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Collection Development: Western Philosophy

by Carl William Long on April 30, 2013

The word philosophy traces its origins to ancient Greece and can be defined as “love of wisdom.” A philosopher, then—in the broadest sense— is someone who seeks wisdom. These are more than academic platitudes or strained justifications; philosophy touches upon and impacts the foundations of all branches of knowledge. Neither philosophy’s significance to the intellectual landscape of humanity nor its significance to a library’s collection and patrons should be overlooked.

While science has come to dominate the intellectual sphere over the past few centuries, philosophy is alive in the world’s books, media, and thought. The University of Texas at Austin finds enough philosophical depth and significance in the television series The Simpsons to feature them in the course “Contemporary Moral Problems.” What would The Matrix film series be without its existential and metaphysical underpinnings? In a word, boring. We’ve even had a philosophy major in the White House: Bill Clinton.

Philosophy is everywhere; whether one chooses to acknowledge that fact is another matter. How should we conduct our lives? What is real? What can be known? These are vital questions that every thinker has wrestled with from time immemorial. The ideas and methods of philosophy broaden our perspectives and impact our actions. The American Philosophical Association’s 2007 address explains the importance of philosophy as follows:

The study of philosophy serves to develop intellectual abilities important for life as a whole, beyond the knowledge and skills required for any particular profession. Properly pursued, it enhances analytical, critical and interpretive capacities that are applicable to any subject-matter, and in any human context. It cultivates the capacities and appetite for self-expression and reflection, for exchange and debate of ideas, for life-long learning, and for dealing with problems for which there are no easy answers. It also helps to prepare one for the tasks of citizenship. Participation in political and community affairs today is all too often insufficiently informed, manipulable and vulnerable to demagoguery. A good philosophical education enhances the capacity to participate responsibly and intelligently in public life.1

All too often public and other non-academic libraries view philosophy as something dry and bookish, something technical, something esoteric, something — for whatever reason — not worth collecting in a systematic or serious fashion. This article intends to remedy that by offering core collection recommendations and resources in the Western philosophic tradition, with collection development for the general reader and the public-library setting firmly
in mind.

Western Philosophy: Introductions
* = Best of the best

Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, second ed., revised. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Pr., 2008. 407p. ill. ISBN 978-0199541430. $17.95. *
Technical jargon is the lifeblood of most of Western philosophy and any such introductory bibliography would be remiss without a solid, specialized dictionary among its recommendations. To further add to the sound utility that this work offers as a dictionary, Blackwell’s writing is so narrative in nature that this dictionary can actually be read straight up for pleasure.

Copleston, Frederick Charles. A History of Philosophy. London: Continuum, 2006. (11 vols.) ISBN 978-0826469489. $220/set; $19.95/volume.
Copleston’s Roman Catholic perspective is clearly visible throughout this eleven volume set but it hardly obscures a fair handed treatment. Copleston’s History would best suit a larger library seeking the most comprehensive survey of Western philosophy available in English.

Craig, Edward. Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Pr., 2002. 132p. ill. ISBN 978-0192854216. $11.95.
Highly readable and engaging work that begins with a unique “read along with” format for the first three chapters, which is followed by well-written sections outlining major ideas and schools of philosophy. Excellent first introduction to the subject that gives some breadth of subject coverage for the ability to jump right in feet first.

Durant, Will. Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers, second ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. 528p. glossary. bibliog. index. ISBN 978-0808577690. $7.93.*
This is a literate, historically aware story of philosophy. The narrative is relaxed and unpretentious. The history is unraveled with a minimum of technical jargon and convolution. As a readable first introduction this is tough to surpass, as its record eighty-four years in print has proven.

Horner, Chris, and Emrys Westacott. Thinking through Philosophy: An Introduction. U.K.: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 2000. 288p. ill. ISBN 978-0521626576. $26.99.
Less focused on philosophers and historical minutiae and more focused on major ideas, this introduction tries to get the reader to work through the key thoughts of Western philosophy. While this book is excellent and has many strengths, it lacks a little bit in building up the fundamental vocabulary and methods of philosophy for the complete beginner to understand the ideas as presented. As such this makes an excellent supplementary title on the subject; I would recommend this as the perfect second book to read.

