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How should I study philosophy?

Philosophy and Theory

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Dec 14, 2006, 3:00pm Top

I recently read Sophie's World and Zeno and the Tortoise. I want desperately to study philosophy and theology in-depth, but all the other books at the library are written in heavy jargon. As for reading the actual works of various philosophers, I have no idea where to begin. Help a beginner out.

Dec 14, 2006, 3:10pm Top

Off the top of my head, I'd say start with Aristotle, but as a classics major, I'm prejudiced. Plus, some books are more newbie friendly, if you look carefully. I would highly recommend the Oxford Companion to Philosophy as an excellent source. It's basically an encyclopedia and the articles are reasonably clear, concise and helpful when moving onto a new author or topic.

Dec 14, 2006, 3:41pm Top

It's hard for a beginner to latch on to the field through original works, I think. Overviews are very helpful, and they can point you to things that you decide you'd like to study further. A great starter is Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy. It covers everything (up to his time), and Russell won the Nobel Prize for literature, so it's beautifully written.

Edited: Dec 14, 2006, 4:59pm Top

A couple other good texts for nonspecialists:

Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?

Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance.

Both of these books provide a means of entry into the issues and figures of ancient thought. After you read these, you could tackle some Plato and/or Aristotle.

Dec 15, 2006, 10:50am Top

I have to agree with those who advise starting with surveys ... there's just no getting around technical terms in philosophy, because they define specific systems/viewpoints, etc. Will Durant has a decent one, too ... The story of philosophy ... and Mortimer Adler's books Ten Philosophical Mistakes and Six great ideas may also be of interest ... I'd also actually steer you away from the ancients at first ... for me, I found writers like John Dewey easier to get into initially, if only because they have a more modern outlook that I found easier to understand ...

Dec 15, 2006, 1:41pm Top

Another good book to start with is Bryan Magee's Confessions of a Philosopher. Magee has written on Schopenhauer and Wagner, but he's familiar with the British wing of analytic philosophy as well (e.g. Wittgenstein, Ryle, et al). Very good prose stylist...engaging look at 20th century philosophy and its history.

Edited: Dec 17, 2006, 6:38pm Top

There are various "companions" that can give you a summary of the ideas of a particular philosopher. I would suggest you go to a good bookstore and take a look at the Cambridge Companion Series, the Very Brief Introduction to and the in 90 Minutes. Blackwell also publishes companions to different areas of philosophy. I have the one for philosopy of science and find the essays quite interesting and well written.

Edited: Dec 24, 2006, 9:33pm Top



*Bertrand Russell's Problems of Philosophy (which can be found online) for an brief overview of classic philosophical problems.
*William Poundstone's Labyrinths of Reason for an approachable review of modern epistemological conundrums
*Clark Glymour's Thinking Things Through for a tour through some of philosophy's greatest contributions to "logic, decision theory, computation, scientific method, and the mind".

Jan 13, 2007, 7:44pm Top

I would echo DigitalOntology's advice but just add the Routledge Guides to particular works to his list.

I certainly would not advise any newbie to start off with Bertrand Russell's History! It may well be "beautifully written" but it's inaccurate and preposterously biased. Really, it can only be safely enjoyed by someone who can allow for its exaggerations and misapprehensions.

Jan 14, 2007, 1:16pm Top

I think that some philosophers with good prose, like Iris Murdoch or Montaigne, are good introdutory readings. Try The sovereignty of good, or some of the Essays.

Jan 20, 2007, 3:39am Top

I believe that the Greek and Greek-style dialogues are quite accessible and even sometimes fun to read. Against the Academicians and the Teacher is one of my favorite books, Augustine being one of the most brilliant minds out there, in my humble opinion.

Jan 20, 2007, 7:50pm Top

Diogenes Laertius is a good (and funny!) introduction.

13hateloveschool First Message
Jan 29, 2007, 11:46pm Top

As a philosophy major, I would suggest Will Durant's book, "Story of Philosophy." It was well written, and a good read. From there, you should be able to better decide what philosophers you would like to continue to read. Onto other specific books about philosophy outside of Will Durant, I would suggest the book, "The Philosopher's Handbook," edited by Stanley Rosen. Each section is introduced by knowledgbly individuals in those areas of philosophy. The main portion of each section in the book is dedicated to certain sections of famous works by philosophers in a certain area of philosophy. I would suggest that, along with "Story of Philosophy."

What is key in reading philosophy, I have found, is to read slowly, carefully and in short sittings. Don't try to read Plato or Kant, (for the sake of your mind, definitely not Kant.) in one long sitting. You eventually get lost and waste your time. Also, it is sometimes best, to admit that some readings are above you. I've done it before and have later come back and understood better then before.

Personally, I would stay away from Bertrand Russell. I have not read his book, but what I have read about him, and an essay of his, I couldn't suggest him on the history of philosophy. He is very biased, and if you're just starting to get into philosophy, you may want to read him, later on.

14athene66 First Message
Feb 2, 2007, 10:14pm Top

From your message I take it you are looking to self study - outside of a formalized setting. As someone who is doing much the same thing, I'd say try the old adage 'why re invent the wheel?' (now there's a question, any answers?). Many University sites publish a graduate reading list, try The Open University it's an UK based distance learning establishment with credibility, which is an understatement.

Good luck with it.

Feb 3, 2007, 10:52am Top

I agree with #11 - the Greeks are a good starting point. I like Plato myself, and he was my starting point for an interest in philosophy.

The dialogue form does make his stuff very accessible. Personally, I`m not keen on The Republic or The Symposium, and would rather read his earlier works, for all their flaws. Last Days of socrates is good.

My taste in philosophy is probably a bit unusual, as in younger days I relied almost solely on second-hand shops for books and music - still do, to a large extent - some reading I discovered during my misspent youth might be of interest - C E M Joad was some sort of academic in the `40s who did a lot of broadcasting on the BBC aimed at `the common man` and hence explained in a very clear way.

C H Rolph was a UK police officer of left/liberal leanings who wrote extensively on various matters - policing, philosophy, psychology, the cases for and against censorship. Personal Identity is a good one of his.

I`ve not read it myself but there`s a book called (I think) Cradle of thought by Peter hobson which is popular.

The Open University suggestion is interesting - I personally prefer a `Woolworth`s Pick `n` Mix` approach to these things, but it`s all down to personal choice.

Good luck !

Feb 5, 2007, 2:50am Top

"A History of Philosophy" by Frederick Copelston is pretty good. It is a short essay on each major philosopher. I only have the first volume, which deals with Greek and Roman philosophers. Excellent starting point, IMO.

Feb 7, 2007, 3:17am Top

And Russell doesn't bog the reader down with (unnecessary) philosophic jargon. Excellent recommendation.


18montag46 First Message
Feb 9, 2007, 6:30pm Top

Since you did not expressly say you wanted to read the history of philosophy, I shall assume that is not exactly what you have in mind.

Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind is clear and concise, although it presumes some background in Descartes.
Kant's Theory of Knowledge by Justus Hartnack is an excellent primer for Kant.
Ignore no one. Taste a bit of every school.

Explore until you find the philosophy you will make your own.

(keep in mind that if you prefer philosophers of a different language, you should learn the language at some point. Otherwise you will be totally at the mercy of the translator - who may have his own opinions about philosophy.)

Edited: Feb 15, 2007, 6:59pm Top

I would add Bryan Magee's engaging and trenchant BBC dialogues with philosophy professors The Great Philosophers as a broad overview.

Feb 16, 2007, 4:18am Top

I`d second the Magee suggestion.

21djclarke First Message
Feb 17, 2007, 7:49am Top

I did a UK A-level in Philosophy and two introductory texts used on the course were Mastering Philosophy by Anthony Harrison-Barbet and Philosophy: A Beginner's ~Guide by Jenny Teichman & Katherine C. Evans.

Both cover at an introductory level the topics of philosophy illustrated by the works of the great philosophers. They are text books suitable for private study.

22WorkinSuffolkIdio_s First Message
Edited: Feb 18, 2007, 4:10pm Top

I too did "A" Level Philosophy and did not worry too much about the essay writing. It was the introductions that were worth the enrolment fee but did not touch Post/modernism.

Also don't forget all those **** For Beginners and Introducing ***** of which Introducing Sartre has to be one of my favourites.

23Nathan_Zimmerman First Message
Mar 1, 2007, 10:06am Top

I might suggest that you be careful with Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy"... You're more likely to come out of it with an understanding of what Russell thought than a fair cursory view of the history.

If you want a good overview, I'd read "A History of Western Philosophy" in 5 volumes by W.T. Jones (at least read the first four). It gives a great background so that one will know WHY thinkers thought what they did.

Edited: Mar 1, 2007, 3:33pm Top

To hell with most surveys. They're largely irritating and biased, if not in favour of Analytic and other so-called "philosophy", then in favour of oversimplistic views that can end up hampering your appreciation or understanding of philosophical works, leading you to repeat the kinds of cliches that philosophy ought to avoid or shatter. I would recommend looking for the (hard to find) book What is That--Philosophy? by Heidegger, then comparing it with What is Philosophy? by Deleuze and perhaps Thus Spake Zarathustra by Nietzsche. Don't expect any hard facts. These are works of philosophy themselves, which start you thinking right away. (Every attempt at describing philosophy inherently holds a philosophical bias, so don't put too much faith in allegedly 'objective' or 'neutral' books.) Then commence tackling the standard canons of East and West as you see fit. There is no need to seek a chronological order, although each book will lead you to order your reading in any case and seek out the most common names - Hegel, Kant, Plato, etc., the Tao Te Ching or the Bhagavad Gita. It takes years to read them all so don't get impatient, even if every new book assumes you know fifty other major classics. If you do need some clarification or quick overviews, then do look up the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online - http://www.rep.routledge.com/ or some of the shorter works mentioned above, but don't consider any of them to be the final word. And please pardon my lack of humility - no, I do not have any qualifications.

Edited: Mar 5, 2007, 5:27pm Top

When you use the word "jargon" it is unclear what you mean. If you mean jargon in the sense, "I just read Plato's 'Republic' and it was filled with jargon!" then I would respond with, "Get used to it if you want to do philosophy." If you mean, "I didn't understand what I read," then I would also reply, "Get used to it." Part of what you're aiming to do is understanding things, including awkward wording or ideas that are difficult to articulate with concision. Your best bet is to have a curious attitude-

"Does thinking have a beginning?"
"Why is it that some words make more sense to me than others, or are easier for me to explain than others?"
"Can I really be educated in thinking?"
etc etc etc

-these are just 'fast and loose' questions, but the upshot is that part of what you have asked is not easily answerable, nor can be answered very well in the way that it seems that you are expecting it to be answered. No one here will be able to say accurately, "Read book X and you will be on your way." Most of the responses here have been aimed at giving you the "history of philosophy," which could be a good place to start. Realize, however, that this is just ONE way of doing philosophy and is by no means the only way. Most of the twentieth century's analytic thought has been starved from the history of philosophy, and some might say for the better in terms of its progress in logic and in the philosophy of mathematics. You have at least a few options, none of which are unproblematic given your goal:

-begin with the chronological beginning
-begin with the most colloquial, "easiest to understand" whatever that is
-begin with the most popular
-begin with the most important
-begin with the least controversial
-begin with the most specific
-begin with the most general
etc etc etc

Some of these appear to be mutually exclusive, others not. Regardless, you can see that in terms of which path is most valuable for your aims it would not be an easy decision thinking of it in this way. Instead, I would say you probably already have begun, as you have read some things and are curious. Stay curious and investigate your interests with rigor and in good faith.

