Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Dr. Edward Craig


The A Very Short Introduction series of books, published by Oxford University Press, is helpful for gaining inroads into unfamiliar topics. These books are usually in the 120-150 page range and cover a myriad of topics, with new ones being published even today. In this review, I will take a look at Dr. Edward Craig’s Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Craig is a fellow with the interdisciplinary Churchill College at Cambridge University. He is also the general editor of the multi-volume Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, along with authoring other texts.

Many introductions to philosophy texts trend either one of two ways: either by giving an overview of philosophical issues or by cataloging profiles of noted philosophers. Craig in Philosophy attempts to do a bit of both which is a tall order and he admits as much in trying to write a short introduction to philosophy. There were times I wished he did not cut off so soon, or fleshed out issues more than he did, but overall I think Craig does a good job of whetting one’s appetite for further study. One could make a case the book could be stronger and more cogent if Craig had picked one way or the other from the above choices, but he decided to go a different way and so here we are.

I gained an immediate appreciation from Craig’s opening words in the introduction of the book, “Anyone reading this book is to some extent a philosopher already” (p.1). Through the introduction he seems to offer and support the idea that to be human is to be a philosopher (additionally we would say to be Christian is to be a theologian). Later on in the introduction he mentions, “philosophy is extremely hard to avoid, even by conscious effort.” Craig then mentions that those who try to dismiss philosophy are doing so on philosophical terms and “instead of rejecting philosophy they will have become another voice within it” (p.2). This defense of philosophy is expressed through the entire introduction before he introduces three main questions in the next three chapters: What should I do?, How do we know?, and What am I?

Chapter two is focused on “What should I do?” and Craig invites readers to pick up Plato’s Crito dialogue and read it before moving into the chapter, though one can get the gist of the chapters without reading the suggested works (I read the suggested works on my first reading to play along). The upshot of this specific dialogue is Socrates defending his integrity of going through with the death sentence handed to him and not bribing the guards and exiling himself to safer lands to preserve his life, as his friend Crito is trying to convince him to do. Through this passage Craig introduces some ethical questions, and issues like duties to the state, integrity and responsibility to one’s self and ideas, and moral dilemmas, but in no way is the discussion in depth or exhaustive.

Chapter three, “How do we know?” is focused on the classic essay Of Miracles from David Hume’s An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. It is important to note for my fellow Christian readers that you can pick up Craig’s sympathy with Hume’s skepticism rather quickly. As a matter of fact, you’ll find digs at C.S. Lewis and those who would criticize Darwinian evolution later in the book. Craig offers a diagram on page 26 of what Hume was trying to do in his work, basically lowering humans to the level as animals, and less as God’s image bearers and placing a question mark next to God and almost making discussion of him off-limits for philosophical inquiry as such:

God                                         God (?)

Humans                                   _______

________                                  Humans

Animals                                   Animals

This moving of the line up is unfortunate after such a great defense of philosophy in the book’s introduction, and to me this seems to temper the importance of philosophy by lowering the difference it shows between humans and animals, and certainly philosophy seems weakened if we are no longer made in God’s image. Craig makes clear what Hume was after, “[h]e was asking what reasons there may be for forming religious beliefs in the first place” (p. 32). And with this chapter Craig continues to side with Hume by placing a split between religion and philosophy, even though it was historically understood that both attempted to answer the same questions as Noah Webster wrote in his 1828 dictionary “[t]rue religion and true philosophy must ultimately arrive at the same principle,” and that certainly was not a novel assertion by Webster but a historic observation.

Chapter three gives a good reason I appreciate Craig’s book in that he uses a Buddhist text for discussing the self “What am I?” Many philosophy texts are written as if there were no thinking going on east of Persia, in other words they express a Western prejudice. In this chapter, Craig assigns the Questions of King Milinda (the Milindapanha) to discuss the Buddhist notion of the parts and whole of personhood (by an analogy to the king’s chariot), the person essentially being an a-personal (here mostly meaning the lack of individuality) reincarnated consciousness or self, and he then poses the questions that would crop up for thinkers reading this passage.

In Chapter five, Craig covers an assortment (by no means an exhaustive list) of common philosophical themes that recur in 2,000 years of philosophy. These include ethical consequentialism, integrity, political authority or the contract theory, evidence and rationality, the self, and philosophy and the historical context. Again, Craig traces these themes through both Eastern and Western thought traditions, which I appreciated for the reasons I mentioned before.

Continuing the scatter shot journey in the field, Craig then dedicates Chapter five to the various “isms” of philosophy. The topics that are covered include dualism, materialism, idealism, empiricism, rationalism, skepticism, and relativism. Again Craig traces these from both the East and the West, and he does occasionally show his biases, especially in favoring materialism and empiricism, while appearing to rebut dualism and parts of relativism (the criticism of relativism did come as a surprise at this point). Otherwise the short descriptions give a good enough idea of each.

Another list is included in chapter seven, where Craig gives short introductions to some personal favorites in the history of philosophy, this time back to a Western focus. The works introduced include Rene Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, G.W.F. Hegel’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species and Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Geneaology of Morals. As one would expect from the discussion in the prior chapter, Darwinian evolution is a game-changer of sorts for Craig, and he gives glowing reviews of Nietzsche’s writing. Craig’s anti-Christian bias is especially clear in this chapter in his cherry picking and digs against C.S.Lewis on pp. 91-92, and the slightly subtle charge of anti-Semitism toward Christians in Craig’s assessment of Nietzsche’s writings at the end of the chapter (p. 99). Though most assuredly Craig was pointing out that Nietzsche was mostly speaking to the German culture at the time, I could see someone who misunderstands Christianity reading and taking that as a wider application than intended.

Finally in the last chapter, “What’s in it for whom?” Craig addresses the various constituencies of philosophy, especially as relating to major movements and practices. These categories of movements include the individual, the state, the priesthood, the working classes, women, animals, and professional philosophers. Again, just like the earlier chapters, this one is another shotgun approach of short introductions to the various historical movements within philosophy. Also at the end of the book, Craig includes some good points of departure in a list of books for where to go next along with a good annotated bibliography.

I do think this is a pretty good introductory book to philosophy, but there are others I would probably recommend over this one that are a little less overtly hostile to Christianity. I just think it is dishonest and unnecessarily limiting to completely write off a whole way of looking at the world, especially when theistic philosophy is flourishing so much now in the academic world. An introductory text that covers the problems and issues of philosophy I typically recommend is Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy. For short sketches of philosophical figures I enjoyed Dr. Bryan Magee’s The Story of Philosophy, but Magee’s book is admittedly on the light side. I am also aware of specifically Christian introductions by Drs. Garrett DeWeese,  Norman Geisler, and J.P. Moreland, but I am still reading some of those for myself now. One topic list that was missing from Craig’s book was the branches or divisions of philosophy. Some of them like metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology were mentioned in passing (and covered briefly in the first three chapters), but they were nowhere outlined and could have all been a chapter themselves. Otherwise aside from the choppy lists of the last several chapters, and Craig’s obvious atheistic/agnostic biases, I think he did just about as good of a job as he could with the subject while holding to a roughly 120-page length.

Craig, Edward. Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introduction Series #55, Oxford, U.K., Oxford University Press, 2002.