The Great Philosophers by Stephen Law (Non-fiction)

posted 25 Feb 2010, 15:34 by DP Durlston-Powell   [ updated 25 Feb 2010, 16:14 ]
Backcover blurb:

Spanning over 2500 years of humanity's quest for understanding, The Great Philosophers explores the fundamental ideas that have changed our view of the world. Moving from the Budha, Confucius and the celebrated thinkers of ancient Greece to latter-day geniuses such as Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Satre, Stephen Law condenses and deciphers the key thoughts of 50 of history's greatest minds. Whether illuminating Socrates's methods and Machiavelli's lesson on how to rule, or clarifying the aims behind Descartes's famous 'I think, therefore I am' and Kant's 'moral law within', the emphasis is on clear and concise explanation. Avoiding the technical jargon and complex logic associated with most books on philosophy, here are straightforward descriptions of Plato and Locke on reality, Augustine and Satre on freedom, Hobbes and Rousseau on government, Berkley and Hume on God, Nietzsche and Mill on morality, Wittgenstein and Russell on meaning, and many others. Each explanation is accompanied by a biographic sketch and iconic image of the philosopher in question, alongside significant quotations from their major works. Highly accessible and thought-provoking, this is the perfect introduction to philosophy.

My thoughts:

An interesting book on many levels. Firstly, for someone who knows next to nothing about philosophy and philosophers (ie me) this seems like quite a good introduction; it brings a wide range of information into a single source and delivers it in an easy to understand way. There is nothing here about the philosophers themselves that I couldn't find on the internet, provided I knew who to search for, but the book shows the benefits and drawback of a firm editorial process. The benefits are clear: the most important philosphers are already selected for me even if I've never heard of them; the information about each philosopher and their views is succinctly and consistantly delivered, and; Law compares, contrasts or highlights parallels in the thoughts of different philosophers, thereby providing greater value that a straight recitation of facts. This means that the common themes are developed through the views of many individuals. The drawback of the editorial process that even someone as inexperienced as me notices is the selective nature of what is covered about each philosopher. This a problem inherent with the format - you simply can't do justice to people in 4 pages where there are already numerous books written by or about each one. However, it would have helped me to have a paragraph indicating the range of issues tackled by each individual before diving into the area that Law had decided was the most important. For example, I know that Thomas Aquinas must have covered more than the morality of homosexuality, but there is no hint of what and this frustrates me because it leaves me without enough knowledge to decide how much time I want to spend on reading further about Aquinas in other books. As this is true of each of the fifty philosophers covered, the book fails in my view to provide a good introduction as it hasn't inspired me to delve deeper or given me sufficient knowledge to target further reading.

Verdict:

An interesting book that falls between stalls, not as good a basic reference source as the internet, nor a solid introduction to philosophy.
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