Agenda-Setting, Area-Defining, Influential Philosophy Textbooks


Philosophy textbooks—anthologies or introductory-level commentaries—can take on roles beyond the pedagogical purposes for which they’re put together. Through editorial and authorial choices of inclusion and exclusion such works can define or clarify fields of study, canonize specific works, identify a subdiscipline’s central problems, and, depending on uptake, set the agenda for future work in the area.

In a post at his blog, Digressions & Impressions, Eric Schliesser discusses Readings in Philosophical Analysis, a 1949 anthology edited by Herbert Feigl and Wilfrid Sellars that, he says, “sets the agenda for the other textbooks [of the era], and simultaneously helps consolidate, roughly, what counts as analytic philosophy (or in modern philosophical analysis) and not.” The book was over 600 pages long, with 42 pieces in it (journal articles and book excerpts). (See this brief review of it in The Philosophical Review.) Schliesser also mentions (at the suggestion of Alan Richardson), Semantics and the Philosophy of LanguageA Collection of Readings, a 1953 volume edited by Leonard Linsky that while itself is “not the definitive canon” still “clearly anticipates much of the early canon of the philosophy (of language centered) proseminar.”

What are other examples of area-defining or agenda-setting or otherwise influential textbooks in philosophy?

I’d nominate Will Kymlicka‘s Contemporary Political Philosophy, the original edition of which was published in 1991 (an updated version appeared a decade later), which drew out a set of philosophical disputes and concerns that had emerged in political philosophy over the previous 20 years, and which—in part because (it seems) so many future political philosophers read it as students—would continue to be central to political philosophy, even as the discipline changed, for another 20. I’d be curious to hear if others in political philosophy agree.

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The Doctor
20 days ago

James and Stuart Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy. Among other things, it contains a collection of arguments against moral relativism that are still widely discussed.Report

Matt L
Reply to  The Doctor
19 days ago

It’s a good (series of) book(s), but also wildly over-priced, and perhaps the best current example of shameless “Copiwriting”: copiwrite, v. To come out with a revised edition for some purpose (e.g. to remove
inconsistency or cut off the used book market).Report

Sam Duncan
Reply to  Matt L
19 days ago

Matt L, I was going to say exactly this. But I think it’s even worse than you make out. It would be one thing if the new editions were improvements, even if the improvements were too minor to justify the cost, but they’re not. The new editions just seem increasingly bloated and I actually find the old ones that James Rachels wrote quite a bit better than the new ones Stuart has Copiwrote so many times.Report

Nathan
20 days ago

A lot of the old Prentice Hall textbooks were like that: Chisholm’s epistemology text, Taylor’s metaphysics, didn’t Frankena have an ethics textbook with that? Maybe others?Report

Margaret Atherton
Margaret Atherton
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
20 days ago

Alston’s Philosophy of Language in the same series is also a defining volume,I think.Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
20 days ago

Definitely Chisholm’s and Taylor’s for sure.Report

Robert Muhlnickel
Robert Muhlnickel
Reply to  Nathan
19 days ago

Certainly Chisolm and Taylor were agenda setting. Feinberg’s Social Philosophy and Frankena’s Ethics seem too much of their time to be influential in later years. Rawls and the move to applied ethics opened areas of interest that Frankena didn’t seem relevant to.Report

Matt L
Reply to  Nathan
19 days ago

Hemple’s Philosophy of Natural Science, Hick’s Philosophy of Religion, and (maybe) Quine’s _Philosophy of Logic_ (It was later re-published on its own, but sort of thing Quine’s approach to these issues was alread moving to the background by that time) were also pretty influential, I think.Report

R.V.
20 days ago

Harman’s The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, maybe? The argument from the chapter “Ethics and observation” has been pretty influential in metaethics.Report

doris
Reply to  R.V.
19 days ago

Yep. The central argument in that chapter only takes a paragraph, but it incited the “moral explanations” literature, including Harman’s famous exchange on the topic with Nick Sturgeon.Report

Kevin DeLapp
20 days ago

Wing-tsit Chan’s Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy (1963) was, I think, one of the first comprehensive English-language anthologies. It provided a common cannon of readings that were accessible even for non-sinologists, thereby helping pave the way for the increased mainstreaming of Chinese philosophy.

