What do we really know? What is real? Does life have a meaning? Do you have free will? These are just a few philosophical questions, there are hundreds more. They are called “philosophical questions” because they can’t be answered once and for all and have occupied philosophers for almost three thousand years. You don’t have to be a philosopher to ask questions like these, although you may feel like one if you read this book!
The Handy Philosophy Answer Book has hundreds of entries about specific philosophers and their ideas. Each entry begins with a question about the philosopher, school of thought or time period, which goes to the heart of his, her, or its importance, followed by an answer, which is also a short overview of the main ideas in the chapter. And each section within an entry also begins with a key question. This answer is followed by further questions, and answers. Each question and answer can be read independently, or as part of its broader context.
But you don’t have to read the whole book to answer a question about a philosopher or an idea. If you go to the index and look up a name or a subject, you will know what page to find it on. The main part of the book, a Who’s Who and What’s What in Philosophy, is divided into ten historical chapters, from ancient philosophy to the present day. The table of contents, index, and glossary, can all be used as guides to the chapters.
If you don’t know what a philosophical word or idea means, you can find the answer in the glossary, a series of explanations and definitions of key terms, historical periods, schools of thought, and other “isms” in philosophy.
Philosophy is largely a matter of philosophers’ opinions and they rarely agree, but they do respect each other’s expert opinions. (This book is written by a professor of philosophy.) The bibliography contains a list of sources for the different philosophers, periods of philosophy, main subjects, and other reference material.
You can use this book in different ways. If you want to learn the history of philosophy, you can read through the chapters in order. If you are interested in building a philosophical vocabulary, you can begin with the Glossary, first. If you are just interested in a particular period or school of thought, you can concentrate on that.
If you are interested in all of this material as an introduction to philosophy, or to refresh what you already know, you should read the whole book from cover to cover (at least once) and then track down the material in the bibliography that further interests you.
If you are still interested after you have done all that (that is, if the philosophy bug really bites into you), it might be a good idea to take a philosophy course if you are a student, or enroll in one at a local college, if your formal student days are behind you. A good part of philosophy lies in live conversation, so it’s important to find a context where you can talk to others who share your interests in this subject. If you are not enrolled in a course, there may be a philosophy club that meets regularly where you live, or you could look for such a group on the Internet.
—Naomi Zack, Ph.D.