A Very Short Introduction
Edward Craig
Oxford University Press, New York (USA), 2003
132 pages, including index

This book is called a very short introduction to philosophy, But, as I hope is now becoming clear, I can't exactly introduce you to philosophy, because you are already there. Nor can I exactly introduce you to philosophy, because there is far too much of it. No more could I 'show you London'. I could show you a few bits of it, perhaps mention a handful of other main attractions, and leave you on your own with a street map and some information about other guided tours. That's pretty much what I propose to do for philosophy.

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, p. 9)

Chapter 2: What should I do?, on Plato's Crito

Now a lot of very different points are raised very quickly (and left half dealt with —Crito is not written like a well-constructed lecture, but much more like a real conversation). Socrates responds by saying that one shouldn't bother about what 'people' think; the opinion that should matter to us is that of reasonable people with a clear view of the facts. 'We can't afford to take that line,' says Crito, 'majority opinion is too powerful.' 'On the contrary,' Socrates replies, 'as regards what really matters the majority don't have much power at all.' And what really matters, apparently, is whether one is wise or foolish (44d).

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, p. 15)

Concluding chapter 2:

Some people expect philosophy to tell us the answers to moral problems. But unless it can somehow impose simplicity on the complexities we have been looking at, the prospects for that don't look good. For it would have to show us, convincingly, that there was just one right way to balance out all the various considerations. Socrates was going for simplification when (starting at 48c) he tried to make the whole thing turn on just one issue. Kant, whom I mentioned earlier (p. 18) went for simplification in basing morality on a single principle closely related to the familiar 'what would happen if everyone did that?' Some try to simplify in another way, adivising us not to think in terms of duties and obligations but only of the consequences of our own proposed actions for everyone whom they will affect. We shall see more of this kind of view in Chapter 5.

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, p. 23)

Chapter 3, How do we know?, on Hume's Of Miracles:

Before we look at the argument itself, one more question: why does Hume find it important to write about the evidence for miracles? It is part of his plan for a systematic treatment of the grounds of religious belief, and it was customary to think of these as being of two kinds. On the one hand there were those which human beings, going on their own experience and using their own reason, could work out for themselves. On the other, there were those that came from revelation, that is to say from a sacred text or some other authority. But these present a further problem, because you could have fraudulent texts and bogus authorities; so how to tell the genuine ones? The answer was that genuine revelations are connected with the occurrence of miracles: hence their importance, as certificates of religious authority. (Ultimately, they are issued by the highest possible authority; the widely accepted view, which Hume here takes over, had it that miracles were violations of laws of nature, and therefore could only be performed by God or those God had entrusted with divine powers.) That we can never have good reason to believe in a miracle was therefore a pretty subversive claim; it amounted to saying that human reason cannot tell the bona-fide revelation from the bogus.

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, pp. 27-28)

Perhaps you can see the shape of Hume's argument beginning to appear. Given what its role is to be un underpinning religious belief, a miraculous event must surely be one which our experience tells us is highly improbable. For if it were the sort of thing that can quite easily happen, then any old charlatan with a bit of luck or good timing could seize the opportunity to qualify as having divine authority. But if it is highly improbable, only the most reliable testimony will be strong enough to establish it. Forced to choose between two improbabilities the wise, who as Hume tells us proportion belief to evidence, will opt for the alternative they find less improbable. So this will have to be the testimony of such witness, that its falsehood would be more improbable than the occurrence of the events it relates. And that is a tall order, since, as we have seen, the events must be very improbable indeed.

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, p. 29)

Chapter 4: What am I?, based on a Buddhist text on the idea of the self, Questions of King Milinda. Yes, terms like "person", "being" or "self" are conventional, but the message goes beyond that.

Indeed they are. This is not about the conventionality of language; it is about wholes and their parts, and the point is that wholes are in a sense less real, less objective, and more a matter of convention, than are the parts that compose them. To begin with, the parts are independent in a way that the whole is not: the axle can exist without the chariot existing, but not the chariot without the axle. (As the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) said much later, wholes have only a 'borrowed' reality —borrowed from the reality of their parts.) Furthermore, what counts as a whole is not given by nature, but depends to some extent on us and our purposes. If from a chariot we remove the pole and one of the wheels, the collection of parts that remains is not incomplete in itself, but only with regard to what we want chariots for.

