Philosophical journeys

by on August 17, 2006 at 7:19 am in Philosophy | Permalink

A loyal MR reader (and yes they are all loyal, are they not?) asks:

I always enjoy your posts on philosophy, but sometimes I feel like I’m a bit out of my league. For example, after skimming through Parfit’s new book manuscript you linked last week, I don’t feel like I have the philosophical background to understand all of the issues he raises. I have always had an interest in philosophy (took a couple undergrad intro courses), but I never had the time to fully pursue my interest.

Now that I do have time, I’m at a loss of where to start my philosophical journey. Should I start by pursuing only the questions and fields that interest me? Or should I be more broad? Should I start with the “heavy” stuff (large tomes like Reason and Persons)? Or should I start off some place else?

To answer these questions, I was wondering if you could describe where your philosophical journey began. What books most interested and influenced you at the outset? Did you focus on particular philosophers or questions? 

I am not a professional philosopher, but here goes...

As a young teen I wanted to start with all of Plato’s Dialogues (yes including Parmenides, which I loved, but I didn’t finish The Laws) plus the major works of modern philosophy.  I used the old John Hospers text to identify Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant.  I read some Aristotle too, although he bored me.  Then I read lots of Karl Popper and Brand Blanshard, the old-fashioned defender of rationalism and critic of positivism.  I gobbled up George Smith and Antony Flew on atheism.  I was influenced by Ayn Rand’s moral defense of capitalism, though I was never impressed by her as a philosopher. 

Much later I read Nozick, Rawls, and Parfit.  Parfit made by far the biggest impression on me.  The other two, however smart, seemed predictable.

In graduate school I read Quine avidly.  George Romanos’s book on Quine I found more useful than any single Quine work, although Word and Object and the essay on "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" are the places to start.  Quine remains a major influence, including on how I think about blog posts.  Which thicket of assumptions might lead one to a possible conclusion?  I took a class on philosophy of language with Hilary Putnam and developed interests in Kripke and others, but they never displaced Quine in my affections.  I developed a fondness for William James.  From Rorty I saw more value in the Continentals, although I prefer to misread them.  I flirted with the early German romantics and their rejection of philosophy, at times mediated through J.S. Mill.

Later experience with Liberty Fund interested me in "deep" readings of Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Maimonides, and some of the other "Straussian" texts.  I’ve never been a Straussian, though.  I’ve made attempts to understand Heidegger but without any success. 

Right now the philosophy journals I read are Ethics and Philosophy and Public Affairs.  When it comes to metaphysics, mind-body problems, and the like, I prefer books, usually of a semi-popular nature.  The academic debates on these topics are too rarified to interest me very much.

That is my path, in a nutshell.  I don’t pretend it is an optimal sequence for others. 

The bottom line: I have learned to focus on the philosophy which clicked with me at the time.  The rest was just so much blah blah blah.  Philosophy books are more like self-help tomes, or fun record albums, than they let on.

Any suggestions for how our reader should choose a path?

1 Barkley Rosser August 17, 2006 at 8:11 am

Blah blah blah is definitely the way to go, :-).

2 Barkley Rosser August 17, 2006 at 8:35 am


Obviously you put Descartes before de horse.

3 Will August 17, 2006 at 9:15 am

I was also going to recommend the Coppleston books, which are long and difficult for a beginner, but are also very erudite and comprehensive. I believe they were written for Catholic seminary students, but he makes a good effort to render most philosophical traditions understandable.

The other work I recommend is Bertrand Russel’s “History of Western Philosophy.” This book is shorter and less comprehensive, and you get Bertrand Russel’s unique view of things, but it does hit the high points and I found it to be witty, well-written, and fun to read.

Those two works gave me a good overview of the historical context of important philosophers, their basic ideas, and the web of influence by which they affected one another’s work. That was enough to satisfy my curiosity and allow me to pretend to be an educated person, which was all I really wanted out of a book on philosophy. Good Luck.

