Customer Reviews: An Introduction to Western Philosophy
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on June 20, 2000
Clearly Antony Flew was on a mission when he wrote his "Introduction to Western Philosophy." It is very carefully crafted, providing an unparalleled introduction not only to Western philosophers and their ideas, but also to approaches to philosophical thought. Flew assumes that his readers are willing to try to think like philosophers, and he provides a great deal of guidance in terms of both basic information that one ought to know (such as some relevant history of science), and pitfalls that one should avoid (such as fallacies and philosophical "diversions").
In contrast to the chronological, philosopher-centered approach that some introductions to philosophy take, Flew's book is idea-centered, with each chapter focusing on a particular philosophical issue. Within a given chapter, the arguments of philosophers from different times are presented side-by-side. So, for example, Plato's objectivism can face off directly against Hume's subjectivism -- one does not have to read Plato's ideas and wait until many chapters later, when Plato has long been forgotten, for Hume's reply to them. This strategy produces the feeling of live debate as opposed to the rehashing of dead ideas. Flew takes his readers through the major debates on each issue, taking care to point out questions that remain unresolved. He provides long quotations from primary sources to show key arguments unfolding in their original contexts, and follows them up with clear explanations. The book is thick, but words are not wasted; I underline key points that I want to remember, and I set a personal underlining record reading this book. Finally, Flew is enjoyable to read -- professional and serious as the subject demands, but also personable and witty.
I should mention that Flew's book is not suitable for most novices; one might want to read something like Russell's "History of Western Philosophy," that introduces the major philosophers and places them in their social contexts, before attempting Flew's more challenging book. But to those readers already possessing a general idea of the major players and their ideas, Flew's book offers an excellent detailed introduction to each of the most important philosophical debates.
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on May 1, 1999
Flew is one of the best known proponents of linguistic philosophy, which explores many of the misunderstandings language causes in the realm of ideas. He is eminently British, and his gentle humor shows it. The work has none of the pizazz and color of the newer, showier, philosophy texts. But it has understandable prose, long useful excerpts, and a willingness to leave behind strictly "philosphical" sources to search for meaning in poetry. There are several shortcomings; for instance, the book starts with an essay on "progress in philosophy," a notion which Flew never proves happens. Also, it really is NOT an "introduction" for beginners, despite the title; it is not approachable by the novice. And if you are looking for modern existentialist philosophy, or work by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Hegel, Habermas, Husserl and Heidegger), you had best look elsewhere. (But, then, reading those quasi-thinkers is rather like like looking for prostitutes: embarrassing and useless after a few cheap thrills.) I have had the pleasure of meeting Flew upon his visits to American University in recent years; he is a kind spirit who freely shares his thoughts when his lips are plied with brewed beverages. The book is neatly executed, but not for beginners.
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on August 1, 2007
Others have remarked that Flew's style is... dense... which is true. But as Einstein said, everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. Philosophy is complex. If you dumb it down, it is no longer philosophy. No one reviews books on quantum mechanics and complains that they are difficult. Because quantum mechanics is hard. If you want to understand philosophy--not on a superficial, cocktail-party level, but on the level of the ideas themselves--you will have to put in some work. When I read the book, I realized that every 10 pages or so, I would need to stop, look up from the book, and think for a few minutes about what I had just read. It is a not a book to be skimmed.

I argue so intensely because this is the most important book I have ever read. It changed the way I think, by allowing me to spot holes in arguments which I always suspected were weak, although I could not articulate precisely why. It also gives a thorough explanation of the major debates in philosophy throughout history. Flew organizes them by idea rather than by chronology, so that the philosophers' arguments make sense in the context of their debates with other philosophers.

If you want to begin to understand philosophy, read the book. However, if you are not looking for a challenge, or if you only want to get a basic feel for the philosophers' opinions, without digging into their detailed arguments, then there are other books out there more suited to your goals. This book is hard-core. It is for readers who are ambitious and who want to learn something important.
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on June 6, 2005
I have read this book more than 30 years ago as a student in Cambridge/England and was quite fascinated by it (and still am), as it shows how specific philosophical ideas evolved in different centuries and returned in a different disguise and how these changes came about. I found it to be the only book dealing with these eternal questions: which values are prevailing, why and how are they applied in a 'new society'! It is a good complimentary to Bertrand Russelll's: History of Western Philosophy.

