The Philosophy Book:
Big Ideas Simply Explained
by Will Buckingham
After finishing this book in November of 2022, I wrote,
"This is unlike most books I've read, but it kept me engaged reading about all the different issues philosophers have grappled with and disagreed about over the ages."
My clippings below collapse a 774-page book into 5 pages, measured by using 12-point type in Microsoft Word.
Here are the selections I made:
The first of these new scientific thinkers that we are aware of was Thales of Miletus. Nothing survives of his writings, but we know that he had a good grasp of geometry and astronomy, and is reputed to have predicted the total eclipse of the sun in 585 BCE.
"Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom." Laozi
1619 German mathematician Johannes Kepler describes the relationship between geometry and physical phenomena.
Pythagoras’s Theorem showed that shapes and ratios are governed by principles that can be discovered. This suggested that it might be possible, in time, to work out the structure of the entire cosmos.
What he discovered was that these intervals were harmonious because the relationship between them was a precise and simple mathematical ratio. This series, which we now know as the harmonic series, confirmed for him that the elegance of the mathematics he had found in abstract geometry also existed in the natural world.
Pythagoras also established the principle of deductive reasoning, which is the step-by-step process of starting with self-evident axioms (such as “2 + 2 = 4”) to build toward a new conclusion or fact. Deductive reasoning was later refined by Euclid, and it formed the basis of mathematical thinking into medieval times and beyond.
Gautama, although revered by Buddhists for his wisdom, was neither a messiah nor a prophet, and he did not act as a medium between God and Man. His ideas were arrived at through reasoning, not divine revelation, and it is this that marks Buddhism out as a philosophy as much as (perhaps even more than) a religion.
"Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, unless it agrees with your own reason." Siddhartha Gautama
According to tradition, Confucius was born in 551 BCE in Qufu, in the state of Lu, China.
1805 British chemist John Dalton proposes that all pure substances contain atoms of a single type that combine to form compounds.
Aristotle departs from Plato, then, not by denying that universal qualities exist, but by questioning both their nature and the means by which we come to know them (the latter being the fundamental question of “epistemology”, or the theory of knowledge). And it was this difference of opinion on how we arrive at universal truths that later divided philosophers into two separate camps: the rationalists (including René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, and Gottfried Leibniz), who believe in a priori, or innate, knowledge; and the empiricists (including John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume), who claim that all knowledge comes from experience.
"Everything is known, not according to itself, but according to the capacity of the knower." Boethius
610 Islam is founded by the Prophet Mohammed.
1273 Rumi’s followers found the Mawlawi Order of Sufism.
1931 Belgian priest and scientist Georges Lemaître proposes the “Big Bang” theory of the origins of the universe.
Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225 at Roccasecca in Italy.
1517 Theologian Martin Luther writes The Ninety-Five Theses, protesting against clerical abuses. It triggers the start of the Reformation.
1689 John Locke argues for separation of government and religion in A Letter Concerning Toleration.
"Happiness is reached when a person is ready to be what he is." Desiderius Erasmus
Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469.
Montaigne published his first volume of Essays in 1580, going on to write two more volumes before his death in 1592.
John Locke was born in 1632, the son of an English country lawyer.
Though Locke’s empiricist ideas are important, it was his political writing that made him famous. He proposed a social-contract theory of the legitimacy of government and the idea of natural rights to private property.
ADAM SMITH The “father of modern economics” was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, in 1723. An academic prodigy, Smith became a professor first at Edinburgh University, then at Glasgow University where he became a professor in 1750.
Immanuel Kant was born into a family of financially struggling artisans in 1724, and he lived and worked his whole life in the cosmopolitan Baltic port city of Konigsberg, then part of Prussia.
Georg Hegel was born in 1770 in Stuttgart, Germany, and studied theology at Tübingen where he met and became friends with the poet Friedrich Hölderlin and the philosopher Friedrich Schelling.
The National Society for Women’s Suffrage was set up in Britain in 1868, a year after Mill tried to secure their legal right to vote by arguing for an amendment to the 1867 Reform Act.
In his own lifetime Mill was regarded as a significant philosopher, and he is now considered by many to be the architect of Victorian liberalism.
John Stuart Mill was born in London in 1806. His father was the Scottish philosopher and historian James Mill, who founded the movement of “philosophical radicals” with Jeremy Bentham. John was educated at home by his father, whose demanding program began with teaching Greek to John when he was only three years old.
Nietzsche was born in Prussia in 1844 to a religious family; his father, uncle, and grandfathers were all Lutheran ministers.
Ha’am was fond of quoting an old Yiddish proverb: “an act of folly which turns out well is still an act of folly.”
Dewey points out that it is important to realize that we can never completely control our environment or transform it to such an extent that we can drive out all uncertainty. At best, he says, we can modify the risky, uncertain nature of the world in which we find ourselves. But life is inescapably risky.
John Dewey was born in Vermont, USA, in 1859. He studied at the University of Vermont, and then worked as a schoolteacher for three years before returning to undertake further study in psychology and philosophy.
Bertrand Russell was born in Wales in 1872 to an aristocratic family. He had an early interest in mathematics, and went on to study the subject at Cambridge.
José Ortega y Gasset was born in Madrid, Spain, in 1883. He studied philosophy first in Madrid, then at various German universities—where he became influenced by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant—before settling in Spain as a university professor.
Hajime Tanabe was born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1885. After studying at Tokyo University, he was appointed associate professor of philosophy at Kyoto University, where he was an active member of what became known as the Kyoto School of philosophy.
LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN Born into a wealthy Viennese family in 1889, Wittgenstein first studied engineering and in 1908 traveled to England to continue his education in Manchester.
Heidegger is acknowledged to be one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. He was born in 1889 in Messkirch, Germany, and had early aspirations to be a priest, but after coming across the writings of Husserl he took up philosophy instead.
We might imagine that a good scientific theory is one that we can prove conclusively to be true. The philosopher Karl Popper, however, insists that this is not the case. Instead, he says that what makes a theory scientific is that it is capable of being falsified, or being shown to be wrong by experience.
Karl Popper was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1902. He studied philosophy at the University of Vienna, after which he spent six years as a schoolteacher. It was during this time that he published The Logic of Scientific Discovery, which established him as one of the foremost philosophers of science.
JEAN-PAUL SARTRE Born in Paris, Sartre was just 15 months old when his father died. Brought up by his mother and grandfather, he proved a gifted student, and gained entry to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure.
The existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris in 1908. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne University, and it was here that she met Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom she began a lifelong relationship.
ALBERT CAMUS Camus was born in Algeria in 1913. His father was killed a year later in World War I, and Camus was brought up by his mother in extreme poverty.
By the 1980s, relations between the East and West were thawing, and the Cold War was coming to a close; the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 offered hope for the new decade.
Chomsky was born in 1928 in Pennsylvania, USA, and was raised in a multilingual Jewish household. He studied mathematics, philosophy, and linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, where he wrote a groundbreaking thesis on philosophical linguistics.