Law, Stephen. The Great Philosophers: The Lives and Ideas of History’s Greatest Thinkers. London: Quercus, 2009. 208p. ill. ISBN: 978-1847240187. $12.99.
A consummate populizer, Law creates another outstanding volume for the general reader. This work offers bite-sized pieces for fifty of the greatest thinkers through history, perfect for those who are curious about philosophy but lack the patience or desire for lengthier treatments.

Magee, Bryan. The Story of Philosophy. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2001. 240p. ill. glossary. bibliog. index. ISBN 978-0751305906. $19.95. *
This book is simply beautiful. Wonderfully designed and fantastically illustrated, this is a superb introduction to Western philosophy by one of philosophy’s greatest popularizers. Perfect as a beginner survey of the subject. Recommended that you purchase the hardcover if possible as the paperback’s print size is a bit on the small side.

———. The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Pr., 2001. 352p. index. ISBN 978-0192893222. $18.95.
Another wonderful survey by Magee, but this time with much less visual gloss and with quite a bit more depth of content. This book consists of a series of engaging conversations with different professional philosophers, each focusing on a major philosophical figure or school of thought.

Popkin, Richard H., and Avrum Stroll. Philosophy Made Simple, second ed., revised. New York: Doubleday, 1993. 352p. ISBN 978-0385425339. $13.99. *
A lucid survey of philosophy organized by most of the major branches of philosophy: ethics, political philosophy, metaphysics, philosophy of religion, epistemology, and logic. The last chapter of the book, which I consider the best, covers contemporary philosophy. This is what Philosophy for Dummies, which I don’t recommend, should have been.

Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy, second ed. revised. London: Routledge, 2004. 895p. index. ISBN 978-0415325059. $26.95. *
This classic introduction is as embracing and quintessentially representative of Russell as anything he put to print. While this is a history of philosophy Russell also ties in the social context underlying each philosopher he examines. Russell seldom lets the philosopher escape his own particular brand of logic and justice. This work is strong because of the influence of the author’s intellectual power and ethical proclivities, not despite them.

Russell, Bertrand. The Problems of Philosophy, second ed., revised. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1959. 167p. ISBN 978-0195115529. $14.99.
A spectacular guided tour down some of the major ideas of philosophy. This book tackles things in concise chapters with clear exposition and real world examples. Technically the focus of the book is on the problems of epistemology (study of knowledge) more than philosophy as a whole. Nevertheless, this is a great first step into what Russell calls, “the region of liberating doubt.”

Scruton, Roger. A Short History of Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Wittgenstein. London: Routledge, 2001. 328p. ISBN 978-0415267632. $19.95. *
Focused on major philosophers from the time of Descartes to Wittgenstein this book is clear without leaving out major issues, yet nuanced without talking down to the beginner. Scruton understands philosophy and he knows how to communicate it well.

Solomon, Robert C. Introducing Philosophy: A Text with Integrated Readings. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Pr. 2009. 688p. ISBN 978-0195391114. $79.95.
This work has only one failing as a basic introduction to philosophy: the high price tag. If price were not an issue, this would get the highest  recommendations from me. Excellent coverage of nearly the entire field of philosophy, clear commentary, wise use of primary content, all laid out in easily-digestible chapters. I absolutely love this book; I just wish it were more affordable.

Warburton, Nigel. Philosophy: The Basics, fourth ed. London [u.a.]: Routledge, 2007. 184p. ISBN 978-0415327732. $19.95.
This introduction sets its gaze upon basic themes and ideas of philosophy by asking the classic questions. What is philosophy? How do we know right from wrong? Can you define art? Nigel asks these important questions, presents arguments, and shows examples without overwhelming the beginner.

