I keep bouncing off of learning philosophy because none of the texts I find seem to really "synthesize" the concepts involved, between different philosophers. I'm really not interested in learning which dead person thought what. It's fine for it to be mentioned, of course! But it often feels like the material I've been reading is organized by researcher instead of based on the material. (This has been particularly rough when discussion of a concept is based on a definition quoted from some researcher 200 years ago who, while brilliant and original, may not necessarily have been a particular clear writer.)

What introductory textbooks or online courses on philosophy are there that are organized by concept instead of by dead person?

  • 1
    Are your searching for a "textbook" of philosophy and not an "history" of phil, correct ? Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 11:11
  • Louis Pojman produced several topical anthologies. Have you seen this one (global.oup.com/ushe/product/…)?
    – virmaior
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 11:29
  • See Oxfoird Handbooks of Philosophy : they are mainly organized by topics. Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 11:35
  • 3
    This is a common sentiment, but philosophy is not science, so the "synthesizing" you are asking for does not happen, except by yet another philosopher on their own terms.There are collections of works organized by topic, or even surveys of such sort but they only provide rough pointers to what philosophy is first and foremost, individual positions. If you are not interested in learning what individual philosophers thought in their own context then you are not interested in philosophy.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 23:02
  • 1
    Unfortunately, in order to "learn" philosophy, you need to know and understand the thoughts of previous philosophers. It is only by understanding their philosophies, that you can develop your own!
    – Guill
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 22:21

4 Answers 4


If you are looking for a brief orientation of the topics in philosophy, I can recommend the "A Very Short Introduction" series. The booklets themselves are divided by topic, and the chapters are organised by theme, usually comparing the views of different schools of thought. That is, they are grouped by topic, then thinker, not the other way around. Which sounds like what you're looking for.

As the name suggests, the works are by no means comprehensive—you can deep read each in a day, or so—but together they make a respectable corpus, and leave you with plenty of ideas for where to look next.

Anecdotally, reading Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction is what got me interested in philosophy in the first place. I particularly like how it keeps you thinking one step ahead. Several times I put down the book, asking myself "what about X?", only to find the exact concern addressed in the next paragraph or chapter.


If you want to understand the continental tradition, the chronology of who said what matters a lot. But textbooks that focus on the analytic approach tend not to be so chronological. For example you might be interested in An Introduction to Analytic Philosophy: Paradoxes, Arguments and Contemporary Problems by Paul Franceschi. (I haven't read it myself.)


Philosophy is love of wisdom (read: respect for obtaining knowledge); its purview logic, rhetoric and reason; its domains: epistemology and ontology.

Professor Keith Devlin's class, "Introduction to Mathematical Thinking" is an excellent primer course for logic if you are just getting started with university level math.

Harry Gensler's book "Introduction to Logic" is also a good start - as well, there is his "LogiCola" software.

I would strongly recommend that you sit down with Professor John R. Searle and listen to his three free course lectures from philosophy of mind, language and society. They are on iTunes as well as YouTube. For an example of his thinking, here's an article focusing on how he deals with the "Bad Argument." You might also enjoy his latest book, "Seeing Things As They Are."

He's been dead a couple decades, but a very readable primer for philosophy is "Language, Truth and Logic" by A. J. Ayer.

Also recently deceased, Hubert Dreyfus (r.i.p.) wrote an excellent example of a philosophical inquiry, "What Computers Can't Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason."


I want to recommend to you the possibility of reading books not from front to back, but rather by reading it by inspecting the index and reading across the book all sections that belong to the entry of interest.

Though you explicitly excluded books organized by 'dead person', I'd like to recommend to you Bertrand Russell - A History of Western Philosophy for that purpose. It is a very excellent overview of, as the title says, the Western Philosophy, from the antiquity to 1945.

As mentioned above, you can work through the topics by looking at the index, e.g. for existence you find there

existence, 752, 785; and Aquinas,
 446, 447, 453; and Kant, 568, 682;
 and Leibniz, 567, 569, 574-5; and
 Locke, 675; and Plato, 167-8; and
 Socrates,  149-50;  struggle  for 

I'd say that is some quite good overview, as you can directly see, what topics very different philosophers approached, what topics raised more attention, and also you can see quickly the importance of philosophers by the length of their entry and their reception of other philosophers, see eg the entry for Epicurus:

Epicurus, 82, 83, 249-59, 356, 387, 
 729; and utilitarians, 742, 743

You can see that Epicurus influenced later traditions as he appears throughout the book, and you can already see that there is a connection to utilitarianism.

This way is not providing you a nice, consumable synthesis of the different branches of philosophy, as you required in your question. But I would argue that it is not a good idea to try to consume philosophy anyway. Rather you should really try to work on building a synthesis yourself, as only in that way you can gain a deep and true understanding of not only philosophy, but practically anything.

  • Don't you think "A History of Western Philosophy" might not exactly fall under "books without historical focus"?
    – E...
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 21:07
  • Hi, welcome to philsophy.SE. Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy and its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Dav" is an excellent book, but it is worth keeping in mind that the history of philosophy is not philosophy. Also, except for the final chapter (ch. 31 "The Philosophy of Logical Analysis," pg. 857), this is - per the OP - arguably a book "organized by dead person."
    – MmmHmm
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 22:03
  • @EliranH Absolutely. I just wanted to give a hint how to approach the problem differently. I know this solves not the original question, and that this answer will likely not get many positive votes, if any at all. Sometimes people ask their questions too narrow and by that have restrictions in their questions that maybe are unintended.
    – jjdb
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 6:37
  • @Mr.Kennedy Thanks for the Welcome. See my previous comment about the problem of not answering the question. ;)
    – jjdb
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 6:38
  • 1
    @jjdb It's a fine answer as is -I already +1'd it for being useful because you pointed out the option of reading per the topic index. I think it'd help your answer to link to the book and also to maybe provide some additional resources which address the OP's focus? Best!
    – MmmHmm
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 7:23

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .