Philosophy sections up and down the country have pointed the way for quite some time. Rather than carry dusty old translations of Schleiermacher and Schlegel in the vain hope that at some point in the next decade a humble scholar will stumble upon them before gleefully trotting to the till, why not target that most forgiving of audiences, the dabbler, the newbie, the absolute beginner? Introductions to philosophy are nothing new of course (Russell's classic The Problems of Philosophy was published in 1912), but the veritable explosion in cerebral guides and conceptual primers in recent years rather suits the booksellers' 'stack 'em high' ethos (as well as, no doubt, their balance sheets).

Such attempts, done well, are to be celebrated, of course. But how does one begin to even approach an entire history of thought? Should we go right back to the 'awe and wonder' of Socrates and Plato, or even to Thales (most likely the first Greek philosopher, who postulated that everything was made of water)? Or do we stick with a single theme and just pluck out those bits of the corpus that seem to be most relevant? If anything,

Timothy Chappell follows the latter course, settling on scepticism as his plat du jour. He's not alone, of course, as scepticism appears to be enjoying something of a renaissance of late – The Matrix with its body-in-a-pod version of Putnam's brains-in-a-vat has prolonged the careers of rather of a lot of fusty old Descartes scholars, who survive by peddling the worrying thought that we might constantly be being deceived by a malevolent demon, and that we can't know that we're really experiencing anything for sure.

Chappell begins not with the pre-Socratics, then, but with Descartes and (surprise!) The Matrix. "Can we know," he asks, "that reality is really anything like it seems to be to us?" And taking the question to its logical conclusion, he arrives at the idea of the 'inescapable self' – a nightmarish scenario in which the only thing we can be even remotely certain of is our own self, an "egocentric predicament" indeed, in which other people could easily be complex automata or projections of our own fevered imaginations. Wending his way through a series of intellectual dilemmas (external world scepticism, scepticism about altruism, objective moral reasons, the self and personal identity, about the place of consciousness in the world and free will), Chappell leads us finally to the idea that there might not be a rational solution to the dilemmas of scepticism, but there could well be a moral one: "to realise the world by attending to it".

If all this seems a bit of a letdown after 300 pages of extremely wide-ranging, though pleasantly accessible prose, Chappell is not worried: "If [this] sounds like an assertion of the pre-eminence of faith over knowledge, so be it." So there we have it: even if scepticism hasn't exactly gone away, it has nevertheless been displaced by the idea that ethics possesses a certain ascendancy over the rest of philosophy. All this rather makes you wonder why Chappell didn't write a book about ethics instead, but it turns out that he already has (it's called Understanding Human Goods).

Chappell does a pretty good job of outlining why scepticism might give us pause for thought, but in his attempt to take in so many responses to it (he refers to everyone from Ayer to Zeno, stopping by to pick up Dennett, TS Eliot, Hobbes, Hume, Locke, Murdoch, Quine, Rorty and Russell), he falls into the classic 'introduction trap' – performing something of a disservice to extremely complex thinkers in the name of specious inclusiveness.

He also exhibits that irritating tic that anglophone philosophers have when discussing those pesky European thinkers. Rather than refer to the not-insubstantial body of thoroughly sound translations (let alone the originals – unthinkable!) of writers such as Sartre, Hegel and Heidegger, the tendency is to rely on frequently misleading secondary readings. At one point, Chappell quotes Dennett quoting a character in a David Lodge novel to shore up his reading of Derrida as a proponent of 'the deconstruction of the self' (whatever that is). If 'continental' thinkers dared to quote, say, Quine, via the comic novels of American belles-lettristes, needless to say we'd all be (metaphorically) strung up with piano wire.

Chappell is on firm ground when outlining some of the possible consequences of scepticism, and as such, his book is a good introduction to such problems – if not exactly a work for complete rubes, it nevertheless sheds some light on a peculiarly persistent problem. There's no doubting that.