This page has two functions: it provides a basic reading list in philosophy, and it parades my prejudices. I'm agonna
rate the major philosophers on a 1-10 scale, an expression simultaneously of my arrogance, my stupidity, and my erudition.
Eighteenth Century British
one thing you have got to say for the british: they are clear. the revolutionary work that starts with locke is admirable in its boldness, in its groundedness
in real experience, in its dedication to lucid prose.
john locke *7*
an absolutely fundamental figure in that he was the founder of british empiricism. oddly, from this point, reading empiricism against the 'rationalism'
of descartes or spinoza, one (or at least i) is (am) struck by the similarities rather than the differences. they are both incessant about "ideas" or
(in the empiricist argot) 'sense impressions.' that is, they're all 'internalists' who think the whole stage of the world in your experience is your own mind.
empricist or rationalist, this will get you to berkeley, then to kant and hegel. to see why this is a terrible dead end, i prescribe "sense and sensibilia' by j. l. austin.
still you're not going to get much of anywhere without locke's epistemology of blank tablets and impressions etc. remarkably, his political philosophy is
at least as foundational. certainly the american declaration of independence is a slight restatement of the second treatise, and as marx would say, the second
treatise is the great document of the bourgeois revolutions in america and france. you've got to put this in context in late 17th c british politics, in which locke
was an active participant. anyway, the fundamental theorist of modern democracy. (rousseau is crazily miscast in this roll.)
bishop george berkeley *7*
tremendously perverse, berkeley is both the culmination and the reductio ad absurdum of the whole period: it takes you into an annihilation of the external world into
mere consciousness. he is an argumentative genius and a truly great prose stylist: straightforward yet always with a twist and implicit humor. tart and profound, berkeley is still underrated,
because i do think that all the "idealisms" - kant and hegel's etc - emerge here.
ok the classic pair of books is below. "three dialogues" gives an extremely crisp statement of the philosophy. however, i'd recommend rummaging around in the "new theory of vision" etc. it all
hangs together in a remarkable way. maybe skip the books about the benefits of tar water, though.
david hume *9*
there is probably no more distinguished man of letters in english. not only a fundamental philosopher, he was a great historian and all-around cool dude.
a brilliant stylist, he never really wrote a bad sentence that i've seen. he, like berkeley, takes the locke epistemology to absurdity - he embraces the scepticism that berkely fends off with desperate measures - but then comes back with a common-sense
answer to his own more-or-less decisive destruction of all science and human knowledge. kant of course knew that hume was necessary for his own emergence. the "dialogues
concerning natural religion" - published posthumously - are a good moment at which to locate the death of god. one of the great argumentative achievements of all times, it destroys
all arguments for the existence of god and states what is eternally the definitive version of the problem of evil. from top to bottom, a clear, readable, wholly admirable
ok. hume was that rare bird, a philosophical prodigy, and "a treatise of human nature," which gives the essence of the whole thing was written in his early twenties. the "enquiries" are crisp popularizations of that material. the history of england is quite the remarkable achievement, and
atill readable for its ideas.
adam smith *7*
obviously he is best remembered as one of the fundamental economists, the fundamental formulator (in "wealth of nations") of the theory of capitalism. he is adored or reviled on
that basis. but smith was a friend of hume and his philosphical concerns were as broad. his work in ethics is sharp, realistic, and salutary. he worked also on logic, rhetoric, and philosophy of law.
everything repays reading, still.
thomas reid *6*
the term is "common sense" philosophy, and though it represents itself as a critique of hume, it is also remarkable close in a variety of ways. also it anticipates kant in interesting ways:
we have to believe what we believe because we're built how we're built. what turned out to be a good idea was that all of this is represented
in how we usually talk: that language as it is used every day is the fundamental guide in philosophy. um, good, good idea. it's not the easiest or most pleasant or most
profitable reading, but it has amazing moments where you suddenly feel like you've got it all.
