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on 1 January 2014
I've spent some time reading a number of introductions to philosophy and the key philosophers to try and introduce my mum to them. She doesn't know anything about philosophy and I was getting a little frustrated as they all assumed at-least some prior knowledge. However, this book was perfect for the job, clear,well written and informative at just the right level so that beginners don't get stumped and that those more well read don't feel patronised. Definitely worth a slot in the house library and probably a great read for the inquisitive teenager.
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VINE VOICEon 27 June 2012
Nigel Warburton has written an interesting "Little History of Philosophy" stretching from Socrates, "The Man Who Asked Questions" to Peter Singer, "A Modern Gadfly" with thirty-eight chapters (some discussing more than one philosopher) between. Warburton links each philosopher to the previous one to show the continuing appeal of philosophy, the questions it poses and the answers which have been given to explain the human condition. The number of philosophers studied necessarily reduced the space given to each, which appear to be about six pages. This produces an uneven intellectual study but has the advantage of providing a clear focus in each case.

Alfred North Whitehead wrote,"The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato". It was Plato who told us about Socrates as Socrates himself wrote nothing down (which for some inconsistent philosophers doesn't raise the questions about his existence they apply to others). Plato's reality was the theory of forms and the superiority of the Guardians over the general populace. Socrates's eventual downfall lay not in his questions but his lack of tact. Plato's own student Aristotle became even more influential than his predecssors and on a wider range of subjects. Aristotle's authority in physics lasted until Newton and his theological ideas influenced the three main monotheistic religions.

Historically, the central focus of philosophy is ontology - the nature and reality of existence. Plato's theory of forms and Aristotle's theology were influential for centuries, still act as a starting point but have been re-interpreted over time. Augustine addressed the question of the existence of evil and introduced the concept of original sin implied in the story of Adam and Eve. Augustine believed humans had Free Will, the opportunity to choose good over evil. Anselm and Aquinas contributed to the debate on the existence of God, arguments which still form the basis of natural religion. For Anselm, God is that Being "than which nothing greater can be conceived" while Aquinas outlined five arguments to prove God's existence. The best known of these is the First Cause Argument which is based on a rejection of the notion of infinite regression. The cosmological argument challenges the claim that the universe occurred by chance and poses the unanswered question "Why is there something rather than nothing?". Those who reject the First Cause Argument rest on premise that there is no proven metaphysical reason behind the universe, hence no reason for a First Cause. Neither viewpoint provides irrefutable proof in support of their propositions.

While God is the concept which won't go away and the existence of God the subject that cannot be dismissed by rational beings, its impact on human thought has varied. For Pascal, belief in God was an insurance policy against everlasting perdition - which is strange as he was a Jansenist and believed in predestination which could not be varied by humans as they did not have free will. Spinoza argued the only free will humans had was to control their emotions. Spinoza's theology rejected the idea of a personal God which suggested to contemporaries he was either a pantheist or an atheist. His God was impersonal and revealed in nature. Descartes argued that humans have two distinct substances, the body and the mind. It was the mind that lived on when the body died. Gilbert Ryle characterised Cartesian Dualism as 'the ghost in the machine' while some claim the mind is not a separate substance from the body but has a physical base which creates consciousness.

Hume considered the powers commonly attributed to God "all powerful, all-knowing and all-good" did not necessarily lead to the conclusion that humans were part of specific creation. Features attributed to religion, miracles for example, could be explained by other factors, a theme common in the eighteenth century and one which expressed itself later in Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. The laws of nature were held to apply in all instances, a claim which led to the materialist theory of history. Hegel suggested social forces progressed in a specific manner, synthesising each time into a better form of society than the one which preceded it. In Hegel's mind "history and philosophy were entwined" leading to an understanding of the real meaning of freedom of the mind of humanity as a whole. Unfortunately, Hegel's conclusion gave philosophers special insight into "the ultimate unfolding pattern of human patterns" which showed no advance on Plato's support for the Guardians. Marx had the same idea which Lenin translated into the tyranny of the Party which would do what the proletariat would do if the proletariat knew what it should do in the first place!

Two philosophers who are over-rated by their followers and under-rated by their detractors are Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard. Both were oddballs. Schopenhauer was "a gloomy, difficult, vain man" who deliberately held his lectures at the same time as Hegel, as a result of which very few people attended his lectures while Hegel's were packed. He described the World as Representation as the way in which humans made sense of the world. He described the World as Will as being the deeper reality to which humans have no access. Kierkegaard means 'graveyard' in Danish and was an accurate description of Kierkegaard's personality. For him life was either the pursuit of the aesthetic or obedience to the ethics of society. For the individual problems arose when there was conflict between ethics and faith. Nietzsche avoided this problem by declaring the death of God and opening the way for moral relativism.

It's not practical to include in this review every one of the philosophers. Some are regarded more highly than others although for no apparent reason other than intellectual fashion or historical curiosity. For the general reader seeking a smattering of knowledge about philosophy this is a good starting point, although not good enough for five stars.
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on 25 January 2015
Stalin has been omitted from the list of dictators, the well-educated author is fully aware of Stalin's diabolical methods and ways and his uncomparable dictatorship, how is it possible that he has been left out ??? I cannot accept any reasons for it. Like in chess: it is a blunder. You lost the game. Otherwise it is a good book.
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on 22 January 2012
I had a career in business, and had no prior knowledge of philosophy when I picked up this book. What I was looking for is a quick read, a businesslike introduction, to the things I needed to know about. This book proved just right, and more: It created an interest which I intend to follow up on.