Mar 20, 2007, 6:42pm Top

I had to read Aristotle as part of my philosophy degree and I can't recommend him to a beginner. Despite several attempts, I literally failed to stay awake to finish the short excerpt from the Categories in the anthology I had (ed. J. Ackrill, if I remember right). Did marginally better with Nicomachaean Ethics, but it was a slog.

I must disagree with those who decry Russell's History. Of course he's far from objective, but he writes superbly and has a trenchant opinion about everything, and his own tremendous intellectual self-confidence infects the reader with the desire to do philosophy. Certainly a book that changed my life. Russell's numerous polemical works are also entertaining and instructive, though they often seem a bit dated now, e.g. Roads to Freedom, The Conquest of Happiness, Marriage and Morals, Authority and the Individual.

I think it's also worth dipping into more narrowly-focussed stuff like Causing Death and Saving Lives by Jonathan Glover, Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit, and Anarchy, State and Utopia by Nozick.

Good luck!

Mar 20, 2007, 6:49pm Top

Oh, and for a really entertaining short read, try Norman Malcolm's Ludwig Wittgenstein: a memoir.

Mar 21, 2007, 9:15am Top

Reading Aristotle need not be a slog. I found Jonathan Barn's Aristotle a fine introduction. These pocket-size intros on all aspects of Philosophy, take the fear out of the subject and all is really required is patience.

Mar 22, 2007, 12:11am Top

Ray Monk's book on Wittgenstein was a really good read as well, if not exactly short.

Mar 25, 2007, 11:56am Top

Oh yeah, and I just finished Get a Grip on Philosophy and it is a lovely book for both beginners and old hands in terms of philosophy. Sure, it's biased somewhat and leaves out some philosophers that I believe are significant, but it's an excellent work (and fun to read!) nonetheless.

Mar 30, 2007, 12:50pm Top

Actually, Oddbert, I wouldn't recommend a potted history giving you an overview if you're near the beginning of your journey in philosophy. It might really overwhelm you. Russell is of course excellent, but his History does assume that the reader has some knowledge of the whole field.

I would recommned the Greeks, as they raised most of the basic questions in philosophy which philosophers today are still wrestling with in one form or another. I would start with Plato: his dialogues are quite easy to read and quite witty in places. Socrates is such a wonderful teacher, and a gadfly into the bargain.
A good place to start is the Penguin Classic: 'The Death of Socrates', which contains three key shorter dialogues. Make full use of the notes and intorduction and then take it from there. if you get stuck in certain difficult passages, you can take solace from the fact that those same passages are the ones that have given better minds than ours much exercise over the centuries! Just keep going. It usally becomes clearer in the end.

Another couple of books which give a good introduction to Greek philosophy in a witty way are Luciano de Crecenzo's 'History of Greek Philosophy', in two volumes.
He also wrote another book called 'Thus spake Bellavista', which is a kind of commentary on philosophy by a retired Neoplitan philosophy professor, whose philosophy is interspersed with chapters on the major philosophers.
Here's an example of Bellavista's take on things:
'Much research has been devoted to finding out how to lengthen life, when what we really need is to learn how to widen it.'

Alternatively, we could ask jtchipman #25 to give us some brief intros into the basic questions of philosophy, perhaps one a month? I would certainly enjoy reading them based on the post he wrote above.

Let us know how you get on, Oddbert.

Mar 30, 2007, 2:34pm Top

hateloveschool is right on target with recommending brief reading periods. Not only will you phase out, you really can't absorb large quantities of serious writing/thinking at once. I remember for my first college philosophy class. On the first day, the professor assigned pages 6-9 of a survey text (pre-Socratics, of course). I thought I would knock it off right before class. So wrong. After class, I went to the library and spent an hour rereading those few pages.
One place to go online if you're looking for a good introduction to a philospher or movement is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is maintained by experts and is free. Also, I wouldn't jump right into the original material -- the philosopher's actual writings. I find it helps to read someone else's summary of their work so I have a general idea of what to expect. You may discover that the "expert" was wrong when you get to the original work, but reading some of these works with no intro is like walking through a carnival's darkened magic house, you just don't know what you're running into.

Mar 30, 2007, 7:30pm Top

tristero1959: Thank you for the mention of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

What a goldmine. For refreshers, reviews, bibliographies, biographical sketches and explanations, it is wonderful, and i would never have known about it without your mention of it.

I've just been delving into Adorno's critique of capitalism. I finished college before the Frankfurt School got famous, so I am playing catch up. Thank you again.

Apr 18, 2007, 8:24pm Top

It has been said that western philosophy is a reaction to Plato. So it makes sense to start there. I agree with that as a beginning, and I don't agree with Plato.
The Republic is exceptionally readable. It poses some, or most, of the key philosophical issues: the connection between 'is' and 'ought,' between existence (aka "metaphysics") and morals, and between micro and macro (are the state and the individual models of each other?) Even understanding what it means to know.
Unlike others on this board, I'd steer away from surveys and introductory texts. Go for the 'real' stuff--life is too short not to wrestle with the real things (Russell's History possibly excepted.)
It is remarkable that no one else on this board hasn't made this recommendation so far.

Edited: Apr 18, 2007, 9:46pm Top

I disagree with lightburn. If you are going it alone, with no teacher, mentor or discussion group and no background in philosophy, I think you would be bogged down forever in Plato and never get out. There are a lot of dialogues and they are not all equally important or understandable. I would recommend the Will Durant- Story of Philosophy and the Copleston histories. I think there are 12. I would start with the English philosophers, from Bacon to Mill. There is a Modern Library Giant with that name. Our American democracy is actually based on the ideas in that period of philosophy. You can read the Copleston volume for that period. Then go forward into modern philosophy, or backward into the Greeks, according to your interest. I would recommend Rousseau- The Social Contract and Eternal Peace by Kant. Then Nietsche, Freud, Marx, and Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Acquinas, Deleuze, Derrida, Sartre and my favorite of the moderns - John Rawls A Theory of Justice. I started with the Will Durant when I was in high school, and then went to the University of Chicago where we had a snoot full of Aristotle in every subject they taught. I thought the most useful Aristotle was the Poetics, especially for understanding greek drama and Shakespearean tragedies. As you may gather from the above, my predilection is for political philosophy, then ethics, then aesthetics. You will find your own bent, but try to take some courses. This stuff aint easy. It is 60 years since I read the Durant, and I still don't understand a lot of the stuff. But it's great to try. Regards, Miriam

Apr 19, 2007, 4:31am Top

Completely different track but very interesting - Australia's ABC radio station does a weekly philosophical discussion programme, where a leading philosopher is invited on to talk about a specific topic.

It can be found here - Philosopher's Zone

Apr 19, 2007, 8:27am Top

I, with only a smattering of background, recommend a general easy reading book, followed by a tight survey book. After that, you should have enough of a feel to pick originals.

I strongly recommend, The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. Written in high school accessible language, Durant gives good sense of historical background, and a clear love of the philosophers.

The two surveys I happen to have are examples of what I'd look for. The key is that they are short; fairly representative of an issue. While I may not understand the issues, that there is a debate about general principles and subtle details is important to me.

My examples are dated, 1960s, but each covers an issue with selections from many philosophers:
Materialism and the mind-body problem edited by David M. Rosenthal.
The philosophy of perception edited by G. J. Warnock.
While not bad, any other such survey from a Philosophy 101 course should suffice.

Not until then would I recommend tackling a philosopher straight on.

Apr 20, 2007, 3:25am Top

Although study guides are very helpful, there is nothing quite like reading the original philosopher's work in their own words. I would start with Thomas Aquinas' for theology, and Immanuel Kant for philosophy. They are not too difficult and certainly get to the heart of how to reason.

You might want to try taking an online course from a good school. Some may even let you audit or "listen in" for no charge. Theories and conceptual arguments are difficult to follow, but any input or critiques by a knowledgable professor and fellow students are invaluable.

Edited: Apr 27, 2007, 3:39pm Top

Learn Philosophy?, well some of the TTC audio courses are not a bad choice or Bertrand Russel's book etc. Listen/read - if listen, why not taking a walk or two - everything. Then start again, and this time, try to contextualise the stories, criticize them, make them your own. Talk to the trees. Philosophy is not about reading or learning. It is about conversations.

Apr 27, 2007, 11:21pm Top

lol. Oh lord...
Trust me, you will not learn much philosophy from talking to trees...

Apr 30, 2007, 2:27pm Top

Maybe that was a reference to the Rush song called The Trees... "There is trouble in the forest."


Edited: May 1, 2007, 1:33am Top

It appears Oddbert has had his fill of advice; now we need to find out what he actually chose! :)

May 1, 2007, 1:31am Top

Certainly Peter meant that one should use trees as inanimate stand-ins for critics during an internal dialogue, and not as floozy figures of ethereal knowledge; I think the condescension is a bit unnecessary.

(On the other hand, there are some very deserving targets of condescension and rudimentary philosophical lessons in the many religious and Conservative threads on LT.)

May 1, 2007, 1:43am Top

Remember, Be Nice.
No one has really stressed that studying philosophy takes a great deal of patience. It is a lifelong pursuit. And conversations are great, but how often have you met someone (outside school) that wanted to discuss Kant? In my job I am around educated, well-read people every day. In 30 years, only two other people expressed such an interest. A few years ago, I started working part-time in a bookstore and have met several people there who share this interest.
One thing about Russell, I think you can skip the Catholic philosophy, unless that is something you are specifically interested in. I don't think you lose much going from the Greeks to the rationalists and empiricists. (Then again, I'm an athiest.)

Edited: May 1, 2007, 1:56am Top

>#44: I think you can skip the Catholic philosophy, unless that is something you are specifically interested in. I don't think you lose much going from the Greeks to the rationalists and empiricists.

A beginner might find at least a summary of medieval European thought useful so as not to lose all context: a great deal of Western philosophy is inseparable from Christian teleology right up to the 19th century, a very recent period on a historical timeline.

Edited: May 1, 2007, 6:14am Top

#43 and 44
I am being nice, and I don't mean to condescend. It's just that for lots of people philosophy does not mean a rigourous intellectual activity, but it means being Fotherington Thomas and communing with nature (Hello trees hello clouds), as in 'New Age Philosophy'. Perhaps Peter doesn't mean that. But how do you know he means trees as stand ins for critics?
I certainly agree with your remark about rudimentary philosophical lessons in the many religious and Conservative threads on LT. Theology and philosophy are antithetical activities, and religious philosophy is an oxymoron.

