13 JUNE 1998, Page 44

The jumbo book of problems

Bryan Magee

THE ROUTLEDGE ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF PHILOSOPHY, (TEN VOLUMES) edited by Edward Craig Routledge, 41,995, pp. 8,136 Isaiah Berlin once told me how he had sat on an Oxford bus behind two middle- aged women, one of whom was pouring out her woes to the other, until finally the other said: 'Well, my dear, you must be philosophical. Don't think about it.' That kept him happy for a week.

I have been kept happy for more than a week by an approach to philosophy of a somewhat more challenging kind, a ten- volume encyclopaedia to be published by Routledge at a price of almost £2,000, though purchasers of it before 31 October will get it for £1,695.

For most of this century Routledge have been more closely associated with philoso- phy than any of Britain's other commercial publishers. In fact they can claim to have published the most outstanding figures of all — Russell, Wittgenstein, Popper. But this encyclopaedia represents far and away the largest-scale project of any sort in the firm's 150-year history — on top of every- thing else an investment of nearly two mil- lion pounds. As one would expect today, the whole thing is also available on a single CD-Rom. Its general editor is someone held in high esteem in the world of philoso- phy, Edward Craig, who only recently, while the encyclopaedia was in the press, was elected Knightbridge Professor of Phi- losophy at Cambridge. The contributors, some 1,300, have been chosen judiciously from every branch and corner of profes- sional philosophy in many countries. So altogether this encyclopaedia comes to us with the highest credentials.

But the field is not empty. An eight- volume encyclopaedia of philosophy pub- lished by Macmillan and also written by distinguished contributors is actively in use throughout the English-speaking world, and has been since its publication in 1967. This means that, whereas many of the peo- ple at work in our universities would con- sider themselves fortunate to have one multi-volume encyclopaedia devoted exclu- sively to their subject, people working in philosophy will from now on have two. This, however, raises the first important difference between them. The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (REP from now on) is not intended only for use by specialists. It is meant as a work of refer- ence that can be used by anyone.

This affects its whole tone and design. Every entry begins with a short summary of its contents which, in the publisher's words, `can be referred to on its own if the reader does not require the depth and detail of the main entry'. And each entry not only ends with a list of book titles but gives us also a brief comment on each book, again obviously meant to be introductory. Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil is described as 'a true masterpiece, but diffi- cult'. In one such sentence we are told that the magnitude of Kant's contribution to philosophy 'boggles the mind', a judgment I share entirely, though I cannot help feel- ing that the expression sits oddly in an encyclopaedia. The populism has been a little overdone.

Nevertheless, Routledge have succeeded in their main aim of producing a multi- volume work of reference that will be accessible and useful to non-specialists. Undergraduates will love it. It assumes no knowledge at all on their part, and will tell them just what they want to know about books to read.

All this contrasts with the Macmillan encyclopaedia, whose entries are more astringent in tone and seem to assume (correctly, I think) that by and large their readers are going to be specialists. However, the main entries in REP are writ- ten to a high intellectual standard and by respected figures: it is just that they are addressed, with conscious aim, to a wider audience. One could express the difference by saying that Routledge will be the one for undergraduates and Macmillan the one for post-graduate students. The great limitation of Macmillan is that its horizons are too narrowly bound by the analytic philosophy that dominated the English-speaking world during the middle third of the century. No one could possibly say this about Routledge. Not only does REP give full, appreciative, unpatronising coverage to continental European philoso- phy, something like a quarter of all the entries are devoted to philosophy outside the Western canon altogether: Arabic, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and so on even African.

Here, again, a good intention has been carried to excess. Some third-world efforts that in truth have developed very little to offer as yet are treated as if they were important because they are third-world. This fits in with a more general political correctness that characterises the choice of entries: many women are included who would not have been had they not been women; issues of gender and of race, and the concerns of post-Marxists, all receive strikingly extensive treatment.

But this has a genuine value, and relates to widespread concerns of our day. Philosophy has moved on in the last 30 years, and has also broadened out; and if a too undiscriminating attention is paid to what may just happen to be currently fashionable, no actual harm is done by this. It will certainly help to sell the encyclopae- dia, especially in the United States. And such a consideration cannot have been absent from the minds of its producers, given that to be viable at all the work needs to sell to most of America's colleges and universities. However, what sells the work will not necessarily be what keeps it 111 habitual use. This, I am pretty sure, will be the consistently reliable quality of its entries on more traditional subjects, together with the usefulness of their read- ing lists. Taken all in all, though, REP has been a hugely worthwhile undertaking, rep- resenting seven years of work on the part of a very large number of people. It will, am sure, be rewarded with the use it deserves. I wish it every success.

Bryan Magee's latest book, Confessions of a Philosopher, is published by Weidenfeld Nicolson.