Recommendations for an introductory book on philosophy

Helena asked:

Hi! I’ve studied fairly in depth history and English literature. I have a keen interest in philosophy, but I don’t really know where to start in terms of reading, and I don’t really want to read one of those ‘beginner’s philosophy’ books. Can you advise me on something accessible, interesting and of a beginner’s level? Thank you.

Answer by Craig Skinner

As befits a would-be philosopher you already skirt with paradox. You don’t want a ‘beginner’s philosophy’ book, but do want something ‘accessible, interesting and of a beginner’s level’ which is a fair description of a beginner’s philosophy book. I have the answer. Noting your study of history and English literature, I suggest a book on the history of Western Philosophy by an author with a Nobel Prize for literature. May I present A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell (nobellist, mathematician, philosopher, essayist, social activist and occasional jailbird). It is definitely accessible and interesting. Also big, witty, opinionated, partial, and wont confuse you. First published in 1946, it starts with the Presocratics and ends with James and Dewey. But this doesn’t matter, you can read something else if you want to know about the last 100 years (recall that modern philosophy is merely ‘footnotes to Plato’ as Russell’s colleague, Whitehead, memorably, and probably unfairly, put it.

Answer by Tony Fahey

Hi Helena, this a question that often arises on this forum. For younger students coming to philosophy for the first time, I usually I suggest a book called Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. Although written as a fiction, starting with the pre-Socratics, it concerns the story of a young girl being introduced to major philosophical concepts by a somewhat mysterious mentor. However, since you do not seem to want something that is aimed specifically at beginners, it seems to me that Bryan Magee’s The Story of Philosophy or Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy may be more to your liking. D.W. Hamlyn’s The Penguin History of Western Philosophy is also a book worth considering.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Asking for something at a beginner’s level in philosophy is like asking for a beginners introduction to higher mathematics. Not all subjects have a beginner’s level. Since you have studied history you could start with Bertrand Russell’s one volume History of Western Philosophy or if your have lots of time and enjoy reading try F. Copleston’s multi volume History of Philosophy. Both these books will give you some idea of the sorts of things philosophers have thought about. Of course being history books they both contain the bias of their authors but both are well written.

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