Nineteenth Century Western
soren kierkegaard *9*
well, he's my favorite philosopher that ever wrote, incredibly bold and original, and also easily the funniest philosopher of the western
tradition, though it's a pretty dark sort of humor. he identified the fundamental human condition and dilemma better than anyone, and hence
showed the incredible poverty of visions (encapsulated for him by hegel) that tried to transcend or overcome the basic human condition of finitude,
uncertainty, and faith. he was a an extreme christian fideist; in this and much else his greatest precedent is pascal. but having taught his books
for many years to many groups, i can say with some certainty that christians find his work extremely disturbing. he had an ill relation to writing, even though he
was a great stylistic genius, and many of his works are almost insanely repetitive and interminable (try reading "stages on life's way," e.g.).
this is true even of some of his greatest books, notably "either/or" and "concluding unscientific postcript." still if i were choosing one mind to be, if that makes any sense,
it would be his.
g.w.f. hegel *4*
no one in their right mind doubts his scope and genius, or his importance in the subsequent intellectual eras in virtually
every field of the humanities: the modern eras of art history, history, political science, sociology, literary theory etc etc
are inconceivable without him. but there is also no denying the horrors: the political absolutism of the most absurd variety, the
bloated ideas of Mind and Idea that are ill, ill, because they express a deep hatred of nature, the incredible hubris that underlies every gesture.
it's the purported project of ordering all phenomena into something rational or into the order of mind (as understood by hegel) that kierkegaard hated and
that we should too. truly the closest analogy is plato: a fearsomely horrendous philosophy, albeit expressed in the blandest terms that cannot be ignored.
and speaking of things that can't be ignored, and of influence: you could not have communism or fascism in their twentieth-century forms without him. obviously
you can't go around laying tens of millions of deaths at his doorstep, but you also can't achieve the inevitable march of World History without breaking
a few eggs. if i were starting. i'd start with "phil of history" or a secondary source; "phenomenology of spirit" is
the fundamental system; it is beyond difficult.
friedrich nietzsche *7*
he was the way i got into philosophy, and i certainly for many years regarded him as the greatest mind our species ever produced. an unbelievably
perverse contrarian, he not only rejected all received wisdom, he blew it away with real arguments and skewered it with the aphorisms of a genius/poet.
he lends himself to an incredible variety of uses and interprestations: i have read him as a radical realist; others with as much textual support
read him as a complete relativist. of course that might indicate a problem (or maybe not). but i think the perversity could be
a kind of autonomic response and was not always sufficiently motivated. he was the official philosopher of the third reich. sadly, one sees why: he hated democracy
(to say nothing of anarchy), praised cruelty consistently as a virtue, proposed the superman as the next phase of evolution, engaged in
racial analyses of history. attempts to deny all this should be regarded as the disingenuous drivel of mere acolytes. and he was a truly insane
megalomaniac, worse and worse as he went on. there is dreck in his oeuvre, notably "thus spoke zarathustra." on the other hand, no one has ever had
the ability to overturn so much so deftly or effectively, or just make you suddenly re-think everything in the thunderbolt monment of illumination.
in a way, the perversity and insanity go with this ability.
henry david thoreau *9*
in my view, the greatest thinker america has produced: thought and action are the same in his work as they are not in almost anyone else's in the tradition, and
maybe that means he's not a philosopher. maybe it means no one else it. regarded as emerson's little shadow during his lifetime he is, if anything, even the greater writer, and though
there are obviously affinities in their writing, thoreau is a profoundly original figure. his essays, such as "civil disobedience" and "wealking" are among the great treasurtes of
world literature: incredibly vigorous and intense and bold, with a slight undertow of humor and self-deprecation.
ralph waldo emerson *7*
called a transcendentalist in a heritage that connects him to hegel, emerson was very much the opposite of hegel temperamentally. for one thing he was no
system-builder, though a single consciousness manifestly underlies everything he ever said. and he wrote in shimmering aphorisms: really
the unit of thought is not the book or even the essay (of which he was obviously among the greatest masters), but the single sentence. he really is a "rugged individualist"
and somehow the soul of america, to get too romantic about it. a beautiful human being wrote his words.
gottlob frege *8*
an incomparable thinker almost unknown in his lifetime until, when he was an old man, russell found him. he invented modern logic, and the analytic
philosophy program appears full-blown in his work from the getgo: we're still wrestling with his positions. his work in the foundations and philosophy of mathematics
remains fundamental. a remarkably subtle and sharp thinker, his every claim has a vast belligerent machinery behind it of his own invention (or, as he
would have it, discovery.
