Big Ideas Simply Explained

Three subjects that I can never seem to understand as completely as I would like:

  • Philosophy
  • Economics
  • Psychology

Whenever I read a book about any of these subjects, I feel like a student, which means, I am reading because duty requires me to complete the book. The subjects interest me, but too many of the books I have read on these subjects are dreary, slow-moving, too dense with ideas for any reasonable person to sort out and retain their valuable understanding. Pictures help, but many of the ideas held within these disciplines are difficult to illustrate with anything better than wordy diagrams.

A year or so ago, I noticed a series of three books put together by Dorling Kindersley (DK)’s collaborative teams in the UK and India. They’ve got the formula right, and as a result, I have spent the last year happily browsing, and learning, from:

  • The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
  • The Economics Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
  • The Psychology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained

A month or so ago, the same company released The Politics Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained, and at some point, I’ll get to that one, too. Right now, I’m still working my way through the first three volumes (about 1,000 pages total).

Three DK BooksSo what’s so special?

First,there is no single author. The collaborative approach focuses on presentation, clarity and consistency. This is less the work of a brilliant psychology teacher, more like a good old fashioned browse through, say, The World Book Encyclopedia from days of old. The type treatments are bold. There are pull-out quotes. There is color. No single idea runs more than a few pages. Everything is presented in a logical flow. There are boxes filled with biographical details. There is a clear statement of predecessor ideas and influences for each idea, and there is an equally clear statement about those in the future who built upon each idea. There are color pictures and diagrams. It’s tidy, presented for smart adult readers but certainly suitable research material for any school report.

The Philosophy Book is written by four academics and two writers: Will Buckingham is a philosopher and novelist with a special interest in the interplay between philosophy and narrative storytelling. Marcus Weeks is a writer, and author. Clive Hill is an academic focused on intellectualism in the modern world. Douglas Burnham is a philosophy professor and prolific writer on the subject. Peter J. King is a doctor of Philosophy who lectures at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. John Marenborn is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, UK, whose expertise is medieval philosophy. Taken as a group, they’ve got their philosophical bases covered (each of the books is put together by a team with similar skills). Marcus Weeks is the connection between all three books.

The bright yellow Philosophy book introduces the whole idea in comfortable language:

Philosophy is…a chance simply to wonder what life and the universe are all about…Philosophy is not so much about coming up with the answers to fundamental questions as it is about the process of trying to find out those answers, using reasoning rather than accepting…conventional views or conventional authority.”

So begins an introductory essay that introduces debate and dialogue, existence and knowledge, logic and language, morality, religion, and systems of thought and beliefs. A red color burst is the bridge into a timeline that begins the conversation in 624 B.C.E. And so, early on, we meet Pythagoras, who should be famous for more than his geometric theorem. In 428 B.C.E.–that’s about 2,500 years ago–Pythagorus developed a remarkable idea, that everything in the universe conforms to mathematical rules and ratios, and determined that this was true both of forms and ideas. Pythagorus was the leader of a religious cult, in which he was the Messiah, and his followers thought of his work as revelations. Here was a man for whom reasoning was the secret of the universe. He wrote, or said:

There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.”


Reason is immortal. All else is mortal.”

SiddharthaTurn the page and there’s Siddhartha Gautama and Buddhism’s four noble truths, explained in terms that anybody can understand, followed by the Eightfold Path presented in the Dharma Wheel. Siddhartha is covered in four good pages, and then, it’s time for Confucius and his Five Conscious Relationships.

All three of these men–Pythagorus, Siddhartha and Confucius–lived and worked around 500 B.C.E. More or less, they were contemporaries. A century later, philosophy turns to what is later called science, as Democritus and Leucippus come with the idea of atoms and the emptiness of space. (Seemed very early to me, too!) At about the same time, this from Socrates:

The life which is unexamined is not worth living.”

Jumping ahead to the middle of the book, Britain’s David Hume is considering human nature in the mid-1700s, and, in particular, the ways we cobble together facts:

In our reasonings concerning fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance. A wise man therefore proportions his beliefs to the evidence.”

Thinking in the present day, Palestinian philosopher Edward Said criticizes imperialism, Australian Peter Singer advocates for animal rights, and Bulgarian-born French philosopher Julia Kristeva questions the relationship between feminism and power. It’s a large field, and with The Philosophy Book, it’s possible for the average person to navigate with greater confidence than before.

The other two books are equally good.

The Economics Book begins with an article about Thomas Aquinas’s thoughts on prices, markets, and morality; the provision of public goods with thoughts by David Hume, whose words from the 1700s certainly resonate today:

Where the riches are engrossed by a few, these must contribute very largely to the supplying of the public necessities.”

Hume is among the few whose ideas appear in more than one of these volumes. And–I just noticed–The Philosophy Book tends to be stories about the people behind the ideas, The Economics Book tends more toward the ideas with less frequent stories about the people behind them (often because economic ideas are credited to multiple sources, I suppose). Making our way through The Age of Reason (“man is a cold, rational calculator;” “the invisible hand of the market brings order”);  on to economic bubbles (beginning with tulip mania in 1640); game theory and John (A Beautiful Mind) Nash; market uncertainty, Asian Tiger economies, the intersection of GDPs and women’s issues, inequality and economic growth, and more. Great book, but a bit slower going than Philosophy.

Psych Book SpreadThird in the trilogy is the bright red volume, The Psychology Book. As early as the year 190 in the current era, Galen of Pergamon (in today’s Turkey) is writing about the four temperaments of personality–melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric, and sanguine. Rene Descartes bridges all three topics–Philosophy, Economics and Psychology overlap with one another–with his thinking on the role of the body and the role of the mind as wholly separate entities. We know the name Binet (Alfred Binet) from the world of standardized testing, but the core of his thinking has nothing whatsoever to do with standardized thinking. Instead, he believed that intelligence and ability change over time. In his early testing, Binet intended to capture a helpful snapshot of one specific moment in a person’s development. And so the tour through human (and animal) behavior continues with Pavlov and his dogs, John B. Watson and his use of research to build the fundamentals of advertising, B.F. Skinner’s birds, Solomon Asch’s experiments to uncover the weirdness of social conformity, Stanley Milgram’s creepy experiments in which people inflict pain on others, Jean Piaget on child development, and work on autism by Simon Baron-Cohen (he’s Sacha Baron Cohen’s cousin).

When I was in high school and college,  I was exposed to all of this stuff, but only a small amount remained in my mind. Perhaps that was because I was also trying to read the complete works of Shakespeare, a book a week of modern utopian fiction, The Canterbury Tales, and studying geology at the same time. In high school and college, these topics were just more stuff to plough through. No context, no life experience, no connection to most of the material. Now, as an adult, it’s different. Like everyone I know, and everyone you know, I’m still juggling way too much in an average week, but I can now read this material with a real hope of understanding and retaining the material. Cover to cover, times three, these books will take you a year or two, but… without a test the next morning, you’ll be surprised how interesting philosophy, psychology and economics turn out to be. Just read them in your spare time, and behold (great word, “behold”) the ways in which humans have put it all together over several millennia. It’s a terrific story!

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