I got an email from a listener who’s interested in reading more about philosophy, but felt that sense of dread when they gazed down into the yawning abyss of the Barnes and Noble philosophy section. The kind of dread that makes you want to watch some kind of pawn shop related reality TV show and never think about philosophy again. It’s a good question — where is the best place to start reading independently?
Here’s what they said:
Hi Mr. West,
I’ve been listening to your show for about a year now, and I absolutely love it! Philosophize This is the only podcast I follow religiously, and I’ve worked up the courage to ask a question. I’m a high school senior in Illinois, and my small school doesn’t have the resources to field a philosophy class. I plan on attending college next year, and I would like to practice reading some philosophy before I leave. I tried to dive right in, but I found myself getting lost in the language. Do you have any suggestions on how to get started? Thanks for making your show. I really appreciate it.
I’ve been there before. This is me diving into most topics:
When this listener told me the book they tried to pick up and read was The Prince by Machiavelli, things started to come into focus. I’ve made this mistake so many times I’m pretty sure either Barnes OR Noble has an extra wing built onto their third home thanks to me.
Here’s what I said:
Knowing where to start can be tough, but in my opinion one thing is for certain: don’t start with source texts! 🙂
What I would give to see the number of curious, open-minded youngsters over the years that decided they were going to try reading some philosophy, only to have a boring professor or a book written 400 years ago make them wish they could frisbee-throw a 400 year old book at a professor’s face.
My advice is to stay away from original sources for at least a good year. In reality, depending on how much you’re reading, it’s more like two years. The reason is: these books weren’t written yesterday. These things have been translated and re-translated and interpreted and honestly were originally written by people that lived hundreds of years ago that think about everything in the world in a very different way than you or I do.
Of course there are exceptions to this; you can point to a sporadic, exceptional thinker that tried their hardest to make their work digestable to people that weren’t necessarily philosophy professors– but you still don’t get the whole story. At best you don’t understand everything and at worst you may misunderstand everything! Most of the time to get anything meaningful and accurate out of a source text, it’s crucial you understand a TON about a lot of auxiliary stuff that may seem to have little to do with what was actually being written about. Things like:
What questions were being asked in philosophy at the time?
What were the specific connotations of the words used at the time?
What did the author THINK those connotations were?
What questions did the author think were worth answering?
Where did the author get their information? Was it accurate?
What major historical events were going on? What minor, highly specific events were going on locally?
What was the author’s personality like?
I’ll stop listing these because I think you get the point. So many times I’ve been stoked about picking up a new book and learning about a thinker and it’s so tempting to say to myself, “Oh Machiavelli is living during the age of post-Medieval city-state building and is writing a field manual for getting things off the ground…I GOT THIS!”
But there is so much more subtext that a modern reader is conferring onto these thinkers that they don’t realize– so many assumptions we make as though these thinkers are writing their work in the 21st century. I guess this is a long winded way of saying that reading source texts are a waste of time anyway until you reach a certain understanding of the general themes of history and philosophy– so don’t feel bad!
Where specifically to start I think comes down to the level of understanding you already have about philosophy.
If you are JUST starting out, you should read books that talk about philosophy merely as an institution. Something that looks at it broadly as the history of human thought. The reason I say this is because I’ve found it’s really helpful to have some sort of skeleton in place that you can add meat to– an understanding of the broad movements in philosophy. Otherwise, it’s almost like reading the dictionary. Nothing you read has any context. It just becomes this flurry of random facts that you don’t care about. The trick is CARING about what you’re trying to learn. A couple examples of books like this are:
A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton
Once you have a general idea and want to start tackling specific topics that interest you, my advice would be to try reading modern authors who have written contemporary books about these older thinkers. Reason being: for every philosopher out there, some desperate ex-philosophy student on welfare has built a career out of knowing practically everything there is to know about them. These people throughout their entire lives have largely done the leg work that I referenced before, and they can be an enormous help when it comes to avoiding misunderstandings and knowing which ideas were important.
At that point, once you’ve listened to enough of these people give commentary on a topic, then I think it’s fun to go back and read the source. It’s so fun, it’s all I ever do. Just kidding, I don’t read.
Thank you for wanting to know more today than you did yesterday.