|A Review of: The Oxford Companion to Philosophy
by Olga Stein
This book should be acquired by or given to a serious person-this is to say, anyone interested in ideas, in their origins and how they pertain to politics, morality (and by implication, how they define what is good for society and/or the individual), and truth or knowledge, as opposed to mere opinion, of earthly and metaphysical matters. The book will delight any academic, for at over 1000 pages, there are plenty of entries-including philosophers, schools of thought, and, significantly, the current-day theoretical and practical spin-offs of sometimes ancient philosophic problems-that will surprise and absorb the most knowledgeable of readers. For this very reason, it would make an excellent gift for a university student-an avid reader with a yearning for understanding what constitutes philosophy.
In addition to its encyclopaedic range, from the ancient, founding fathers of philosophy, to its modern practitioners and innovators, the book offers maps which divide philosophy into its many variegated, but ultimately connected, strands, also serving to represent different schools or emphases (eg., Epistemology, Empiricism, Rationalism, Philosophy of Language, among others, that are themselves divided into subsets). Following the maps, a Chronological Table of Philosophy takes the reader from the early days of Greek philosophy, c.640-c.553, to contemporary thinkers and their work, such as the publication of moral and political philosopher's T.M. Scanlon's What we Owe to Each Other (1998). While philosophers and their work appear on the left side of the chronological table, natural, and socio-political events are listed on the left. The idea is to show how certain developments in the world may have occasioned particular works or intellectual tendencies. All this is intelligently done, and the benefits of having such a book, if only for the bibliographic references listed at the end of every entry, are doubtless.
In the Preface, Ted Honderich, the editor, engagingly addresses the most important concerns a reader might bring to a book like this. Methodology is always a crucial aspect of any encyclopaedic undertaking. It is especially important when Philosophy is at stake. How was it determined who should write about whom? How are we to trust that the representation of one school did not exclude others with the result of limiting the interpretive scope of important ideas. As Honderich himself writes:
"Certainly it is true that philosophy, no doubt because of the peculiar difficulty of its questions, is at least as much given to disagreement and dispute as any other kind of inquiry. In fact it may be more given to disagreement and dispute than any other inquiry. It has the hardest questions . . . As a result, this book cannot be wholly consistent. Even with fewer than 291 contributors, if they were as committed to their views as philosophers usually are, and no doubt should be, there would be disagreement."
Honderich goes on to explain precisely how the contributors were selected-a rigorous process to say the least.
I checked out "Macheovelli" as a gauge because there has been vigorous disagreement regarding the political and moral implications of his thought. Was he a cunning ethicist after all, whose statement "any means justify the end" screened a benevolent interest in the body politic, or is his The Prince really a cold-blooded how-to guide for the most ruthless, power-hungry ruler. The entry in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy suggests the former, and is therefore indicative of a bias, precisely the kind one would wish to see avoided in a book such as this.
On the other hand, the section on Aristotle and Aristotileanism, with its breakdown into categories of inquiry-Philosophy of Action, Metaphysical Issues, Logic and Philosophy of Science, Ethics and Politics, Metaphysics and Biology-are exemplary.
This books is worth acquiring, if not for its 2,230 entries, then for its superbly thorough treatment of what Honderich calls the "pantheon of philosophy", which includes: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche.