I am almost completely illiterate on the topic of philosophy and philosophers and I would like to change that. I of recognize the names but don't know a thing about most of them. I was perusing the 50% off bin at Barnes and Noble yesterday, found some books by authors I recognized but in the end didn't buy them because I assumed that if they are in the bargain bin there's a good chance they aren't the best works to start with.

Can anyone here help me out. I would like a good overview/history of philosophy book. Something that the average person can read and understand. There wasn't much in the store for overviews. I did see Stephen Law's Philosophy: History, Ideas... which caught my eye because I've read some of his blog. But I didn't want to take a chance on it. I guess I'm looking mainly for Western philosophy for now.

The irony of my asking this question is that my husband has a BA in Philosophy and yet doesn't have any suggestions for me.

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Thomas, I agree with you that Russell is biased, but I'm not sure that his bias makes him useless. All historians of philosophy write from a slant; Russell's "angle" is so blatant that it's relatively easy to adjust for.

I want to second your nomination of Hume (Russell would agree with you!), but I'm a bit troubled by your dismissal of history as "old stuff"--Americans say that sort of thing all the time, and they often pay a high price for their shallowness. I think that there are good reasons, for instance, that many philosophers are returning to Spinoza and his work these days. That's a topic for a different thread, however.

For Dawn, I'll add a couple of titles that provide good, concise "overviews" of philosophy, including modern philosophy: Thomas Nagel's What Does It All Mean? and Simon Blackburn's Think.
Well, I think that we should probably bump this conversation into another thread, as we have now officially hijacked Dawn's discussion.

As briefly as I can, Russell's "select[ing]" topics based on what he regarded as historically significant--on his preferences--differs from precisely no other philosophers that I can name. Coplesten, for instance, widely hailed as exhaustive and eminently fair, seems to me neither the one nor the other. And while I agree that formal logic and the philosophy of mind have made enormous strides in the last two centuries, most people inquiring about suitable introductions to philosophy are not especially interested in either of these topics, though I happen to be interested in both.

Outside of those two fields, many of the questions that were current 200-400 years ago remain vital today. Hume's challenge to moral philosophers who jump without warrant from "is" to "ought" remains unanswered; Locke's notion of personal identity is the point of departure for anyone working in the field (e.g., Mary Warnock, Sidney Shoemaker); Spinoza's textual criticism of the bible is still germane to the "philosophy of religion," such as it is (his Theological-Political Treatise is, in my estimation, far superior to the unintelligible and overrated Ethics); the ancient and early modern skeptics continue to speak to epistemologists; and Kant is still relevant to moral, aesthetic, and ontological debates.

On the other hand, Bernard Williams has ably demonstrated that the rule-based moral systems of modernity, such as Kant's and those of his disciples, are not necessarily superior to the shame-based systems of the ancient Greeks. And to return to Spinoza for a moment, as he gets short shrift in many of the older "histories," Spinoza's biography can serve as a pattern for modern heterodox thinkers who find themselves constrained by the law--a problem for the vast majority of the world, though not, of course, for those lucky enough to live in the Netherlands these days. It is noteworthy, though, that the Dutch owe their freedom of speech in some measure to Spinoza and his circle.

Even the philosophy of mind is still informed by older debates. While I admire Dennett, for example, many are unable to see the gaping holes in his disquisitions on consciousness because they are unfamiliar with his intellectual lineage, which includes Wittgenstein, Ryle, and the behaviorists. Indeed, someone unversed in historical arguments on the "philosophy of mind" might be tempted by the specious arguments that many cognitive scientists make about consciousness, which are motivated as much by the need for research funding as by any realistic expectation of creating a sentient computer. What's more, it has become clear over the last decade that if consciousness can be cracked (and, as I'm sure you know, some very intelligent people--like Noam Chomsky and Colin Mcginn--don't think that it can be), then brain scientists, not cognitive scientists, will be the ones to do it. But the idea of referring a philosophical novice to the works of Francis Crick and Gerald Edelman strikes me as perverse, pedantic, or both.
Thomas, I find philosophical discussions fascinating; I find urination contests tedious. You seem to me more interested in the latter than in the former. No one on this thread was recommending that Dawn go back and dive straight into Kant—God forbid. To suggest otherwise and then express disapproval of such a recommendation is to maul a straw man.

