Book Review: Looking at Philosophy – By Donald Palmer


Letter IIcame across this book as one of the required readings for an introduction of world thought. If one is looking for a introduction to philosophy, a survey of philosophical ideas or a history of philosophy text there are certainly no shortage of them in print. Some of them are more in depth than others (though being survey texts must always stay somewhat superficial),  most are given from differing perspectives, and each has their ups and downs. While Donald Palmer‘s Looking at Philosophy also has its ups and downs, as an introductory or survey text he does well at separating himself from the group, for good or for bad, depending on whether you like how he goes about it.

The chief goal of this text, as the subtitle makes clear, is to make philosophy lighter. The goal here seems twofold: on the one hand to make philosophic ideas more accessible, and on the other to make tackle them in a more light-hearted manner.  This latter goal often turns readers away from this text, mainly due to the font and surplus of comic-type pictures, but if you can either get past this or simply take it for what it is it’s worth it.

That said, this is an introductory survey text, and as such doesn’t deeply discuss any one philosophy presented, but rather traces the overarching development of Western philosophy throughout the course of history, from the Pre-Socratics up to Post-Structuralism.

Palmer offers insight and humor in what little space available, doing well to pierce to the heart of many philosophies. Being a survey text and being a brief survey text at that, Palmer’s text also has the unique advantage of giving the reader a solid overview of the development of philosophy and where each individual philosophy fits into the overall schema, of patterns over history and of the manner in which philosophies tend to recur in different forms over time. For an introductory text it is excellent, especially for the individual who feels threatened by the weight of the subject – Palmer is excellent at breaking down the ideas and presenting them in a fun manner. If philosophy courses were to be taught in high school (and perhaps they are now) I think this would make an excellent text book for the age group, or for introductory college courses as well.

Simply, I’d recommend it for anybody who’s not well-versed in philosophy and wants to look into the subject. It’s shallow, yes, but that’s its goal, and it succeeds in what it aims to do.

Memorable Quotes:

“Suddenly, with Protagoras’s ‘man is the measure’, humans became interested in themselves.” (p49)

“Philosophy is long; life is short.” (p165)

“What was there before philosophy, before Logos? There was Mythos – a certain way of thinking that placed the world in the context of supernatural origins.” (p2)

Specific Criticisms

My first criticism of this book is that it is often difficult to tell when Palmer is presenting an actual fact regarding the philosopher or philosophy in question, and when he is attempting humor. At various points I found myself stopping to consider whether he was being serious. Another criticism might be that he gets the facts wrong at some points. Whether this is due to the survey nature of the text or due to an error on the part of the author I can’t say in all cases, though many seem to be the latter. Some such examples might include stating matter-of-factually that the Apostle John didn’t write the book of Revelation, that Tertullian‘s line of thought literally was believing something because it is absurd,  [in my opinion] stating the ability to isolate essences from substances, and not accounting for the context of Machiavelli‘s The Prince (as if that strategy was his normal preference).

My final and greatest criticism of this text is that there is no ‘Conclusion’ chapter. There is no wrapping up, no final statements or viewpoint given; the book simply ends with the discussion on Irigaray. Perhaps a conclusion was offered in later editions (I read the third edition, the fifth is now available), but this really was the biggest annoyance for me.



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