Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 28, 2014

The Philosophy Book, edited by Sam Atkinson #BookReview

The Philosophy BookIt’s taken me a good while to read this book because it’s not something to hurtle through, but The Philosophy Book is excellent for a generalist reader who wants to know what philosophy is about.  It covers all the major thinkers in philosophy, summarising their ideas in graphics and easy-to-comprehend flowcharts, and explaining further in the text. Artworks often accompany the text and it’s bright, colourful and cheerful, as DK books usually are.   Some philosophers depending on their importance get 3 double page spreads, and others get only one single page, but the overall effect is a broad overview of how philosophy works.

I particularly like the before/after context box on the LHS of each philosopher that shows how each ‘new’ philosophy builds on the ideas of philosophers of the past, and then becomes the building blocks for philosophy of the future. Page references also make it easy to go these before/after references and refresh the memory about the main points.

I also liked the way the book is divided into eras: the Ancient World; the Medieval World; the Renaissance and the Age of Reason; the Age of Revolution; The Modern World; and Contemporary Philosophy.  These periods made sense to me intellectually and provided a framework for each grouping of philosophers so that I could see how they belonged in a certain social, political and historical context.

Serious philosophers may look at this book and object to its simplifications, and certainly in the case of philosophers that I have read in the original it is clear even to me that a few pages cannot possibly convey the complexities of any philosophical theory. In some cases limitations, contradictions or controversies have been noted, but in others it is up to the alert reader to join the dots herself.  In the case of Rousseau, for example, whose Émile I have read, The Philosophy Book makes no mention of how absurdly sexist Rousseau’s ideas about education are, nor does it point on Rousseau’s page to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women which was a response to it. But on Wollstonecraft’s page the connection to Rousseau is noted.

Another criticism that may be levelled perhaps is that the book makes only token attempts to be inclusive.  There are very few female philosophers, and likewise there are not many African, Asian and Middle Eastern philosophers.  The approach is basically Eurocentric, becoming more inclusive of American philosophy in the later sections.  I don’t know enough about lesser-known philosophers to know if this approach is fair, but it does correspond to what I know of the historical development of philosophy.  (The Spouse has an overflowing bookcase of philosophy books, so as Chief Duster of The Books chez our place, I know who the Names are, even if I haven’t read them.)

Apart from getting a broad view of the historical sweep of philosophy and a clearer understanding of the way to think about things, I think The Philosophy Book also has great value as a launch pad or a reading list.  Two books that I have already added to my TBR include Wollstonecraft’s and Kahn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  And I’m about to start reading Leviathan for my next UniMelb Great Books masterclass!

General Editor: Sam Atkinson
Title: The Philosophy Book
Publisher: DK, 2011
ISBN: 9781405353298
Source: Personal library

Fishpond: The Philosophy Book


  1. Philosophy has never been a major interest of mine, too general. I much prefer the specifics of fiction. But I suppose it would be useful to know more about it.

    • We’re not unalike, Tony. I’m never going to study philosophy in depth either. But I became interested in its generalities because of the Great Books course (which has featured Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, Machiavelli and soon Hobbes & Greer) and I found that I needed something that would put these philosophers in context. But I didn’t want to read a chunky ‘history of philosophy’. Not even Bertrand Russell’s one, even though I like his accessible and very popular books on all sorts of everyday topics from education to marriage.
      The book acknowledges that postmodernism and deconstructionism and the French philosophers generally have made philosophy very abstract. But there are contemporary philosophers like Peter Singer, Alain De Botton and Damon Young who write really interesting and much more pragmatic books that tackle some of the questions I have about ‘how are we to live’, e.g. Singer on philanthropy, De Botton on travel, and Young on ‘distraction’ in the modern world.

  2. Is it clear in the introduction that the terms of reference are western world? I can’t think otherwise how they would not touch on Asian philosophy

    • Hi Karen, I may have given you the wrong impression: Buddhism and Confucianism are certainly included, and also specific Asian philosophers whose names are not familiar to me: Laozi, Mozi and Wang Bi (China), Tetsuro Watsuji, Hajime Tanabe, Henry Odera Oruka and Nishida Kitaro (Japan),
      Edward Said and his perspectives on Orientalism are also included.
      But the authors also make the point in their introduction that eastern philosophies are linked with religion and faith in a way that Western philosophy is not, and because of that many philosophical questions crucial to western philosophy were not considered by Asian philosophers because they “were considered to be adequately dealt with by religion” so they confined themselves to “moral and political philosophy”. (An example that I can suggest is St Augustine tackling the problem of how God could have created a world where there is evil, which he ascribes to the gift of free will),
      And I would also tentatively suggest that since China and Japan were isolationist for a great deal of their history, they may not have been part of the philosophical discourse and exchange of ideas that occurred between philosophers of Europe, Britain, and the Islamic scholars of the Middle East. Even now, we have access to very little in the way of thoughts and ideas from China because of censorship and repression.

      • All good insights Lisa, thanks for going to so much trouble to explain this and put me on the right path as it were. That censorship in China is unfortunately getting even more severe so we’re going to find it more challenging to discover more than we already know

        • Yes, it must be incredibly frustrating for them to be unable to participate in global discussions – from what I’ve seen of Chinese literature, I’d like to know more of it.

  3. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  4. Thank you for alerting me to this book. I have dabbled (waded?) in and out of philosophy. I usually enjoy a philosopher for a while, trying to understand the point and to apply it to life as I know it. I also usually drop out along the way, concluding that no one school or philosophy explains it all. I like Plato for his poetry and John Stuart Mill for the clarity of his thinking.

    Yes, read Wollstonecraft. I did, and followed up with an interesting biography:

    • Thanks for the link, Nancy, that sounds like one to look out for, once I’ve read the Vindication:)

  5. There’s a marvellous (and free) podcast series called ‘The History of Philosophy without Any Gaps’ by Peter Adamson – an episode a week, each about 20 minutes. We’ve worked our way through from Thales and are up to the great Islamic philosophers. I can heartily recommend it.

    • That sounds great: where would you find that?

      • Here

        • Hey, that’s really good! I’ve just listened to Ep 1 and I like his style. I’ll try to maintain the self-discipline to listen to it regularlyJ

          • d I think he plans to to the same for the rest. It’s a mighty undertaking. The book is “Classical Philosophy- a history of philosophy without any gaps, volume 1” (OUP)

          • Part of my reply above has disappeared. He’s just put this book out covering the episodes up the followers of Aristotle and Plato.

            • Yes, I saw that. Very tempted.
              I wish he had a digital version I could buy. Years ago, when the Spouse and I did a road trip to Far North Queensland, through some incredibly boring bare patches of outback NSW & Qld, we listened to a set of Philosophy tapes that he had, one each day. I loved it. They were not so much about individual philosophers as about logical thinking and rationality etc.
              If I could find those tapes I would digitise them and put them on an iPad, (my car doesn’t have a tape player, in fact our house doesn’t have a tape player any more). They’re in the house somewhere…

              • Don’t you have an iPod? You could put them on that.

                • LOL Pod, pad, yes I have them both.

  6. I went to the philosophy without any gaps site and listened to the first podcast. It is just what I need. I note that you can download as mp3, so you could play on ipod or any competitive player. It would be good for travel or on the treadmill.

    • *blush* I didn’t look at it properly, that’s what I’ll do too, and then I can listen to it whenever I like:)

  7. […] two are in the glossary at the back, but eidetic isn’t).  At one stage I got out my trusty The Philosophy Book to re-read the section on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, because I needed a simpler summary of what […]

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