Why is it so difficult to write good Philosophy textbooks (exempting textbooks on logic)?

There are plenty of useful and introductory textbooks to Mathematics, Economics, Physics, Psychology and plentiful of other subjects. However, in Philosophy courses, students either get assigned some scholarly online articles intended for professional audience that are super hard to digest, or some thick anthologies that contain the self-same articles.

Is there any Philosophy textbook that rigorously introduces students to the contemporary terminology and concepts without watering them down? I still haven't come across anything that fits this description. Are there any textbooks that introduce one to major contemporary branches of Philosophy (epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, etc.)?


I just wanted to clarify that I need a textbook that introduces me to contemporary state-of-the-art philosophical ideas. One doesn't learn physics by trying to read Galileo's Dialogues and then jumping to Newton's Principia, and then trying to make heads or tails out of Einstein's Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper. I hate the trend in philosophy where the Big Names are emphasized rather than particular ideas. The Big Names must remain in the domain of the History of Philosophy. Once you start playing the Names game, your discipline is officially dead.

  • It's not necessarily that it's more difficult. There is less demand for philosophy textbooks than for math, economy, physics, etc. So, there's less money available and so, there are less textbooks.
    – user2953
    May 14, 2015 at 23:00
  • Have you tried on Gaarder's "Sophie's world"? Admittedly a popularized pretty much surface account of things, but still. I also recommend Hofstadter's "Gödel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid". And, oh yes, Pirzig's "Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". That is, if you're interested in philosophy as philosophy. Books for the purpose of helping with an academic study of philosophy, that I don't know. May 14, 2015 at 23:19
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    Hey, Cheers, thanks for your suggestions. I think that "Sophie's world" is pretty much the paradigmatic case of the ultra-watered down philosophy textbook. Imagine if someone wrote something similar on physics. "Godel, Escher, Bach" would hardly qualify as a textbook. "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" kind of resembles "Sophie's world".
    – duskn
    May 14, 2015 at 23:21
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    Textbooks are only commentaries. Read the originals. At the University of Chicago they have you start reading the originals right away, not commentaries. Forget textbooks. Read the Republic. Read Aristotle. Read Plotinus. May 15, 2015 at 5:18
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    @Johannes I fully agree with you. One of the worst advices one can give to someone new to any field is to read the originals. Not only is it useless, it is detrimental in that the learner will most likely gather a lot of unnecessary or plain outdated material. Plus, it's inefficient and highly time consuming with little benefits in the end.
    – duskn
    May 15, 2015 at 16:13

7 Answers 7


The following books can most be read by beginners, and most are meant for beginners. I don't cover every topic, because I don't have time to compile such a list:

History of philosophy:
-Ancient Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge Contemporary Introductions to Philosophy) by Christopher Shields. (Shields has also edited a book on ancient philosophy which is much more advanced, and not as good, get this instead.)

-Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, Volume 1: The Dawn of Analysis by Soames.
-Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, Volume 2: The Age of Meaning by Soames.

(These books by Soames on the history of analytic philosophy are not always historically accurate, but they are still very useful and Soames writes clearly. Perhaps not for a total beginner.)

-On individual philosophers see for example The Routledge Philosophers series, some of these are more advanced.
-On some modern philosophers, you might see for example the Key Contemporary Thinkers Series, from Polity/Wiley.

Philosophy of language:
-Philosophy of Language (Fundamentals of Philosophy), by Alexander Miller.
-An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge Introductions to Philosophy) by Michael Morris is also readable - though Lycan's Philosophy of Language is probably better.

Philosophy of science:
-Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (Science and Its Conceptual Foundations series) by Peter Godfrey-Smith.
-The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Science (Blackwell Philosophy Guides, Vol. 7) ed. by
P. Machamer & M. Silberstein.

(The first is a popularizing introduction, the second is a little more advanced.)

-Logic, Language, and Meaning, Volume 1: Introduction to Logic by Gamut.

Additional useful books:

-Philosophy and Ordinary Language: The Bent and Genius of our Tongue (Routledge Studies in Twentieth Century Philosophy) by Oswald Hanfling.