But why does all this matter? Why did Nagasena provoke this conversation in the first place? Not just to pass the time, we may be sure. The point is important to him because he holds that what we believe has an effect on our attitudes and through them on our behaviour. That, surely, is perfectly reasonable: those, for instance, who believe that the word 'God' stands for something real might be expected to feel and perhaps also behave differently from those who think it is just a socially constructed way of speaking. To use the jargon: our metaphysics (what we think reality is fundamentally like) can affect our ethics. Now on the Buddhist view the purpose of philosophy (indeed the purpose of Buddhism) is to alleviate suffering; there is no point in it if it doesn't. And a major cause of suffering is overestimation of the importance of the self, its needs, and its goals: 'clinging to self', as Buddhists say. So any change of belief which downgrades the status of the self in our eyes is helpful. A Tibetan text says: 'Believing the ego to be permanent and separate, one becomes attached to it;...this brings on defilements; the defilements breed bad karma; the bad karma breeds miseries...'. That is why it matters.

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, pp. 42-43)

Chapter 5 is a mish-mash of different philosophical topics. The first one is ethical consequentialism:

So the idea is that something is good if it has good consequences, bad if it has bad ones. But, you will immediately notice, that doesn't tell us much; we still need to be told which consequences are good ones, which are bad ones. Just repeating the formula (saying: consequences are good when they themselves have good consequences) gets us no further. A consequentialist must be willing to recommend certain things, or states of affairs, as being good in themselves. In their case, goodness does not consist in having good consequences —they just are good. Other things are good only to the extent that they lead to them —the things that are good in themselves.

That means that consequentialism isn't any single ethical doctrine, but a general type of doctrine which can take very different specific forms depending on what is held to be good in itself. If you think that the only thing good in itself is pleasure you will live very differently from someone who thinks that the only thing good in itself is knowledge. So even if we could all agree to be consequentialist in our ethical thinking, very little would have been settled.


No surprise, then, that there have been ethical theories of just that kind. An early one, well worth readinbg about, is that of Epicurus (341-271 BC). For him and his followers, the one and only thing valuable in itself was pleasure. But don't expect him to recommend orgies and banquets interspersed with periods of relaxation on the beach of our private island. Because what Epicurus meant by pleasure was not that at all: it was absence of pain, both physical and mental. This completely untroubled state, he thought, was as great a pleasure as any. What we immediately think of as pleasures are jus different, not more pleasant. This point, and his advice on how to achieve and maintain the ideal state, he appears to have argued for with subtlety and wisdom. I say 'appears', because we have very little from his own hand; although he wrote prolifically, our knowledge of him mostly comes from later reports.

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, pp. 46-47)

A second topic of discussion is that of integrity:

These thoughts capture a central aspect of the virtue of integrity. Integrity means wholeness, unity; the idea of integrity as a value is the idea of a life lived as a whole rather than as a series of disconnected episodes. So it includes steadfast adherence to principles, and to opinions unless new reasons or evidence appear. Relatedly (and equally applicable to Socrates' case) it includes the value of consistent pursuit of those chosen projects which give purpose and meaning to one's life. And it can also be taken to exclude self-deception and hypocrisy, states in which people are in one way or another at odds with themselves.

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, p. 49)

Next, political authority and the contract theory:

Now most political theorists hodl that the State does have some legitimate authority, though there is less agreement about how much —in other words, about how far this authority can extend whilst remaining legitimate. Opinions range from totalitarian conceptions, which assign to the State power over all aspects of individuals' lives, to minimalist conceptions, according to which it can do what is necessary to keep the peace and enforce any contracts its members may make with each other, and scarcely anything more. But except for the very few who jump off the bottom end of this scale ('States have no legitimate authority at all'), everyone faces the question how State authority over individuals arises.

An answer with along history —we have already seen a version of it in Crito— is that it asrises out of some kind of contract or agreement between individuals and the state of which they are citizens. It is a very natural answer. A person might agree to accept the authority of another (in a certain area of activity) because he saw substantial benefit (for himself) in doing so, and in return for that benefit. Most would accept that such an arrangement legitimates the other's authority over him as far as their agreement reaches, provided that agreement was voluntary. Though natural, it is not the only answer worth considering. Another would be that the stronger has natural authority over the weaker, and this authority is legitimate so long as it is used for the weaker's benefit. That might be a good way to think of parents' authority over their infant children, for instance. But if we allow the weaker to be the judges of whether they are benefiting or not, then we are very close to saying that the power is legitimate only so long as they acccept it. Whereupon we are back in the neighbourhood of a 'tacit consent' theory, like the one that the Laws and State of Athens apppealed to against Socrates (p. 20 above). Unless we allow that superior force makes authority legitimate ('might is right'), or that God has granted authority to certain persons or institutions (the 'divine right of kings'), it isn't easy to avoid the contract theory in some form or other.

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, pp. 50-51)

On evidence and rationality:

Why should we be interested in having evidence, or being able to offer reasons, for our beliefs? Because it makes it more likely that they will be true; and it makes us more confident that they are true. Both are important. We want our beliefs to be true, because we use them to direct our actions, and actions directed by true beliefs are on the whole far more successful. (Compare the actions, and the success rate, of two people both wanting a beer: one believes —falsely— that the beer is in the fridge, the other believes —truly— that it is still in the car.) And it helps if we hold our true beliefs confidently, because then we go ahead and act on them, rather than dithering about.