4 John F. Opie August 17, 2006 at 9:24 am

Hi –

As a former ABD philosophy grad student who saw the light and became an economist, I think I might have an insight or two.

Your list is a good one, but with one major omission: the German phenomenologists. Now, I’m not exactly impartial (my half-finished thesis was on the differences and similarities of the phenomenological reduction in Husserl and Heidegger, especially in reference to the late Husserl and the early Heidegger), but if you haven’t read the Crisis of European Sciences by Husserl and Being And Time by Heidegger, you’ve missed acquiring some of the best analytical tools available: phenomenological hermeneutics.

Of couse, you might just be happy with Maurice Merleau-Ponty as an alternative. The Phenomenology of Perception is a fundamental book for the analysis of perception and the lived-world of Husserl and Heidegger. Sense and Nonsense is also good, as is his seminal work Humanism and Terror.

And no Kant? How can that be???

And no Hegel?

Ok, ok, I admit to a bias here because I spent 4 years reading them…

And any econmist should certainly have read Fichte’s “Der geschlossene Handelsstaat” (1800) to understand where one of the philosophical bases for Marx came from. (Geschlossenen Handelstaat = closed trading state, i.e. a utopia where the state decided what was good for the people).


5 Paul Gowder August 17, 2006 at 9:50 am

Ooh, ooh, ooh. Also, everyone should read at least some Habermas (I personally like Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, which throws together his best defenses of discourse ethics), and at least a little existentialism (Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity is underappreciated in my humble non-philosopher opinion).

6 Dan K August 17, 2006 at 11:02 am

Wittgenstein and Nietzsche takes you a long way. You get a good taste of analytic philosophy with early Wittgenstein, and late Wittgenstein tells why you don’t need to bother that much (to be fair, “Tractatus” actually ends on that note). You can cheat by reading Monk’s biography “Duty of genius” which covers Wittgenstein’s philosophy fairly reasonably. Nietzsche is a good read, and much more philosophical than you might think. “The gay science” is a good starting point. Sample:

“In science convictions have no rights of citizenship, as one says with good reason: only when they decide to descend to the modesty of hypotheses, of a provisional experimental point of view, of a regulative fiction, they may be granted admission and even a certain value in the realm of knowledge—though always with the restriction that they remain under police supervision, under the police of mistrust.— But does this not mean, if you consider it more precisely, that a conviction may obtain admission to science only when it ceases to be a conviction? Would it not be the first step in the discipline of the scientific spirit that one would not permit oneself any more convictions? … Probably this is so: only we still have to ask, to make it possible for this discipline to begin, must there not be some prior conviction, even one that is so commanding and unconditional that it sacrifices all other convictions to itself? We see that science also rests on a faith, there simply is no science “without presuppositions.” ”

If you only want to read one book, read Rorty’s “Philosophy and the mirror of nature”.

7 Matt McIntosh August 17, 2006 at 11:23 am

OK, time to commit sacrilege. There’s a lot of philosophy out there, and the most important part is knowing what isn’t worth reading, so with that in mind…

Skip the Greeks completely, with the possible exception of Aristotle’s Poetics. Ignore all continentals except Kant, and yes that includes Wittgenstein. Of the empiricists, read only Hume: he is a delight, and had pretty much the right idea about most things. Read Karl Popper, then if you feel so inclined go back and read Kant — he’ll make much more sense that way. Russell is overrated as a philosopher but still a pleasure to read on nearly everything. Quine is excellent and goes very well with Popper (strange that they hardly ever interacted), and Tyler is right about the best places to start. Daniel Dennett is the go-to guy on philosophy of mind and free will. Tyler is also right about Rawls, Nozick and Parfit. Give Rand a miss — she is impressive as a rhetorician but subtly wrong about 75% of the time. Read Hayek. Lots of Hayek. He is a bland writer but you will never look at the world in quite the same way again.

