Monday, May 21, 2007

A General Reading List

I was asked this past weekend about an introductory reading list for philosophy. I just decided to place my suggestions here. I'm hardly widely read, relatively speaking, but I have a fine handle on the broad movements of the tradition. This is meant to balance brevity, breadth, depth and readability. I'll move from the early aspects of the tradition right to the cutting edge of contemporary thought.


I'm skipping the Pre-socratics and Plato altogether, because I'm pretty hopeless in those areas.

1. Aristotle's Metaphysics. This is one of the books that the tradition keeps coming back to, over and over. Read the Metaphysics, and you'll see Aristotelian language everywhere. It's a roadmap for the next 2000 years of thought. Aristotle's Physics, Politics and Nichomachean Ethics are important as well, but the Metaphysics is where it all really begins.

From: The Basic Works of Aristotle

2. St. Augustine's Confessions. Specifically, chapters 8 - 11. The earlier chapters are kinda emo, but once Augustine gets his act together, he makes up for all the repentant whining that came before. His thinking of time, memory, literary interpretation, God and creation keeps the entire Western tradition coming back for more. Augustine's thinking has a pivotal influence on at least one author in this list.

The Confessions of Saint Augustine


I know I'm making a huge jump. I'm skipping over Stoics, Cynics, and Christians, traditional and mystical. Once again, I just don't know much about these guys.

3. Rene Descartes' Meditations on Method and Discourse on First Philosophy. Descartes' thought exploded in the western world like a philosophical Little Boy, and began a new era. That is the standard interpretation, anyways. It is facile to think Descartes was really an ahistorical clean slate for philosophy, but you cannot do reputable scholarship without knowing him.

4. Baruch Spinoza's Ethics. Spinoza has strong kung fu. Learn from him. The fact that traditional religion continued to exist after this man is a testament to the stubbornness of the human race. Be joyful, strong and creative.

5. GW Leibniz's Discourse on Metaphysics and The Monadology. God's knight in shining armour, defending Christondom from Spinoza's otherwise crippling blows. If you do not think the monad is one of the coolest ideas anyone anywhere has ever come up with. . . maybe philosophy is not for you after all.

6. Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. This is one of the most brutally difficult books ever written. I have only a vague grasp on it. This being said, Kant's importance rivals Aristotle and Descartes.

7. GWF Hegel's Phenomonology of Spirit. 20th Century political thought lives and dies with Hegel. This is probably the most difficult book ever written, however.

3 - 7 Are all found in: The European Philosophers. That single book contains excerpts from all the books listed above, except the Hegel book. If you pick up the book I've linked to here, you'll have highlights from all the above thinkers in a single volume, plus several more. There are different selections from Hegel here, but they will perhaps act as a better introduction than the frankly insane Phenomonology. You can skip the Pascal, Rousseau, Fichte, Schopenhauer, Comte and Mach selections as they are less important. As for the Nietzsche bits...

8. Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil and Genealogy of Morals. Every word that slipped from this man's pen was golden. Reading Nietzsche is like breathing fresh mountain air. These two books will work in tandem to tear down and rebuild much of what you believe. Nietzsche is a diagnostician. Where else to go? Nietzsche has the words of life.

Keep in mind the importance of reading Walter Kaufman's translations; other translations are notoriously bad.

Found in: Basic Writings of Nietzsche

20th Century:

9. Martin Heidegger's Being and Time, What Is Metaphysics? and Letter on Humanism. Rather than read Being and Time, simply read the introduction. It is about thirty pages long, and defly summarizes the entire work. Being and Time is a terribly beautiful book, but it is also terribly difficult. There is no need to jump into it yet. What is Metaphysics and are both fine and short descriptions of Heidegger's thought. The anti-humanist philosophers of the 20th century fed on the Letter on Humanism for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Found in: Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings

10. Georges Bataille's Erotism. Influenced by Hegel, Nietzsche and Freud, Bataille produced fascinating work on the links between sex, death and religion. Yes, such links exist. Bataille is certainly the most readable of 20th century continental philosophers, and one of the most widely read. Highly recommended.

Erotism: Death and Sensuality

11. Michel Foucault's The Subject and Power. How are identities formed? Put another way, how is the content of the word "I" formed? When you say "I," what exactly do you mean, and why? In Foucault speak, how are we subjectified, and what role does power play in this? Important thinking for the 20th and 21st centuries.

Found in: The Essential Foucault

21st Century:

12. Alain Badiou's Ethics and Infinite Thought. Badiou is a deeply multidisciplinary thinker; his ontology is rooted in mathematical set theory. Every generation or so, a thinker comes along to clean house, to break up the old patterns and remind us all that we always need to be exploring new territory. For the philosophers of the 21st century, Badiou is the trailblazer we all must reckon with.

Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil
Infinite Thought

All right, there you go. If you read through all those, you'll know pretty much everything I know. Philosophy is an amazing adventure; it is extraordinary how different the world can look when seeing it through Nietzsche or Heidegger's eyes.

Good tidings.


dan said...

Interesting list. I'd be inclined to include a few others (Aquinas? Marx? Kierkegaard? Wittgenstein? Even MacIntyre?) but introductory lists are always tricky due to issues of brevity and boundaries.

Aside: have you read much (or any) Terry Eagleton? I've been getting into him lately and have enjoyed him quite a lot. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on him.

Mike said...

Right, my main aim here was brevity. I almost actually did put Fear and Trembling and the Tractatus here, but had to cut something.

I've only read snippets of Aquinas, but I'll find my way to him sooner or later. My side reading is Eckhart these days.

A lot of my friends at the Theory centre like Eagleton, but I haven't read him myself.

Unsane said...

I'm very partial to Bataille these days.

Mike said...

He's a blast, isn't he? I found The Blue of Noon in a used book shop on my recent vacation. It was being sold at a heavily reduced price because the cover was dirty. A filthy Bataille book? They should have raised the price.

Miss Ondrya said...

There's only one book you need to read, then you can safely ignore all the other nonsense. "Kleines Lehrbuch des Positivismus: Einfuhrung in die Empiristisch Wissenschaftsauffassung." by Richard von Mises

Welcome to the 21th century, where we actually distinguish between science and intellectual Mumbo Jumbo.