Zack, Naomi. The Handy Philosophy Answer Book. Detroit: Visible Ink Pr. 2010. 492p. ill. ISBN 978-1578592265. $16.46.
The question-and-answer treatment is an excellent way to enter into a brandnew subject gradually and without being overwhelmed. The Handy Philosophy Answer Book fulfills this Q&A format without a misstep.

Western Philosophy: Book Series

Series: For Beginners
Example titles: Philosophy for Beginners, Plato for Beginners, Derrida for Beginners
Sometimes a quick overview with entertaining illustrations is the best way to reach certain readers and cover certain topics; This series fulfills this niche wonderfully. This series is also quite accessible for teens who appreciate the graphic-novel format.

Series: Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions
Example titles: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Kant: A Very Short Introduction; Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction
This series, written by acknowledged experts, offers short biographies and introductions to the main philosophic positions of the thinker in question. These are especially useful for beginners who are starting to tackle those philosophers whose writings are particularly difficult, such as Kant or Hegel.

Series: Paul Strathern’s Philosophers in 90 Minutes
Example titles: Kierkegaard in 90 Minutes, Sartre in 90 Minutes, J. S. Mill in 90 Minutes
Written by a single author, this line of books offers a basic coverage of biography, timeline, and ideas of a specific philosopher. They also guide those  interested to a recommended reading list for further exploration.

Series: Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy
Example titles: Stephen Colbert and Philosophy: I Am Philosophy (And So Can You!); Manga and Philosophy; The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer; Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant
As this series makes clear, any topic under the sun can be informed upon by the methods and ideas of philosophy. Volumes in the series are hit or miss but always entertaining.

Series: Penguin’s Portable Library
Example Titles: The Portable Nietzsche, The Portable Machiavelli, The Portable Voltaire
A wonderful way to get easy access to wisely selected primary text by the original authors. This is a great series for diving right into the original source material without becoming overwhelmed or lost. Highly recommended.

Series: Introducing (Graphic Guide) by Totem Books
Example titles: Introducing Philosophy: A Graphic Guide; Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide; Introducing Plato: A Graphic Guide
Another well done graphical beginner’s guide series written by experts in their field.

Western Philosophy: Children and Young Adults

Law, Stephen. Philosophy Rocks! New York: Volo, 2002. 214p. ill. ISBN 978-0786816996. $12.99 (reading level: ages 13+).
Accessible, lighthearted, thought-provoking, and humorous, this introduction is ideal for a younger person interested in deeper thinking. Law never speaks down to the reader, even at times literally asking the reader “What do you think?” While finding this book in print might take a little work, it is appropriate for all teen collections. His other works The Philosophy Files 1 (2000; ISBN 1-84255-053-5), The Philosophy Files 2 (2006; ISBN 1-84255- 525-1), and The Outer Limits: More Mysteries from the Philosophy Files (2003; ISBN 1-84255-062-4) are all wonderful as well.

Law, Stephen, and Nishant Choksi. Really, Really Big Questions: About Life, the Universe, and Everything. London: Kingfisher, 2009. 64p. ill. ISBN: 978- 0753463093. $16.99 (reading level: ages 9–12).
A wonderful ride for inquisitive young minds, pushing them forward with challenging yet engaging questions, dilemmas, and mysteries. Law asks some of the biggest and most important questions imaginable in an engaging manner, without having foregone conclusions on the answers, he allows the child to think through the question. The art work is bold, colorful, and interesting. Without question this is a great start down the path of reason, ideas, and argument.

Palmer, Donald. Looking at Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy Made Lighter, fifth edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. 464p. ill. ISBN: 978-0073407487. $38.89 (reading level: Ages 13+)
———. Does the Center Hold? An Introduction to Western Philosophy. Dubuque, Iowa: McGraw-Hill, 2010. 480p. ISBN: 978-0073535753. $38.27 (reading level: ages 13+).