8 anne August 17, 2006 at 12:02 pm

Someone help me – I’ve read too much Foucault…

Where do postmoderns fit?

9 Tony Zbaraschuk August 17, 2006 at 12:43 pm

Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy is a great one-volume guide to what everyone believed.

I think I’d read Plato to start with (he’s much, much more readable than most commentaries on him, though I tend to think that Protagoras got somewhat the better of Socrates in that debate). Then I’d go on to Whitehead’s Adventure of Ideas.

10 cllam August 17, 2006 at 1:13 pm

I agree with Alfred North Whitehead’s statement that “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

So start with Plato.

11 anonymous August 17, 2006 at 3:15 pm

For ethics, if you have no prior background, read Kant’s “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals” and Thomas Nagel’s “The Possibility of Altruism.” Then, once they have made it clear that ethical philosophy isn’t just about justifying your own impulses, backfill with “Gorgias,” “The Republic,” and “Nichomachean Ethics.” Zip forward to get the latest work on ethical philosophy from Parfit, Scanlon, or Habermas. You are now set to try political philosophy: start with Aristotle’s “Politics”, then skip to “Leviathan,” “On the Social Contract,” and finally get the modern philosophical consensus from “Theory of Justice.”

12 Mike Huben August 17, 2006 at 5:36 pm

I recommend starting with David Stove. See my Skepticism of Philosophical Thought for a review of his “The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies”. I guarantee laughter, if not an indrawn breath at his takedown of the ‘great thinkers’.

13 J. August 17, 2006 at 11:45 pm

Semi-empirical claim which I can probaby not justify but believe anyways: Intellectually interesting people who make genuine contributions to their fields hold genuine respect for most other fields.

14 Kent Guida August 18, 2006 at 11:39 am

The 3% figure for philosophy is way too high. “Philosopher” and “Professor of Philosophy” are not synomyms. Never have been, never will be, although “economist” and “professor of economics” may be.

What percentage of academic product in philosophy will be worth reading 50 or 100 years from now? Far less than 3%, I’ll wager.

Don’t waste your time on the second-rate. Invest in quality — above all, Plato and Aristotle. Most of the others are just shadows on the wall of the cave.

15 anne August 18, 2006 at 12:10 pm

And BTW – can no one help me out regarding the postmoderns? This is a persuasive, if scary, thread of philosophy that has opened up post WWII and I still don’t know what to make of it.

16 Kent Guida August 18, 2006 at 12:27 pm

Why you should start with Plato:

“There is a great deal more philosophy in spiritual exercises like Socrates’ dialogues than in the construction of a philosophical system. The task of dialogue consists essentially in pointing out the limits of language, and its inability to communicate moral and existential experience. Yet the dialogue itself, qua event and spiritual activity, already constitutes a moral and existential experience, for Socratic philosophy is not the solitary elaboration of a system, but the awakening of consciousness, and accession to a level of being which can only be reached in a person-to-person relationship.”
Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, p.163

17 Barkley Rosser August 18, 2006 at 2:30 pm


I have read some of the pomo stuff. At times I find it to be an example
of vacuous obscurantism of the worst order, but some of it can be very
penetrating. I would say that it also tends to be more directly spilling
over into other disciplines, e.g Lacan into psychology, Derrida into linguistics,
Foucault into sociology and criminology. I have avoided Baudrillard based
on quotes I have seen that make him seem like a complete moron. I do not
like Foucault’s criminology stuff, but _The Archaeology of Meaning_ is quite
stimulating. I used to like Lacan, but he seems a bit old to me now. I
found Derrida to be tough going without much to show for it. I am not sure
he counts, but more recently I have found much of use in sociologist,
Pierre Bourdieu, especially on social capital, but I am not sure he counts
as a pomo philosopher.

In econ, most of the pomos are on the left, dominating the journal, Rethinking
Marxism, edited by hard core pomo, David Ruccio. One of the few pomo economists
more on the right would be Deirdre McCloskey, although she is pretty soft core.
Her older classic, only mildly pomo, is _The Rhetoric of Economics_, written
back when she was Donald.

