Dr. Michael J. Vlach
My exposure to philosophy as an academic discipline was virtually nil during my former educational years. I had zero introduction to philosophy in junior high and high school. In college I was required to take one basic intro to philosophy class; however it was a futile waste of time and my parent’s money.
My class was taught by a stocky, sickly pale professor with eyebrow dandruff. He would pace restlessly back and forth in front of the class room spitting out nuggets of undefined philosophical jargon like a David Hume pez dispenser, while the students, absolutely at a loss as to what he was saying, doodled in their note books. When he paused his pacing long enough to “engage” a student with a question, he created moments of awkwardness. He had one lazy eye that would fix his gaze slightly over your right shoulder so you were unsure he was asking you the question or the person sitting behind you in the next row. The only real understanding of philosophy we received in the class was the time an atheist guy got into a tense discussion about the reality of the human soul with a girl who claimed to have had three near death experiences. THREE, mind you.
Any philosophy I learned I had to teach myself from my personal reading. I imagine many of my regular readers have had similar educational experiences with the subject of philosophy. Unless you plan to go into a specialized study of the subject, you more than likely won’t learn much about Aristotle, Plato, and Descartes. And yet having a basic knowledge of these individuals are fundamentally important to understanding how their ideas have shaped our society.
To help inform the philosophically ignorant masses, Dr. Michael Vlach, assistant professor of theology at the Master’s Seminary, has put together a handy book that introduces the reader to 101 of the key people and ideas through out the historical development of philosophy. Each entry is brief, maybe a page or two, like an expanded glossary; however, they cover the necessary background to various individuals like Socrates, Thales, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Popper, as well as the major ideas of these thinkers like stoicism, deism, nihilism, and logical positivism.
At the beginning of each section, the author summarizes the subject with a succinct definition, what would be the “big idea.” For instance, under “philosophy,” the “big idea” is summarized as, “Philosophy is the attempt to think rationally and critically about the most important matters in life.” Each section, including the biographical ones, has a similar defining “big idea” that I found helpful as a quick reference.
The book is brief, just coming under 200 pages, and though it is meant to be a non-technical beginner’s introduction, I found it to be a bit too brief. Perhaps that is just me. I certainly would have enjoyed the book more if the entries were at least double the length. Also, I wanted more bibliographical information. The author lists just four additional books for further study at the end, but the book would had been more profitable, at least in my estimation, if each individual section listed recommended works. For example, after the entry for Ayn Rand, I would like to know what books about her are recommended, perhaps a quick list of her major works.
Those weakness aside, the book over all is well done and certainly helpful. I know for myself, if I were teaching a class on philosophy, I would have my students read through it for the overview they would receive. As a reference tool, it will definitely be an excellent source for college pastors who think to do a series on apologetics with their kids. Also, I believe it would be fun to see Dr. Vlach do additional series on a variety of subjects, like the 101 important theologians and theological ideas.
There is a website available to promote the book. As far as I know, the book can only be purchased through the site. Moreover, for those who are planning on teaching a primer course on philosophy, and need some lecture resources, Dr. Vlach has a CD with a major powerpoint presentation. I know that will be something I plan to purchase for the future.