Twentieth Century Western
jurgen habermas and john rawls *2*
obviously people think that the more turgid and dull the writing, the more intelligent and important the writer. at any rate, rawls and habermas
both think that all of us agree, deep inside, or to the degree we're not polluted and prejudiced, on the fundamental conditions under which we should live our lives
together. oddly, what we all agree on, or would, or whatever, is exactly the position of rawls and habermas, which, come right down to it are, by a bizarre coincidence, the constitutions of the united states and the federal republic of germany. agreement with their positions, that is,
is the test of basic human rationality, and everyone else can safely be institutionalized in the huge state bureaucracies that grow under the aegis of the
only rational position it is possible to take up. the theoretical edicfices are extremely elaborate and impressive.
theodor adorno *1*
it turns out that the most radical egalitarian, mega-state leftists are the most elitist condescending assholes the world has ever known.
ludwig wittgenstein *2*
what is expressed in wittgenstein's philosophy is an overwhelming ambition to be taken to be profound.
this perhaps accounts for the quality of his stuff as a kind of fog machine, swathing the intellectual landscape in purplish
mist. just as irritating as this approach is the the fact that it worked: and now there's a kind of priesthood,
robed acolytes who purport to be able to guide you through the smoke. there are no doubt interesting moments. most of them
were much more clearly expressed by j.l. austin, who was also funnier.
w.v.o quine *7*
though perhaps a bit marred by the fashionable behaviorism of mid-century, quine is a fundamental figure. a brilliant logician,
with a stirring economy of means and a beautiful prose style, quine is both readable and immensely subtle. the idea of "analytic' philosophy - philosophy
devoted to the logical analysis of language - has rarely been explored miore fully or used to better overall effect. he's got no time for bullshit,
and exposes it with rapier accuracy.
john dewey *4*
dewey has great moments, and i think the insights of art as experience should be fundamental to aesthetics in the next century. but...the prose is
needlessly laborious and obscure, partly because he's not a very good stylist, and partly because there's a lot of trying to have it both ways,
or all ways at once. he's a "reasonable" figure in this sense, also annoying and always taking back what he just said etc. it's great that he
tackled real questions about such matters as democtracy and education, though the answers should have been sharper. if they had been, i suppose, they
could not actually have been adopted, though. the fundamental metaphysics, theory of truth etc is of course more or less that
of peirce and james. it is framed with more care and sophisticaltion by peirce, and much more sharply and clearly by james.
martin hedegger *8*
excruciatingly obscure and difficult, but i feel that undoubted genius lurks underneath. i'll be reading along, merely befuddled and irritated, for some time, and then
something pulls at me like an undertow or perhaps rip tide. i think heidegger's, for example, is probably the deepest and truest treatment of truth in
the whole tradition. he was a serious fucking nazi, and it is a good idea to keep that in mind as you read. i both can see how that's connected to
his philosophy and see how it is incompatible with it, if you get me. do not make it an occasion to dismiss the whole thing.
richard rorty *6*
rorty was my dissertation supervisor, and a friendly and conscientious one, especially for someone so busy. So I'm prejudiced. On the other hand, I
more or less completely reject his positions, no doubt as a result of my unresolved oedipal conflicts. But anyway, Rorty writes extrmely clear and punchy prose.
He's brought continental and analytic and pragmatist traditions into dialogue like no one else has, and so changed the face of philosophy. He
is a provocateur, a position that of course I admire deeply, and he's done it with extreme skill and devastating effect (that is, everyone is provoked).
There is, I feel, one huge drawback in Rorty's work: almost all of it is put into other people's mouths: the form of the argument is a string of quotations and names (Dewey, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Davidson, Derrida etc).
He should speak in his own voice, especially given that he is not the most responsible interpreter of these people's work and doesn't want to be.
I took a seminar with him called "After Heidegger." We spent most of the semester on Gadamer's "Truth and Method." Then Gadamer himself showed up
to talk to our clas. Rorty introduced him with a precis of the interpretation of t&M he'd been mounting for weeks, throughout which G just shook
his head. When R had finished, G said "But Dick, you've got it all wrong!" Rorty just grinned and threw this down: "yes, Hans, but that's what you should have said."
jacques derrida *2*
there's something to be said for the deconstructuive method, a tool which i've been known to throw around myself. otherwise, this is so, so, so full of shit. obviously,
it's intentionally obscurantist, which is i guess supposed to be part of the profound game of defamiliarizing language etc. fuck you.
michel foucault *9*
derrida's kickass twin: hard at times but fundamentally clear. i think despite some possible historical mistakes, he's the most important thinker of the
second half of the 20th century, because he analyzes the real condition of power in our cultures with amazing originality and accuracy. so the stuff
has real factual sources and real political implications. it envisions a profound human liberation, but also understands its complexity and limitations. the strongest use
of nietzsche of any figure with the possible exception of bataille. people (esp habbermas and his acolytes) accuse him of having no positive vision etc, of being all critique. that is totally wrong.