Edited: May 1, 2007, 2:31am Top

#46: Perhaps Peter doesn't mean that. But how do you know he means trees as stand ins for critics?

That's how I interpret (#39) "Listen/read... everything... try to contextualise the stories, criticize them, make them your own. Talk to the trees."

#46: being Fotherington Thomas and communing with nature (Hello trees hello clouds)

Ha ha! All hail Fotherington Thomas and Nigel Molesworth ! :)

May 1, 2007, 6:15am Top

Down with Skool!

May 1, 2007, 9:13am Top

Russell's History is good for a laugh but not particularly illuminating. Start with Perry & Bratman's anthology imo. (Introduction to Philosophy : Classical and Contemporary Readings.) Gets to the meat of the issues straight away, and very engaging. I think it's pitched at just about the right level for the somewhat clueless amateur coming into the subject: challenging without being incomprehensible.

I'd also concur with the Magee suggestions. He's the most talented popularizer of the subject bar none (the Durants and Colin McGinns can bugger off as far as I'm concerned). Magee has a point of view of what the subject should be like, and it is an intensely enjoyable point of view that is as persuasive as it is contrarian.

As for the person who suggested starting with Kant - lmao. Kant is un-understandable away from his intellectual context as a reaction to Hume and rationalist metaphysics. The kind of turgid prose you can't jump straight into without addling yourself.

Not for the beginner at all really. Go with the anthology.

May 1, 2007, 12:30pm Top

For clarity and ease of reading, as well as spot-on analysis, I recommend books written by Brian Davies. He tends to write on philosophy of religion, and is an expert on Aquinas and Wittgenstein. (Do yourself a favor and save Ludwig Wittgenstein until after you've read some other philosophers first.)

For an excellent survey of Aquinas - which would help you in your quest to study both philosophy and religion - I recommend Davies' The thought of Thomas Aquinas. What an excellent work, and so well written! This is a great work to read if you want to delve into a particular philosopher instead of reading another survey-type book.

And if you are intrigued by issues particular to the philosophy of religion, I recommend one of the anthologies he edited, Philosophy of religion: a guide and anthology. He wrote the introductory text for each chapter, so that one could read the included essays (by other philosophers) with an understanding of what they are arguing and what is critically important about their theses.

Davies is one of the clearest writers I've ever read, and I wish all philosophers would emulate his writing style, instead of hitting you over the head with their specialized vocabulary as thought it meant something....sometimes 'jargon' is just another word for 'bull****'. (Sokal hoax, anyone?)

Davies has written a lot of other things, and you can read his C.V. here for a list of his other publications: http://www.fordham.edu/philosophy/faculty/davies.htm.

May 1, 2007, 3:15pm Top

I still say he is referring to Rush...

I second the Perry and Bratman work. It's very well done and user/student friendly.

May 1, 2007, 3:50pm Top

Dear Oddbert:
My first suggestion is that you begin with the Greeks and come forward chronologically. Many subsequent writers had read their predecessors and responded explicitly or implicitly to them....a "conversation." While I believe in reading primary sources (albeit in translation) rather than secondary sources first, so that I can form my own impression/opinion before reading that of others, a synopsis might be a good first step. I just discovered a great, and free, site on the internet--the "Squashed Philosophers." It is at the url address of www.btinternet.com/~glynhughes/squashed/ courtesy of Glyn Hughes. He gives both "very squashed" and merely "squashed" synopses, in their own words, of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, St. Augustine, Boethius, Erasmus, More, Machiavelli, Copernicus, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Pascal, Spinoza, Newton, Locke, Leibniz, Berkeley, Hume, Rousseau, Smith, Kant, Bentham, Paine, Wollstonecraft, DeSade, Comte, Von Clausewit, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Marx and Engels, MIll, Thoreau, Darwin, Nietzsche, James, Freud, Einstein, Wittgenstein, Hitler, Ayer, Sartre, Turing, and Popper. According to the site meter, 316,777 have visited the site in 2007.

If I've not yet worn you out, the bit more: St. John's College, in Annapolis Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA, is the "great books" college. It features all conversation classes in Seminar and Tutorial, and Friday night lectures. The seminar reading assignments for all four undergraduate years may be found at www.stjohnscollege.edu/user/Annap_readlist.htm

A statement of what St. John's is all about, its "educational aim" is well stated in a recent speech (16 pages) by the Annapolis president, Chris Nelson, in March 2007. It is found at www.stjohnscollege.edu/user/dickinson.pdf

Whew...I'm finished. Hope this helps.


Edited: May 1, 2007, 6:57pm Top

I apologize. My second link was itself "squashed"; it should finish...readlist.htm. The final url doesn't appear to work.

Try www.stjohnscollege.edu/main.aspx?page=6567 At that site, click on "President Nelson warns against National Assessments in Higher Ed." I think finding the speech is well worth the effort. It reveals what St. John's thinks the end of reading great books is all about.


May 1, 2007, 6:12pm Top

In response to 35:
I suspect that Almigwin and I agree violently.
If the choice is to be bogged down in Plato--and, lordy, one might never get out of THAT swamp, as vile and mephitic as it is--given the choice between being bogged down in Plato and bogged down in Durant and Copleston, well, I know where I'd rather be, even though I AM NOT A PLATONIST.
I tend to agree with Goethe, who said (something like) "A man must protect his flank, so he leans on the Greeks."
As for Aristotle: the poet Thomas Gray said of Aristotle
"In the first place he is the hardest author by far I ever meddled with. Then he has a dry conciseness that makes one imagine that one is reading a table of contents than a book; it tastes for all the world like chopped hay, or rather like chopped logic; for he has a violent affection to that art, being in some sort his own invention, so that he loses himself a little trifling distinctions and verbal niceties, what is worse, leave you to extricate yourself as you can. Thirdly, he has suffered vastly by his transcribers, as all authors of great brevity necessarily must. Fourthly and lastly, he has abundance of fine, uncommon things, which make him well worth the pains he gives one. You see what you have to expect."
Durant is great, as Almigwin says, if you're in high school. And if after 60 years Almigwin still hasn't figured out all the stuff that's in Durant, well, I guess one could get bogged down in Durant, too.
Copleston is, I imagine, wonderful if you're an undergrad, majoring in the stuff. But since life is short, and you're an adult, go for the real stuff, even if you disagree with it.

Edited: May 1, 2007, 6:17pm Top

Again, apologies regarding 53 above. the posting process cuts off the ends of the links. The "page=" above should be "page=6567". (In my opinion, the prize is worth the trouble. At least it will make one think about university.)


May 1, 2007, 6:37pm Top

Each of the above summaries is very insightful and helpful in its own way, but why does almost everyone assume philosophy is exclusively Western or that it begins with the Greeks? The oldest philosophical systems are Vedic; the first known philosophical personality is Persian; and the first major philosophers from India and China are contemporaneous with the pre-Socratics.

Edited: May 2, 2007, 12:20am Top

Existanai, I agree. St. John's College also offers an Eastern Classics Program. Here is the Spring reading list (one of four semesters) for its seminars. Tutorials and preceptorials also are included with additional readings. I read in the Western tradition first to seek to understand my heritage. I hope to proceed to the East.

St. John’s College Graduate Institute

Spring 2007
Monday and Thursday, 7:30 – 9:30 p.m.

Week One

1. The Laws of Manu, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty (translator), Penguin, chapters 1, 2, 3 (1-60), 6, 9 (1-104), 10, 12
2. Bhagavadgita, Books 1-9 recommended edition: The Bhagavadgita in the Mahabharata, J.A.B.Van Buitenen (translator)

Week Two

1. Bhagavadgita, Books 10-18
2. Kalidasa, Kumarasambhava

Week Three

1. Kalidasa, Meghaduta (Cloud Messenger). Available in Kalidasa: The Loom of Time, Chandra Rajan (translator), Penguin Classics.
2. Kalidasa, Shakuntala

Week Four

1. Abhinavagupta, Dhvanyaloka (with the Locana of Abhinavagupta), selections with supplemental material by Keith and Perry. Through page 119; photocopy available from bookstore.
2. Dhvanyaloka, selections through page 696, same photocopy.

Week Five

1. Digha Nikaya. (The Long Discourses of the Buddha): 16 (“The Great Passing The Buddha’s Last Days”) Recommended edition of Digha Nikaya: Maurice Walshe (translator), Wisdom publications;
2. Majjhima Nikaya (The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha): 19 (“Two Kinds of Thought”), 26 (“The Noble Search”), 36 (“Greater Discourse to Saccaka”). Recommended edition: Bhikku Nanamoli (translator), Wisdom Publications. Please note that the translations available on the website www.accesstoinsight.org are decent but occasionally quirky.

Week Six

1. Majjhima Nikaya: 28 (“Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint”), 141 (“The Exposition of the Truths”); Digha Nikaya (The Long Discourses of the Buddha): 15 (“Great Discourse on Origination”).
2. Digha Nikaya: 2 (“Fruits of the Homeless Life”); Majjhima Nikaya: 117 (“The Great Forty”)

Week Seven

1. Majjhima Nikaya: 10 (“The Foundations of Mindfulness”), 22 (“Simile of the Snake”), 148 (“The Six Sets of Six”)
2. Nagarjuna, Madhyamika-shastra, Jay Garfield (translator), chapters 1-9. Concentrate on 1 (“Examination of Conditions”), 4 (“Examination of the Aggregates”), 7 (“Examination of the Conditioned”), 8 (“Examination of the Agent and Action”). Please note that the Garfield commentary is extremely helpful, but one should aim eventually at finding one’s own way through the argument.

Week Eight

1. Nagarjuna, chapters 10-19.Concentrate on 10 (“Examination of Fire and Fuel”),
12 (“Examination of Suffering”), 13 (“Examination of Compounded Phenomena”),
17 (“Examination of Actions and their Fruits”), 18 (“Examination of Self and Entities”)
2. Nagarjuna, chapters 20-27. Concentrate on 22 (“Examination of the Tathagata”),
24 (“Examination of the Four Noble Truths”), 25 (“Examination of Nirvana”), 26 (“Examination of the Twelve Links”)


Week Nine

1. Vimalakirti Sutra, Robert A. F. Thurman (translator), chapters 1-6
2. Vimalakirti Sutra, chapter 7 to end of text

Week Ten

1. Lankavatara Sutra, Suzuki and Goddard (translators), chapters 1-6 (pp.277-315)
2. Lankavatara Sutra, chapters 7-13 (pp.315-56)

Week Eleven

1. Gaudapada, The Great Karika on the Mandukya Upanishad. Edited by Nikhilananda in an Indian paperback, pp. 223-368 (Mandukya Upanishad and Gaudapada commentary only; omit other commentaries)
2. Shankara, Commentary on the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, Swami Madhavananda (translator), I.iv (pp.64-136)

Week Twelve

1. Shankara, Commentary on the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, IV.iii (pp.415-86)
2. PAPERS DUE. Diamond Sutra and Heart Sutra. Photocopy of the Heart Sutra available from the bookstore.

