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Jack Weinstein

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What is Philosophy?


A belated Happy New Year to everyone. To start the year properly, I thought I would answer a question from longtime-reader Martin. He asked if there were any books I could recommend for people who wanted to start learning some philosophy on their own.

This is a surprisingly controversial and difficult question since many philosophers will disagree with my choices and people have radically different tastes. I spend a significant amount of time in my Public Philosophy course having the students evaluate books for just this purpose.There is rarely consensus.

Also, there are differing opinions as to what it means to “learn philosophy” on one’s own. Should readers start with some argumentation or critical thinking texts and learn how to parse arguments, or should they immerse themselves in a single question? Should the reading be theme oriented, emphasizing something like ethics or philosophy of mind, or should it be historical? I tend towards the last. My recommendations are usually narrative histories of philosophy that provides the readers with a sense of the twenty-five hundred year conversation between philosophers.

With all of that said, for years, I have recommended starting with the same two books, in order.

The first, The Seekers, by Daniel Boorstin, is a nice narrative history of philosophy and religion written by an accessible and well-respected historian. It assumes little prior knowledge and covers a huge amount of material with ease. I like the writing although the students felt it was more like a lecture. It also doesn’t go into great detail, but this is exactly why I think it’s a good first book.

I then recommend following it up with A Short History of Philosophy by Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins. This is more detailed and more encyclopedic with short chapters on every major philosopher. It is idiosyncratic and takes positions on issues that non-philosophers won’t know are controversial. (They claim, for example, that Parmenides, not Thales, is the first philosopher.) But, if you were intrigued by The Seekers, this will provided added detail and nuance. It also makes an effort to connect Western and Eastern philosophy. The downside of the book is that the details and encyclopedic tone can be overwhelming and a bit boring at times. The upside is that you can skip around and read about the thinkers that interest you the most. It also starts with a a great list outlining the dates of each philosopher so you can get a clear sense of the lineage.

Those are my “go to” recommendations, but other perennial favorites are

Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter is a fun, accessible introduction to classical philosophy by a bestselling author who is known for making intellectual and cultural history compelling.

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, tells the history of philosophy from the perspective a a high school girl getting mysterious letters. It is a worldwide bestseller and beloved by many. The description of the philosophies, though, are not as intriguing as the storyline itself.

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff is a wonderful account of Taoism using the characters of Winnie the Pooh. It is also a beloved book; I recommend it without reservation, although the “sequels” The Te of Piglet and Pooh and the Philosophers are kind of lame.

The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell is a great thematically oriented book that describes the great philosophical questions in an ahistorical way. It is very “analytic,” meaning that it focuses on the meaning of terms and the linguistic and logical structures of arguments, but it is a classic and very representative of twentieth-century philosophy.

And for something different, 1974’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance teaches philosophical contemplation through the love of travels of a motorcycle enthusiast. I never got into it, but this is one of those books that many (many!) people claim changed their lives.

Again, this is only my list; many people will think I missed out on really important examples. I’m also intentionally keeping this list small so it is not overwhelming, but there are tons of introductions to philosophy books out there, and many are anthologies or textbooks. Buy a couple and explore.

And incidentally, if you buy any of these books at Amazon using the links on this page, part of the sale is donated to and The Institute for Philosophy in Public Life, so please do consider using the links.

Finally, if people show an interest, I can follow-up with some more specific books on philosophy sub-disciplines like ethics or metaphysics. For the record though, Yertle the Turtle by Doctor Seuss is one of the best political philosophy books ever written.

Tell me your suggestions in the comment box below!

One comment on “What can I read to start learning philosophy on my own? [Reader’s Question]

  1. Ryan Mullen says:

    Thomas Aquinas has some interesting work on natural law in his Summa Theologica as well

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