This is a relatively short book, 250 pages in all, given that it attempts to present the ideas of more than 40 major philosophers dating back to Socrates and ending with the living ones like Peter Singer. Written for the lay reader, it is full of examples, presented in plain language, in sections not more than six or seven pages long. There is a conscious attempt to put everything in perspective, each section ends with a prelude to the next, and at other times, there are references made to ideas and works of other philosophers as we read about another one.

As I mentioned, this book goes beyond the basic introduction and generates an interest in the subject. It does so by being practical and establishing relevance to everyday life. A number of questions are explored in the context. People like Darwin, Freud and Kuhn find sections of their own. I ended up recommending this book to friends in other disciplines as a good read and great enabler of intelligent conversations.
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on 17 February 2018
What a brilliant concept! A few pages on the crucial ideas and context of so many philosophers. For someone like me, who isn't an expert but who wants to learn without spending years of their life on it, this book is an answer to prayer.
Make no mistake, this is not a fluffy waste of time. Warburton writes with real knowledge and insight... and a delightful sense of irony and humour too. I learnt more about people I'd already encountered, and met some whose names I scarcely knew.
If you're looking for a concise, one-volume introduction to the 'big ideas' of all the most significant philosophers of history this is for you. No reservations, buy it.
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on 3 March 2016
This may be an excellent book for "an inquisitive teenager", as one reviewer here puts it, but it's also pretty handy for a sixty-something who always got stuck when reading the original texts of the great thinkers it discusses. Abandoned copies of Kant, Sartre and Wittgenstein littered my youth and I would never have even considered reading them if this nifty little volume had been around at the time. Warburton reassures me greatly when he states that Martin Heidegger, for example, is incomprehensible to laypeople because at least it wasn't just me being thick when I gave up, baffled, on page six. There are nice little pen portraits of the sages too and the image of Immanuel Kant setting off on his daily walk up and down his street eight times at four-thirty is a reminder of just how dotty philosophers can be, though he was so punctual his neighbours set their watches by him. I also like the fact he smoked a pipe, never married, and lived to 80 at a time when most didn't even reach half that age. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, therefore I am. You will, and are, too.
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I have at various times in my life attempted to get to grips with philosophy with not altogether happy results. This is the best book I've read/listened to on the subject. Nigel Warburton makes some very complex ideas accessible and interesting in this book.

Starting with Socrates - who constantly questioned how we live and paid with his life for his questions - the author takes the reader through the history of philosophy up to the present day. Each short chapter deals with an individual philosopher, their life and work. He does this in a relatively light-hearted way which really brings the ideas and the peoples to life.

If you have struggled with philosophy as a subject then do try this book and you may find you are interested in reading more about the individuals discussed. I found the book accessible and interesting as well as entertaining.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 May 2016
This is the sort of book that someone who wants to visit the shallows of the vast and deep ocean of Human thought that is philosophy, should read. Entertaining, thought provoking and above all clear in its exposition, the reader comes away a wiser and perhaps keener to investigate further. We are never left in any doubt that the author is giving but a sketch of a given writers work and that on further investigation we should expect that some works are ‘difficult’, obscure or requiring specialist prior knowledge in order to be appreciated fully. So from Plato and Socrates to Marx, Sartre and Rawls and much between and beyond this book serves as a useful first text.

So if you have been ever attracted by questions centred around our understanding of God, our place in the universe or to what extent can we ‘know’ or communicate anything with any degree of certainty this book is a good place for the general reader to start.
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on 12 January 2018
There are a growing number of books that cover the great philosophers of past and present. Nigel Warburton’s A Little Book of Philosophy is one of them and probably the best of the bunch in my opinion. It is clear and uncomplicated to read and provides the background before one wants to tackle a more comprehensive work in philosophy (eg. Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy). Sophie’s World is also a good introduction, combining both fact with fiction.
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on 2 January 2012
I have to confess that until very recently I would have been hard pressed to come up with a sensible answer if asked 'what's the use of philosophy?'. But then I read Ben Dupré's 50 Philosophy Ideas (You Really Need to Know), followed by Plato and A Platypus Walk into A Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes (hilarious!) and in the wake of those read Nigel Warburton's book. 'A little history of Philsophy' is probably modelled on Ernst Gombrich's A Little History of the World, and in fact it succeeds admirably in doing for philosophy what Gombrich did for history. In barely 245 pages subdivided into 40 short chapters Warburton chronicles the history of philosophy, from Socrates and Plato to Peter Singer.

Did he omit certain philosophers? I'm sure he did, but then again: this is explicitly a short history of philosophy, and judging it by that standard I cannot find fault with it. Of course, one could argue that as a novice I am hardly in a position to judge, but one thing I can say with absolute certainty: Warburton's book has given me an appetite for more, so Bertrand Russel's History of Western Philosophy (Routledge Classics) is next on my reading list, and surely that is a good thing?
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