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Beginning Interest in Philosophy

Philosophy and Theory

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1SusieBookworm
Jan 10, 2010, 8:50pm Top

I'm just now getting interested in philosophy, especially that from before about 1900. What are good philosophy books for someone to read who knows very little about the subject? I'm most interested in primary sources.

2OccamsHammer
Edited: Jan 11, 2010, 12:55am Top

Jeremy Bentham - Selected Writings on Utilitarianism.
John Stuart Mill- On Liberty.
David Hume -A treatise on Human Nature.
John Locke - Two Treatises on Government.

That should get you started. These guys are fairly easy to understand.

3Beezie
Jan 11, 2010, 8:19am Top


Something like Introduction to Logic will help you evaluate arguments and claims.

4elenchus
Edited: Jan 12, 2010, 2:44pm Top

Your emphasis on original sources is commendable. I've found that while coming to something like that "cold" has its own rewards, namely not worrying about what others think is important or not about the work, I also lose a lot simply because I'm not sure what to look for. I'd recommend finding some good secondary sources, if nothing else to help formulate the questions to hold in your mind as you read the primary sources.

Even something as "light" as Sophie's World can help orient you without taking too much of your reading time.

5polutropon
Jan 12, 2010, 3:08pm Top

Some of Plato's shorter dialogues—like Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito—are quite accessible. Those three are collected in an edition called The Trial and Death of Socrates. Equally foundational, but maybe somewhat more of a grind would be Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy.

Some other good, short introductions are A.J. Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic, J.L. Austin's Sense and Sensibilia, and Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy. (Note that all three of these are twentieth century, however).

6rdm666
Edited: Jan 12, 2010, 4:22pm Top

Rene Descartes' Meditations is certainly interesting and very influential (in some circles).

A good summary secondary source, though a little old and oriented toward philosophy of social science in the early twentieth century, is Richard Bernstein's Praxis and Action.

7semckibbin
Jan 18, 2010, 7:52pm Top

susiebookworm, what are you hoping to get out of philosophy from before 1900?

As intellectual history it is interesting in seeing traditional society, starting with the Greeks, trying to cope with the problems they faced, and then having those problems frozen by tradition (aided by Christianity). And then man making the move to the modern sensibility and institutions and Kant dealing with modern society, and with the problem the New Science posed for the old beliefs (that is, the displacement of revelation from its pre-eminent relation to truth), while retaining the old beliefs. Otherwise, there isnt much point---pre-1900 philosophy is not going to tell you how we should be dealing with our 21st century problems.

8OccamsHammer
Edited: Jan 19, 2010, 12:14am Top

#7 I do not think a person has to start with the Greeks in order to understand modern philosophy. It is like saying one should read Beowulf in order to appreciate Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy.
The philosophers from the 17th through 19th century can provide plenty of insight for today's problems. This is the period from which the ideas of modern government and social science really had its start, a time when philosophy was being applied to the common man and not just to kings or 'theoretical' people. The Greeks like Aristotle felt that philosophy would be wasted if taught to the common person.

9semckibbin
Jan 19, 2010, 4:26am Top

I think our problems are much different than those faced by Locke, Kant and Descartes (let alone the Ancients). They were trying to throw off feudal power orders and make use of science without losing their belief in an antecedent reality. We are trying to solve problems of globalization vs. individual national identity or the ethics of biotechnology or the persecution of homosexuals, etc. Different problems require different tools to solve them.

10OccamsHammer
Jan 19, 2010, 6:19am Top

Technology and globalization have merely added to, not replaced the problems faced by our predecessors. The underlying foundation of modern philosophy is still based upon ideas originated in the last few centuries.
The philosophy of utility or "best consequences", as proposed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, has been expanded on by activists such as Peter Singer, Bertrand Russell, and James Rachels to promote animal rights, world hunger relief, and environmental issues.

semckibbin, which philosophers do you recommend?

11semckibbin
Jan 20, 2010, 2:02am Top

Technology and globalization have merely added to, not replaced the problems faced by our predecessors.