Week Thirteen

1. Hui Neng, Commentary on the Diamond Sutra, Thomas Cleary (translator)
2. The Sutra of Hui Neng (or Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch), chapters 1-5 (translations by Price/Wong and Cleary are both acceptable)

Week Fourteen

1. Sutra of Hui Neng, chapter 6 to end
2. Li Bai: “Listening to the Lute…,” “On Visiting Taoist Recluse…,” in Chinese Poetry
(Wai-Lim Yip, translator), pp. 182-183; “Ascend the Phoenix Terrace,” p. 203; “To See Off Meng Hao-Jan…,” p. 238; “Remembering Our Excursion in the Past…,” “The Song of Chang-Kan”, pp. 269-275; “Jade Steps Grievance,” p. 278

Week Fifteen

1. Wang Wei: “Mount Chung-Nan” in Chinese Poetry, p. 185; “Answer to Vice-Prefect Chang,” p. 186; “Bird Singing Stream,” “Deer Enclosure,” “Bamboo Grove,” “Rill of the House of the Luans,” “Hsin-I Village,” pp. 224-228; After “Source of the Peach Blossom Spring,” pp. 248-251.
2. Du Fu: “New Moon,” in Chinese Poetry, p. 193; “Night Feast at the Tsos,” p. 195; “Night Up in the Tower,” p. 204; “Looking at Mount Tai Shan,” p. 279.

Week Sixteen

1. Chu Hsi, Chu Tzu ch’uan-shu (selections). Pages 605-633 in A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy
2. Chu Hsi, Chu Tzu ch’uan-shu (selections) and Chu Tzu wen-chi (selections). Pages 634-653, and 593-604 in A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy

Edited: May 1, 2007, 7:04pm Top

That is a pretty good albeit 'heavy' selection, thanks for posting it.

May 1, 2007, 7:03pm Top

The great irony here is that Eastern philosophy classics are easier to access if not purchase in the West than they are in most of India or China, and yet, despite the availability and the immense scholarship behind them, they remain sidelined by Westerners, and of course by Asians who're largely brought up on Western ideas, books, movies etc.

Even philosophy has its pop culture. :)

Edited: May 2, 2007, 3:21pm Top

I think that the point about philosophy requiring patience (both in reading in the immediate sense and mulling things over and synthesizing in the lifelong sense) is really important. As a practical matter, I doubt there exists an easy-does-it, programmatic list of texts or people you talk to that will prepare you for thinking in a way that is adequate for being "philosophical," which dovetails with my earlier comment (#25). This isn't to say philosophy isn't technical in some ways, because it is. (At the VERY least you have to both use language other people understand and have a mind, right?) It is just to say that, regardless of your poise, you are never going to finish what you start when it comes to thinking, which distinguishes thinking from other technical activities for me.

This is also why I admonish criticisms that blame "philosophical writing" for being too jargony. Or a person starting a course of study with a book like "philosophy for dummies." Reading Hegel, while in many ways similar to reading a car repair manual, is still quite different in sheer scale and scope of the thinking required. To me this isn't an in-principle qualitative difference, as it is to some mysterians like McGinn and Chomsky. It is, in a way of saying, something like- "tough luck! you aren't going to read 'learn plato in 30 minutes' and get a lot out of it, idiot!"

Likewise, your peers in thinking are more likely to be Kant, Quine, and Heidegger rather than the next-door neighbors, coworkers, or, unfortunately, even fellow students or teachers- as #44 also seems to point out. To add my own thoughts to this- it tends to depress me that philosophy in one sense aims to prepare us to be ethical, social creatures while, in another, drives us farther apart one another in everyday communication. This is, sadly, where what philosophy has to offer us seems so useful! I guess this is why making our thinking clear to ourselves and one another is such a challenging and important task.

I would go out on a limb, and others should correct me if I'm wrong about this, in saying that if one is ready to think, then one should also be ready to be further alienated from one's peers. This isn't about a "burden of knowledge" or anything so grand, but a practical matter about training oneself to think. Since philosophy more or less exclusively concerns itself with thinking (and, at that, thinking DIFFERENTLY), this is a reasonable, practical consideration for those who aspire to be more than the armchair speculator.

May 3, 2007, 12:31pm Top

I think that many complaints about jargon in philosophy are justified. Sure, there are times when a particular term is necessary. But there are other times where contemporary authors appear to be deliberately obtuse. They seem to invent vocabularies or use terms that have no commonly understood meaning. If a new term has to be invented, that's fine too. The problem is when there are already words available that would convey what an author is trying to express, and the author goes out of his/her way to invent new terms, just to obfuscate the meaning.

My complaint - and many others', I assume - has to do more with contemporary writers than it does with pre-20th century authors. I think there is a very particular vocabulary you have to understand to read Hegel's Logic. And I think that's fine.

I think there is nothing wrong with writing clearly, using a commonly understood vocabulary, and trying to be sincere in one's efforts to make one's writing digestible by others.

While many posters here have mentioned general 'popular' works in philosophy, I don't think anyone has meant to imply that one will be able to 'study' philosophy just from those books. Rather, these works provide windows on philosophers/systems/periods that one might find intriguing and want to study in depth.

Yes, philosophy can be hard to study, but I don't think we should thereby make it further difficult by using unnecessary jargon, or by discouraging the public from showing any interest in the subject by damning popular works or works that are well-written as having no philosophical value.

To do so would be to engage in a form of intellectual snobbery that is really inappropriate to philosophy.

May 3, 2007, 1:10pm Top

Re: jargon

Philosophy should not, though, be singled out as some kind of oddball subject matter that promotes the use of jargon more than another ... use of jargon is a common strategy for "controlling" one's area of expertise that is pervasive throughout much of society (if I understand Theodor Adorno correctly) ...

Edited: May 3, 2007, 3:41pm Top

Naturally creating the kind of jargon you both (61, 62) are pointing to here (that is, deliberately obfuscatory) is not only unnecessary but, as 62 also points out, sometimes insidious. We need look no further than the anesthetizing language used in justifications for Nazi eugenics to figure this out. However, I would like 61 to bring to everyone's attention SPECIFIC incidents of such jargon in respected philosophical literature, rather than generally railing against philosophical unintelligibility in the 20th century.

This is in a way of saying that, in my posts above, I certainly was not defending jargon-as-jargon. I was defending supposed "jargon" from sloppy, nebulous criticism. Just saying "x is jargon" is not an argument, it's a premise ("these authors seem/appear deliberately obstuse" which authors? is seeming or appearing to be obtuse good enough to explain their actually being obtuse?).

I also am receptive to the argument for economy- that we shouldn't invent new words where standard vocabulary is already available. However, this is deceptively simplistic. When doing philosophy we are understandably dealing with issues that are more complex than asking a friend if she would like to go to see a film. Instead we are asking questions about what it is to ask such questions, how such questions work, why such questions work, etc etc etc. I would argue that this refraction burdens philosophical writing in terms of the writing process more than standard writing (for example, to say "I will write a post explaining my recommendations for someone worried about jargony philosophy" is much less taxing than being here, doing so). New vocabulary, when used prudently, is a good way to economize on space. Using the word "inferentialism" when refering to Brandom's theory of language is a EXTREMELY useful and economical tool in addressing that theory en bloc, rather than necessarily spelling the whole thing out each time (even if the purpose is to argue that inferentialism isn't a clear enough idea to even be called an idea!).

No one would say that philosophy should not be highly available and accessible (aside from Leo Strauss). I am skeptical, however, of those who say that it often isn't so in its current state. It seems pretty apparent to me, at least, that any reasonably intelligent person with the will could begin from scratch with the classics and teach herself the canon without a necessary jargon indoctrination process other than i customary in learning a new discipline. Just because it's difficult doesn't mean it's jargon.

While the "window into philosophy" is a nice sentiment, I get worried about assumptions that "real philosophy" is "too difficult" to start with. It isn't. It just takes time and meditation is all. Who wants the soap operafication of plato?! Would that still be plato?

In many ways the perspective I'm presenting here is MORE egalitarian and democratic than the philosophical-writing-is-too-jargony position. Let's not censure difficult academic writing just for being difficult, labeling it right off as jargon, but rather give each instance of writing we don't understand immediately credence for what it is, take it in good faith, and tackle the individual problems as they come to us. Instead of worrying about curtailing jargon problems on the supply side, let's get rid of it on the demand side first.

May 4, 2007, 6:22am Top

Hear hear.
Very often the people who complain about jargon are people whose vocabularies are simply inadequate and who are too lazy to do anything about it.
At some level, every word is jargon.

May 4, 2007, 8:38am Top

Good ol' "61" here with a reply.

I agree with 63 and 64. I think if we sat down and talked this over, we would have many points in common. But trying to explain one's position in a short posting such as this really makes one simplify the argument to the point of absurdity.

In short, I agree with all points that 63 and 64 are making.

Anyway, I did not mean to hijack this thread and turn it into a discussion of jargon.

As for specific examples of jargon-run-amok, I bring you the Bad Writing Contest of the journal "Philosophy and Literature". You can read the 'winning entries' here: http://denisdutton.com/bad_writing.htm

And now, back to our regularly scheduled discussion of philosophy texts we would recommend to someone newly interested in the subject.

May 4, 2007, 9:06am Top

juliebean, you did not hijeack the thread: you contributed to it by raising an issue which is very important in the pursuit of knowledge, which after all is what philosophy is.
Can you copy the link in again: it's not complete.

BTW, does anyone know what happened to Oddbert?

May 4, 2007, 9:30am Top

Hmmm.. don't know what happened to the link.

Here's the URL "http://denisdutton.com/bad_writing.htm".

And again: http://denisdutton.com/bad_writing.htm

May 4, 2007, 9:32am Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

May 4, 2007, 9:39am Top

Dutton, who started the contest, also has this to say:

"As a lifelong student of Kant, I know that philosophy is not always well-written. But when Kant or Aristotle or Wittgenstein are most obscure, it’s because they are honestly grappling with the most complex and difficult problems the human mind can encounter. How different from the desperate incantations of the Bad Writing Contest winners, who hope to persuade their readers not by argument but by obscurity that they too are the great minds of the age."

This is from an article he wrote about the Bad Writing Contest for the Wall Street Journal, entitled "Language Crimes: A Lesson in How Not to Write, Courtesy of the Professoriate" (Wall Street Journal, February 5, 1999).

You can see that article here:



May 4, 2007, 12:59pm Top

"Denis Dutton is a libertarian."