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, p. 54)

On the self (already discussed in chapter 4):

So suppose there is some simple, independently enduring thing —you— which just continues the same so long as you exist. Where is it? Look into your own mind and see if you can perceive it. What do you find? In the first place, you notice that you are experiencing a motley of perceptions: visual perceptions of the way your surroundings look, auditory perceptions of the way they sound, perhaps also a few smells, tactual sensations of pressure, roughness, warmth, and suchlike, from touching nearby objects. Then sensations of tension in certain muscles, awareness of bodily movements. All these are continually changing as your position changes and surrounding objects themselves change. You might also feel a slight ache in your foot, or in your forehead; and be aware of a train of thought, perhaps as images or a silent sequence of half-formed sentences. But there is no sign, in this shifting kaleidoscopic complex, of that object 'the self', just steadfastly persisting.

Why then suppose that there is such a thing? Well, someone will say, it's clear that all these experiences, my experiences, somehow belong together; and there are other experiences, those that are not mine but yours, which also belong together but don't belong with this lot. So there must be one thing, me, my self, which is having all my experiences but isn't having any of yours, and another thing, your self, doing the reverse.

Supporters of the bundle theory reply that nothing of the kind follows. What makes all my experiences hang together doesn't have to be a relation they all stand in to something else; it might be some system of relationship that they all stand in to each other (but don't stand in to any of yours). Think of a lot of shreds of paper which form one group by virtue of being pinned to the same pincushion (the model of the central self) —and a collection of iron filings which form one bunch because they are all magnetized and therefore cling together (the model of the bundle).

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, pp. 56-57)

Philosophy and historical context:

I certainly don't wish to recommend the belief that there are eternal questions just hanging around waiting to be asked. But the view that no question or answer has any existence beyond the specific circumstances of whoever poses it is possibly even worse, and certainly no better. Part of the attraction of such extremes is that they are very simple, somewhat in the pantimime style of 'Oh yes it is - Oh no it isn't'. As so often, the truth lies in between, and is much more complicated. One can approach this topic in many ways, but I'll choose this way: is it legitimate to treat the thought of someone long since dead as a contribution to a present debate, as if it were being put to us, here and now? I think it is, and that there are even reasons why we should. But it needs to be done with care and —most importantly— with an eye to what we may be missing.

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, pp. 58-59)

I hope that you are now beginning to notice something rather encouraging. The literature of philosophy may be intimidatingly vast, but the number of genuinely distinct philosophical themes is not. It is somewhat too large for the compass of this very short book, admittedly, but it is not enormous. We have already seen links across 2,000 years between Epicurus and Mill, Plato and Hobbes, Hume and the author of Milinda. The problem lies not in becoming familiar with the recurrent themes, but in being sensitive to variations as different thinkers play them again in their own way for their own purposes. And what this means is that one's understanding of philosophy is cumulative, and accumulates rather quickly. Which must be good news.

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, p. 60)

Chapter 6 deals with different isms: dualism, idealism, materialism, empiricism, rationalism and, finally, skepticism. Let us transcribe a relevant quote about this latter philosophical movement:

Nowadays one often hears it asked what the point of a comprehensive scpeticism could be —asked rhetorically, with the implication that it can have no point whatever. But the pyrrhonists certainly thought that their scepticism had a point: the achievement of tranquility of mind, untroubledness, ataraxia. They knew a thing or two about peace of mind. If you want to insist on the truth of your point of view, remember that there is a cost: life is going to be a perpetual intellectual brawl. And if the brawl stays intellectual, you'll have been lucky; especially in religion and politics, these things have been known to end in bombs and burnings. I think they knew something else as well: moving from how things immediately appear to our senses to what they are really like is a much slower, more hazardous and labrious enterprise than many of their contemporaries realized.

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, pp. 71-72)

Chapter 7, titled Some more high spots, is a personal selection of four philosophers and topics that the author also considers quite interesting to consider: René Descartes and Discourse on the Method, Hegel and his philosophy of History, Darwin and On the Origin oif Species and, finally, Nietzsche and his On the Genealogy of Morals. First of all, in the case of Descartes, the author emphasizes that the philosopher departed from the Aristotelian tradition that dominated the Middle Ages:

RenĂ© Descartes (1596-1650) viewed Aristotelianism as a time-hallowed system of errors. So did the sceptics, but unlike them he also took it to be an obstacle —an obstacle to human knowledge of nature, like scepticism itself. So he conceived an ambitious plan. (Had he known just how ambitious he might have stopped in his tracks there and then —so we should be grateful that he didn't.) By going back to a point at which no doubt was even possible and then rebuilding human knowledge by unmistakable steps he would fight his way clear of scepticism, and presumably of Aristotelianism as well, since he had no expectations that his reconstruction would lead back in that old, worn, faltering direction. Then he would illustrate the value of this heroic Great Escape of the human intellect by demostrable progress in the sciences: optics, physics, physiology, and metereology were all topics that he wrote about.

