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The best introduction to philosophy available
on 22 December 2008
Since I began studying philosophy many years ago I have been asked on multiple occasions by friends and family to recommend an introduction to the subject. Until this book was published I had difficulty choosing, but for me this is by far the best.
Before this book was available I would probably have chosen one of two old favourites - Nagel's 'What Does it All Mean?' or Russell's 'Problems of Philosophy' - which are both classic introductions but a little bit stale. Or perhaps I would have gone for Blackburn's 'Think', which is much fresher in tone but still very solid in content. However none of those books stands up to Craig's introduction for the following reasons.
First of all, you can be in no doubt as to the calibre of your guide. Craig hasn't published widely and is not a glamour figure in philosophical circles, but when he does write it is routinely excellent. He was also general editor of the multi-volume Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, itself an incredible achievement, and is a very popular figure at Cambridge University where he still lectures - both for the quality of his teaching and his down-to-earth nature, quite rare in a professional philosopher. Personal admiration aside, the point is that having this guy in your corner is very reassuring as he guides you through the subject.
Secondly, he really tries to give you a feel for what studying philosophy is actually like. By guiding you through important philosophical texts and drawing out the ideas and themes from there, he is encouraging you to do exactly what philosophers have always done, and continue to do. He isn't describing philosophy to you, so that you are a mere spectator, he is helping you to take part. And that, ultimately, is what it's all about.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Craig succeeds in conveying the ideas clearly, in plain language but without undue simplification. That is the big challenge that all introductions to the subject ultimately stand and fall by, and he passes with flying colours. Yet despite the clarity and simplicity with which the ideas are expressed, when I read it there was still enough interesting comment, analysis and ordering of ideas to give me significant new stimulus as someone who has studied the subject for many years.
Finally, I think Craig is to be commended for not trying to be exhaustive or covering all the 'key themes'. Instead, by freeing himself from that constraint, he has been able to write the book in a way that gives the reader the opportunity to get enthused about the discipline, or at least to get a taste for some of its pleasures. Whether or not they choose to take that opportunity is up to them, but by providing a little window into what doing philosophy is really like, rather than providing a sanitised, generic, theme-based bore-a-thon where the ideas have nothing to hang from and no true insight is gained (see e.g. Warbuton), he has done a great service to inquisitive thinkers everywhere, in my humble opinion.
No book is for everyone, and there are other ways of approaching an introduction that may appeal, but if you don't enjoy this having got to the end then I'd genuinely be very surprised if anything else in print was capable of igniting your interest in the subject.