An incomparable poet and philosophical genius, with the guts to take what even then had to be contrarian positions, tracing the origin
of the universe to strife or "war," and asserting that everything was always in process (see Whitehead). Of course, only fragments remain,
i.e. quotations and characterizations from later writers.
Remarkable in his perversity and his influence, Parmenides "proved" that motion and change were impossible and hence that the world
we experienced was entirely unreal. This is essentially the position of Plato, whose hero he was. This attack on the world and human
experience is a dominant and grotesque theme of Western philosophy and religion ever since, and if I was rating simply on whether I
thought the positions were salutary or true, I'd take this thing into negative numbers immediately. But the moves are ingenious, the position
crystal clear and fundamental. Known by fragments.
Easily the most overrated philosopher in history. His influence is unavoidable, but that's a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can't avoid him because
no one else did. He acquires Parmenides' perversity - his sheer world-hatred - without his elegance. I can't read Greek, but the prose is not so great in English: I've read many translations, of course. There are interesting moments - I think of the Theaetetus and the Symposium in particular - but even here
the positions are fundamentally despicable. Plato is widely admired for the dialogue form, but mostly this is just set-em-up/knock-em-down. The early
dialogues - termed "aporetic" - are interesting in that they reach no conclusions. But even there you can here the dogma coming. He does set
a very basic philosophical style or activity: seeking definitions of fundamental concepts such a justice, knowledge, beauty, and so on. Some of these are at least worth
grappling with. The political vision of the Republic is a flat nightmare. Many would essentially read the whole platonic edifice as ironic. It better be.
The Republic is obviously the classic dialogue, and more or less the entire philosophy is there. Another place to start would be Phaedo/Apology/Crito, the
martyrdom of Socrates.
Really the achievements are incomparable: he invented whole disciplines, including logic and physics, and provided a model
of philosophical methodology and system that is fundamental to the tradition at every stage, from medieval theology to analytic philosophy.
The writing is, to say the least, dry and labored, though it is for the most part relatively clear. Still as you start into the collected works or whatever,
you're in for a long, hard slog.
The Nicomachean Ethics is the most basic text. The Poetics is foundational for aesthetics and is basic for understanding Greek literature.
The Metaphysics is brilliant and fundamental, though a hell of a lot of work. The Physics.
Hellenistic philosophy (that is, philosophy influenced by the "golden age of Greece," but later) has been very underrated, partly because it was
held to be more or less entirely derivative, which is inaccurate. Also it is less concerned than P and A about abstract philosophical matters and
more concerned with how to live (though it's worth saying that P and A were certainly concerned with that as well). The debate between the Epicureans and Stoics was esentially
this: could inner tranquility be best achieved by a moderate satisfaction of appetites or their strict control or dissolution? Epicurus and his
followers took the former approach. What we have of his writings are a couple of letters and fragments, which are dry and not very elaborate.
But figures such as Lucretius gave much more elaborate treatments, complete with a metaphysics. All in all it's a very reasonable philosophy. If you want to prove that,
try stoicism for a while.
Read Lucretius's "On Nature." Secondary sources are reasonable here.
Epictetus/Marcus Aurelius *9*
The early Greek Stoics are essentially unknown except for fragments, but the beautiful texts of Epictetus's Handbook (a distillation of the much longer "Discourses") and Marcus Aurelius's notebooks
are among the treasures of all world thought and literature. It's interesting that Epictetus was a slave and Marcus an emperor, two of the hardest jobs on the face of the earth. They preach total, radical
acceptance of reality and the impotence of human will in the face of the world. There are moments of metaphysical speculation, and early Greek stoicism
had definitely included a full-scale systematic philosophy, a logic, etc. But it's more about how to get through your day. Real peace and freedom blooms from their pages, though the discipline is well-nigh
impossible. Their books can bring you nearer, though. Probably the loveliest and most profound self-help you will ever read.
The books listed below are excellent, although the Epicteus is a pretty free trans. It's clear and smart, though, and also contains some key moments
from the Discourses. The Marcus below is *so* good: really, incomparable.