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A Little History of Philosophy Hardcover – October 25, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


“This book is a little classic.”—Merryn Williams, Oxford Times
(Merryn Williams Oxford Times)

“A charming read.”—Christian Century
(Christian Century)

“This brisk primer is, for the neophyte, a good place to start immersing oneself in the history of Western thought.”—Publishers Weekly
(Publishers Weekly)

“This book is a little classic, invaluable for the man or woman in the street who would like to know more about philosophy. . . . [It] suggests that philosophy is ‘not harsh and crabbed, as dull fools suppose’, but a thoroughly enjoyable way to stretch your mind.”—Merryn Williams, Oxford Times (Merryn Williams Oxford Times 2011-10-06)

“The book has a certain quality that comes from accepting a challenge under severe conditions, then taking it on without making a big deal of the whole thing. And the word for that quality is grace.”—Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed
(Scott McLemee Inside Higher Ed)

“With this sweeping and enjoyable work the author affirms that deliberating on reality and questioning how our lives are best lived is still worth the trouble.”—PopMatters

“If you are looking for a book about philosophy, Nigel Warburton’s A Little History of Philosophy is the place to begin…Accessible, funny and informative.”—Sacramento News and Review
(Sacramento News and Review)

“Survey the entire history of (western) philosophy through short intellectual biographies of 40 philosophers from Socrates to Peter Singer, in as broadly approachable a style as EH Gombrich’s A Little History of the World. A tall order; that Warburton (of the excellent podcast Philosophy Bites) has succeeded so well is a triumph.”—Steven Poole, The Guardian
(Steven Poole The Guardian 2011-11-12)

From the Author

Why did you write this book?

Philosophy is one of the most stimulating and important subjects there is. We all philosophize some of the time when we think about how we should live, whether or not God exists, or how society should be organized. These questions have vexed the greatest minds for thousands of years. Yet some people are still daunted by philosophy. They think it's an impenetrable and obscure subject that has no relevance for them. I wanted to show this isn't true, that it's possible to write an accessible and enjoyable book without betraying the spirit of the great thinkers of the past or making them obscure or irrelevant. I decided to focus on the Western tradition in philosophy and on one or two key ideas from each philosopher discussed rather than attempt an encyclopedic overview.

How is making philosophy accessible to all a challenge?

Part of the challenge of writing a book like this was to keep the language straightforward. Many philosophers have introduced complex technical terms that make their writing hard to follow. It's easy to fall into the habit of mirroring them. Writing in a way that doesn't presuppose knowledge is an excellent discipline, though, as there's no place to hide.

Which philosophers do you personally find most engaging?

Socrates, the great fifth-century Athenian philosopher who would cross-question passersby in the marketplace and reveal how little they really knew, is one of my personal favourites. His unwillingness to accept assumptions, and his passion for discovering the truth or, failing that, how little he knew, provide a model for all philosophers. Although he wasn't the first philosopher, he was the first great philosopher. He of all the philosophers in the book is the one I'd most like to have met. My second choice would be the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, a remarkable thinker who was also a superb writer.

What are the major themes of your book?

A Little History of Philosophy focuses on the major themes of philosophy: appearance and reality, the nature of the self, and questions about God's existence and about how we should live, both individually and as members of society. Throughout philosophy's history these have been the perennial themes. Each era gives them a new twist, but they aren't going to go away.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 260 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (October 25, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300152086
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300152081
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #126,034 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Nigel Warburton (1962 - ). Nigel Warburton is a senior lecturer at the Open University and bestselling author of several popular introductory Philosophy books including Philosophy: The Basics, Thinking from A to Z, Philosophy: The Classics, Philosophy: Basic Readings, Freedom: An Introduction with Readings, and The Art Question. He is an Honorary Associate Research Fellow of the Institute of Philosophy and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He can be found blogging, podcasting and twittering via his popular philosophy blog, Virtual Philosopher.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

45 of 53 people found the following review helpful By dcreader VINE VOICE on March 21, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Reading Nigel Warburton's A Little History of Philosophy makes me appreciate even more (if that is possible) EH Gombrich's A Little History of the World. In about 300 pages, Gombrich relayed just about every event of significance in world history in an erudite, extraordinarily humane way. His book has been in print for so long and in so many languages, it has inspired an attempt to do the same for philosophy. Unfortunately, Warburton's efforts fall short in many respects, despite providing a delightful entre for true neophytes.

