Casual brush with truth

Philosophy. First Edition

May 25, 2007

Bryan Greetham has, in one way, achieved something remarkable in writing this book: it is as close as one could reasonably hope to being a completely comprehensive introductory textbook in philosophy. Its breadth of coverage must be unique, embracing as it does logic, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, ethics and political philosophy. Moreover, not only does it deal with contemporary approaches to these topics, it also covers in considerable depth their history, especially since the 17th century.

The book is well organised and well designed for student use, with numerous charts, chronologies, biographies, summaries, questions, further reading, a glossary, an extensive bibliography and a comprehensive index. But it is not for a novice student.

I think it is a reliable general rule that the best philosophy textbooks, of which there are few, are written by very good philosophers, rather than just by very experienced and successful teachers of philosophy. A classic example is Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy. Part of the point here is that "philosophy textbook" is almost a contradiction in terms, since a textbook is designed to impart information, whereas philosophy is a way of thinking about and questioning received opinions. Students get the best sense of what philosophy is by seeing it being done by the best philosophers, not by reading reports on what it is by other people.

It is also absolutely vital that an introductory book for students, although it may have to simplify some matters, should never do so at the expense of misleading or misinforming them. This means it is virtually impossible for such a book to be anything close to a good comprehensive introduction to the subject, since not even the broadest of the best philosophers have anything like a comprehensive expertise in their discipline.

I am afraid Greetham's book fails on both criteria. I am worried that many students and teachers of philosophy may select it for its numerous attractive features. But Greetham misleads and misinforms the reader much too often. For instance, the chapter on deductive logic is restricted purely to old-fashioned "syllogistic" reasoning.

The book is seriously outdated in other respects. In the chapters on method and truth we are told that truth claims divide into two kinds - empirical and non-empirical - the first of which are contingent, while the second are necessary and analytic, the only exception being, as Kant maintained, a priori synthetic truths, which are supposedly non-empirical and necessary but not analytic. This ignores the groundbreaking work of Saul Kripke more than 30 years ago in overturning this classification of truth claims, and indeed W. V. Quine's earlier equally revolutionary rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction. Quine does get a brief discussion, but Kripke is mentioned on just one page, and then only in connection with his ideas in the philosophy of mind. This is just one example of many inadequacies. Symptomatic of its outdatedness is the extraordinary dearth of recent books and articles cited in recommendations for further reading, which frequently consist of an incongruous mixture of oldish introductory items and difficult classic texts.

Philosophy. First Edition

Author - Bryan Greetham
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 438
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 9781403918789

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