The big Plato-Aristotle split is idealism vs materialism or form versus
matter or mind versus body or theory versus empirics or deductionism versus
inductionism, or… although perhaps the now silent J. would consider such
a designation to be worthy of a failing grade in an undergrad phil class.
OTOH, I pass on the publishing of papers on econ and phil in the journal I
edit, where I have been accepting more papers of a phil orientation lately,
not to everybody’s liking, so I guess I get the last word, maybe. In any
case, the later listings of this split clearly are of enormous relevance
directly to economics, especially questions about theoretical, mathematical econ.

I guess I did not fess up my history with phil. So, I started in junior high
with mathematical logic, in terms of Plato versus Aristotle, does one “discover
a theorem” or “invent a theorem”? The persistence of Platonism, despite the
general tendency among academic analytic philosophers towards a variation of
Aristotelianism (see Dennett, among others), can be seen in atheist mathematicians
who believe in the ideal reality of mathematical truth, and there are lots of them.

By early high school I had my first overviews of phil with Russell’s History
and Walter Kauffman’s book on Existentialism. Russell is good, but definitely
very biased against all manifestations of Platonism, which he saw as the
ultimate foundation of Nazism, a big issue when he wrote that book. I then
branched out to read various people discussed in both of those books.

In political phil, I first read Mill and Hayek, then Nozick and Rawls,
later Hegel and Marx, along with others. I had Nozick as an instructor
at one point, a truly stimulating experience. He first turned me on to Hayek.

It was not until college that I got to Descartes, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein.
I have not read Rorty, Scanlon, or Parfit. I find Habermas overrated. I could
say a lot more, but I think that will suffice for this venue for now.

18 John August 18, 2006 at 2:45 pm

Barkley and Kent,

There is no easy to know what will pay-off in philosophy. However, when philosophical ideas do pay, they pay well. Consider how many philosophers contributed to the origination of the sciences: the great logician-philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries created the foundations of computer science; psychology has deep roots in philosophy, particularly in David Hume, John Locke and William James; Adam Smith (chair of logic and moral philosophy at Glasgow) in economics; political economy originated in J.S. Mill; political science and the issue of distributive justice has been enriched by Nozick and Rawls†¦.

Contemporarily, I think that much of what comes out of Carnegie Mellon’s philosophy department is of lasting value—namely their work on causal modeling, computational epistemology, statistical decision theory, belief revision and such.

As a lover of philosophy and frequenter of blogs, I am weary of defending philosophy from those who know little of it. Perhaps I should write a definitive statement and copy and paste it, should the subject arise.

Full disclosure: I am a former CMU philosophy grad student.

19 Barkley Rosser August 18, 2006 at 4:09 pm


I like the CMU stuff. Some of it has been
picked up in more conventional econ, particularly
in the writings on correlation/causation by Kevin
Hoover, longtime editor of the Journal of Economic
Methodology, an econ/phil outlet. He has since
moved on to editing other things since he moved
from UC-Davis to Duke University. However, it is
probably not accurate to label Hoover’s work
“conventional econ.”

20 izzy August 19, 2006 at 9:52 pm

You might be interested in the responses here:

21 John C. Wright August 23, 2006 at 2:43 pm

Here is what I recommend for a good grounding in philosophy:

In short, read the Great Books of Western thought in chronological order, but stop around 1850-1915 or so, when the moderns started to go all weird, and produce philosophical rubbish.

22 Rob April 11, 2007 at 12:12 pm

“Philosophy books are more like self-help tomes, or fun record albums, than they let on.”

So true.

23 Rob April 11, 2007 at 12:30 pm

I think we should remember the “philo” in philosophy; once that spirit of enjoyment is lost from it, it quickly descends into a religious “theory-of-everything” (see Marxism), or obscure micro-philosophy (what others here call academic philosophy).

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