I tried to avoid teacher’s guides and books designed specifically for use in the classroom but Palmer’s work has just got to be recommended. Suitable for older high school students, these two textbooks cover the topic well and have a readability rating off the charts. If you need a textbook for the high school level or are interested in that format for one reason or another, you’d be hard pressed to do better than with these two.

Usher, Mark David, and William Bramhall. Wise Guy: The Life and Philosophy of Socrates. New York: Farrar Straus, & Giroux, 2005. 40p. ill. ISBN: 978-0374312497. $16 (ages 6–8 and 9–12)
Examining the life of the great philosopher Socrates, Usher has created a book that works on a great many levels. Firstly, the text itself is broken up into two narratives: one for younger readers (ages 6–8) and one for older readers (ages 9–12). Secondly, the biographical story of Socrates imparts not only the more important aspects of Socrates’ life but it presents many of his most important ideals, ideas, and questions. Thirdly, the appendix is full of quotes, stories, and includes a wonderful bibliography for further reading. Lastly, the art work is interesting to younger readers and engages them at their own level.

Usher, Mark David, and Michael Chesworth. Diogenes. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2009. 32p. ill. ISBN: 978-0374317850. $16.95. (ages 4–8).
Beneath this simple “dog story” lies the life of the Greek philosopher Diogenes. However, the child’s story and the artwork are not lost in the expounding of
the philosopher’s life and ideas; they all blend together magnificently. Recommended for all children’s collections.

Western Philosophy: Selection Tools

Greenfieldt, John, and Patrice Bartell. Public Library Core Collection: A Selection Guide to Reference Books and Adult Nonfiction. New York: H. W. Wilson Co, 2008. 1,856p. ISBN: 978-0824210946. $420.
This work should already be among most public library collection’s standard selection tools. It offers suggestions sorted by Dewey numbers and has an annual update to keep its suggestions current. Not many recommendations for philosophy but the few there prove mostly sound.

Ellwood, Robert S, and Marion Sader. The Reader’s Adviser: The Best in Philosophy and Religion, Volume 4. New Providence, N.J.: R.R. Bowker, 1994. 1,054p. ISBN: 978-0835233248. $140.
A deeper, more academic treatment of the subject, which while less current than other options, offers a deeper arrangement of suggestions. This may not be worth the cost for smaller libraries but could be worth getting access to it at another library or through interlibrary loan (ILL) if possible.

Bynagle, Hans E. Philosophy: A Guide to the Reference Literature. Westport, Conn: Libraries Unlimited, 2006. 385p. ISBN: 978-1563089541. $65.
Another more academic selection tool, this work cannot be ignored, simply because it is the best philosophy selection tool available in English. Like the Reader’s Adviser, the cost may prohibit smaller libraries from purchasing this work, but gaining access through ILL or other means is highly recommended. The first edition of this work came out in 1986, with revisions in 1996 and 2006; a new fourth edition will, hopefully, be forthcoming in 2016.

Western Philosophy: Webpages

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP)
This ever-evolving, eminently revised, freely accessible online encyclopedia of philosophy was created and is maintained by Stanford University. Each article is written by an expert in their field and academically peer reviewed. While all entries have an academic tone, much is of value to the general reader. Of particular note are each entry’s references, bibliographies, and links to other sources.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP)
Combined with an easy display and search interface, IEP includes entries of so many well-written articles that some of them could easily and seamlessly be exchanged for the best print entries. Founded by one man, James Fieser, IEP is overseen and developed continually by him and a bevy of expert volunteers;
I highly recommend this website.

The title would lend one to think that this is a collection of links for the subject area of epistemology but EpistemeLinks extends its coverage to a broad range of philosophical topics. Simply speaking, this is among the best philosophy-orientated portals online and, with more than 19,000 quality links, one of the broadest.


  1. American Philosophical Association, “American Philosophical Association Statement on the Philosophy Major,” Proceedings and Addresses of the APA 80 no. 5 (2006): 76–89, access Nov. 11, 2011, www.apaonline.org/APAOnline/About_The_APA/Statements/Issues/Statement_on_the_Major.aspx.