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, p. 76)

On Hegel's philosophy of History:

Notice that there is very little comfort here for the individual. The Idea is to come to self-knowledge, and this it must do in human minds, which are the only vehicle around, but no particular human mind is of any concern to it whatever. History throws individuals away once they have served their turn. That is even, or especially, true of world-historical individuals: 'their end attained they fall aside like empty husks'. Julius Caesar did his bit —and was assassinated. Napoleon did his —then was defeated, captured, and sent to ron on Elba. An individual is no more than a dispensable isntrument. God, supposedly, loves each one of us, but the Idea couldn't care less, so long as there are some of us, and they are doing its business. So it is hard to see Hegelianism becoming a popular mass philosophy, for all its huge influence.

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, p. 86)

On Darwin and natural selection and social darwinism:

The nineteenth century enthusiasm for progress, to which the philosophy of Hegel gave such momentum, predisposed many to understand Darwin as part of the same progressivist movement. His younger contemporary Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), a man of a much more metaphysical, even somewhat Hegelian turn of mind, really was part of it. He was the inventor of the overworked phrase 'the survival of the fittest', which can easily be understood as implying that those who survive in the struggle for existence are superior to those who do not. He himself seems to have taken it like that, for in the name of progress he opposed anything that would lessen the intensity of the struggle, like social welfare arrangements.

This kind of thought turned into a movement known as Social Darwinism. The name is inappropriate to the point of being slanderous. Darwin never drew such conclusions, nor would he have done, for no such thing follows. In his system the words 'the fittest' simply mean: those best fitted to survive (and reproduce) under the conditions then obtaining. They have nothing to do with moral, or intellectual, or aesthetic superiority; and they mean nothing at all without the rider 'under the conditions then obtaining'. If those conditions change, yesterday's 'fittest' may be tomorrow's no-hopers. One of the many problems about making social application of natural selection like Spencer is that changes in human society can so easily produce changes in the conditions under which they themselves arose. Is the internal combustion engine 'fitter' than the horse and cart? In a sense, yes, but only so long as it doesn't run the world out of oil.

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, pp. 89-91)

And then on Nietzsche and On the Genealogy of Morals, one of the most controversial works of philosophy ever, where he deepened the old tradition of seeing morals as systems of ideas that promote those behaviors that benefit society (in other words, they are not viewed as an absolute, but rather as social principles whose origins can be traced back).

On the face of it that sounds quite plausible: a society reinforces what is beneficial to it. But Nietzsche regarded it as sentimental, unhistorical claptrap. Drawing on his expert knowledge of ancient languages (he had had, and then abandoned, a meteoric academic career) he told a very different tale. Far from it being those who received benefits from the behavior of others who then called those others (and their behaviour) 'good', it was the upper classes, the aristocracy, the nobility, the rulers of ancient societies who first called themselves (and their way of life) good and the ordinary people, the slaves, the subject population, bad. Early good/bad distinctions are perhaps better understood as distinctions between 'noble' and 'base', free and enslaved, leaders and led, the washed and the unwashed. They were the words in which the top dogs celebrated themselves, their strength, and their own way of life, and expressed the extent of the gap that they felt between themselves and the weak, impoverished, servile masses.

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, p. 95)

The final chapter, titled What's in it for whom?, discusses how most philosophies "do something for somebody" (p. 101), and goes on to talk about a few of these "somebodies": the individual, the State, the priests, the working classes, women, animals and, finally, the professional philosophers themselves. Along the way, of course, Craig refers to a few thinkers who are relevant to those topics: Epicurus, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jeremy Bentham. The way Craig connects Epicurus to a philosopher who wrote many centuries later (John Stuart Mill) is, I think, quite relevant:

Epicurus taught the individual to be inwardly armed against whatever may befall. Over 2,000 years later John Stuart Mill wrote a stirring defence of every individual's right to shape their own ife. In his famous essay On Liberty (1859) he argued for what has become known as the Harm Principle: 'the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community... is to prevent harm to others'. As democratic systems of government became better entrenched in Europe and America they also became better understood, and Mill had spotted a latent danger: the tyranny of the majority over the individual and over minority groups.

(Edward Craig: Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, p. 103)

Craig closes the book calling not to confuse philosophy with the professional philosophers who now work in academia and all too often get lost in debates over technicalities. In the end, he thinks (and I agree), philosophy does not belong in the realm of the utterly abstract, but rather in the here and now. It ought to affect our daily lives, at least if we bother to live a reflected life, instead of going around as mere automatons.

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