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Where to begin? A roadmap to get started on the philosophical quest

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Vigero | CC BY SA 3.0

John Burger - published on 12/13/17

One blogger offers a list of "The best philosophy books for beginners."

The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes is said to have wandered the streets with a lamp during the day, “looking for an honest man.” Today, it might be said, some people wander the internet, trying to sift through an ocean of opinions to find wisdom.

That is, after all, what philosophy—literally, love of wisdom—is all about.

Even before the internet brought us an information explosion, those who want to learn more about philosophy have found it difficult to know where to begin. A fellow named Phil, appropriately enough, has offered some help for aspiring philosophers.

Phil Treagus, founder of The Reading Lists, asked some of today’s most prominent philosophers for suggestions and compiled “The Best Philosophy Books for Beginners.” Some may disagree with the choices here, but philosophers don’t shy from argument. Treagus just wants to see more people reading.

“Books have had a huge impact on my life, and now I’m on a mission to uncover the world’s most inspiring and important books,” he says. “My goal is to encourage more people to read more books, and be more successful.”

Herewith are excerpts from Treagus’ list:

Plato. No list for beginners would be complete without the 4th-century BC Greek philosopher. But it’s striking to see how many of Treagus’ contacts included Plato. Lewis Gordon, who does scholarly work in the areas of Africana philosophy and philosophy of human and life sciences, said he uses primary texts in his classes, even when students are beginners. “The best place to begin is Plato’s Symposium,” he says. Massimo Pigliucci, former professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University in New York, recommends the compilation Five Dialogues, which he calls “splendid examples of Plato’s prose and philosophical acumen.” Adrian Moore, Professor of Philosophy at Oxford, focuses on one of those dialogues, Meno. “The guiding issue in it is whether virtue can be taught,” he says. “But it ranges much more widely than that. It touches on some of the most basic questions about human beings and their place in the world.  It is lively, engaging, and extraordinarily deep.” Susan Haack, at the University of Miami, on the other hand, touts Plato’s Republic—”for its breadth, and for the way it integrates so many areas: social and political philosophy, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of education, philosophy of art, the status of women, and so on.”

The Existentialists. If you want to skip the ancients and jump right into modernity, you might follow Skye Cleary’s recommendation of At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others. Cleary, who teaches at Columbia in New York, says that Sarah Bakewell’s book gives us a good picture of  the “coolness” and iconoclastic nature of the existential philosophers, but doesn’t ignore the “dangers and legacies of their philosophies.”

Cleary also points out that philosophy is not restricted to treatises and disputations, and that fiction is a good way to enter into the philosophical mind. She likes, for example, The Stranger, by Albert Camus. “The novel deals with absurdity, mortality, and the recognition that ‘There is not love of life without despair about life,’ set under the dazzling Algerian sun.”

Descartes. If you want to start somewhere in the middle, however, Adrian Moore suggests Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. “Descartes’ aim in the Meditations is to provide a secure foundation for science,” Moore says, “but, just like Plato in the Meno, he ends up addressing a much wider set of issues than that, all of them of enduring philosophical concern.”

Locke. A philosopher with a more direct connection to the American experience would be John Locke, and Susan Haack said she often recommends the English thinker’s Conduct of the Understanding. Haack points to Locke’s “shrewdness about human cognitive weaknesses and limitations, and his insistence that reasoning well requires not just the avoidance of fallacies, but the right motives, the right attitudes, the right openness of mind.”

The issue of justice. No matter what your philosophical bent, just about everyone would agree that it’s important to “do the right thing.”

“The concept of justice has been debated ever since the dawn of philosophy, for instance in Plato’s Crito, and likely ever since human beings have been able to articulate their ideas so that they could debate them,” Pigliucci says. ErgoJustice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel is an “excellent introduction to different philosophical frameworks for thinking about justice, from utilitarianism to Kantian deontology, to Aristotelian virtue ethics,” Pigliucci contends. “Contemporary opposing conceptions of justice, such as John Rawls’ notion of justice as fairness, and the libertarian take on self-ownership, are clearly presented and their pros and cons discussed. The nice thing about Sandel’s writing is not just that it is clear and accessible, but that he keeps going back to specific questions that actually matter to people, from how to treat hired help to affirmative action. It’s about ethics as lived by real human beings, not as abstractly discussed in the halls of the academy.”

If you have your own suggestions on good books for beginning the philosophical quest, feel free to comment below.

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