A good friend the other day asked for the name of a book I’d recommended once as an essential field guide to philosophy.
I get this question a lot from people who have their degrees in something other than philosophy and want to explore it, people who are considering studying philosophy, and those who are simply interested in a casual sense. Universally, the problem is that I’m trying to hand them a shopping list in response to a question.
In this blog post, I hope to take both — shopping list and answer to question — and combine them.
Philosophy is like a computer language underlying all arguments. When someone tells you that something is true, you ought to do something or that something turned out a certain way, that’s an argument. They’re telling you that you should believe one interpretation of events.
You need a set of tools to understand arguments, assess whether and to what degree they’re correct, and then decide how you should act. Arguments and debates are as rigorous as math if you’re able to think critically about them, which gets you out of the bloviation zone of unanchored opinions, illogical speech, and self-important rhetoric.
In other words, philosophy takes you from the social aspects of human thinking toward the concrete and realistic ones.
How to learn philosophy?
There’s two parts to philosophy: the language and skill of philosophizing, and knowledge of particular philosophers, who we remember for being the first people in recorded history to elegantly articulate a certain set of arguments keyed in to a core position, vision or realization.
It’s hard if not impossible to learn one without the other. For one thing, learning through biography and history is more exciting than learning from strictly technical documentation.
How do I begin?
Over the years, I’ve become a huge fan of learning through doing. Read the survey book recommended below, then take on a philosopher or an argument, and learn everything you can about it by reading it, discussing it and arguing its points.
Another approach is to pair ancients and moderns. Pick up your Plato and Nietzsche, and go to town. The two sources will cross-analyze each others’ arguments in your mind and make for a good study in how to think.
What is the philosopher’s toolbox?
The philosopher’s toolbox is an introductory work that surveys the field, and then a series of resources which help you read, analyze, write and criticize any argument that you encounter.
And… that’s it! There are two good internet resources:
These are similar to but more academic than the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy; the Dictionary attempts to explain in raw form the concept, but the IEP tries to give more historical context and the SEP tries to give more of a guide to structuring an argument around it. All are useful resources.
Avoid: Wikipedia. The philosophy articles are composed primarily by young graduate students eager to show what they know, generally by reciting what their faculty advisors have told them, and as a result serve as a mystification not elucidation of philosophy.
Life is like all good designs: simple at its core, but that pattern branches out and through repetition in different contexts, makes a far more elaborate end result. So it is with philosophy. Your toolbox is simple; it’s the thinking you put into these ideas, and most importantly how they’re applied, that determines the full beauty and complexity — and feasibility — of each.