(This book by Oswald Hanfling is pretty amazing, and will change the way you approach philosophical problems, and make you realize why language is so important for philosophy. You don't have to agree with it, but it's a very useful book on philosophical methodology from the ordinary language philosophy perspective.)

-The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy by Robert Audi. Useful to have.

On Wittgenstein, because you need to read about his philosophy before you die:

-A Wittgenstein Dictionary by Hans-Johann Glock. Doesn't include the new Wittgenstein interpretations, but is still very handy.

-Wittgenstein (Arguments of the Philosophers) by Robert J. Fogelin. Get the 2nd edition.

Other good book series:

New Problems of Philosophy
Central Problems of Philosophy
Problems of Philosophy
Routledge Philosophy GuideBooks
Routledge Philosophy Companions
Cambridge Companions to Philosophy
Blackwell Companions to Philosophy Series

Regarding your comment on the big names. Philosophy does not have "normal science" and "paradigms", so you can't escape the big names approach in most introductory level textbooks. And after all, philosophy is about ideas, concepts, arguments, words, definitions, interpretations, theories, questions etc. and these don't exist in a vacuum but are what humans produce. Often philosophers are not even trying to invent theories, instead their goal might be to analyze theories.

  • Great, exactly what I was looking for!
    – duskn
    May 15, 2015 at 15:42
  • Good, I might make additions to it, when I have more time.
    – Johannes
    May 15, 2015 at 15:54
  • The Philosopher's Toolkit by Boggini and Fosl is an excellent addition as a reference for when you quickly need to understand what some term means. I much prefer it to Wikipedia + SEP, though those are not bad resources either.
    – Rex Kerr
    May 15, 2015 at 18:51
  • i actually read that hempel book it's major out of date now
    – user6917
    May 16, 2015 at 0:36
  • @MATHEMATICIAN I basically agree, so I changed the Hempel book to the only other good introduction I have read, no doubt there are others.
    – Johannes
    May 16, 2015 at 15:22

This is actually quite an interesting question. This is going to be an incomplete answer that addresses in part why there are not many general philosophy textbooks (as in books written by a single author or a few authors that explain all of philosophy).

Here's a few reasons:

  1. As Swami indicates in a comment, the task of philosophy as an academic discipline often directly relates to reading the classical texts. In this sense, an education in philosophy is sometimes perceived as learning a canon, which would probably include say Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, and Mill at a minimum. On such a model of philosophy, the task is to learn to understand the positions and thought of certain thinkers as they fit into the history of philosophy. To put it another, philosophy as an academic discipline could be described as learning to analyze hard texts.

  2. In part, philosophy is about how we think, so I'm doing you a disservice if I merely share my views and present them as the answers. On this detail, I at a minimum should try to find someone with opposite views and we could talk about the issues together. But it's doubtful I'm competent to write a full textbook that covers the entire history of philosophy (The most recent such text that has a good university level grasp is Coppleston's). And it's doubtful I could make it short enough to be one book without just highlighting the views I study (so if it was me, you would get some Plato, some Mencius, some Aristotle, a little Descartes, then jump to Kant, add Hegel and Kierkegaard). To simplify this point, philosophy has a lot of disputed questions where I'm not doing my job if I boil it down to a simple digestible version of how I read things -- a premise in philosophy is that it'd be very difficult to know the subtleties of every single argument.