If you wanted to stop talking about jargon, juliebean, why did you insert this information on the "Bad Writing Contest?" Not that it really matters, as all I can really gather from its upshot is that some academics use rather overloaded sentences (sure the Judy Butler sentence could have been cut up and editorialized- welcome to the world of editing one's writing). To me this is Dutton's attempt to use the style of these little out-of-context snippets as a premise and start from there- slapping up a sentence that needs to be editorialized and saying "this is jargon," again, does not count as an argument. Unless, of course, you follow it with justification. But repeating his efforts by likewise labeling the sentence, and sure, why not, the whole of Butler's oeuvre, as pretentious, obscurantist, or whatever also does not count as a justification, if I have my logic right. Dutton explains that Kant, Aristotle, Wittgenstein are obscure but good (read "analytic-friendly") but Butler, the wicked continental philosophy lover, is just hoping to "persuade her readers not by argument but by obscurity." Let's try out Dutton's method of criticism for fun- "Dutton's explanations are horrible, they provide no information and he is a weak writer, making him a hypocrite. I don't agree with what he is saying at all, probably because what he writes is useless to most people. Plus, he is a libertarian and I hate that." An amazon.com-worthy review! All of that would be well and good for me to say if I felt like opining or wasting people's time, but doesn't really help to show where the real problems lie, which is what Dutton really should do as a philosopher.

Here is something that he wrote that is, in fact, an argument but makes a rather ridiculous point: "To ask what the snippet of Butler's text means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it."

So when we read what is the analytic-approved "bad writing" we aren't even to TRY to figure out what it means?! That is completely insane! How do we know there is no communication if we aren't even asking what Butler meant!!? Editorializing is good. Cutting sentences down to size and improving flow where possible is good. But, fixing goofy sentences is a different claim (it has to do with editorial procedure) than placing a set of "bad guy" texts in the realm of the wicked, obscurantist sophists without further explanation than "this is too complicated."

If one were to REALLY have the desire to get into this whole debacle, which Oddbert maybe doesn't, I would read the entire exchange between Derrida and Searle beginning with Derrida's "Signature, Event, Context," and concluding with Searle's "The Word Turned Upside Down." This whole back and forth spoiled Searle for me for many years (as might Derrida's ludicrous arguments put in the NY Review of Books concerning the guy who was writing the thing about Heidegger and Nazism- but, as I have learned my lesson from finally ACTUALLY READING more of Searle than a few odds and ends, ignoring an author for stylistic reasons is definitely not the right route). I think it's just wretched that these back-and-forth games are played between the "clear" people and the "obscure" people. They are really unproductive and only serve to alienate each side from the other. Or, in the larger scope, alienate "non-philosophers" from "philosophers."

My main concern in this and other posts- I don't think it would be good for Oddbert to begin with a prejudice that is characterized by the sociology of academic philosophy in Europe, the UK, and North America. While concerns with jargon go back to the sophists, and are definitely relevant to the study of philosophy, I worry that the current climate is such that it would take longer than it's worth to get out of this bog and come to broader, clearer understanding of things (which, it is true, is part of the whole point). This is why I've emphasized taking a do-it-yourself approach, but doing so without limiting oneself to this or that introductory text. While this is obviously not a wholly unbiased course, it still curtails many problems that I think would retard the learning process.

May 4, 2007, 1:04pm Top

I should also add that my tone for "analytic-approved" is meant to be sarcastic as Dutton is rarely read except for this little contest in circles that rely heavily on the analytic tradition.

May 5, 2007, 12:20pm Top


I just came across this quote, with which I agree:

"The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism." - C.S. Lewis, On the Reading of Old Books


May 7, 2007, 9:55am Top

Don, that's an excellent quote. Thanks for sharing it.

Hopefully Oddbert isn't still reading this thread, as the exchanges between JTChipman and myself seem to highlight the intellectual snobbery associated with 'academic' philosophy, which could scare off anyone interested in exploring the subject. (The bit about the Bad Writing Contest was HUMOR, not an argument, for crying out loud.)

There's nothing wrong with starting to explore philosophy by reading The Complete Idiot's Guide to Philosophy or Philosophy for Dummies. Again, those kinds of books are a great place to start, in helping one identify which philosophers/ideas one might be interested in exploring further.

Even the Cliff's notes for Plato's Republic or similar works aren't all that bad - they can help a reader identify the main ideas that are being explored in the text, which are the sorts of things one can miss if one is not already familiar with the work or is not studying them under the guide of a professor or other person familiar with the text.

May 7, 2007, 2:18pm Top


Please see my reference at #52 above, too. The "Squashed Philosophers" online, and free, is a great synopsis of principal philosophers, using their own words.


Edited: May 7, 2007, 3:51pm Top

Yes I guess our positions and justifications re Oddbert's question are about as clear as they are going to get. Still, I don't quite understand how all this has qualified as "'academic' snobbery" (this term, even with your scare quotes, seems to be trucking in some of the same problems that "jargon" did). If you have taken me to been 'academically' snobbish, then I think I either (a) didn't pitch my tone correctly or (b) you have taken me wrong. I was trying to make clear that I think the institutionalization of philosophy by universities and publishers is a problem. I see introductory texts as being a large part of this problem, at least on the publishing side of things.

I also don't quite get why you commend Don for the quotation, as C.S. Lewis is explaining that it is better to start with Plato than a commentary on Plato! This was exactly my point! Similarly, the beauty of the "Squashed Philosophers" from St. Johns is that it is not the "modern quick-fix take on an old text," but portions of the "old text" itself. I think many Great Books educated people would probably agree with me here.

Humor is fine, so long as it's done in good faith. See Daniel Dennett's "The Philosophical Lexicon" for a great example. Sloppy and narrow thinking masquerading as humor or parody, on the other hand, is intellectually dishonest and makes figuring out these issues more difficult than it really needs to be. This is probably why he only did this contest for a couple of years.

May 9, 2007, 2:24am Top

I tend to think that the jargon complaint is a legitimate one if it's coming from outside of philsophy. I also think it can only be remedied by full immersion. That is, it is certainly true that lots of contemporary philosophy is highly techinical and often obtuse. It's also true that being a good writer is not co-existensive with being a good or interesting philosopher, which gets us to fellows like Christopher Peacock or John McDowell and makes reading the stuff that much more difficult. But as far as I'm concerned there's not really an easy way in. Once you're "in" jargon isn't much of an issue. Now, obscurantism is another issue altogether, and I think sometimes obscurantism IS cloaked in jargon. But this is not much of a problem in contemporary analytic philosophy (or, in my limited knowledge, much of contemporary conteinental philosophy as practiced in phislophy departments) as much as it is a problem with lots of fringe philosophy that's being done in compartive literature and cultural studies departments.

Also, I just want to note that the guy who thinks philosophy and religion are antithetical MUST be kidding. Honestly man that's some high school shit you're on and it betrays an incredibly incomplete grasp of the current scence in philosophy.

Edited: May 9, 2007, 3:12am Top

And this is coming from someone who thinks Beavis and Butthead are two great minds of the 20th century... mmm.

May 9, 2007, 4:26am Top

I think pulling apart jargon as a kind of professional vocabulary and obscurantism is probably a really good tactic, too (see the beginning of #63). Part of the problem, however, is that jargon in a non-technical sense comes off as more pejorative than it does in your much clearer sense (that is, if I said "Brandom/Peacock/McDowell's jargon is sometimes difficult to follow" in a class at a university on the topic it would be received much differently than someone from, to use your term, outside of philosophy or some other technical discipline).

It is also a good point that it gets more tricky when obscurantism and jargon are combined, which is common problem that I didn't discuss. However jargon-obscurantism problem is not the same type of jargon that Oddbert originally meant, or that JulieBean was complaining about, I think we can assume? (Either Oddbert or JulieBean correct me if I'm wrong on that). I get the impression their jargon was more "this philosophy stuff is difficult, and its difficulty isn't warranted." The first assertion, 'philosophy is difficult,' is sometimes true, but not always. The second part is more about weighing your options: There probably isn't a soul alive that picks up Hegel's Phenomenology and enthusiastically reads it cover-to-cover. Those who eventually have, sometimes many, many times, have found that the intellectual pay-off was worth the difficulty for them- even if that difficulty sometimes could have been avoided by the author.

May 9, 2007, 6:58am Top

"And this is coming from someone who thinks Beavis and Butthead are two great minds of the 20th century . . ."

He's not wrong though? Aquinas, etc.

May 9, 2007, 12:42pm Top

Me again...I think that separating jargon and obscurantism is helpful. I'm not railing against technical vocabulary in philosophy. As I said, sometimes it's necessary. I am, however, annoyed with (usually) contemporary authors who use a pseudo-technical vocabulary in order to obfuscate their meaning - so that you *think* they must be saying something profound, and you become frustrated because you can't understand it. And then you realize that there was a much clearer way for them to make their point. And that they were probably being obtuse because it makes them sound smart.

Hegel's Phenomenology is a good example, too. Hegel's writing wasn't difficult because he was trying to impress anybody. I get the feeling a lot of contemporary stuff is written to impress the reader (with the author's so-called erudition), rather than to make an argument for anything.

My concerns, which I have obviously not articulated clearly so far (bad writing is not just in the province of contemporary philosophers!) is that I don't like telling the 'public' that they shouldn't read this or that guide because it is too watered-down. It's as though philosophers want to throw up a barrier to say, "You stupid peon; you're not welcome here." We tell them to go to the original texts...but for many people, they do not have the sort of background that will help them grapple with those texts.

What if a middle-aged housewife who didn't go to college decides she wants to read some stuff about philosophy? Are we to tell her to just pick up some Descartes for starters? No, I think she would need some background - which would be provided by some of those 'philosophy lite' guides - to help her understand just what the heck she's reading. Also, I think some secondary guides would be helpful in helping her focus on the structure of the arguments in the text, pointing out the problems with said arguments, etc. And, darn it, the secondary guides just might be able to explain the arguments in language that is easier for her to understand than in the original.

Of course, Descartes is not representative of the deliberately obtuse contemporary authors that annoy me with their jargon. And, no, jargon is not restricted to 'fringe' philosophy, like critical theory, etc. You'll even find it in the 'analytic' tradition.

While the Bad Writing Contest pulls out the most egregious examples, I'm sure that many of us can think of particularly bad jargon-filled pieces. And I'm sure that we can also think of pieces that just seemed deliberately unclear.

Which is, again, the reason I admire Brian Davies' writing. He is such a talented writer and philosopher, that when you read his works about Aquinas or philosophy of religion, you'll find that he makes everything so very clear.

May 9, 2007, 1:05pm Top

There is nothing new or contemporary about charges of obscurantism. To imagine that it is particularly prevalent now is just a peculiar form of presentism.
Bertrand Russell regarded Hegelry as "a farrago of nonsense". Karl Popper thought he was a shameless obscurantist. Schopenhauer led the charge of obscurantism from the get go (after attending one of his lectures as a student, and ever after) - and even Schelling (Schelling!) was dubious about the chap.

So, nothing new there. Sophistry is as old as philosophy itself.

May 9, 2007, 1:23pm Top

Correction: his contempt as a student was reserved for Fichte - Hegel came later.

Edited: May 9, 2007, 4:53pm Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

May 10, 2007, 3:39pm Top

TomCat: Clearly my profile is a bit tongue-in-cheek but I'll give you the benefit of the doubt on that one.

Anyway, I guess I have to name some names, so I will. Let's start with Saul Kripke, Michael Dummett, Nicholas Rescher, Charles Taylor, and Elizabeth Anscombe. All religious, all important contemporary philosophers by anyone's estimation. You lose.

