Review of “Philosophy: An Illustrated History of Thought” by Tom Jackson


The study of philosophy has the reputation of being dry or boring, but nothing could be further from the case. In fact, almost every question you have asked yourself or argue about at parties has been thoroughly considered by philosophers: Has the universe always existed? Is human nature to blame for aggression and greed? Is there such a thing as “natural law” governing morality, or must we have an overlay of religion to keep us decent? Is the female mind the same as the male mind? Do our brains operate like computers, or is there a soul? How do our ways of seeing affect our realities?


Many of you will remember the scene in The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in which the narrator explains that, as a young boy, he once drew a picture of a boa constrictor with an elephant digesting in its stomach. To his surprise, every adult who saw the picture mistakenly interpreted it as a drawing of a hat. Readers were delighted, but actually the nature of this illusion had already been explored in depth by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who used the “duckrabbit” to show how different perspectives could identify the creature (shown below) as either a duck or a rabbit.


In fact, you will learn the origin of many popular cultural memes in this book (as well as the origin of the idea of “memetics”).

Readers are bound to find much of interest in this colorful guide to 100 of the greatest ideas in the history of thought.

Philosophy: An Illustrated History reviews, in a chronological progression, significant developments in thinking about ethics, religion, politics, justice, pleasure, friendship, language, perceptual frameworks, and how we make decisions, among other ideas.

The author does an excellent job in explaining complex doctrines succinctly and understandably. Obviously he can’t be totally comprehensive, but for those wondering about ideas you hear about in conversation or see on t-shirts, like “Schrödinger’s cat,” “The Liar’s Paradox” or “paradigm shifts,” this book will give you a well-written summary.


After the author reviews his selection of the top 100 philosophical concepts – explained with the help of photos and sidebars, he then explores the field of philosophy itself, appending a section on schools of philosophy. For each school, he provides a short synopsis of its main thrust, as well as a list of the school’s leading figures, major works, notable quotes, and relevant questions for discussion (e.g., Do ends justify the means? Does everything happen for a reason?)

He extends his list of top ideas explored in the past with a glimpse at new issues being debated by philosophers, such as whether or not it is fair that justice is distributed unequally among rich and poor.

A short biography of some of the greatest philosophers follows. The author does a nice job here too, managing to convey the gist of their discoveries along with some of their quirks and “fun stuff” about them. (For example, Plato’s real name was Aristocles, but (as some stories claim) his wrestling teacher gave him the name of “Plato” meaning “broad” in reference to Aristocles’ wide figure and wrestling stance.)


Finally, a large foldout included with the book gives over 1,000 milestone facts. This poster includes a timeline showing important events corresponding to the expression of philosophical ideas in the areas of Culture, World Events, and Science & Invention.

Evaluation: This book would make an excellent gift, either as a coffee table book for intermittent perusal and a goad to discussion; as a book for students to help them in school; or as an introduction to the most important things we know about what we are, where we came from, and where we might be heading.

Shelter Harbor Press is producing a series of these graphical books on breakthroughs that changed history. Previous topics have been about the elements, mathematics, physics, and the universe.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Shelter Harbor Press, 2014


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6 Responses to Review of “Philosophy: An Illustrated History of Thought” by Tom Jackson

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    You’re going to think I’m dumb as dirt but I don’t ever ponder deep questions like that. Still, the book sounds good!

  2. Arti says:

    I must get hold of this one, how illuminating! Definitely a good gift for someone but I think I’ll keep it. 😉

  3. Beth F says:

    Oh wow. I love this! I wonder if my library has them.

  4. sandynawrot says:

    I’m totally interested now, but in just reading the title I was NOT! The more wine we consume with friends, the more these types of questions come up, so it would be nice to throw in a few cool thoughts into these discussions! They might even think I’m smart 🙂

  5. Trisha says:

    Too fun! I want.

  6. litandlife says:

    I’m sure I never would have picked this up by title but it sounds wonderful!

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