interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library

A Toolkit for the Life of the Mind

Julian Baggini and Peter S. Fosl. The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods. Second edition. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

[An installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

My sister-in-law has bought me a number of outstanding books for Christmas over the years. This is one of them.

Cover of The Philosopher's Toolkit

I’m not technically a philosopher. I like philosophy, or think I do. I’ve taken a few classes in the Philosophy Department and read some books. I imagine I could hold my own in a conversation about philosophy – as long as it doesn’t get too specialized. But I never had that “methods class” that’s invariably required for majors in a discipline. So this handy volume felt like a remedy for that gap in my education.

This “toolkit” appears to have been compiled primarily as a handbook for that methods class. And it seems like it would fulfill that function well. It takes the reader on a survey of philosophical methods, from basic logic and argumentative moves through various more advanced techniques for assessing and making philosophical arguments, to some of the more contemporary or specialized conceptual technologies [“Foucaultian critique of power,” “Heideggerian critique of metaphysics,” and so on]. Reading it cover to cover made me feel like I was getting a condensed course in philosophical thinking. That’s a good thing, if you like philosophy.

The individual entries are clearly and concisely written, and reasonably entertaining. There are lots of examples. The different topics are nicely contextualized in the history of philosophy and in discussions of the projects in which the ideas normally arise. The individual topics are thoroughly cross-referenced, putting lots of relevant material right at the reader’s fingertips. There are suggestions for further reading at the end of each topic for the reader who wants to learn more. In other words: it’s written for students, or for “educated non-specialists.”

I suspect that professional philosophers might find the contents of this toolkit all a little obvious. On the other hand: can you ever really have too many hex wrenches? And even if you already have a hammer, a screwdriver, a pair of pliers, and whatever, sometimes it’s nice to get a fresh set, with matching handles, all together in one nice, new package that doubles as a carrying case. The Philosopher’s Toolkit might be a little like that: a nifty addition to the reference shelf.

The toolkit presented here feels comprehensive to me, as if I’d know. But I assume Baggini and Fosl, who are themselves professional philosophers, have taken care to make it so. I didn’t get the impression that they were partisans of particular philosophical positions, either, although the text as a whole seems to lean a bit to the analytic side of the analytic-continental divide. I didn’t even feel constantly under attack as a Christian, which can happen sometimes when reading philosophy. There’s one more reference to Alvin Plantinga than to A.J. Ayer, for instance, and the treatment of theist and a-theist positions seemed even-handed to me – although I suppose there may be more than one standard for “even-handedness,” per their discussion of the absolute-relative distinction (144-147).

So, once again – thanks, Sis!

There’s more about these authors online:

Julian Baggini’s website, Microphilosophy

Peter Fosl’s page at Transylvania University

interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library
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