Hard to read and understand? Sorry, just the opposite.
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on August 14, 2001
While the idea of this book -- philosophy introduced through a series of ideas rather than a series of personalities -- sounds like a good one, the execution fails. Perhaps, though, that is the fault of this book and not the idea itself. Certainly this is plenty of evidence that many of the faults lie with the author. I am not a stupid person yet I found the prose impenetrably dense. I often found myself rereading the same paragraph over and over again. And even after making sense of that single paragraph I still had no idea how it stood in relation the others around it. Or even what larger point the author was trying to make at that point in the book. Looking around at reviews of other books by this author it seems that a) I am not alone in feeling this way around his writing and, b) this is not the only book of his to suffer from this.
But even if you can (somehow) put aside the contorted writing the larger question stands: How does the book rate an "Introduction to Western Philosophy"? Well, quite poorly, I must say. Part of the problem is that the there is very little in the way of introduction of the dramatis persona. While this is fine for luminaries such as Plato and Aristotle, I don't think it passes muster for Hume and Aquinas. Philosophers are introduced and left behind with reckless abandon. If you don't already know the names I fear to think how confusing this must be.
And what of the ideas themselves? Is this a good introduction to them? Maybe it is just me, but I hardly think so. He continually introduces ideas and doesn't even attempt to address the objections that immediately spring into my mind.P>Case in point: Plato's Theory of Forms. Almost immediately after they are introduced the reader thinks to himself: how on earth can anyone believe there is some objectively perfect definition of Just or Beauty? How can one reconcile the differences that obviously exist in the world when one society believes that worshipping the old is Just and that long, thin fingers are Beautiful while another society believes the old are dead weight to be removed and that short, stubby fingers are Beautiful? The description of the Theory of the Forms doesn't begin to address this.
Eventually Flew DOES introduce Hume and his notion of subjectivism, which is exactly the reader's initial objection. But Flew uses it only to make a point about some is/ought failing in Plato's Theory of the Forms. I must admit to being totally mistified about the relevance here. This being an introductory book (at least claiming to be one), this is inexcusable.
The book does have a few good points. It quotes quite a bit from the material under discussion, including a few excerpts of a several pages. This is great for getting a feel for the style of the philosopher under discussion. Books like The Story of Philosophy are sorely lacking in this respect. On the other hand, most philosophers are not especially clear writers and Flew doesn't always offer sufficient commentary for a novice student to figure out exactly what is being said.
In any case, don't waste you time or money on this one. Maybe this book is good if you already have gotten past the novice stage. (But then why are you reading this book?) There have got to be better introductions to philosophy, although I don't know what they are yet. My next attempt will be Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy.
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on July 19, 2016
Having read a number of "intro to western philosophy" books, I feel that Mr. A. Flew needs to place himself in Plato's time and then ask himself what would be his own thoughts on concepts such as Ideals, Forms, participation, etc. - for it's so easy to critique Plato, or for that matter any ancient philosopher, from a Monday morning quarterback viewpoint that is well over a thousand years from when Plato walked the earth and thought such thoughts.
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on January 20, 2003
I first picked up on Flew after reading "Does God Exist?" This book devotes a lot of time to western christian thinking relative to God, the immortaility of the soul, etc. My educational understanding of many of the arguments by secular and religous giants of the past was very shallow. He covers the subject from Plato, to Aristotle, to Augustine, to John Edwards. If you want to research the doctrine of "predesination" and whether there is such a thing as "free will", this is a great book. Flew, being an atheist, has some very logical arguments against belief in God, and points out many of the weaknesses in arguments for God. If you want to sharpen your understanding of the 2000 year old discussions on these subjects, I would suggest you add it to your library. It is a great resource book for teaching and understanding. A great deal of western philosophy is the study of God and religion.
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on February 26, 2014
Antony Flew has written one great book. "There Is a God." I have read it three times and keep going back to review intriguing ideas. In that book he is warm, intelligent, someone I really wish that I'd like to sit down and listen to as he reviewed life experiences. So, I have looked at some of his earlier writings in which he appears surprisingly stiff and formal. I think he believed in God all along but was afraid to say so.
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on January 7, 2015
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on September 23, 2014
Everything is just great. Thanks!
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