Disagree. For instance, I dont think we are too worried about justifying the overthrow of feudalism anymore. It seems to me we can slough off the problems of our ancestors by deciding to have different goals and purposes.

which philosophers do you recommend?

Do Darwin, Freud or Whitman count as philosophers?

12perdondaris
Jan 20, 2010, 2:07am Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

13semckibbin
Jan 20, 2010, 3:27am Top

Darwin was a scientist. Freud was a psychiatrist. Whitman was a poet.

I think they are much richer and diverse than you give them credit for. I'm interested in how you would fit works like Democratic Vistas or Beyond the Pleasure Principle into the pigeonholes you've created for their authors.

If one believes philosophy's chief function is "to free men's minds from bias and prejudice and to enlarge their perceptions of the world about them" then those three certainly qualify as philosophers.

14OccamsHammer
Edited: Jan 20, 2010, 2:16pm Top

#11 May I disagree with your disagreement? ;~)
OK, feudalism is not today's number one issue. John Stuart Mill wrote about rights for women in The Subjection of Women. Bentham wrote about the ethical treatment of mental patients and inmates in prison. Hume wrote about how we acquire true knowledge. Locke wrote about the fundamental right to have a just government. All these areas are still relevant today.

As for your philosophers:
I will not dispute Darwin, Whitman and Freud as philosophers. The problem is that they are all 19th century philosophers. Thus by your own definition they are not relevant to 21st century problems.

ETA OK Freud is borderline as his work started in 1876 and was active until the late 1930's. So he is half relevant.

Edited to correct dates on Freud

15perdondaris
Jan 20, 2010, 4:54pm Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

16semckibbin
Jan 24, 2010, 4:43am Top

occamshammer wrote: I will not dispute Darwin, Whitman and Freud as philosophers.The problem is that they are all 19th century philosophers. Thus by your own definition they are not relevant to 21st century problems.

I think you're right, I really dont know what 21st century problems they address; but certainly they had a great impact on our 21st century self image (or at least the one I would like to recommend). Darwin giving us a mechanistic view of biology and Freud a mechanistic view of the mind. Both views are worth following up.

17Mr_Wormwood
Edited: Jan 25, 2010, 12:56am Top

have enjoyed the brief too and fro on the issue of 'relevancy' of philosophical thought prior to the 21st and 20th C.
But there is a position that has yet to be delineated. Instead of only reading modern philosophers because they address todays issues, or appreciating the 'timelessness' of the issues dealt with by philosophers of the past, there is a third option, that taken by Nietzche. THis is to read and value the ancient philosophers precisely because they are neither modern nor timeless, but because contact with the strange atmosphere of thought cultivated in ages past allows the philosopher to look at current issues and problems with an entirely different eye. Thus Nietzche, a man engrossed in the thought of the Greeks and Romans, entitled a series of his essays 'Untimely Mediations'

18semckibbin
Jan 25, 2010, 4:18pm Top

Nietzsche view: ... is to read and value the ancient philosophers precisely because they are neither modern nor timeless, but because contact with the strange atmosphere of thought cultivated in ages past allows the philosopher to look at current issues and problems with an entirely different eye.

I agree with Nietzsche: Feh on the problems being timeless. Problems are always of a particular place and time.

I suppose it would be interesting for the modern philosopher to imagine what Aristotle or Plato would think (given enough fudging and qualifiers) about particular modern problems. But their views are simply outdated. Especially unhelpful to 21st century humans were their views about a transcendent Ultimate Reality. Knowledge of that Ultimate Reality was philosophy for them.

2500 years ago it was an advance to justify custom with a rational metaphysic, and offer ideal Forms and Essences to parallel anthropomorphic deities, but we need to leave that stuff behind.