May 10, 2007, 7:31pm Top

Berkeley (obvious), Kierkegaard, most of the Church logicians; even the aforementioned (Father) Copleston . . .

May 29, 2007, 5:49pm Top

Oddbert: Reading Sophie's World is a great way to discover philosophy. It introduces philosophy through its history. So you have a sketch of the history of philosophy to build on. But it is pretty sketchy. I'd say you have three main choices for your next move: (1) read the history of philosophy at the next level of detail and technical challenge, making sure that you choose something pleasing to read; (2) read bits of the history that most interested you, focusing on primary and secondary sources for individual philosophers; and, (3) reading for an overview of the main branches of philosophy, to understand better the main problems of philosophy as these have come to be treated up to the present.

I'd suggest door number (3). The book Philosophy for Dummies, by Tom Morris is an excellent source for this. Morris is a first-class philosopher who taught at the University of Notre Dame before shifting to the corporate world as a motivational speaker. If this is the path you take, you can follow Morris's suggestions for further reading on the topics that interest you.

87shaunw First Message
Edited: Jun 9, 2007, 10:37pm Top

So you recommend that someone should start their study of
philosophy by reading the works of a well known Nazi such as
Heidegger. Is that an unbaised objective selection?

Jun 8, 2007, 11:41pm Top

I don't agree that there are any Eastern philosophy classics.
What passes for philosophy in the east is a mixture of theology,
mysticism and nonsense.

Jun 8, 2007, 11:44pm Top

There is no current science in philosophy. You must be really
confused or not know what the word 'science' means.

Edited: Jun 9, 2007, 10:39pm Top

'Tom Morris is a first class philosopher who is now in the corporate
world as a motivational speaker'.

Did he get a brain transplant?
Are you serious? Should we take this dingbat seriously? Lets
get back to philosophy. I'm a philosopher who is now a French
Parisian Washerwoman. I like my new life. I make much more money.

Jul 10, 2007, 1:47pm Top

The Consolations of Philosophy was a great book that went inside 6 philosophers and helped apply their philosophies to real life. I thought it was a magnificent read, definitely easy to understand.

Jul 10, 2007, 8:05pm Top

theology is easier for me to make recommendations about than philosophy. i would check out 2 books before you get into anything else for that: in god's time by craig hill and faith seeking understanding by dan migliore. these are GREAT beginning theology books
for philosophy....this is a huge area. i guess i would recommend you start with some greeks. they are tedious sometimes, but the thought is amazing. i recommend allan bloom's translation of plato's republic (as well as his closing of the american mind, but that's more social commentary), aristotle's nichomachean ethics(apostle translation).....pretty much anything by those two author's is worth reading for background for anything else you will ever read in philosophy. but in terms of what is fun? leviathan by hobbes, the prince by machiavelli, the art of war by sun tzu, fear and trembling by kierkegaard (hong trans), the illiad and the oddessey (yes, they are stories but they are full of philosophy), anything by shakespeare or moliere, einstein's relativity....really the trick with books on philosophy is having someone to talk about the ideas with.

let me know when you're done and i'll make more recommendations (philosophy bachelor's, theology master's)

Jul 10, 2007, 8:09pm Top

the difference between theology and philosophy is really only a matter of perspective.....for that matter the difference between philosophy and science is a matter of perspective. bacon, the father of modern science, considered himself a philosopher(and wrote like one).

Jul 11, 2007, 2:03pm Top

I notice that there have been 92 responses to Oddbert's initial post from December of 2006. Not one of them from Oddbert. Do you sometimes get the feeling that you're just talking into the wind?

Jul 14, 2007, 11:45am Top

"Do you sometimes get the feeling that you're just talking to the wind?"

It comes with the territory. I think philosophers in general feel that they're just talking to the wind...

(Then you see comments like the ones from Shaunw, on Heidegger, science, Eastern philosophy, and Tom Morris, and you not only realize you're talking to the wind, but you also want to go hang yourself from pique.)

Jul 31, 2007, 2:14am Top

"So you recommend that someone should start their study of
philosophy by reading the works of a well known Nazi such as
Heidegger. Is that an unbaised objective selection?"

Only some trite shit like this can harmonize the voices of juliebean and jtchipman!

Aug 12, 2007, 10:46am Top

"Do you sometimes get the feeling that you're just talking to the wind?"

At the end of the day this post will definitely be helpful for other people, so it's all good. I have found some interesting books on it.

My 2c.

I think that Russell's History... is a very good starting point. Fair enough that his quite opinionated, but it's a fantastic book, I think unique in relating philosophical movements and evolution with historical and political changes. I, at least, haven't found anything similar. After one can pursuit the lecture of what is most interesting to him/herself and get other opinions. It's also quite funny, and its reading is quite light.

I would also recommend continental philosophy since 1750: the rise and fall of the self by and all the other books in that series. The Blackwell companion to philosophy is also quite a good general reference. At least I found them both interesting.

98Allen_Bass First Message
Oct 6, 2007, 5:00pm Top

It really depends on where your interests lie. If it's philosophy as philosophy, I'd suggest Solomon & Higgins A Short History of Philosophy, a little light-weight but a good introduction. An introduction prepared for students at Oxford is Grayling, ed Philosophy A Guide Through the Subject. It is an excellent introduction, but, being English in origin, it favors the analytical school over the continental school. This, as you will learn, is the great divide. Bertrand Russell, as a leading analytic philosopher, really has an ax to grind in his A History of Western Philosophy, and I view it as polemical, a very intellectual polemic, but a polemic.

My own taste runs to the continental school as I believe it has a greater intersection with contemporary culture. Robert C. Solomon is the best popular exponent, and A Short History of Philosophy will provide a good introduction to both continental and analytical philosophy. I also think highly of his From Rationalism to Existentialism. It was written as a guide for his students. A bit on the succinct side, it can be a little tough going without the lectures, but the work will be well rewarded. He's also done two series of lectures for The Great Courses series of The Teaching Company. These are taped, specially prepared lectures, given at the survey level, and I can't recommend them too highly. They have other offerings in philosophy on their site and come in different media (tape, CD, DVD) with study guides. All said, The Teaching Company is probably the best starting place. Their courses are pricey if you don't wait for a sale, and sales, at substantially reduced prices, occur with regularity. Watch for the right sale and pounce when what you want becomes available.

Edited: Nov 12, 2007, 2:59pm Top

How about Philosophy for Beginners (Writers and Readers Documentary Comic Book). The Readers and Writers "For Beginners" series is great for an introduction to main concepts of most philosophers. There's also Introducing Philosophy and the Introducing series regarding most philosophers. These are the most concise and to the point intros I've found. They're a good introduction to the language and terminology used in philosophy, particular schools of thought and phylosophers themselves. They also provide suggested reading lists when you've decided your direction in philosophy. Some people posting here might find these too concise but I only suggest them as an overview to provide some orientation through the dense jungle of philosophers and philosophy. These might be poo-pooed but I say read them before you pass judgment.

Edited: Nov 12, 2007, 7:58pm Top

I would start with Russell's 'History of Western Philosophy'. I think this is by far the best text on philosophical schools and individual philosophers, all put in their respective historical contexts. To call it 'polemical' is total nonsense. An alternative is F Copleston's nine-volume 'History of Philosophy', covering the entire spectrum of philosophical thought up to, and including, Sartre.

After one or both of these, I would continue with the actual text of works by individual philosophers who may be of interest.

Edited: Nov 27, 2007, 2:47pm Top

Find one philosophical work that impresses you. It probably doesn't matter which it is. Study that work, and other works by the same philosopher, and by his colleagues, and by the philosophers with whom he was arguing and working off of. And then go on to later appreciations and criticisms of the work and the philosopher.

In the meantime, read some general stuff -- Encyclopedia Britannica, perhaps, using Mortimer Adler's Syntopicon provided in Britannica's Great Books series.

My earliest reading in philosophy was a mixed bag, of course, but i don't think it did me any harm: C. S. Lewis, Robert Nozick, John Locke, J-J. Rousseau and Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, are all good writers, and, together, do not conspire to set a person in one direction without hope of recovery. An early read of Irrational Man by William Barrett was a lot of fun, but the many excellent writings of Walter Kaufmann guided me away from a strict existentialist mindset, which I find all to the good. (For starters on Kaufmann, I recommend Critique of Religion and Philosophy and Without Guilt and Justice. Very easy reading, but very rewarding.) Close study, before I was 20, of a whole slew of somewhat difficult essays by C. S. Peirce proved very helpful to me.

Sometimes focusing on one problem helps provide a guide. One could spend a lot of time just on the brain/mind problem. Or fact/value.

I just bought an 1823 edition of a Thomas Reid treatise in commonsense philosophy, and am enjoying it immensely. This book could easily provide a great start to a study of philosophy. Go back to Hume, and back beyond Hume to his predecessors, such as Locke. Read Kant, who also tried to tackle the basic problem Hume set up. Read some modern treatments of the topic. Very soon you will find yourself in the thick of philosophy, doing philosophy, thinking like a philosopher.

102timmer51 First Message
Edited: Dec 29, 2007, 9:44am Top

103steve_d27 First Message
Feb 2, 2008, 12:10pm Top

I think a lot of old style philosophy is redundant and not to be looked at as the holy grail for wisdom. What's to stop someone from creating a philosophical insight that speaks in a modern language? If it is modern, is it philosophy, or does it have to be 4,000 years old to have an impact?

Feb 2, 2008, 3:18pm Top

Sophie's World is an excellent choice for a beginner and now you wanna learn some more. I suggest Bertrand Russell, a philosopher himself who also wrote some kind of introduction to western philosophy. I can't remember the title at the moment, but will get back with it. He keep close to chronology, starting with the Greeks and so forth...

Feb 2, 2008, 3:19pm Top

A history of western philosophy, and its connection with political… by Bertrand Russell. That's the book I had in mind. Best wishes.

Edited: Feb 3, 2008, 10:31pm Top

I'm surprised that no one has yet mentioned Anthony Kenny (If he has been mentioned and I missed it then I apologize) . His A Brief History of Western Philosophy is a wonderful introduction to philosophy. He achieves an excellent mix of historical, biographical, and philosophical information in an easy to read and understand format that does not have the problems traditionally associated with Bertrand Russell's history. For those looking for a more in-depth introduction there is a four volume history of philosophy also by Anthony Kenny.

1. Ancient Philosophy: A New History of Western Philosophy
2. Medieval Philosophy: A New History of Western Philosophy
3 The Rise of Modern Philosophy: A New History of Western Philosophy
4. Philosophy In the Modern World http://www.librarything.com/work/3530333

There is also an interesting interview with Anthony Kenny about the writing of his history at Philosophy Bites. http://nigelwarburton.typepad.com/philosophy_bites/2007/10/anthony-kenny-o.html

As an aside the Philosophy Bites podcast itself is a great introduction to philosophy. Nigel Warburton interviews leading philosophers on a wide range of interesting topics in a way to which even a layman can relate.

