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Carly's avatar

Can you recommend a good Philosophy textbook?

Asked by Carly (4555points) October 1st, 2010

I’m taking a basic intro to philosophy class, a 100 level course, and I don’t feel that my teacher has chosen the best textbook for our class to read. I know that Philosophy is an abstract subject, but the book is very confusing. This is my 5th year of college, and from my experience a text book shouldn’t be this complicated, especially at this level.

Have any of you used a particular good textbook to learn philosophy? Could you link the title if possible? thank you so much

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13 Answers

the100thmonkey's avatar

What’s the course?

As a general reference, Routledge’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a nice tome.

For something lucid and readable which covers the basics very well, you might want to look up Bertrand Russel’s History of Western Philosophy – it’s not a textbook per se, but it is clear and accessible.

I graduated with a BA Philosophy, and must admit I found my first year epistemology and metaphysics courses very confusing initially. I went the route of going to the primary source and grabbing a commentary for each work we studied. That ultimately made things much simpler.

I would suggest that the problem you’re having is just that of entering a new field, however; I felt very much the same as you (i.e. confused) for about three months, then the common themes started to emerge and the practice of philosophy became much easier.

Ultimately, philosophy is not declarative—it is performative, which means that you need to build the processes up, much like exercise.

mammal's avatar

if you’re into intellectual masochism then Philosophy is for you. A meaty philosophical tome, that is properly digested is very satisfying. Philosophy requires discipline and patience, too many people get frustrated with the subject and make outrageously rash opinions or give up completely, and if you get really bored or distracted take a look at Nietzsche, for some light relief.

GeorgeGee's avatar

There are so many approaches to basic philosophy that few of the textbooks are interchangeable. But I like the book “Twenty Questions”

YARNLADY's avatar

Philosophy is a very difficult to get into. I suggest you ask the instructor for some outside sources, and check the cliff notes for the book that is assigned. They usually boil it down to make it easier to understand.

nebule's avatar

As a philosophy student with the Open University in the UK I’ve found their textbooks for the following courses brilliant with clear topics of study and covering a huge range of philosophers. You can probably get these textbooks here

They refer to A211 Philosophy and the Human Situation and
AA308 Philosophy of the Mind

They could probably give you information on further or alternative books to buy as well.
What specific areas of Philosophy are you studying? Ethics? Morality? Mind? Aesthetics?

GeorgeGee's avatar

what titles, @nebule ?

nebule's avatar

Well there are 11 books in total, which is why I asked what you’re studying…but I can list them all for you if you need xxx

GeorgeGee's avatar

I’d like to see the titles. thanks :D

Carly's avatar

The class is simply called “Introduction to Philosophy”

So far we’ve discussed the general philosophies of Descartes, Berkeley, Reid, Huemer, Parfit,and now we’re reading about Dennett.

It feels like we’re just learning about them individually instead of how they fit into all of philosophy. I guess I’m looking for a textbook that can put everything into perspective because I have no idea where my teacher is going with all of this.

the100thmonkey's avatar

Just be glad Kant isn’t on the list – I read The Critique of Pure Reason in English translation (which is supposed to be easier than the German original) after three months, I still had no fucking idea what he was banging on about.

A History of Western Philosophy.

Start there if you want context. Be aware that it was first published in 1945, so really ends with positivism, and doesn’t really do justice to the Continental European tradition, if I remember correctly. It does, though, cover the history of the fundamental problems that your course seems to be driving at.

The problem with an “Introduction to philosophy” course is that there is a long history of thought that makes it difficult for the uninitiated. I’d also suggest that philosophers like to be cryptic…

In my opinion, you should look at the course as relating to how we respond to problems with epistemology (theory of knowledge) and metaphysics (theory of the ultimate organisation of the universe) – all of the philosophers you list have something to say about that topic, so from what you’ve posted, it seems that might be a useful angle to take.

Basic questions to think about when reading:

1. What exists?
2. How do we know? What is the justification for this knowledge?
3. How is the universe organised/what organises the universe?
4. What does it mean to ‘know’ something? (this is more useful with later authors)

For example, Descartes begins by:

1. What exists?

He dismisses all his knowledge of the world, even his self-awareness, as it is unreliable – his senses have deceived him in the past, so they could be deceiving him now.

He starts from a foundation – I must exist because there is a thought/representation of information. This requires that there be a thinker/perceiver, no matter how those thoughts may not represent reality. This leads to the most famous aphorism in “modern” philosophy: “I think, therefore I am”.

2. How do we know?

Descartes’ arguments can be viewed as both metaphysical and epistemological claims – I know that one thing exists, and that there is a logical demonstration of it.

3. How is the universe organised?

Descartes goes on to argue for the existence of God as a cosmological creator.

2. (again, more specifically): How do we know that the material world exists?

Descartes then uses his ‘proofs’ of the existence of God and his ‘knowledge’ of His properties to argue for the existence of a material world – God is not a deceiver. These metaphysical claims become the lynchpin of his justification of knowledge. This leads to:

4. What does it mean to ‘know’ something?

Descartes argued that by perceiving things with “clarity and distinctness”, it was more reliable than other things. He came to this arguments, in my opinion, through his study of geometry (he was a very influential geometer as well, innovating the Cartesian system of co-ordinates) – certain things can be demonstrated to be true without actually looking at the world – like the proposition that the sum of the internal angles of a triangle will equal 180°. These are the kinds of thing Descartes viewed as “clear and distinct”.

So yeah, four main questions that can be asked of modern British/American philosophy.

Carly's avatar

I might actually consider that. Thanks!

And thank you all! I’m going to show several of these ideas to my professor and see what she thinks. :)

marymaryquitecontrary's avatar

One other thing you might want to check out is The Teaching Company. They have recordings of “great courses” that I’ve enjoyed immensely. You might try “Great Ideas of Philosophy, 2nd Edition” which is 60 lectures by Daniel Robinson, a faculty member who taught at Oxford and Georgetown. They might have it at your local public library.

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