Introduction to Philosophical Inquiries


Introduction to Philosophical Inquiries, by Tibor R. Machan, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1977, 365 pp., $8.95 (pb).

Tibor Machan has written an introduction to philosophy that is both approachable and philosophically substantial. Perhaps only those who have tried to teach introductory courses in philosophy can know what an achievement this is. Unlike many of its best competitors, this book really is an introduction to its subject. Professor Machan makes no assumptions about his reader, except that he has a certain measure of intelligence and can understand theories. He does not assume that the reader knows what philosophy is, nor that he is already interested in any of the topics treated within it.

The book covers an enormous range of subjects in relatively little space, economically, and at times with elegance. There are chapters on metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of logic (an unusual subject for an introductory text, but an important one), and ethics. There is a long chapter on political philosophy. Unlike perhaps any other introduction to philosophy, this one gives a substantial amount of attention to libertarianism and anarchism and discusses several versions of these ideas seriously and fairly.

Perhaps the most distinctive parts of the book are the first chapter and the epilogue, which explain what philosophy is and defend its importance. Here we find that Machan's attitude toward philosophy is a rather peculiar one in today's context: he believes that philosophy is valuable practically, because it seeks the truth about matters of absolute importance. "Philosophy is not an idle game for the clever," nor is it a series of mind-building mental exercises. It is "essentially serious." Metaphysics is about the nature of reality, epistemology is about the nature of knowledge (not just: whether there ever is such a thing), ethics is about how we should live, political philosophy is about how communities should be organized. Since these matters touch all of us, everyone should familiarize himself with philosophy to some extent. It is not a luxury or an amusement for the few. In the epilogue the author argues convincingly that, although it is quite possible that all philosophical theories will always be controversial, there is reason to hope that by thinking about them we can find the truth about these important subjects.

The style of the book is perfectly in harmony with the point of view it represents: although it is simple and straightforward and creates no unnecessary difficulties for the beginner, it has none of the breezy hipsterism of so many introductions to philosophy. The reader is not allowed to forget that, although philosophy is interesting, it is serious.

Considerable stress is given to argumentation. Professor Machan does not regard philosophical theories merely as a series of "isms" that should be mastered as a part of one's liberal education. His primary aim is always to aid us in deciding, rationally, which positions are true. He carefully shows the plausibility of each one, as well as the difficulties each one inevitably encounters. This is true of the theories he himself believes. We are led through a maze of ideas by a competent guide with a clear idea of where he is directing us.

I recommend Introduction to Philosophical Inquiries to anyone who wants to know what philosophy is and why some people take it so seriously. I might add that I have used it in teaching a freshman course in philosophy, and the students found it interesting and understandable.