Thursday, February 16, 2017

Philosophy Books For Beginners

One thing you sometimes hear is that when you're starting out with philosophy you can't do better than reading the classics. Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Hume's Treatise on Human Nature, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. That sort of thing. I think this is terrible advice. I didn't mention Spinoza, because I thought you might think I was exaggerating, but people do in fact recommend Spinoza's Ethics to beginners. Don't recommend Spinoza's Ethics to beginners!

One thing that is probably unusual about philosophy is that reading the classics genuinely is useful for something other than curiosity and recreation. Physicists don't need to read Newton and Copernicus. Doctors don't need to read Galen and Avicenna. There are probably exceptions to this - biologists seem to benefit from reading Darwin - but philosophy probably has more exceptions than other subjects. Experts and laypeople can get serious insight from reading philosophy books written hundreds or thousands of years ago.

But with a few exceptions, I still wouldn't recommend them to beginners. They're too hard, and even if you get through them it isn't the best preparation for reading other philosophy books. It's some preparation, but it's not the best. When you're starting out learning about philosophy, three main things are important. Maybe more, but right now I can think of three. You want to get a sense of its subject matter, its style, and its history.

By its subject matter, I mean the kind of questions philosophers are interested in. There's a lot of ignorance among the general public about what philosophers actually study, maybe because philosophy isn't taught much in schools. Philosophers also study lots of different things which you probably wouldn't have guessed were parts of the same subject. If you want to get into philosophy, you need to find out what philosophy is.

By style, I mean the way philosophers approach the questions they study. Philosophy is and has been done in different styles in different places. I'm from the analytic tradition, so the style I'm most familiar with is the one where people put forward ideas and arguments, come up with counterexamples or other objections, refine the ideas or patch up the arguments, repeat, step back and try to work out why they're not getting anywhere, look for analogies with things they already think they understand, look at what someone else had to say about it, and so on. It's a skill and a culture and you need to learn the skills and get used to the culture.

By history, I mean learning who all these people are. Descartes, Plato, that crowd. They come up a lot and you'll want to know. If you don't, you won't know what philosophers are talking about half the time. Learning some of the history also helps you get a sense of the subject matter and how different bits of it fit together.

With these goals in mind, some people will probably still tell the beginner to go off and read the Critique of Pure Reason. Well, I haven't read it myself, so I won't comment further on the wisdom of that. But I'll mention some things I have read that I might recommend to beginners who want to get a sense of the style, subject matter and history of philosophy.

The Philosophy Files, by Stephen Law.

This was always going to be top of the list. It's the best book I've read by a long way for teaching the style. It also gives you a sense of the subject matter. I've read it maybe ten times myself, and I lent it to people who wanted an introductory philosophy book until someone didn't return it. Then I bought another copy so I could start reading and lending it again. It's fantastic. It's written as if it's for children and has funny pictures, but it's still the first one I'd recommend to an adult. It's got short chapters, and each one introduces a philosophical issue and takes the reader through it in a lighthearted way that lets you think about the issue yourself and also shows you some of the standard moves. It gives a great sense of the weird combination of intellectual arrogance and intellectual humility that makes analytic philosophers so charming.

The Bluffer's Guide to Philosophy, by Jim Hankinson

This covers a lot of ground pretty quickly with respect to the history and the subject matter. It's short, it's funny, and when you've finished it you'll know what philosophers talk about and you'll have met a lot of the names. I've read this one several times too.

Those are the first two I'd tell someone to read. What next? Well, you could do worse than reading those again. It won't take long, and it's great fun. But eventually you'll want to read something else.

Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder
The Great Philosophers, by Stephen Law
The Story of Philosophy, by Jeremy Stangroom and James Garvey
A Little History of Philosophy, by Nigel Warburton

All these basically do the same thing, in various ways. They tell the story of Western philosophy from Ancient Greece more or less to the present. It's a great story and it's worth hearing it over and over from different people. The more you hear it the more familiar the characters and their ideas will become, and the better you'll understand all the other stuff.

