Locke, stock and barrel

Philosophy for the 21st Century
October 24, 2003

It should come as no surprise that Steven M. Cahn has produced an impressive anthology with Philosophy for the 21st Century . After all, his Classics of Western Philosophy is, well, a classic.

The distinguishing feature of this anthology is that Cahn is responsible for the readings in only one section, philosophy of religion.

The other eight sections are edited by what he calls "a new generation of scholars": David Sosa (epistemology), L. A. Paul (philosophy of science), Delia Graff (metaphysics), Jesse J. Prinz (philosophy of mind), Robin Jeshion (philosophy of language), Stuart Rachels (ethics), Cynthia A. Stark (political philosophy) and Gabriela Sakamoto (philosophy of art).

Each editor has written a brief essay on his or her topic. There are also two introductory essays, "What is philosophy?" and "The elements of logic", by Simon Blackburn. Aside from the selections from ancient Greek, medieval and early modern philosophy, almost all the articles lie squarely in Anglo-American analytic tradition.

The section on ethics is the longest, with 23 essays. It covers moral scepticism and relativism, the major ethical theories, income distribution and famine relief, and our obligations to non-human animals. Political philosophy and philosophy of language are the shortest sections, each with seven essays.

All sections contain the expected classics. For example, in epistemology, Descartes, Locke and Berkeley set the stage, followed by G. E. Moore, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and other 20th-century epistemologists. Two essays on naturalised epistemology by W. V. O. Quine and Jaegwon Kim end this section. In the philosophy of science section we move from the scepticism of Hume, through, among others, Rudolf Carnap, Carl Hempel and Thomas Kuhn, to the realism of Richard Boyd.

Philosophy of religion begins with Plato's Euthyphro , treats the cosmological and ontological arguments for the existence of God, and has essays on the problem of evil and the role of the will in religious belief.

Apart from the occasional selection from Aristotle, Descartes and the like, most of the selections in metaphysics, philosophy of mind and philosophy of art are fairly contemporary. The section on philosophy of language includes contributions from Frege and Russell, followed by Saul Kripke, John Perry, J. L. Austin and Paul Grice.

In the section devoted to political philosophy we find Hobbes and Locke, followed by John Rawls, Robert Nozick, G. A. Cohen and Michael Sandel. This section ends with an essay titled "Markets in women's sexual labor" by Debra Satz. And this leads to my one general complaint about this self-described "comprehensive reader".

Even in an anthology that runs to 854 pages, one is bound to complain that something is missing. What struck me was that in an age when issues of globalisation and internationalisation are in the air, one would expect the political philosophy and ethics sections to contain something substantial on global issues. Apart from three articles in the ethics section on income distribution and famine, there is nothing. Increasingly, it seems, anthologies in philosophy represent more than one philosophical tradition, but there are no representatives of feminist philosophies and no representatives of "non-western" philosophy in this anthology.

That said, this is still a very valuable book, but would I use it, as the publisher suggests, in an introductory course? I would not, for two related reasons. First, it is too large. In one term, I could cover perhaps only three of the nine sections, and students resent paying for what they do not read. Second, I suspect that the comprehensive anthology is a bit of a dinosaur, destined for extinction. Increasingly, it is possible to "custom publish" a text that contains only the material one wants, and at a reasonable price. But for those who do not wish to go to the trouble of compiling material, and who have a course that lasts more than one term, Philosophy for the 21st Century remains a fine choice.

Paul Thomson is assistant professor of philosophy, John Carroll University, Ohio, US.

Philosophy for the 21st Century: A Comprehensive Reader

Editor - Steven M. Cahn
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 854
Price - £24.99
ISBN - 0 19 514792 8

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