19Mr_Wormwood
Edited: Jan 25, 2010, 6:29pm Top

#18.
From what i understand, Nietzsche wasnt interested in solving modern problems or being 'helpful' to 21st century humanity. He didnt consider the role of philosophy to consist in providing handy solutions to the contemporary ills of society, that's the role of politics. The role of philosophy is an existential one, to foster and create great individuals. His focus was on the few not on the many. But if he did have an eye to the whole of modern society it was to add to its problems not to subtract from them, to relentlessly criticize everything modern, everything 'civilized', to take all that we hold dear and throw it into the fire.
--it should also be noted that your generalizing quite a bit about ancient philosophy. Diogenes the Cynic poured scorn on Plato, and rightly so, for his metaphysical Idealism arguing that philosophy should be concerned solely with the concrete and practical, and the Sceptics believed that no philosophical system could describe reality. Both of which are positions which you find today in the field of 'post-modernism'.

20perdondaris
Jan 25, 2010, 7:49pm Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

21semckibbin
Jan 25, 2010, 11:29pm Top

it should also be noted that your generalizing quite a bit about ancient philosophy. Diogenes the Cynic poured scorn on Plato, and rightly so, for his metaphysical Idealism arguing that philosophy should be concerned solely with the concrete and practical, and the Sceptics believed that no philosophical system could describe reality.

Diogenes and the Sceptics are beside the point. I am content with my regurgitation of Dewey's depiction of Plato and Aristotle's belief in an antecedent Reality and their task of providing a rational foundation for Greek religious and artistic traditions.

perdonaris wrote: Theology is the most guilty of all fields of inquiry...

Does theology count as a field of inquiry? "But who worries about the theologians these days (except other theologians)." Human, All Too Human, Section 28

perdondaris wrote: Sciences which demonstrate facts and not how facts should be used are superior to others that demonstrate how something should be used.

Interesting. Can a fact exist without a use?

22OccamsHammer
Jan 26, 2010, 12:39am Top

#20
The problem with philosophy and other fields of inquiry is that they assume what is in the best interests of the human race.

I do not see the problem here. Without advocates for improving society we would still be in the dark ages. Sometimes the philosophers got it wrong, but on balance over time we have benefited from their ideas.

Stalin, the opportunistic strongman using philosophy to attain supreme power.

I thought Stalin just took over from Lenin who did use a version of Marxism to take over Russia.

Nietzsche-ans who form clubs to pursue Nietzsche's philosophy engage in social activities that emphasize fraternity.

Nietzsche never said that having friends was bad. Only that they should be of equal quality and without any dependency. You can form clubs and play chess with them, just don't expect them to bail you out of jail.

Nietzsche and Ayn Rand are popular in America where it is conformist to denounce conformity.

A little bit, not too much, of Rand's philosophy in peoples lives would cure that.

23perdondaris
Jan 26, 2010, 2:19am Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

24OccamsHammer
Edited: Jan 26, 2010, 3:17am Top

#23
From what I have read of Ayn Rand she had as a great a disdain of politicians as she had for the working class.

She did have a great disdain for politicians and priests. Called them 'brutes and witch doctors'. However, in her fiction writing she actually shows common workers as having a great deal of virtue. In Anthem the hero, 'Equality 7-2521', is a street sweeper. Howard Roark in the Fountainhead worked as a digger in a stone quarry between his work as an architect. And even the infamous John Galt in Atlas Shrugged was employed as a railroad track worker.

Rand considered racism as intellectually bankrupt. Detested any form of collectivism or socialism. She did not oppose voluntary charity as long as the giver did not compromise their integrity in doing so.

25semckibbin
Jan 26, 2010, 10:27am Top

perdondaris, Ayn Rand is uninteresting to me. Your view on facts was interesting, I'd like to hear more.

26perdondaris
Jan 26, 2010, 12:27pm Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

27OccamsHammer
Edited: Jan 26, 2010, 3:39pm Top

#26
Do not blame Hitler on Ayn Rand. He was already in power before Rand published any significant work. Hitler used a corrupted version of Nietzsche's vision of the 'superman' to justify his actions. Rand hated any concept of communism (which is based on Marxist ideas).

Rand choose the term 'selfishness' to describe her philosophy knowing that her critics would take the wrong definition of the word. Here is the definition proposed by Rand:

The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man—which means: the values required for human survival—not the values produced by the desires, the emotions, the “aspirations,” the feelings, the whims or the needs of irrational brutes, who have never outgrown the primordial practice of human sacrifices, have never discovered an industrial society and can conceive of no self-interest but that of grabbing the loot of the moment.

