Introductory history of Western philosophy & thought?
May 28, 2014 6:51 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a good overview of Western philosophy for beginners.

An ongoing research project is leading me to read a lot of authors in political science, sociology and philosophy who assume an audience which is already familiar with the major thinkers and schools of thought in Western philosophy. I am not - much of my education is in business and technology - and this makes it difficult to follow much of what I am reading. I am looking for a thorough but introductory history of Western philosophy & thought - ideally a book that can be read as a narrative from the ancient Greeks to the post-modernists and also used as a reference, so that I can dip into it to find out who so-and-so was, what (s)he said and who were their major interlocutors.

This doesn't need to be basic or simplistic but a straightforward exposition and a relatively neutral presentation would be best. I'm looking for a map before I decide where I want to spend more time exploring different points of view.

Podcasts such as the one mentioned some time ago on the blue are also good. Bonus points for suggestions that include other major cultures, but that's probably too much to expect from one book.
posted by Grinder to Religion & Philosophy (15 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I have kept Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy in my collection for years. As a layman with some exposure to philosophy, I found this book helpful in presenting the key thinkers and major ideas in a fair and informative light.
posted by royals at 7:16 AM on May 28, 2014

In a single volume, I'd go with Durant's Story of Philosophy, though IIRC it doesn't go up through the postmoderns, so I might supplement with something like this Very Short Introduction.
posted by gauche at 7:18 AM on May 28, 2014

Seconding Bertrand Russell as a first-stop summary of philosophers and schools with an impressive attempt at a coherent anthropological overview.
posted by Hugobaron at 7:24 AM on May 28, 2014

Bertrand Russell's history is probably the most enjoyable book of this kind. But be careful: Russell was not a historian, and the book was written in haste, so it's not the most trustworthy source of information.

Anthony Kenny wrote a similar book recently: A New History of Western Philosophy. I haven't read it, but Kenny knows his onions, so I'm sure it's good.

Other resources:
- In Our Time.
- Philosophy Bites.
- Wi-Phi

As gauche mentioned, the Oxford Very Short Introductions are generally excellent.
posted by HoraceH at 7:26 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love the Oxford Very Short Introductions a lot - Edward Craig's on Philosophy was very good.
posted by thelonius at 7:32 AM on May 28, 2014

I adore The Philosophy Book by DK Publishing - a very broad layman's introduction to all the big philosophers, presented in a terrific coffee-table book visual format.
posted by UncleBoomee at 7:40 AM on May 28, 2014

Pictorial history of philosophy / Dagobert D. Runes.
posted by No Robots at 8:10 AM on May 28, 2014

Copleston's A History of Philosophy is still (as far as I know) the best single-source history of philosophy in English. But it is enormous, in nine volumes with two more sometimes tacked on for good measure:

Volume 1: Greece and Rome
Volume 2: Medieval
Volume 3: Late Medieval and Renaissance
Volume 4: Descartes to Leibnitz
Volume 5: Hobbes to Hume
Volume 6: French Enlightenment to Kant
Volume 7: Post-Kantian Idealists to Marx, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche
Volume 8: Empiricism, Idealism, and Pragmatism in Britain and America
Volume 9: Maine de Biran to Sartre
Volume 10: Russian Philosophy
Volume 11: Logical Positivism and Existentialism

In my opinion, every overview history of philosophy is introductory. The real work is done in volumes devoted to very narrow topics or individuals. For example, although Russell's History is pretty superficial, he also wrote a volume just on Leibniz, which is pretty interesting.

I wonder, though, if you might be better off with something that is more focused on the history of political philosophy. To that end, maybe check out The Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy, especially Part II.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 8:17 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

A good and more entertaining option is a novel called "Sophies World" by Jostein Gaarder. I've never finished it though... I keep going off to expore some of the ideas myself.
posted by shimmer at 8:34 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I came here to also recommend Sophie's World. It doesn't go into much depth, but it's the friendliest first-thing-to-read that I know of.
posted by curious_yellow at 9:28 AM on May 28, 2014

Roger Scruton's works are quite good.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:39 AM on May 28, 2014

Most histories, for understandable reasons, are pretty awful for 20th century and beyond. There aren't a lot of great historical overviews that do a good treatment of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Sartre, etc.

Russell is a classic but it's very...mmm, not all that great. I don't know; it's a lovely read but it's really better as an interesting insight into Russell and not into the history of philosophy. It is definitely not neutral.

Durant is classic and good. For shorter introductions, this is my usual suggestion.

Sophie's World is what it is. I don't like it because it's not very rigorous and is maybe a bit too beginner. It's not an academic introduction by any means.

The Oxford Handbooks are great references, but aren't great as a way of getting a good historical overview in my opinion. They aren't organized as narratives in any sense. Great, great books, but probably not what you're looking for.

I personally find Scruton to be completely insufferable. YMMV.

All of that said, I think the best historical overview of philosophy is probably hands down The Great Conversation.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:51 AM on May 28, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions. "Sophie's World" is already in my pile of books-to-read, but Kenny seems to be the best match for what I am looking for.
posted by Grinder at 12:00 PM on May 28, 2014

Perhaps some histories of particular issues or fields in philosophy. To chunk it down a little. And if its written by a good philosopher, the philosophical stake of their historical interpretation will be usefully apparent. (If your map is too neutral, you won't get a sense of the fray.)

I liked MacIntyre's A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century, for example.

Also: has courses on history of philosophy. You can treat their courses like a podcast + active discussion forum. There's one coming up on political philosophy.
posted by bertran at 2:00 PM on May 28, 2014

Kenny is good. Russell is entertaining. Copleston is expansive but useful.
posted by tommorris at 1:47 PM on May 31, 2014

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