I have also found The Classics of Western Philosophy a helpful reference when studying the works themselves.

Feb 4, 2008, 10:47pm Top

Oddbert, I have a question, curious as usual - what prompts you to "want desperately to study philosophy and theology in-depth," lest it is a requirement for your major?

The responses, put all together in a basket, might as well be chickens in a coop. What on earth have you extracted from this thread to possibly have helped the direction you might decide to take?

Or did you pose the question to sit back and rejoice at the beehive dripping more honey than you could possibly inhale in one breath?

Which answered helped, or did all?

Feb 9, 2008, 10:19pm Top

It's helped me. This has been one of the most informative and entertaining LT threads I've read, and I go through a lot of them. It looks like my TBR list is going to get a bit heavier.

Edited: Feb 15, 2008, 8:38pm Top

In that case, Sandydog, throw in 'You Are The World' by J. Krishnamurti. I think this one of his encompasses most of his books. He talks a lot about 'no division between the observer and the observed,' which is a theme taken on by many, but each good speaker or writer with a special 'twist.' As does Martin Buber in 'I Thou,' and even Pirsig in his novel 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.' I would also include the novel 'Immortality' by Milan Kundera as an example of exercising philosophy.


Feb 18, 2008, 8:09pm Top

Well, I recommend the writings of Paul J. Glenn. His texts are the best I have found. I must add that the only complete philosophy is the Greco-Scholastic philosophy. To quote Glenn:

"The philosophia perennis, or perennial philosophy, is that philosophy
which has consistently run its course unbroken through the centuries. This
philosophy is mainly Greek in origin, coming to us primarily from Socrates,
Plato, and Aristotle. Aristotle is the main influence among them. Following
the Greeks, philosophia perennis was built upon by the greatest minds in
Christendom, beginning with St. Augustine of Hippo in the 4th century. It
was preserved by the religious men of the Dark Ages into the Revival of
Learning under Charlemagne and Alcuin. It progressed into greater
completeness with the minds of Roscelin, St. Anselm, William of
Champeaux and Abelard. In the 13th century it was rounded into near
perfection by the colossal genius of William of Auvergne, Alexander of
Hales, St. Bonaventure, St. Albert the Great, St Thomas Aquinas and John
Duns Scotus. These men of the 13th century are known as the School Men
or the Scholastic Philosophers. Henceforth, the philosophia perennis is
the Scholastic Philosophy. It challenges the attention of today’s best
minds. Many of its most modern exponents are called the Neo-Scholastics.

The Scholastic Philosophy (or Greco-Scholastic Philosophy) survives in the
world today as the only continuously existent and consistent system of
philosophic thought that man may find in all its race. It represents the best
that man has been able to do in his tireless quest for root-reality. It is the
one system that has any roundness or completeness in its expression of the
human philosophic effort, that is, of the deepest and most earnest human
thought upon the ultimate unities which embrace all knowable reality within
their mighty scope. This blunt statement is ever provocative of indignation
and denial of non-Scholastics with their broken and partial philosophies.
But there the thing stands. Like it or hate it, it is fact and not fiction. This is
no dictum of partisan minds, but the irrefutable declaration of human

111davidstewart First Message
Edited: Feb 24, 2008, 9:48am Top

Begin (nearly) at the beginning: Plato. Read the books written about the death of Socrates: Apology, Euthyphro, Crito, Phaedo. Then Meno and select a couple more of the shorter dialogs, perhaps. Eventually you'll want to take on Republic.

You could then take on Aristotle, and I would suggest the long and somewhat difficult Nichomachean Ethics.

From there, a survey would be a good choice. A few good ones have been mentioned here. I would add Will and Ariel Durant's The Story of Philosophy. It is not the soundest, most accurate, but it is wholly engaging and comprehensive to its dated end. In fact, you could even begin there, simply for the sake of becoming engaged so that you will desire to move forward with the study of philosophy.

I would also suggest a couple of books by Mortimer J. Adler. His Ten Philosophical Mistakes is excellent, though it requires some background in several technical aspects of philosophy--one might not be able to approach it without having at least a first- and second-hand background in Kant's metaphysics and epistemology, for example. Aristotle for Everybody is also a good book to read, in addition to (maybe before, but not in place of) Aristotle's Ethics.

Feb 29, 2008, 4:12pm Top

There are some really good recommendations here. Allot I have never heard or or been exposed too. The OP raised a question that I have always been interested in. I have not ever had trouble reading heavy jargon, but I have sort of stumbled when it came to the question of where to start and what is most important, etc.

With that said, and as a novice myself, I have always found the writings of Durant very easy to understand and follow. In his Story of Philosophy, he starts at the beginning and give a rather concise and good picture of the great Western philosophical minds. As the previous poster suggested, he starts at the beginning, Socrates, Plato, etc... and give very good understandable commentary. I would highly recommend this work.

Also, as a novice, I have found the writings of Plato and Aristotle and others very interesting, and while they are not easy arm-chair readings, they are well worth the effort. The key, for me, is the slow down, think about what I am reading, and have access to a good on-line dictionary like answers.com or a good printed dictionary.

There are also allot of great philosophy primers on-line. If your interested, let me know and I will post some links. HTH!

Edited: Mar 19, 2008, 5:46pm Top

You might start with a "concept" (e.g., "Bad Faith") do a google on it, and pursue it through the authors. Bad faith, does turn into authenticity, which also might be pursued. Also, in existentialism, Heidegger mentions, "the "They", which I would maintain is Nietzsche's "rabble". Pursuing these terms would inevitably expose you to all of the mentioned beginning sources.

Mar 22, 2008, 6:48am Top

Oddbert, are you there?

Apr 7, 2008, 10:52am Top

For an introduction of modern philosophy from the seventeenth century till now, a good basic primer is Bruce AuneRationalism, Empiricism and Pragmatism, each of these topics are still relevant contemporary approaches. Rationalism can lead you back to classical Greek theories, and forward to the issues that have riven contemporary approaches to the subject (ie; Artificial intelligence). if your still interested, look up indexes of books you've read, especially those that are mentioned in the texts that seem to offer positive leads for you. Your temperament will dictate your direction. Don't worry too much about structure, if you serious, you'll have a lot of looking up to do to figure out what the devil the author's on about. In doing this you'll begin to see directions that offer interesting opportunities. before you know it you'll be hooked. Good Luck

Edited: Apr 10, 2008, 10:57pm Top


In your original post, you mentioned an interest in learning more about both philosophy and theology. I have two book recommendations that will give you a concise survey of some of the major themes and figures prominent in both fields:

Philosophical Introduction to Theology by J. Deotis Roberts, and

Philosophy for Understanding Theology by Diogenes Allen

They are both written at an high college, or introductory graduate level, but provide concise, yet thorough surveys of the intersection of western philosophy and theology.

Dr. Roberts is a former professor of mine, as well as an eminent scholar in the fields of liberation theology, and philosophical theology.

Dr. Allen, is a retired distinguished professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, and an expert in western philosophy.

I highly recommend you acquire and read both of these books- preceded, perhaps, by one of the introductory works mentioned earlier in this thread.

May you always pursue learning and philosophical enquiry with zeal and a hunger for learning!

Best regards,

John from Abington, PA

May 17, 2008, 9:08am Top

If you just want to start out, get any of the Icon series of Introducing books; Introducing Philosophy, Introducing Plato, etc. Check amazon for a list. They're easily digestible and highly informative; dont let the comic strip bits put you off. Theyre brilliant.

Jun 25, 2008, 8:59pm Top

hi, you should start out by reading Bertrand Russells introduction to western philosophy...

also check out Hilary puttnam (history truth and reason) and hannah arendt's the human condition for accessable but mind blowing stuff...beautifully written and relatively jargon free

Jul 6, 2008, 4:35pm Top

The best comprehensive, lucidly written, and scholarly introduction to Western philosophy I have read is Richard Tarnas' "Passion of the Western Mind". Read this book, re-read it, and let it be your guide for all philosophy to follow.

Jul 17, 2008, 4:03am Top

I'm not Oddbert but I'm sure glad he came to this group for help!
I have a high school age child, we read Sophie's World and my daughter is now ready for more philosophy. So ... I thank you for your guidance.
Thanks to all who participated in this thread, we are forever grateful.

Jul 18, 2008, 4:40pm Top


Who inhales honey?

Aug 22, 2008, 10:16am Top

When I got interested in philosophy I started out with survey texts. Durant's Story of Philosophy is very readable and informative. It must be fairly good it has been in print since the 1920's. I also read Russell's History of Western Philosophy. When you read that book you must beware of Russell's opinions that color his writing. Those volumes go from one philosopher to another in a chronological approach. I have only read portions of The Passion of the Western Mind. It tends to look at the historical trends in philosophy and is more sophisticated than Durant or Russell. The Columbia History of Western Philosophy is about 750 pages long and contains articles by different authors on philosophers in a chronological order. I have only used this book to get some ideas on a particular philosopher. It is not a book to use to begin the study of philosophy. I doubt I will ever read it cover to cover.
I like to use The Classics of Western Philosophy A Reader's Guide to get a snapshot of different books by philosophers. It has ten to twenty page articles by different authors on 61 different books of philosophy from the Pre-Socratics to Thomas Kuhn. The articles have bibliographies of the different philosophers and short lists of studies of their writings. After you have located a philosopher you would like to read it provides a helpful introduction their works. Getting further into introductory material is a six volume set called The Great Ages of Western Philosophy. Each volume is about 200 pages long and has about 15 chapters on different philosophers from a certain period. The chapters have an introduction to the philosopher's work and excerpts from their writings.
All of these materials lead up to selecting a particular book of a philosopher's work and reading it. By this time you have a good idea of what the ideas of the different philosophers are and have hopefully developed an interest in some particular philosophers. I started with Plato. Plato is well written and the dialog format reads easily.
I am by no means any type of expert in philosophy. These are just my suggestions based on what I have in my library. This is post number 122 on this topic and there is a lot of good information in the other 121. All of the books listed on the topic should keep you busy for a number of years. At he end of going through all of the books listed you can award yourself an honorary Master's Degree in philosophy. You have set yourself quite a task. Enjoy.

Apr 18, 2009, 1:09am Top

One word... Passionately.

Start with the basics on some philosophers to get the gist on what they are about.
When you find something that really appeals to you then read more about the philosopher/s and philosophies that grab your attention. It is always easier to learn when you are really interested. So you really need to find what it is that draws you in the most about philosophy and base your studies from there. Undoubtedly, given the subject matter of philosophy, one inquisition always leads to another, so it will build up and branch out over time.

For example, if you have an interest in the philosophy of the self or in the importance of creativity in philosophy then Friedrich Nietzsche may be interesting for you. However it is pretty intense reading and extremely poetic at times, but absolutely intriguing all the same.

For ancient philosophy, I found the dialogues of Plato's Gorgias to be a good exercise in understanding premises of an argument and logic. It also shows how there can be true premises and false conclusions in an argument. (which is always a useful tool in reading philosophy, as well as developing your own ideas).