And Virtue & Vice in Everyday Life (1985), by Christina and Fred Sommers, might have been one of the first ethics readers to prominently include literary, anthropological, and non-Western selections alongside the usual excerpts from the history of ethical theory.Report

Jeff Yoshimi
20 days ago

I was under the impression that Martinich’s philosophy of language anthology was at least area consolidating, but it’s not my area and I have no idea if that’s true. So now I’m curious if others know: did it play some role in defining or consolidating the main lines of research in philosophy of language?Report

Jason Stanley
Jason Stanley
Reply to  Jeff Yoshimi
14 days ago

This is correctReport

Jeff
20 days ago

Cheshire Calhoun’s Setting the Moral Compass. Each chapter is enjoyable to read on its own and as an introduction to a sub-field of feminist moral philosophy. I read this book when it came out, hoping to teach myself about the field. Not only do the chapters serve that introductory purpose, but I return to several of these chapters still, always finding something new in them. And to return to Regina Rini’s summer post about the quality of writing in the discipline of philosophy, many of the chapters are not only excellent philosophy but extremely good writing. Finally, many of these chapters teach extremely well.Report

Martin Lenz
20 days ago

The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy, edited by A. Kenny, N. Kretzmann, and J. Pinborg, in 1982 depicted itself as wanting “to end the era during which [medieval philosophy had] been studied in a philosophical ghetto …” (p. 3)

It certainly succeeded in changing the field by luring in many people working in (the philosophy of) logic and the philosophy of language and mind.Report

Last edited 20 days ago by Martin Lenz
Grad Student
20 days ago

I’ve never read it myself, but isn’t the easy answer here Russell’s Problems of Philosophy? As far as I understand, it was an intro book that was both used at universities and high schools for a good chunk of the 1900s, and also a book that people who weren’t students also read. I still very occasionally see citations of it in more contemporary journal articles. I’d also guess that it was agenda setting for Oxbridge and US east coast oxbridge emulators during that time period too.Report

Sam Duncan
20 days ago

Even though it’s not the textbook I would use for a bioethics class, Beauchamp and Childress’s “Principles of Bioethics” in its many, many editions has definitely done a lot to set the agenda in bioethics.
People who actually specialize in logic can set me right if I’m wrong about this, but I feel like Barwise and Etchemendy’s “Language, Proof, and Logic” was pretty revolutionary in how well it used technology to teach the material. It came out in 2000 and I think and it still does a better job of this than practically any of the logic books I’ve looked at that have learning programs of various sorts. (It’s way beyond what my 100 level logic students could manage or I’d use it myself).Report

Stephen John
Stephen John
Reply to  Sam Duncan
14 days ago

I think this comment about Beauchamp and Childress is spot-on. In fact, I think there’s a sense of “influence” as meaning something like having impact outside philosophy and outside academia, in which their book might be the most influential work of practical philosophy of the second-half of the Twentieth Century. Certainly, it’s rare to find a medic who can’t recite the “Georgetown mantra” or read a report on some new technology which isn’t indebted to their approach.

Note that, in making this comment, I’m not saying that Principles is the best work! Nor that its influence is entirely benign! There are many books I think a lot better, and there’s a lot wrong with principles-based medical ethics theory and practice. On the other hand, whenever I reread sections, I’m struck by their philosophical sophistication and subtlety. I suspect that the book’s reputation among philosophers may actually be dampened by its popular uptake.Report

Nothing
20 days ago

Darwall’s textbook on metaethics and Kagan’s book on normative ethics, both from the same series.Report

Matt L
Reply to  Nothing
19 days ago

I think that Kim’s volume in the series, _Philosophy of Mind_, also would fit for this. The Colman and Murphy _Philosophy of Law_ volume might fit, though to a lesser degree. (It was, I think, used a lot for teaching, but maybe less so as an object of professional discussion.) (It’s interesting to see that books from Westview Press, and Prentice-Hall above, were once pretty important and that top philosophers published in the series. Times have changed, and not, I think, obviously for the better.)

