The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy.

Title: The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy.
Author/s: Magee, Brian.
Material type: Book.
Publisher/date: Oxford University Press, 2nd edition (2001).
Format: Paperback (352 pages).
ISBN: 10: 9780192893222, 978-0192893222.
Area and topic: History of philosophy and ideas.
Intended audience/ reading level: General/ medium to advanced.
Purchasing and information:
  1. amazon.com
  2. fishpond.co.nz
Unique and/or salient feature/s: ‘The Great Philosophers’ is an overview of fifteen of the greatest Western philosophers and their philosophies. Each entry is presented in the form of a conversation between popular and respected journalist and philosopher, Brian Magee and various contemporary Scholar’s and philosophers, many who are important within the field of philosophy in their own right.
Synopsis and/or additional information: The following information is sourced from the above links (see ‘Purchasing and information’) and the text.

  • Although there is no general format for each discussion, each entry tends to include the following features: a short biographical sketch of the philosopher under discussion;  reference to  the wider philosophical, and (where relevant) the cultural and historical context in which each philosopher (and their philosophy) is situated; problems and issues to which the philosopher in question is responding; the various philosophical approaches and methods used, and in some case, introduced by the philosopher; and the  positions they hold.
  • The philosophers and movements discussed are (in order) as follows: Plato, Aristotle, Medieval Philosophy, Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, Locke and Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hegel and Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger and Modern Existentialism, The American Pragmatists, Frege, Russell and Modern Logic, Wittgenstein.
  • Some of the most prominent contemporary philosophers being interviewed in the volume are (no particular order) A.J Ayer, Martha Nussbaum, Peter Singer, John Searle, Hubert Dreyfus and Bernard Williams.
Strengths: The interview/conversational approach in presenting the material tends to keep the discussion relatively informal but (given the pedigree of those being interviewed) far from superficial. The interviewer, Brain Magee, is himself a very respected and knowledgeable philosophical journalist and author. This is reflected in the informative content that is explored through the questions put forward – and the prompts used to guide the interview process. Finally, as one reviewer notes, ‘the book is not only an introduction to the philosophers of the past, but gives an invaluable insight into the view and personalities of some of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century’.
Limitations: The book lacks the more structured, formal approach found in most overviews and introductions to the history of philosophy. Some parts of the discussion presuppose prior understanding of the issues being discussed and the reading level is, at times, beyond secondary-school age. Furthermore, in many cases there is a sense in which the reader is learning more about the interviewees own philosophical position and their philosophical engagement with the philosopher being discussed (notably, the ‘Ayer’ interview to this reviewers mind). This is in contrast to the more supposedly ‘neutral’ historical summaries found in most introductions on the same material.

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