The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.


I can understand the confusion about Roark blowing up the Cortlandt Homes apartments. Most web sites refer only to 'changes in design' as the motivation. The implication is that Roark got mad at the color of the carpet or the placement of a kitchen sink. That is not what happened at all. Roark's nemesis is a man named Ellsworth Toohey who is an unabashed collectivist and Rand's personification of evil. Toohey takes the construction plans of Roark and changes them from an efficient housing project to a mockery of architecture with purposely ugly and gaudy trivial elements with the goal of ruining Roark's career. Roark felt that he had no choice but to destroy the project. Also in all likelihood the building would have been a failure because no one would have wanted to live in it.

perdondaris wrote:Capitalists hate laws because all laws are an example of socialism.

Only socialist believe that.

perdondaris wrote:A real individualist would steal someone else's property by force if it was easier than making a living.

That only makes a person a thief. Any body can be a thief. An individualist almost by definition does not need to steal. They are self supportive. Ayn Rand saw her fathers business in Russia stolen by the new communist government under Lenin by force in order to promote 'fairness'. She understood what government enforced charity really meant, once the state establishes it's claim to confiscate some of your property for the greater good, then it can confiscate all of your property to promote the greater good. Remember, capitalist societies have strong borders to keep masses of immigrants out, communist states have strong borders to keep masses of emigrants in.

28perdondaris
Jan 27, 2010, 12:10am Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

29OccamsHammer
Edited: Jan 27, 2010, 1:38am Top

I am quite sure at this point that we have successfully squashed any interest in philosophy that the original poster may have had.

perdondaris, at this point I believe we must simply disagree to agree. ;~) My only response to your last post is to refer back to my message # 27.

I just want to add the following quote:

"There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands."

-Plato

30SusieBookworm
Jan 27, 2010, 12:11pm Top

#29: I gave up reading the posts when they exceeded ten lines.
I'm going to go read a book now; The Republic and The Communist Manifesto are on my TBR list.

31richardbsmith
Jan 27, 2010, 1:16pm Top

As an innocent bystander, and probably my first comment in this group, I was very interested in the topic up to around comment 20 or so. The impact of scientific studies on philosophical considerations - what of metaphysics?, epistimology with advances in brain studies, ethics with evolution and pluralism.

Mentioned in the topic were Hume, Locke, Russell, Ayers and some others. It would be interesting to see how they might be understood from a contemporary scientific perspective, and then any more modern approaches.

Broad topic certainly, but the discussion was very interesting for at least one observer.

32caffron
Jan 27, 2010, 8:22pm Top

>31 richardbsmith: Re: ethics with evolution

I'm in midst of reading a three-volume set right now on this topic. Moral Psychology has an interesting format, with each chapter containing an essay, a couple of responses (sometimes extending, other times deeply criticizing), and finally the initial author's response. It's not really designed for a popular audience like many evolutionary psych books have tended to be, but its not inaccessible in most spots either. Overall it leans towards nativist approaches to morality.

33semckibbin
Feb 4, 2010, 1:24pm Top

33> Susiebookworm, I am still interested, what are you hoping to get out of philosophy?

richardbsmith wrote: It would be interesting to see how (Hume, Locke, Russell, Ayers) might be understood from a contemporary scientific perspective, and then any more modern approaches

Russell and Ayers thought they were putting philosophy on the secure path of science. But they werent. Quine's essay Two Dogmas of Empiricism exposed flaws, and Davidson's essay On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme exposed another.

In any event, I'm not sure what is so priviliged about a scientific viewpoint.

34richardbsmith
Feb 4, 2010, 4:45pm Top

Not so much the scientific viewpoint, although I'm not sure what that is. More how the advances in knowledge - genetics, physics (especially particle physics), astronomy, research in the operation of the brain - the impact of these advances on philosophical pursuits of epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, social, etc.

Thanks for the references.