In philosophy of mind, Paul Churchland’s textbook _Matter and Consciousness_ seemes to me to have had significantly more impact that you’d expect a textbook to have – perhaps similar in impact (though very different in orientation, of course) to Kim’s book.Report

Howard Sankey
19 days ago

Alan Chalmers’ text-book, What is this thing called science?, now in its third edition, and published in several languages other than English, has had a fair impact in the philosophy of science. Perhaps this is not so much in north America as in Australasia and the U.K.Report

Last edited 19 days ago by Howard Sankey
Daniel Weltman
19 days ago

It’s perhaps overstating things a bit to call it “agenda-setting” or “area-defining” but Bernard Williams’s Morality: An Introduction to Ethics has definitely been influential in ways that a typical introduction to ethics is not.Report

Patrick Gamez
19 days ago

I’d say Dusek & Scharff’s Philosophy of Technology anthology was area-defining/consolidating, as was Dusek’s textbook, but I don’t know about agenda-setting.Report

Patrick Lin
19 days ago

One metric, even if imperfect, to determine this may be to see how many citations a book gets on Google Scholar. For instance, looking at some of the suggestions here:

  • Kymlicka‘s Contemporary Political Philosophy has 5,555 citations.
  • Russell’s Problems of Philosophy has 7,000 citations.
  • Barwise & Etchemendy’s Language, Proof, and Logic has 349 citations.
  • Scharff & Dusek’s Philosophy of Technology has 334 citation.

Of course, the numbers alone won’t tell you much without some context, e.g., that the literature for logic is much smaller than that for political philosophy, or that one book has been published much longer than another. Maybe even cost has an effect on how “influential” a book is?

But a textbook that doesn’t get many citations is probably not “influential”, much less “agenda-setting” or “area-defining.” So, the citation count might be useful for at least ruling out certain works.

Also, I’d argue that a book that’s the first in its field, or one of the first, is likely to be “agenda-setting” and “area-defining” by default, in that it puts up targets at which others can take aim.

This is easier to see in my field of technology ethics, since so many sub-disciplines are popping up that inspire/provoke other researchers, e.g., philosophy of virtual reality. Here’s the citation count for one of my books in the field:

  • Lin, Abney & Bekey’s Robot Ethics has 600 citations.

I wouldn’t say it’s “canonical”, though, since it’s too early to call; the book was published only in 2012. And there’s probably a discussion in here on how long a work must have been around before it can be declared canonical.

For instance, can a book be canonical inside a few years (what’s an example of this?), or must it be around and adopted for at least x generations? How much do book sales or classroom adoptions matter, as opposed to citations? Considering that this thread is about analytic philosophy, I’m a bit surprised no one has asked what the necessary and sufficient conditions are, even if fuzzy, for a work to be part of the canon…Report

Devin
19 days ago

Heim & Kratzer’s “Semantics in Generative Grammar”Report

Jason Stanley
Jason Stanley
Reply to  Devin
14 days ago

In the 90s and oughts yesReport

Average guy
19 days ago

It’s logic, but anyway:

Boolos and Jeffrey, Computability and Logic. Cognoscenti know that the 3rd edition is the best.Report

Jason Stanley
Jason Stanley
Reply to  Average guy
14 days ago

Everyone had this in grad school in the late 80s and early 90sReport

Average guy
Reply to  Jason Stanley
11 days ago

Some even have it in early 2020s!Report

Justin Vlasits
18 days ago

Porphyry, Introduction to Logic
Peter Lombard, Sentences
Peter of Spain, Summaries of Logic
Arnauld and Nicole, Port Royal LogicReport

Andy Lamey
18 days ago

I think of Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, which first came out in 1979 and currently in a third edition, as a influential textbook. It discusses two subjects on which Singer’s work has been agenda-setting, obligations to animals and the distant needy, as well as a third, the moral status of newborns, on which I would say his work has been controversial rather than influential. An editor at Cambridge, the book’s publisher, once told me it was their best-selling philosophy title.

