The textbook as existential puzzle

Philosophy 2 - Philosophy Then and Now
October 8, 1999

The best textbooks have built-in flexibility. They tolerate a wide range of uses. Too often, textbook writers simply write up the courses they have taught successfully over the years and are surprised when no one bothers to adopt the resulting book. But lecturing and writing are not the same thing. And writing for a heterogeneous and absent audience is very different from lecturing to a group of students whose work you will ultimately grade. For a textbook to work, its author or authors must avoid straitjacketing the teacher who will ultimately determine how the book is consumed. Not everyone teaches in the same way and at the same level; yet, if the textbook is to be truly successful, nearly everyone will have to base their course on a single text. The real skill is producing a book that meets the needs of diverse groups of students and their teachers.

When it comes to writing philosophy textbooks there is a further problem that, with the notable exception of John Hospers's An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis , there are few established textbooks. In other disciplines, writing a successful textbook involves improving on the established books. In philosophy, it in large part involves defining the core subjects of study and coming up with an approach to the task. There is no model of what a textbook should be in philosophy, so every textbook writer finds him or herself thrown into the existential predicament of having to create a vision of what the subject is and endorse it as a vision for everyone.

Philosophy Then and Now is a well-conceived and well-constructed book that combines short introductions with secondary readings. The writing is clear, engaging and supportive of the student readers. Despite being written by seven authors, the book achieves a consistent style and level in its introduction. The selection of readings ranges widely, combining, as the book's title suggests, extracts from classic and recent philosophy. The editors have found room for extracts from Hobbes's Leviathan , Descartes's Meditation , Hume's Treatise and Russell's The Problems of Philosophy ; but they also include extracts from Nietzsche, Sartre, and Marx. As with any anthology, some of the choices of more recent writing are idiosyncratic, but the editors have wisely included pieces by Thomas Nagel, Jerry Fodor, Daniel Dennett and Robert Nozick.

Whereas Philosophy Then and Now presents itself as a complete course with integrated readings, Philosophy 2 is the sequel to Philosophy 1 , which appeared several years ago, so in a sense it is half a textbook. Like its predecessor, it was originally produced for students on the external programme of the University of London. It betrays its origins. The book consists of 13 long chapters on what seem quite arbitrarily chosen areas of analytic philosophy. Most chapters are on topics, including the philosophy of psychology (distinguished from philosophy of mind) by Ned Block and Gabriel Segal; the philosophy of language by Christopher Peacocke; the philosophy of mathematics by Michael Dummett; and political philosophy by Alan Ryan. Kant is the only philosopher to merit a chapter of his own, written by Sebastian Gardner. Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein share a chapter.

With such an impressive list of contributors, it is not surprising that the academic quality of this book is, for the most part, outstanding. However, as a textbook it fails. Each chapter has been written as a free-standing piece. Some are pitched at a high level, others comparatively low. Different conventions of referencing are used in different chapters. Coverage is patchy: Michael Rosen's chapter, "Continental philosophy from Hegel", manages to omit any discussion of 20th-century French philosophy, but it stands alone.

There is no sense of this all being pulled together as a book. Despite the brilliance of many of its contributors and the high standard within chapters, as a textbook Philosophy 2 is less than the sum of its parts. As an anthology, however, it is an excellent resource.

Nigel Warburton is lecturer in philosophy, Open University.

Philosophy 2: Further through the Subject

Editor - A. C. Grayling
ISBN - 0 19 875178 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £15.99
Pages - 869

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