35semckibbin
Edited: Feb 5, 2010, 3:07pm Top

richardbsmith wrote: how the advances in knowledge - genetics, physics (especially particle physics), astronomy, research in the operation of the brain - the impact of these advances on philosophical pursuits of epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, social, etc.

You know, that is a very huge topic. One way to look at philosophy from Decartes to Kant is as trying to react to the advances made by the New Science. In particular the New Science rejected the idea that the universe had a telos. When you see the universe as point-masses blindly and mechanically running into each other, it is hard to retain a conception that there is a point to it all. The New Science had attacked the foundation of the moral order.

So Descartes through Kant were concerned with reconciling the results of scientific inquiry with the existing religious and moral traditions. Philosophy's goal at that time was to accept the results of the New Science while keeping the view that Nature/God was the source of Good (the view that only immutable Being could underwrite the existence of Good, Beauty, etc.)

Recent arguments by philosophers regarding consciousness, qualia, zombies, etc can be seen as revolving around the desire of some people for immutable Being, something that is what it is independent of its relations to other things.

36richardbsmith
Feb 5, 2010, 3:31pm Top

Thanks so much for the directional pointers for qualia and zombies - new to me. But it does work towards addressing my question about recent philosophical approaches to the new knowledge.

The question of meaning, purpose, importance - with the size of the universe and the evolutionary branching of life on Earth - it is difficult to consider the uniqueness and intrinsic significance humanity sees, or has seen, in itself.

We become more of a part than of the summit and goal. This new place in the order of things and the inclusion of the advances in knowledge of the nature of things would seem to require a new philosophical response. Maybe with new language and new concepts.

Thanks for the follow up.

37Jesse_wiedinmyer
Feb 5, 2010, 3:53pm Top

Ayup...

I'm reminded of an answer that Feynman gave in one of his interviews about his thoughts on religion -

" It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil - which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama. "

38richardbsmith
Feb 5, 2010, 4:48pm Top

come on Jesse, I wrote all those deep questions and you respond "ayup"?

:)

39semckibbin
Feb 5, 2010, 5:13pm Top

richardbsmith wrote: This new place in the order of things and the inclusion of the advances in knowledge of the nature of things would seem to require a new philosophical response. Maybe with new language and new concepts.

No S. Part of the answer is an historicist approach to Western human's understanding of themselves. Part of it would be the furthering of democracy as a goal. Part of it is the de-divinization of science. Habermas, Gadamer, Davidson, Rawls, Dennett, Pippin, Quine, Wittgenstein, Sellars, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Brandom, Foucault, Dewey, Tillich, etc., have all contributed toward this new approach. And I am sure you are aware that anthropologists, literary critics, historians, scientists, poets, etc., have been working on it, too.

40Jesse_wiedinmyer
Feb 5, 2010, 5:27pm Top

come on Jesse, I wrote all those deep questions and you respond "ayup"?


Ayup.

41richardbsmith
Feb 5, 2010, 5:46pm Top

I've read some from Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Tillich. The others I appreciate as recommendations.

Anyway, I probably need to step back to my read only mode and hope to follow more of your discussions on the shifting perspectives on mankind given the pace and insights of new knowledge.

The contemporary relevance of philosophies prior to evolution and the new physics. As you mentioned the growth of democracy, the pluralization of global society, and other modern shifts. Even the Internet, has changed both the questions and the acceptable answers.

Such thoughts come to my mind, reading even Kant. But I am talking well beyond my expertise and need to return to a comfortable lurker status.

42semckibbin
Feb 5, 2010, 6:13pm Top

FWIW, I would recommend the Dewey of A Common Faith, and Reconstruction in Philosophy and the Wittgenstein of the Investigations.

43gmknowles
Edited: Feb 18, 2010, 4:50pm Top

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man is readable and provides a basis for the question of subjective knowledge and values.
Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy - most readable
Mortimer Adler, The Great Ideas - I'm pretty sure wrote a history as well, that was readable.

44gmknowles
Feb 18, 2010, 4:46pm Top

I agree on the second sources for early interest.

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