I was responding to your casual admission that you "dismiss most of the 'old stuff' for all practical purposes'." You seem to have changed tack somewhat in your last post, but you are careful to word your reply in a way that makes it seem as if you are giving no ground. Fine. Oddly, however, you now discourage Dawn from reading Hume, though you had previously suggested that Hume was the one historical figure worth reading.

In noting the absence of books on contemporary philosophy among the posters’ recommendations, you raised a pertinent point, which is why I cited the Nagel and Blackburn books in a follow-up post. The Nagel and Blackburn texts are, without a doubt, designed for beginners, and they address contemporary philosophical issues even as they draw on historical figures, as many current philosophers do. The binary that you proposed—one is either studying history or studying philosophy—is one, I contend, that most philosophers now practicing would reject.
I was just looking at a preview of the Blackburn book on Amazon. I like the way each chapter focuses on a particular theme. Nagel looks good too. I will probably end up with both of these, from the library if nothing else.

In the meantime, I found Durant's Story of Philosophy in the bargain bin so I'm going to start with that. I'm not sure though, it might be a bit too dry for me.

Thanks for your suggestions.
We're all just giving suggestions based on personal experience.

Can there be a "wrong" place to start when studying anything?

You could just read whatever crosses your path first. Then read the next thing that crosses your path. Maybe what's on clearance? "I assumed that if they are in the bargain bin there's a good chance they aren't the best works to start with." There are many possible reasons for a work to end up in a bargain bin. I don't see why a book being "cheap" would make it unworthy of your attention. Apply your rational thinking to what you read and soon you'll arrive at the most useful philosophy of all- your own.

Have fun!
No, of course cheap does not mean unworthy. But still, maybe not the best approach to randomly select a work because it happens to be the cheapest. I don't want to mess around with buying things that are going to be over my head right from the start. I'm a crocheter, when I was first learning to crochet I made things like dishcloths and granny squares not sweaters. If my first project had been a sweater I probably would have given up the hobby out of frustration. I'm still not up for making sweaters but one day I'll have worked up to it I hope. :)
Hi Dawn,
I'm glad that my suggestions proved useful (though Nate is right, of course, that nobody's advice is gospel!). I thoroughly enjoy being a part of this community. I learn a great deal every time I sign on.
Hi Dawn, sorry I'm so late, but my computer was out of action for a while.
'Philosopy in Practice:an introduction to the main questions' by Adam Morton, Blackwell Publishers.
'Introduction to Philosophy' by James E. White, West Publishing Company.
These are the text-books I have from my semester at Stirling University, Scotland, in 2000. There both excellent for beginners and I'm sure you'll enjoy them.
I'm not sure if you're still soliciting recommendations, but I think Nelson Goodman's "Languages of Art" is an excellent introductory text in aesthetics, which has the benefit of being extremely clear and actually helping you understand and appreciate art. If you go for this, you may wish to skip the chapters on musical notation unless you're a musician :)

For a myriad reasons, and taking into account the criticisms here, I would still add my voice to the Russell pile and support "A History of Western Philosophy" - not as the only book you ever read, but as a readable and actually very enjoyable introduction to some philosophers from one particular viewpoint. It has been very useful in my own thinking at least.
after reading the primer...

William James.
I honestly haven't read through the discussion between you and Thomas since it was off topic really for me (which if fine as far as I'm concerned). But I think what you say here about how someone responds to contrary information is very common. In fact I just posted a thread in politics about a study done that says something very similar regarding "motivated reasoning". We can see this in religious followers but I've also seen similar here in A|N regarding certain emotional topics.


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