+1 on Kymlicka and Rachels and Rachels (even if comments upthread are right to note that the latter seems to have gone into many editions only to require instructors to assign new rather than used editions).Report

Nicolas Delon
18 days ago

HLA Hart’s The Concept of Law is based on lectures he delivered at Oxford. Not exactly a textbook but the original intent was to produce course material on jurisprudence. It’s had quite an impact since then.Report

Sam Duncan
18 days ago

It just occurred to me that if one wants to be technical and pedantic (and since we’re academics we do right?) we could probably count Fichte’s “Wissenschaftslehre” and “System of Ethics” since he gave them to his own students as textbooks. Supposedly, Hegel gave his students in the gymnasium (the German equivalent of a high school) an earlier version of “the Science of Logic,” though there’s some chance this might be a myth since I haven’t been able to find a good source for that story.
Anyway, one serious question I’ve been wondering about is “What makes something count as a textbook?” “The Republic” and “Nicomachean Ethics” are probably assigned as much or more in ethics classes than Rachels or any competitor like Shafer-Landau’s textbook. Yet no one would count them as textbooks would they? Do anthologies count?
Also, what makes a textbook agenda-setting? Is it that it influences the way a subject is taught and presented? A book could almost certainly do that without getting a lot of citations in scholarly literature. For instance, I bet it would be really odd for a mathematician to cite an introductory book on calculus in a paper even if he thought it set the standard for presenting the material. To take a different and more concrete example, I’m pretty sure Strunk and White has done more to influence how college educated people write than any scholarly work on literature you could name. But I doubt very much you’ll see it cited in scholarly papers in English or related fields. I’d add that a book could influence the scholarly literature without doing much to change the way a subject is taught. More importantly, I also wonder if this whole question isn’t misguided since a book could change the scholarly debate while also being a bad choice as a textbook. “Agenda defining and area defining” is not necessarily the same thing as “good as a textbook.” For instance, I think it would border on pedagogical malpractice to use Harman’s book as the only or even main textbook for most ethics classes. I’m not saying it’s a bad book, but it’s a really idiosyncratic presentation of what ethics is.Report

Preston Stovall
18 days ago

The Normative Animal? edited by Neil Roughley and Kurt Bayertz. Pathbreaking work, at the intersection of philosophy and the cognitive sciences, focusing on social, moral, and linguistic norms as they relate to human life. It’s not really a textbook, but the essays in the volume underscore the importance that normative notions are having in philosophical and scientific accounts of humanity.

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-normative-animal-9780190846466?cc=hr&lang=en&Report

Gideon Rosen
14 days ago

I’m surprised no one has mentioned Benacerraf and Putnam’s Philosophy of Mathematics (1st ed. 1964, 2nd ed. 1983) — field-defining in both editions.Report

Jason Stanley
Jason Stanley
Reply to  Gideon Rosen
14 days ago

Right this is correct too.Report

GPB
GPB
13 days ago

It’s not so much a textbook as an introductory book, but Della Rocca’s 2008 *Spinoza* generated more than a decade of discussion in Spinoza circles, despite being written primarily for the uninitiated.Report

aaron goldbird
13 days ago

I thought of the collections the New Wittgenstein and the Third Wittgenstein as pretty well agenda setting for ten or fifteen ish years of Wittgenstein studies. Not sure if that’s true or if I’m tripping over the line between ‘agenda setting’ and ‘influential’.Report