Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Philosophy Made Simple by Richard H. Popkin and Avrum Stroll

A helpful road map
One of the problems with reading philosophy is that no matter what you’re reading you’re always expected to know everything that came before it. For those of us to which philosophy is not a vocation but an avocation, reading the entire canon from Plato through the 21st century just isn’t feasible. When you’re reading Marx and he starts talking about Hegel, for example, who has time to go back and read everything by Hegel just to figure out what Marx is talking about? That’s why you need a good cheat sheet, which is what this book provides. The second function of a book like this is that by providing a general overview of the history of philosophy, it gives one the opportunity to select the philosophers and schools of thought that interest them, so one can pursue these areas through further study. This book is also quite successful on that score. It not only allows you to pick and choose those thinkers who pique your interest, it also generates a genuine enthusiasm for the study of philosophy. I walked away from this book with a list of at least a dozen specific works that I look forward to reading.

I have tried other surveys on philosophy, some too deep (Coppleston’s nine-volume A History of Philosophy), some too shallow (Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy). Philosophy Made Simple is the Baby Bear of this genre—not too hot, not too cold, just right. It does an admirable job of taking extremely complex theoretical subject matter and explaining it in language suitable for about a college undergrad reading level. I never felt like the writing was too tediously textbooky, nor did I feel like it had been dumbed down for me, à la Philosophy for Idiots. This book is technically not a history, but rather is divided up into subject areas—metaphysics, ethics, politics, and so on—each of which receives a roughly chronological treatment. There’s also a chapter on logic which feels more like a math textbook, and was less interesting to me personally. The twentieth century definitely gets sparse coverage, possibly because there’s just too many people to cover, or because time has yet to tell which recent philosophers deserve to stand here among the ancients. The section on contemporary philosophy (which starts about 1850) only covers a handful of subjects: the pragmatism of William James and John Dewey; the logical atomism of Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein; existentialism from Kierkegaard through Heidigger and Sartre, up to the deconstructionism of Derrida; and a little bit on Richard Rorty. Overall I enjoyed reading this book, found it valuable in its breadth and clarity, and will surely use it as a reference in the future. If more people knew about this book, perhaps philosophy wouldn’t be so frightening to the general American reader.

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