Philosophy: A Christian Introduction, James K. Dew, Jr., and Paul M. Gould, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 254 pages.
Long time readers of my blog might have picked up on a habit that I have – I love to recommend books. With only very few exceptions, every book review that I post has the same bottom line, “buy this book.” Even if I disagree with one or more of the salient points that the author(s) make, I like to read books, ponder books, argue with the authors of books, and to be challenged and provoked by books.
Sadly, I’m going to have to break my custom here.
It’s not that this is a bad book, or one that I disagree wholeheartedly with. It’s just that the book does not accomplish what it sets out to do. And that is really sad, because there is a genuine dearth of books written for the neophyte in philosophy, and especially a book that attempts to tackle the thorny issue of relating philosophy to Christianity.
The authors here begin by saying the right things, and I was excited to believe that maybe I had found a source to share with those who might be looking for a true Christian introduction to philosophy. They admitted that books, and university courses, in philosophy can become overwhelming, confusing, and obscure. They regret that, and believe it does not have to be that way. In the introductory chapter they indicate that their book will bridge the gap between secular philosophical studies and a Christian worldview.
In my estimation, and this is purely my response, I just believe they fall into the first category, and fail to deliver on the second promise.
Regarding the first comment. If a book is going to be an “introduction,” the authors need to assume that the reader knows little or nothing about his, her, or their subject. These authors devote a mere 10 pages to an introductory chapter on philosophy, then immediately jump into the subject of epistemology. “Okay class, I’m going to spend 10 minutes discussing the basics of anatomy, then we are going to all participate in a cardio-vascular operation.” No overview of major philosophers, no quick, down-and-dirty discussion of philosophical schools of thought. Just dive into epistemology, and then run head-long into a section on metaphysics. The third major section is even more head-scratching for an “introduction” – and that is a section on the philosophy of religion. That topic would be fine if it were a concluding chapter (or maybe a brief section), but the last section of the book is devoted to ethics. The general outline of the book just makes no sense to me. My response to this book is, if you already know something about philosophy, it might be valuable. But, then, if you already know something about philosophy, why read an “introduction”?
Also related to my first comment, the authors fall into the obscure, confusing and overwhelming trap of most books on philosophy. Their chapters on “Properties and Universals” and “Particulars” are just mind-numbing. The attempt to make such obscure topics relatable by the introduction of Rosie the chicken was commendable, but even that attempt ended up falling flat. In my opinion (and I am not a professional philosopher, as this review reveals), these topics were just way too complex and advanced to discuss as in-depth as these authors attempted to do. These chapters illustrate perhaps more than any that the authors over-shot the understanding of their assumed audience by a wide margin.
Second, if you put “A Christian Introduction” as the sub-title of your book, then I expect a thorough Christian response to the topics you discuss. In this book there is only the thinnest veneer of a Christian reaction, and even that is limited to a Reformed theology. Although this is a weakness throughout, in one chapter the lack of any biblical, and in this regard, New Testament response, is glaring. That chapter specifically deals with “The Possibility of Life After Death.” You would think, after a general overview of the theories of life extending beyond death, that there would be at least a cursory mention of 1 Corinthians 15. You would be sadly mistaken. After giving grudging credence to the idea that cannibalism might be a legitimate threat to the idea of a resurrected body, the authors do not even mention that the apostle Paul specifically rejects the idea of a reconstituted human, physical body in the resurrection! We will have bodies, Paul makes clear, but what those bodies will consist of Paul makes no effort to define. What he does reject is the reconstitution of our present, physical, human body. This is not the only time that the authors fail to incorporate biblical teaching regarding the topic at hand (the Hebrew concept of nephesh, for example, in the discussion of the soul), but I will argue it is the most egregious.
I’m just sad to say that, with so much potential, and with such a huge need for a book with this intention, it just fails on so many levels. We – the uninformed masses – need a book that introduces the leading framers and topics of philosophy and at the same time builds a bridge between those topics and the Christian worldview. Maybe that introduction is out there and I have just not found it. As well intentioned as this volume is, this is not it either.
For what it is worth, by far and away the best volume I have found to date giving an easy (or at least easier) to understand overview of philosophy, is C. Steven Evans magnum opus, A History of Western Philosophy. (See my review here Book Review – A History of Western Philosophy (C. Stephen Evans) At almost 600 pages long it does not fall into the category of an “introduction,” but it is written on a far more accessible level, and covers the basic fundamentals of philosophy much more completely than Dew and Gould’s book. Also, without overtly attempting to do so, Evans provides a much more comprehensive Christian appraisal of the topics he discusses, something that Dew and Gould fail to do, even though their volume expressly claims that is one of their goals.
I really, really, do not like being negative about a book. I strive to find the positive even in books where I disagree with the author(s). As I have stated many times, I can learn very little new from someone with whom I already agree 100%, so it is not that I just disagree with these authors. But, the book makes two significant promises – one, that it is an introduction to philosophy, and two, that it includes a Christian response. On the first promise the book just becomes too obscure and confusing, and on the second, it just whiffs.