Philosophy, A Very Short Introduction (ISBN 0-19-285421-6)by Edward Craig, is one of the Oxford University Press’s excellent Very Short Introductions.
A few years ago I started to read Simon Blackburn’s Think. I was thrown off by a few of the later chapters and never finished it. I have gone back into reading philosophy by way of some of Mortimer Adler’s books. Adler likes to go back to Aristotle, and is hard on most of the philosophers since the Enlightenment. For reasons that I don’t really understand, I have been finding that religious writing and serious theology, no matter how elegantly written and reasoned, does not carry a coherent vision. I am accepting that I am who I am – a stubborn and skeptical person.
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 being 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 to perceived and visualized events by indirect evidence and ideas, and then to consider 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 the why of nature is science, and the project of recovering from the shock of mystery is philosophy.
He 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 – ethical consequentialism, integrity, political authority, evidence, rationality, the self. He sketches the main groupings of ideas – dualism, 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.
I was impressed with the sections on Hume, Darwin and Nietzsche, especially Nietzche who sounds like a very subtle and skeptical writer. Craig’s explanation of his idea of the Will to Power redeems Nietzsche from the accusation of being the godfather of Naziism and totalitarianism. It is a theory of how morality functions as a means for the poor and weak to assert power against the rich and the mighty. It is a subtle account of the interplay of needs and demands in human relations.
I liked it. Clean writing, good style, convincing arguments, good ideas.
A closing note on the Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series. I have read several, and I haven’t been disappointed. They are short – usually not more than 125-150 pages – quality paperback introductions to challenging and complex topics or writers. They aren’t just elegant versions of the nasty yellow books for Dummies, they are at another level. 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 – this one for instance – may have a light tone and some dry humour but they don’t pretend to be talking to Bubbas and Bimbos.
The OUP had a series called Past Masters. I am note sure when they started to build it. I am reading a 1980 book by A.J. Ayer on Hume, and that point there were 6 published titles in the series, with a list of about 30 more pending. 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.