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Book Review: Philosophy, A Very Short Introduction by Edward Craig

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Philosophy, A Very Short Introduction is an excellent place to start educating oneself about philosophy. It is one of the Oxford University Press’s excellent Very Short Introductions.

Craig’s approach is to explain the project of philosophy and to examine a few of the problems that philosophy has addressed. His definition of philosophy is delivered in a kind of parable. Imagine when human beings became conscious that sensory data could be interpreted through concrete symbols and ideas. An animal track means an animal has passed, which might be pursued as prey, or avoided. Human beings perceived and visualized events by indirect evidence and ideas, and then considered how human beings could act to influence events. Human beings became aware of forces of nature and events beyond human control. Human beings investigated nature, but encountered mysteries, and developed a sense of the supernatural. The project of understanding and explaining nature is science, and the project of recovering from the shock of mystery is philosophy.

Craig maintains that philosophy has progessed, but progress in the discourse of ideas is much slower than progress in science. The answers aren’t always verifiable and clearly true, and the ideas don’t quickly gain traction in a diverse culture. Historians of science can trace the rise and fall of theories and paradigms fairly clearly. Bad theories are generally discounted except by kooks. Philosophical ideas can be traced too, but the problems tend to persist.

His approach is to examine a few key problems by looking at how a select group of thinkers dealt with issues: Plato’s Crito on the ethical and political question of why Socrates, given the chance to escape, allowed the Athenian state to execute him. Hume’s On Miracles on evidence and reality. The unknown Buddhist writer of King Milenda’s Chariot outlining an idea of the self.

From there, he sketches some of the main themes of philosophy&#8212ethical consequentialism, integrity, political authority, evidence, rationality, the self. He sketches the main groupings of ideas&#8212dualism, materialism, idealism, empiricism, rationalism, skepticism, relativism. After that he looks at a few interesting works. He talks about Descartes’s Discourse on Method, Hegel’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History, Darwin, and Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. The sections on Hume, Darwin and Nietzsche, were good in explaining what they wrote, and why their ideas have been influential. The fact that he includes Darwin is interesting. Darwin wasn’t a philosopher, but he had an interesting and influential idea, which many others have used and abused.

At the end, he suggests reading other introductory books: Thomas Nagel’s What Does it All Mean, or Simon Blackburn’s Think and moving on to Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.

This book is nicely written, in a good clean style with convincing arguments and good ideas.

Craig’s approach to philosophy is that it is important and useful. He takes it beyond the narrow concerns of current professional philosophers who are mainly occupied, with many exceptions of course, in dealing with logic and language. He doesn’t claim that philosophy can explain everything. His approach is common sense&#8212he doesn’t use philosophy to confuse or speculate or rationalize. Philosophy is a discipline of enquiry and discourse, which tends to take apart speculative systems and to take down thinkers who are too wrapped up in their own ideas.

All of the books in the Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series are short&#8212usually not more than 125-150 pages&#8212quality-paperback introductions to challenging and complex topics or writers. The writers are experts in their areas, communicating ideas to intelligent readers. They respect the reader, and they guide the reader to further reading. Some of them&#8212this one for instance&#8212may have a light tone and use some dry humour but they don’t pretend to be talking to Bubbas and Bimbos. (The series seems to have started as a reprint of a series called Past Masters, started in the late 1970’s. At that stage, they were being printed as regular paperbacks on cheap paper. As far as I can tell, the OUP has reprinted all the titles in the Past Masters series as Very Short Introductions, and built the series. A few of the books are dry, but the later titles have been written with the clear view of avoiding technical jargon).
Edited: PC

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