presents philosophy’s past landmarks and shows how current philosophers interpret, and progress from, them. As well as containing ‘Classics of Epistemology’ – Descartes, Locke, etc. – it juxtaposes Gregory Kavka’s ‘Some Paradoxes of [Nuclear] Deterrence’ with Bentham on Utilitarianism, and follows the extract from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics with Urmson on Aristotle’s Golden Mean, and Nagel on the Aristotelian idea of the good life. Grappling with particular texts is a good way to study philosophy, particularly for those used to literary analysis, but guidance and explanation is obviously required in addition to the texts themselves. So, for the autodidact, or the overburdened teacher, any of the books mentioned above can be helpful to supplement these readings.

Questions that Matter: An Invitation to Philosophy (3rd edition) by Ed L. Miller (McGraw-Hill, 601pp. £22.95 hb)

Philosophy: A Text with Readings (4th edition), by Manuel Velasquez (Wadsworth, 574pp, £30.50),

Reflections on Philosophy: Introductory Essays, ed. Leemon McHenry and Frederick Adams (St Martin’s Press, New York, 227 pp, £9.99)

Introducing Philosophy: A Text with Integrated Readings (5th edition) by Robert Solomon (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 950 pp, £23.00)

Philosophy – Theory and Practice by Jacques P. Thiroux (Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 563 pp, £41.95 hb, £27.50 pb)

Introduction to Philosophy: Classic and Contemporary Readings (2nd edition) ed. John Perry and Michael Bratman (Oxford University Press, 870 pp, £32.50)

© Jane O’Grady 1996

Jane O’Grady co-edited (with A.J. Ayer) the Blackwell Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations

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