Sophie's World is a novel structured around a weird old dude giving a course in the history of Western philosophy to a 14 year old Norwegian girl. The Great Philosophers takes you through a lot of the big names in chronological order, focusing mainly on one idea each of them had. The other two basically just tell the story and present the ideas. I didn't love any of them, except Sophie's World, and I expect that's because it was the first one I'd read. I was two years into a degree in philosophy (and French) at the time, but most of the stuff in it was still new to me. They're all good though, and I really do think it's important to get a grip on who all these famous dead philosophers are. They keep coming up, and a lot of the big ideas nowadays are refinements of their ideas.

An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis, by John Hospers

This is the only one that plays the same role as The Philosophy Files, encouraging the reader to work through philosophy problems themselves. It's longer and a lot less fun. But it's good to look at the topics you're interested in and work through them Hospers' way. If you're doing a degree in philosophy then a lot of people teaching you will also probably have read some of it early on in their philosophical educations, so it's an important part of the culture.

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, edited by Ted Honderich

Don't read this one from cover to cover, and don't carry it around with you. It's a big heavy reference book. It's basically like any other Oxford Companion, but it's good to be able to look up philosophical ideas and people and read something quick and sensible about them. Most of the entries seem reasonably sensible. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a wonderful online resource, but its articles are in too much depth to recommend to beginners. If you look something up in the Oxford Companion and it isn't there or you want to know more about it, look it up in the Stanford Encyclopedia. It's much better than Wikipedia. I wouldn't recommend Wikipedia for explaining philosophical ideas but it's probably fine for a quick biography if you come across someone and want to know who they are.

Logic, by Wilfrid Hodges

This is an introductory logic textbook, including formal logic. It was the one I used as a first year undergraduate and it's better for beginners than the few others I've read. There are loads out there and others may be better. But this one was fine for me and I wouldn't mind recommending it to someone who wants introducing to logic. Some people will tell you that you should learn logic before you learn any other philosophy. I don't think that's true. It's important to understand the style that philosophy's done in but beginners are better off getting that from immersion than from learning to formalize everything. Even learning the names of fallacies, fun as it is, can only get you so far. You can probably already spot them, and learning their names doesn't fully immunize you against them anyway. Logic is a branch of philosophy though and if you want an introduction to that branch then Hodges' book is fine.

You'll also need to learn some formal logic at some point even if you're not studying logic, for two reasons. First, there's a lot of more or less unnecessary use of logical notation in philosophy papers that aren't about logic. Second, if you don't know any formal logic you won't know whether it's relevant to what you're doing or not, which leaves you vulnerable to evil wizards blinding you with arguments you don't understand. You'll also have to read some Wittgenstein at some point for the same reason, even if you don't like him.

That's about it for properly introductory books. But you can, and probably should, also introduce yourself to philosophy partly by reading some philosophy. That's what people are trying to do when they tell you to start with An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. When you're a beginner, reading philosophy is hard. But you can only fully get a sense of the style by reading the stuff, so here are some suggestions beginners might be able to handle.

Meditations, by René Descartes

This is the exception in the lists of classics people tell beginners to read, in that it really is accessible to beginners. It was written for a fairly lay audience, and it shows. It covers a lot of interesting ideas that are central to a lot of philosophy, in a quick and engaging way. (How can we know anything? What is the mind? Does God exist?) The arguments are simple enough, and on some readings bad enough, that a beginner can have a lot of fun engaging with them. It also contains his most famous presentation of the "I think therefore I am" argument without using the expression "I think therefore I am", which is probably some kind of lesson in itself.

Meno, by Plato.

Maybe read some other dialogues by Plato too, but hold off on the Republic for the moment. The Republic is too long and it's better to get used to the style first by reading some of the shorter ones. (If you read Plato's Parmenides, stop once it gets weird. You'll wait pages and pages for it to go back to being normal, but it never will, and you'll just wonder what the hell you just read.) It was a long time before I could really get much out of Plato, but Meno was an exception. I found it really funny. Like laugh-out-loud-in-the-library-multiple-times funny. But maybe that's just me. Some people will probably say that reading Plato's dialogues gives you a good sense of how philosophy should be done, but I'm not sure that's really true. Socrates is a bit of a bully. But it gives you a good sense of what the deal is with this Plato guy everyone keeps talking about, and humanizes him a bit. Plus, like I say, it's hilarious.