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    Regarding analytic philosophy, it is not necessary to deeply study history of philosophy to follow what's going on presently (and certainly not, if you are just a hobbyist). It can help, but in most cases what happened before 1879 is not immediately relevant. Of course this does not mean that the history of philosophy is not an interesting topic itself. But you can benefit from philosophy without reading the classic primary sources. Reading the primary sources is usually not that useful for a beginner.
    – Johannes
    May 15, 2015 at 10:29
  • @Johannes in part, I think it's fair to say that you can get by in many undergraduate programs (and sadly some graduate ones too) in analytic philosophy without any familiarity with pre-20th century primary sources. I'm not quite sure how to parse your use of "is not immediately relevant" but I'd rather say "is something the interlocutors are sometimes ignorant of, sometimes rightly dismissive of, and sometimes wrongly dismissive of"
    – virmaior
    May 15, 2015 at 10:48
  • @Johannes ps - if you know any introductory texts you can add them to my other "answer" that I community wiki'd. It's been a while since I was taking courses and my own research is not in analytic philosophy.
    – virmaior
    May 15, 2015 at 10:48
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    Sure I might add some tomorrow.
    – Johannes
    May 15, 2015 at 11:02
  • Thanks for your answer, virmaior. I thought analytic philosophy has made a gigantic leap forward since the times of Plato, and that holds true for Mill (look at Mill's philosophy of mathematics - it's just hilarious). Jumping from one thinker to another will result in the accumulation of haphazard and chaotic knowledge, and it's unlikely to facilitate one's engagement with the state-of-the-art philosophical literature, be it Lewis or Kripke.
    – duskn
    May 15, 2015 at 15:46
  • If you want something a little bit more serious than Sophie's World, but still not too technical, "Philosophy Made Simple" by Richard H. Popkin and Avrum Stroll. A nice read, comprehensive enough to be a high school senior level/college freshmen text book.
  • My Dad had a text book from the 70s "A Concise Introduction to Philosophy" which was perfect. Intellectually challenging and not watered down in any way, but still accessible to "laymen". It is perfect, but seems to be out of print. You might find a used copy somewhere.
  • The Teaching Company's "From DesCartes to Derrida" is also a great entry level source. That perfect mix of accessible to the uninitiated but still interesting enough for the serious student. It comes with a book and dvds and is somewhat pricey (>100US$), but worth it.

There are some such texts that explain certain specializations.

  1. Logic: As you point out in your question, there's a lot of logic textbooks running around at the introductory level.

  2. Philosophy of Language: William Lycan's Philosophy of Language.

  3. For ethics, there are interesting contemporary readers that I think stay pretty accessible as well -- you could start with say Michael Sandel's Justice or something like Prospects for a Common Morality or anything by Peter singer.

While I would say it's not at the college level, I did like Sophie's World as a text to explain some of the basic problems in philosophy. The author (at least in English translation) seems to have misunderstood a really key bit about substances in Aristotle, but that was one of the few grave errors in something that can give you a rough outline of the history of philosophy.

  • Thanks for some helpful suggestions, @virmaior ! Up-voted
    – duskn
    May 15, 2015 at 16:14

I remember being set Ladyman's Introduction to the Philosophy of Science as a first year college student.

It's very clear, and does introduce you to several important themes in philosophy.

But I can't guarantee it will teach you how to think about philosophy (rather than know some philosophy I mean): personally I feel that only comes with sustained reflective engagement with (academic) philosophy or its questions - whether or not that is in a class.

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To explicitly answer your question: it's insanely difficult to get someone to reflect on something you write and without doing so all you'll be teaching is a bunch on facts in the history of people that do.

  • @duskn btw Ladyman is the boss - absolutely at the peak of his field !
    – user6917
    May 15, 2015 at 15:50

To directly address the headlining question: Why is it so hard to write a philosophy textbook.

Philosophy is an ongoing argument, without a resolution, therefore it is not possible to teach it in a neutral and objective manner. Every course in philosophy unavoidably outlines some philosophical stance simply through the act of selecting certain readings and omitting others. This goes goes directly against the ideal of a textbook as a fair and unbiased survey of the territory.

There is no one universally acclaimed best introduction to philosophy. I might start with Plato, you might start with Descartes, and a third person might start with Bertrand Russell (and another with Aquinas, and another with Lao Tzu, and so forth). Each of those starting points would give you a radically different portrait of the field of philosophy and its goals. Yet, starting with a deep read of any one among those is arguably a better way to enter the world of philosophy than would be a textbook featuring a pinch of one and a dash of the next.


Some great answers already, just a point not yet raised:

In many of the disciplines you raised, introductory courses do present a particular person's work, but often not the text from that person because the field has gotten better at explaining the result and context of the result. To say though that science classes avoid the "big names" doesn't seem true: every biology student learns about Watson and Crick, every economics student learns about Keynes, every physics student learns Newton and Planck, etc., and every student learns the main contribution of each of the above, even if not read in the original. As an example, while physics students might not read Principia, they would learn F = ma.

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