Philosophy I seek.
January 8, 2011 6:11 PM   Subscribe

Looking for an introduction to philosophy book that is comprehensive and inclusive.

I am looking for a survey book that includes western+eastern philosophy topics and personalities. I have started to read a few that are exclusively focused on the development of philosophy in the western world, and have always been bothered by the absence of Muslim and Chinese philosophy for example.

I am sure there are books that are more comprehensive, but have not seen them yet.
posted by raheel to Religion & Philosophy (8 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
You might need a separate book on eastern philosophy or the philosophy of religion or something. The problem is that eastern philosophy is spiritual; it's viewed as more of a religion than philosophy proper by people doing philosophy today (Muslim philosophy would certainly fall into that category). Contemporary philosophers view western-type philosophy as "real" philosophy, and while I'm sure there are people in China, Japan, etc. now doing this kind of philosophy, the historical development of philosophy is basically western philosophy (with a split between analytic and continental philosophy... and even continental philosophy tends to be overlooked).
posted by J. Wilson at 7:24 PM on January 8, 2011

I think you can either have a comprehensive general overview, or an inclusive book on a single topic, region, or period of history. I am not aware of a philosophy text that provides both a comprehensive look at ALL of philosophy AND is inclusive of all possible strands.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:46 PM on January 8, 2011

"Philosophy" as a general heading unites several very different areas. In antiquity and in medieval times, they were often studied by the same people, and so there was no difficulty in thinking of them as a unified whole. But as time went on, many branches of "philosophy" developed into individual disciplines. For instance, what was earlier called "natural philosophy" gradually developed into all the natural sciences and mathematics. Over time, it became possible for an individual to study a particular topic, rather than "philosophy" as a whole: ethics, metaphysics, theology, formal logic, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and so on.

The fact that we unite these different areas under the same heading is to some extent an accident of European history. Indubitably, the confluence of scientific, rational, and religious thought took different shapes in ancient China, Japan, Korea, the Arab world, and so on. For this reason (among others), overviews usually treat "Eastern and Western traditions" separately — even if it made sense to think of them that way, which it probably doesn't.

I'm sure there's a lot of fascinating work in comparative history of science and philosophy, but it's probably too specialized for layman readers.
posted by Nomyte at 8:09 PM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

It would be impossible to have a book that included every philosophy. Copleston's History of Philosophy series is ten (eleven?) volumes long, and still barely touches some aspects of European philosophy, let alone other traditions.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:10 PM on January 8, 2011

Came here to say what Nomyte said. The heading philosophy is a peculiarity of The West (cultures informed in large part by the Greeks). In retrospect it's tempting to draw comparisons between figures like Nagarjuna and Plato, but they had very different approaches and attitudes toward their intellectual activity.
posted by phrontist at 8:19 PM on January 8, 2011

Came here to recommend Copleston.

Another possibility would be to go to Read the entries on metaphysics, logic, epistemology, ethics, and then from there jump off onto pages on things that interest you. If your desire is to have a thorough knowledge of the history of all things philosophy then my method won't work, but neither will spending $300 on a library, or any other method short of a few master's degrees.
posted by resiny at 10:03 PM on January 8, 2011

It's a bit like asking for a textbook that gives an overview of all world literary traditions - do you think you would get a reasonable handle on world literature from such a book? No. It's such a big field with so many varied traditions it's hard to do them all justice in a shortish format.

That being said, there are a few intro philosophy textbooks that try to do this. In my experience, the result is that their coverage of debates is very superficial. (So superficial that you might find yourself asking, "why would anybody believe this stupid view?" or "why would anybody care about this oversimplified debate?",which defeats the purpose if your goal is to understand things!)

Here's an example. Intro to World Philosophy seems to be a reader for intro classes that want to cover non-western philosophies. The book seems (based on the review) to be organized around the divisions of western philosophy -- so for example, if western philosophers have asked questions about whether we can know the external world (the world outside our own minds), this book might give some readings from non-western intellectual traditions that touch on the same issue. This might be a satisfying start for you, or it might not. It's not really "non-western philosophies on their own terms", it's "western philosophy, with a few bits of non-western added for interesting comparison".

A couple of other introductory textbooks that might fit what you're looking for (based just on looking them up online - I haven't inspected these books myself); check to see if you will be happy with the type of comparison and introduction and framework they offer:
World Philosophies: A Historical Introduction by David Cooper
World Philosophies by Ninian Smart

There are more if you search around Amazon for "world philosophy introduction" and similar phrases. Possibly your local library has one or more of these that you could look at to see if it will help with your project.

(Another thing you might be interested in: The World's Religions by Huston Smith is one well-known introductory overview of world religions, which should probably be available in your library (although I understand the book has detractors).)

Any of these comprehensive textbooks will have only a short section on each tradition - because there is just too much to cover. Recognize that you're getting only the briefest cartoon of each issue/position. If you read a short thing about some tradition and want to know more, it is a good idea to get a separate book that is an introduction to that specific tradition, and we will be able to give better recommendations for such more-focused books.

If you become interested in for example the part of western philosophy called "Modern" (c. 1500s-1800s AD), Roger Scruton has a nice Short Introduction to Modern Philosophy.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:04 PM on January 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

Check out Will Durant's books. Very good. Easily absorbed.
Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy" is good for an overview of Western ideas.
Karen Armstrong has a series of books on religion/eastern ideas. Pick and choose according to taste.
posted by PickeringPete at 7:45 AM on January 9, 2011

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