Existentialism and Humanism, by Jean-Paul Sartre

This is a much better bet than trying to take on Being and Nothingness. It's short, it's informal, and it's for a lay audience. Sartre is giving a talk where he clears up some misconceptions about what his brand of existentialism is and responds to some objections to it. He takes questions at the end. If you like it, go and see a production of Dirty Hands, and The Flies too if you can find one.

Anarchy, State, and Utopia, by Robert Nozick

OK, this is a pretty long book. And beginners probably won't get much out of the bits on Rawls. But some people are into long books, and this one is full of cool stuff. It gives a good sense of the style of analytic philosophy because it's self-consciously written in that style by a super smart philosopher who's really good at it. It's about politics and ethics too, which lots of people like. Obviously handle it with care - you don't want to end up accidentally becoming an actual libertarian or anything. John Hospers, incidentally, once ran for President of the USA as the Libertarian party's nominee. This doesn't really come over in his book, though.

On Suicide, by David Hume.

This is a nifty essay making the case that suicide isn't wrong, done in good philosophical style by one of the all-time greats. Maybe read some other essays by Hume, too. Not the Treatise on Human Nature, though. It's too long, and I once saw someone argue fairly persuasively that in Hume's own estimation the Treatise doesn't represent his best work anyway. If you must read a book by Hume, read the one of the Enquiries you're more interested in. If you get on well with that, you can read the other one.

There's no shame in reading essays, generally. Usually these introductory lists will mostly have books on them. Big books. But everyone likes short books, especially beginners. And essays are even shorter than short books. If you're going to do a degree in philosophy, it's going to be essays you're writing, and mostly essay-length papers you're reading. So read some essays and papers. Here are two to start you off.

A Defense of Abortion, by Judith Jarvis Thomson

This is an incredible piece of writing. Even today, people often think of the ethics of abortion as turning on whether the foetus is a person or not, or whether it has the rights of a person or not. Thomson argues that even if the foetus is a person and has the rights that go along with that, abortion is still morally defensible. The arguments aren't hard to follow and they're another example of good philosophical style by a top philosopher, but they're also important arguments that bear on a debate a lot of people care about. Everyone in the world should read this paper.

The Punishment that Leaves Something to Chance, by David Lewis

Lewis argues that punishing attempted murder more lightly than murder might be fair, in spite of how it seems pretty unfair. It isn't Lewis's greatest contribution to philosophy. It probably doesn't crack the top fifty. But it's accessible and fun, and you don't need much background to understand the arguments. Once you're not a beginner anymore, you can read everything else he's written.

All these books are Western philosophy, but that's kind of by design - I'm in no position to recommend introductory books on philosophy from non-Western traditions. They're also almost all by men though, and that bothers me, because there's a lot of great philosophy by women and giving the impression that philosophy is a men's thing is bad for the subject and for at least most of the people doing it. I couldn't really think of many books by women that I've read and would recommend to a beginner though, and I know this is largely my own fault. So if you're starting out, you should probably also look at some other lists written by better read people than me. They might have a better logic textbook on there too.

Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, by Julia Annas was good, and it's for a lay audience. But it was a long time ago and I don't remember much about it. The Enfranchisement of Women, by Harriet Taylor Mill is probably something a beginner could get on with too. If you enjoy that and want to read something else by her, she also definitely influenced and probably co-wrote some of John Stuart Mill's work, some of which is pretty accessible too. His System of Logic is not recommended reading for beginners, however.

Anyway, once you've got a sense of what philosophy is, which will hopefully be before you've got through the whole list, read some books by women. There are loads of great ones out there. My favourite philosophy book by anyone that I read last year was The Minority Body, by Elizabeth Barnes, which makes the case that being physically disabled isn't necessarily bad for you overall, and that disability identities have a lot in common with identities based on race, gender and the like. It's not an obviously correct position, but that's why she had to write the book. Read it. Unless you're a beginner, in which case you should read The Philosophy Files.

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