By Nikolaus Fogle
Philosophy is a pretty esoteric field of study. For beginning students the wilderness of names, schools, -isms, and assorted jargon can seem to stretch on forever. Often the best way to get oriented is to start with an encyclopedia article.
Falvey Library provides access to an extensive selection of philosophy reference resources, the majority of which are accessible online. These range from large, general works like the MacMillan Encyclopedia of Philosophy, to more specialized ones like the Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy, the Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy and A Dictionary of Continental Philosophy. In nearly all cases the entries are penned by respected scholars who are experts in their fields, so you can be confident that you’re getting top notch knowledge.
Philosophy encyclopedias aren’t just for newcomers, either. Veterans of philosophy will find them helpful too, when they need to refresh their memories about an infrequently used term, or when the search for knowledge carries them into previously unplumbed depths. The encyclopedias also make great leisure reading for the intellectually curious. Seriously. You can learn an awful lot about, say, psychoanalysis, or Derrida, or stoicism, in about twenty minutes. Think of them as a Wikipedia for philosophy that you can actually trust. Here are the three most inclusive ones:
Macmillan’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy is the old workhorse. Falvey currently has both the print and online versions of the 2nd edition, revised in 2006. Its 2,100+ entries cover philosophy from a range of perspectives: there are entries about individual philosophers, entries devoted to various national and regional traditions, as well as ones about specific historical movements, concepts and terms. In the first volume, for instance, you’ll find articles on aesthetics, African philosophy, alterity, Anaxagoras, and artificial intelligence (among other things). As with the Routledge encyclopedia, the bibliographies that accompany each article tend to be useful and manageably sized. The online version is accessible through the Gale Virtual Reference Library, and articles can be viewed in text or PDF formats.
If you’re looking for an insightful first encounter with almost any topic in philosophy, the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy is the place to go. It’s more exhaustive than Stanford, and easier to use than Macmillan. The articles are informative, consistent, and push the reader just a bit toward a deeper understanding of their topic. They also put the most essential information up front, or on the first page, leaving it up to you whether you want to delve deeper or not. The interface is simple and flexible: you can browse for articles by subject, and perform basic or advanced searches. There is also a glossary component that gives brief descriptions of specialized terms, and within each article there is a tab that lists related entries. The only downside of the Routledge encyclopedia is that there is no option for a PDF view, which would make for easier reading.
Finally, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a web-only, continuously-updated encyclopedia that anyone can access. It’s also fully peer-reviewed and the articles are contributed by some of the leading figures in their fields. The SEP tends to assume a higher level of familiarity with philosophy than other encyclopedias, and this can be daunting for newcomers. Authors tend to delve into fine-grained analyses of their topics, more in the style of a journal article than an encyclopedia. And not infrequently they break out long stretches of formal logic. That said, you’ll probably walk away from an SEP article with a deeper understanding of a topic than you otherwise would. The SEP is the place to go for special topics in analytic philosophy, such as rigid designators or zombies, that won’t be covered in much detail by Routledge or MacMillan.
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