book review

Oxford Handbooks

reviewed by T. J. Nelson

book review / commentary

Oxford Handbooks
Reviewed by T.J. Nelson

U ntil recently I always tried to read books cover to cover. Only twice did I give up: once when I decided, as every kid has probably done, to read the entire encyclopedia (thereby discovering the aardvark), and again (also as a kid) with a book called Electrische Kontakte (Electric Contacts Handbook) by Ragnar Holm. My excuse was that I didn't know any German. But it left me with an enduring appreciation for handbooks.

This is the only explanation I can offer for how I ended up with five of these Oxford Handbooks. They are, as you might expect, a mixed bag. For example, Causation and Philosophy of Religion are well above average: only a few of the articles get bogged down in philosophical hair-splitting, and some of the articles are outstanding.

These Oxford Handbooks are great for people wanting a survey of the current state of the field. There are dozens of them, all on soft topics: free will, religion and science, epistemology, international relations, political science, national security intelligence, atheism, metaphysics, corporate social responsibility, Maximus the Confessor, Shakespeare, Bayesian econometrics, and Biblical studies to name a few. Some are better than others: in Oxford Handbook of Justice in the Workplace and Oxford Handbook of Diversity and Work you can pretty much expect to drown in politically correct drivel. These handbooks are also not for a professional in the field—I personally wasn't too impressed by the one on neuroscience, for instance.

An easy way to tell is if an author starts using PCisms like ‘she’ to represent indeterminate persons. I've found this to be an infallible clue that the author is pandering; it means the author is incapable of thinking above the fashions of the day. It shows that the author believes, for example, that two wrongs make a right. Not to put too fine a point on it, their thinking is incoherent and anything they say can be safely dismissed. Since these are all multi-author books, you can just skip to the next chapter, knowing you'll miss little.

In some volumes some chapters are shallow or written by grad students. Other chapters show their age, while some are excellent impartial surveys of their field. The philosophy ones seem to be better. At least they'll get you up to speed on the terminology, the important names and ideas in the field, and whether the field is contentious and PC or whether it's open to new ideas. I would recommend prospective students read them with that in mind. You will find intelligent thoughts from knowledgeable people and bias and muddled thinking. In either case, it gives you a good impression of the caliber of thinking that is typical of the field. And that makes them all valuable.

Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Physics

If you're one of the five people in the world who think thermodynamics is still interesting, you'll love this book. I had about all I could take of classical mechanics and Navier-Stokes in school, but the later chapters get into quantum mechanics, which give a good idea how philosophers are trying to grapple with it. Some equations but not as many as you might think.

Oxford Handbook of Causation

Very interesting collection of articles, tending toward analytic philosophy of causation. A few chapters toward the end bring in scientists on causation in psychology, biology, physics, and social sciences. They give their viewpoints, but they're very much in the back of the bus.

Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Time

Perhaps the most interesting one; discusses how philosophers and scientists have thought about time. Later chapters are what you might call ‘quantum mechanics for philosophers’—some basic equations like the Schrodinger equation explained in terms a layman can grasp. Highly recommended. (Complete review here.)

Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion

Outstanding discussion of religious philosophy starting out with historical figures like Descartes and Augustine, then gets into the more abstract philosophical ideas that underlie monotheistic religion. Mostly, but not exclusively, oriented toward Christianity. Fearlessly discusses the ideas in a philosophical context. (Complete review here.)

Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science

This is the longest one at 1023 pages, and a disappointment; it starts out by discussing the authors' personal religious beliefs, then spends a lot of time on creationism and intelligent design (including an article by Dembski). And feminists will be delighted to know there is such a thing as feminist epistemology. But there are also some articles deserving of praise, like Wesley J. Wildman's intelligent comparison of ground-of-being theologies and determinate-entity theisms. The former, he says, have a lot to lose if the fine-tuning argument succeeds, which, he optimistically says, gives them the virtue of being falsifiable. Many of the other authors praise Whitehead and Thomas Nagel. Disclaimer: I only read the first six- or 700 pages on this one.

Books discussed

Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Physics
Batterman, ed.

Oxford Handbook of Causation
Beebee, Hitchcock, and Menzies, eds.

Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Time
Callender, ed.

Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion
Wainwright, ed.

Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Science
Clayton, ed.

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