Iris Murdoch is easy to read and follow. Being a little more contemporary as an philosopher, it is not so easy to get lost in all of the cultural and historical aspects relative to the time and origination of some of the ancient philosophers.

I would also suggest a book called 'The philosophy files' by Stephen Law.
It is a very simple guide for beginners and offered a very practical and easy to follow introduction to philosophy. This was recommended by my philosophy teacher when I first started out and it was useful. Don't let it's 'cartoon like' appearance fool you. It is as fun as it is helpful.

Personally I am a fan of Buddhist philosophy, and find it the most practical as I apply it in my everyday life. But as a practicing Buddhist, this is my religion. So I am biased. lol.

It really depends on what you would like to attain from the study of philosophy. There is so much out there, and you must do what feels right for you.

I hope this helps. Good luck and enjoy!

Apr 18, 2009, 1:22am Top

How does a man study philosophy?

By marrying a virago.

It would push a man to philosophize about life in ways he never imagined before, and help him become a more productive and thoughtful writer. Just look at the lives of Leo Tolstoy, and Socrates.

Edited: Jun 11, 2009, 12:16am Top

My approach would be a little unconventional. I would say find a subject/topic/theme that creates enthusiasm and follow it from there. What subjects excite you, ethical ones, metaphysical ones, epistemological ones etc, questions about the meaning of life?

The problem with philosophy is that after thousands of years there is still so little agreement on common matters that it has many different schools, and each school will refer you to different works as the beginning point. And they will trash the others schools classics as a waste of time and fundamentally flawed or at best a way to study the errors others have made.

If you would just like a basic familiarization with philosophy, then maybe you should start with the narrower genre of intellectual history. Philosophical debates begin within a historical context and searching in this direction can give you some direction on what sorts of problems or ideas interest you.

You expressed an interest in both philosophy and theology. Perhaps you might have an interest in Medieval philosphy since the two seemed to come together there. But since much of Medieval philosophy was a development out of certain schools of ancient philosophy, then you could start with Plato, Aristotle, and Neo-Platonism and follow their development. You could find either online or somewhere where they sell used books, collections of writings from ancient and medieval philosophy where they have collections of the original writings along with some historical background and description of their role in the development of philosophy.

You asked a really big question and I gave you a little answer, but I hope this can at least get you started on your way.

Jun 29, 2009, 6:28pm Top

Brush up your Shakespeare!

Aug 9, 2009, 3:38pm Top

"How should I study philosophy?"

With an axe.

Aug 10, 2009, 6:39am Top


Edited: Aug 10, 2009, 8:35am Top

There are two sorts of reasons for any study, either you study so as to find useful tools in the alleviation of felt needs, or you search for ways to ensure the favours of others. If the latter is the case here, and the relevance of the studying is external to what is to be studied, then the question is which philosophical works has authority with those you are trying to impress.

If you are not really a stage performer, but would like to find some answers to questions that bother you, you should perhaps try to define these as well as you can, and then Google them.

Aug 10, 2009, 9:46am Top

Maybe the question should be WHY would anyone want to study philosophy at all? It seems that for many philosophy is nothing more than an avenue to show off their intellectual muscles and engage in boring & fruitless arguments and erudition.

I think it would be safe to say that most of the great philosophers and thinkers in history would be mortified and ashamed with exactly how professionalized and meaningless philosophy has become.

Aug 10, 2009, 10:05am Top

Whoah, there picklesan. Power down for a second.

Let's start by distinguishing between the reason people study philosophy and the reason people DEBATE philosophy (especially with total strangers in an online forum). These are entirely separable phenomena -- and I would suggest your "my vocabulary is bigger than yours is!" types show themselves more strongly by their participation in the second (i.e. loud and public debates) than the first (i.e. studying the topic).

Secondly, some of us enjoy discussing philosophical issues because we find them interesting and truly want to explore our own understanding of the world of our experience. I debate philosophy because I'm fascinated by the process of consciousness, because I want to undrestand how objective morality might be derived from a world-view with no creator, or any number of other issues.

Now, am I opinionated? Sure. Do I like drawing on my knowledge and background in debates? Of course. Does this come across as someone who wants to "show off intellectual muscles" ..... probably! Especially to people who haven't read as much as I have. But does that mean that that is my INTENTION in these debates? I'm sorry, it doesn't.

So let's hold off just a tiny bit on the broad, sweeping judgments. Everyone might agree that people who "engage in boring and fruitless agruments" are tools; but I put it to you that almost nobody ever agrees on which conversations actually fall into that category.

Aug 10, 2009, 2:08pm Top

It is only when the sought for result is applause that you can lament a lack of appreciation for anything but an end product. And if accusations of philosophical affectation should be unjust, the proof should lie in productive thinking, not merely in extensive reading.

Aug 10, 2009, 3:04pm Top

132: "It is only when the sought for result is applause that you can lament a lack of appreciation for anything but an end product."

I'm not sure I understand this. It sounds to me like you're denying any value for the social process of dialogue and debate. But, a lively debate between two sides can help define terms and elaborate theories, or even lead to a better SOCIAL understanding of why people disagree.... EVEN IF nobody's mind is "changed" in the end.

Moreover, the "end product" of any SINGLE debate may not simply be whether either side has come to greater (or changed) understanding in that instance. The "end product" could be that one or both parties have learned new approaches to teaching, new topics and questions that need to be address the NEXT time they debate. This is an iterative process. An online debate that seems "fruitless" on its own could be means through which a participant gathers information on what types of attacks he needs to be able to address in the future.

Aug 11, 2009, 5:32am Top

The Sophists are said to have taught how to debate so as to win debates (whether this is wholly fair to the Sophists is irrelevant – it functions well as an idea), this puts the philosopher in the category performer, namely one whose product is the appreciation of the performance itself by somebody. A rather ephemeral product; it disappears with the authorized authorizers of its value, be they seekers of distraction, judges performing their duty, or pupils needing exam papers.

Winning philosophical debates or wrestling matches, or getting applause for a song and dance act, is of course not worthless activities. There might be gains too in becoming an instituted philosopher, acknowledging the acknowledgements of other sycophants in a production of shared authority. But it is not something relevant to the world outside.

There was a time when philosophy was defined as what concerns the whole of humanity, there were philosophers by that definition who defied torture and execution, who did manual labour for a living so as to publish after their death - and it must be considered legitimate to contrast that with people who merely want to gain and keep authority in funded institutions.

To get back to the theme of this thread: if you want to be rewarded you should study what is demanded for it by those who can give it to you, which of course here mostly means a curriculum of sorts. If not, if you want to discover meaning, you should first get out of the tunnel of digested experience, out into the un-chosen world, and then only read to understand what have engaged you there – life can only in a very limited way be put into sentences.
This is the way I see it anyway, but mind you: I am about as devoid of authority as you can get.

Aug 11, 2009, 11:49am Top

Perhaps I become somewhat of a proselyte in even putting forth my own reasons for even pursuing a discussion of philosophical issues; however, on Librarything, I have been pointed in directions for which I am quite grateful. From this group and also the discussion forum, "Happy Heathens", where I found out about Irvin Yalom's When Nietzsche Wept, which led me to a whole new world of existentialism, (e.g. his Existential Psychotherapy and supporting publications) and thus, would explain what we are doing right now, i.e., we define our "selves" in the mirror of others' opinions and reactions.

Nov 7, 2009, 6:11pm Top

For absolute beginners you can't beat the Puzzle series by Peter Vardy, such as the Puzzle of God. My degree was Philosophy, Religion and Ethics and Vardy was one of the most inspiring lecturers i've ever heard. He tends more towards philosophy of religion but he is also a huge proponent of Kierkegaard - which is good reading.

Nov 7, 2009, 6:29pm Top

I have come to this thread rather late on, from glancing at the date of the original post, but one could do worse than to pick up a copy of the slim but delightful What does it all Mean? by Thomas Nagel.

It will have you charging off in all directions after you have read its tantalising encroachment on the wide range of philosophical subjects one is likely to encounter with our limited cognitive means.

Nov 7, 2009, 6:59pm Top

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Nov 7, 2009, 7:28pm Top

#138 is a new Troll. Those are links to his/her blog postings. S/He's hit at least a dozen other threads so far.

Nov 7, 2009, 7:36pm Top

> 139

And as well as that being the case, and furthermore recommending Russell's mighty tome, The History of Western Philosophy, may I be the first perhaps to caution those, who may jump in at the deep end, against reading Russell first. Wonderfully clear that he is, this tome is just too big for novices,

Stick to Nagel and be satiated.

Nov 8, 2009, 7:59am Top

About 10 years ago I started looking at philosophy via a 5-volume set by W. T. Jones. The overall set was titled A History of Western Philosophy and I chose to start with the volume Kant and the Nineteenth Century for no reason I can presently recall. I eventually bought and read the whole set - I found that the summaries of selected philosophers' positions was sufficient to get me started on which ones to read more of early on. From there, I just let interest and perceptions of applicability guide me.

I later bought the Durant survey mentioned by a number of other people posting; that would have been a good start, too.

At least one other person posting suggested going to the philosophy department page of (your choice of university), bringing up the course description of an introductory course and getting the textbook(s) specified. I found that procedure has worked pretty well in other subjects and see no reason why it shouldn't work for philosophy.

Good luck on pursuing your interest - I've found it well worth the time I spend!

Nov 8, 2009, 10:07am Top

I'm not convinced that Russell's 'History' is a good recommendation. He's partisan, especially with regard to everything after Kant, and he gives a very narrow perspective on many of the philosophical positions, eg Nietzsche.

If Oddbert (who is no longer paying any attention to this thread) has already read Sophie's World, then he/she should have an idea of philosophical issues which are of particular interest for him/her. So, I reckon Oddbert would need to be more specific, e.g "I really found all that stuff about what the 'self' is very interesting, so which philsophers should I read first?"

I doubt that anyone is ever generally interested in philosophy, rather people have interests in particular philosophical issues.

Oddbert's question was simply too open to warrant a clear answer.

Nov 8, 2009, 11:13am Top

Philosophical "inquiries" seem to point in the direction of seeking an answer to "everything"; much like Einstein's ultimate goal : something beyond E=MC squared - to bring together an explanation, combination of light and gravity. I, personally first began this by being exposed to Wittgenstein, thence to Habermas, hermeneutics, Dilthey, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre. Finally: Irvin Yalom's Existential Psychotherapy converted me to a "born again" existentialist. As Hanlet replied to Polonius, "It's all just words, words, words." Thus, I must "re-post" (from the Existentialism discussion group):

For those, who seem to be intimidated by approaching existentialism directly (e.g. texts, etc.), the novels, by Camus, Sartre and, especially Irvin Yalom, might approach more of an appreciation of existential concepts. Also, there are movies (available on DVD) such as It's a Wondeful Life, Dicken's Christmas Carol, When Nietzsche Wept, Stranger than Fiction, Tootsie, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The Teaching Company (www.teach12.com) has a series of lectures available: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life - also Philosophy as a Guide to Living.

Edited: Nov 29, 2010, 6:20am Top

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