A Little History of Philosophy tries to accomplish its task by breaking the development of philosophy up into 40 chapters, each focused on one or two philosophers. Each contains some brief biographical material and a discussion of one or two ideas associated with him or her. After reading A Little History, a reader will know the "big names" and become familiar with some of the more interesting questions and ideas raised over the millennia since Socrates hectored his fellow Athenians about what they really understood and believed. Warburton is careful to illustrate philosophical concepts in a manner that assumes no prior knowledge of philosophy.

More specifically, he covers both the famous (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, Kant, etc.) and some lesser known figures to the general public (Spinoza, Pierce, Foot, etc.), and includes even the most modern thinkers such as Rawls and Singer. His concept of "philosophy" is broad enough to cover ethics, political philosophy, economic philosophy, theology, ontology, and even some philosophy of science. He generally tries to pair different approaches or variations (e.g., Bentham and Mill on utilitarianism).
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38 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Hugh Sansom on November 4, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This book is clearly intended to trade on the popularity of E.H. Gombrich's "A Little History of the World".

Warburton is impressively thorough for such a short book. One might gripe that he really only covers western philosophy or that he neglects the role of language, logic, and philosophy of mathematics in 20th century anglophone philosophy, but those are very minor points. This is not intended to be a deep, philosophical treatise. It's a survey for the curious, and it does _really_ well for that.

One reviewer offers a blinkered hissy fit over Warburton's coverage of arguments for the "existence of god" and Bertrand Russell. That thread of thought is _minimal_ in western philosophy, of interest largely to religious fanatics who can't bear the idea that anyone doesn't take their dogma as an article of faith. Take it how you like, that reviewer's points about the book utterly miss the point.

If you're curious about philosophy and particularly if you know a young person who might get a kick out of philosophical thinking, this is a fine book.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By phillip on September 8, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase

Warburton reduces the the ideas of very many philosophers to their salient features in easily comprehensible and relevant descriptions.

This publication is so easy to read and follow that it is unlikely you'll ever again be bamboozled by pretentious grand statements. Essentially, each philosopher is reduced to a bare-bones analysis which can be sufficient in itself or allow further in-depth study. For simple realistic awareness of different philosophers and their place in the history of ideas, this book is a gem.

As unlikely as it might seem, Warburton has made philosophy easy and accessible. I am lead to suspect (after having struggled with some weightier tomes) that my IQ is marginally greater than my shoe size.

Give yourself a lift; read this.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Jesse on May 29, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Considering this book is not intended to be a long in depth piece of literature, neither will my review. This book may be the greatest source of elementary knowledge as it relates to philosophy. At just over 240 pages of text, this book paints a brilliant picture of what philosophy was, is, and may become. With 40 chapters, making each about 6 pages in length, philosophy is briefly summarized through many different philosophers. Every chapter is clearly tied to the next, with mostly fluent transitions. My biggest gripe is that the book was simply to shallow for me personally, however the adequate references to specific works has allowed me to learn more at my own wish.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Gderf on May 17, 2013
Format: Paperback
This serves as an excellent supplement to 'History of Western Philosophy' by David Boersema and Kari Middleton. That book is a good reference survey. This one provides an excellent short introduction to many philosophers and their defining ideas. It presents a history of philosophical thought from ancient Greece to the present day in the form of a short introduction to the ideas of each philosopher and occasionally one of his critics. Each one ends with a bridge to the next. The author skillfully contrasts many philosophical ideas as with Schopenhauer's critique of Hegel.

The short biographies with ideas of the major philosophers of each era are very well done. Each summary chapter provides definitions and thought provoking questions. It includes Popper and Rawls who are missing from the other book. As with that one it's interesting to speculate on why some significant thinkers are omitted.

Warburton starts with the 'gadfly' Socrates who questioned ideas in ancient Athens.
Perhaps implying that philosophy has come full circle, he ends with Peter Singer, whom he also calls a gadfly, who questions the ideas and ethics of classical philosophical thought.

As an amateur I found the book entertaining and informative, especially regarding the moderns with whose ideas I am not familiar.
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