Philosophy Classics

(2006, SparkNotes Literature Guide Series)


Philosophy Classics (SparkNotes Literature Guide Series) is intended as a study guide for college students taking a survey course in philosophy. Nevertheless, both philosophy majors and lay readers in general stand to benefit handsomely from the smart and very readable summaries presented in this handbook. Nineteen philosophers and their major works are covered: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Thomas More, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Mill, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Russell, Wittgenstein, and Sartre. Socrates is also discussed in several chapters devoted to other thinkers, mainly Plato, of course. 

The handbook provides a brief introduction to philosophy and five of its major branches: epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, political philosophy, and logic. Aesthetics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and philosophy of history are also approached in varying degrees throughout the main text. The rest of the book consists of nineteen chapters, each focusing on a particular philosopher. Each chapter begins with a "Context" section that provides a biographical sketch and historical circumstances for each thinker. Then a section entitled "Themes, Arguments & Ideas" follows which highlights the major problems addressed by the philosopher in question. Each chapter ends with a substantial "Summary & Analysis" section where the thinker's most important works are discussed in ample detail and his key ideas are analyzed and contrasted to those of other philosophers, a number of whom do not figure in the chosen nineteen, thus extending the reach and usefulness of the book. The quality of the discussion in each section is very good. On average, each philosopher is devoted 22 pages. Readers should find these chapters very useful as preparation for reading the philosophers' original works. 

Lamentably, the handbook does not have an index, which detracts somewhat from its intended aim as a study guide. In a few chapters towards the end of the book minor errors passed undetected by editorial revision, but these are rare and can be spotted and corrected by the alert reader from the context of the discussion. Actually, considering this is a first edition, the book is remarkably accurate. These weaknesses pale in significance when compared to the considerable intellectual panorama this handbook manages to present. All in all, despite the lack of an index,
Philosophy Classics merits a five-star rating. I do hope the editors follow this volume with a second one covering other major philosophers not included in this edition. 

(This review was originally written on 29 November 2006.)