I had read a good many philosophy texts in high school, including
Russell's History of Western Philosophy, and an assortment of Zen and
T'ao materials. I had my Creation Myth worked out by then.
So I thought it was reasonable in college to take an upper level
course on epistemology without doing prerequisites. The professor's
comments on my paper were (paraphrase), "You obviously grasp the
concepts, but you have no clue about how to do a formal philosophical
argument." Thus ended my adventures in academic philosophy.
I only provide this page as a brief reference to some useful texts.
Philosophy is the study (through introspection) of the act of
thinking. At times it has claimed to discover new truths by doing so.
At other times (esp. after science got rolling), it has claimed to
help others discover truths and detect untruths.
It is useful in recognizing erroneous patterns in thinking
(fallacies), and (these days) for designing artificial intelligence.
Other than that, it is pretty esoteric and not terribly useful.
Anything provable has fallen under science or maybe linguistics, and
the remainder may be in the realm of religion.
It is valuable to have tackled the issues at least once in one's life,
and come to terms with them. See Creation Myth for
Start with the Greeks (almost as a parlor game), then a wee bit of
Roman (they were too pragmatic for philosophy), then put on hold while
the Christian Church ran things, then on to Northern Europe,
esp. Germany, and finally to England and the US. By the time it hit
Germany, it was a respected academic effort distinct from religion.
Start with nature worship and spirits-of-place, as in T'oa and Shinto.
Add in Confucius for China and Hinduism for India. Then mix in
Buddhism in wave after wave, with local variants such as Zen.
In all these forms, monks devoting their lives to thinking purely were
taken seriously. However, the outcome was no more or less insightful
than western efforts.
I'm not aware of comparable specialization in the act of thinking in
other cultures. They don't do it? They tried and couldn't handle the
complexity? They tried and realized it was an absurd use of time?
[These are just the ones on my shelves at the moment. Others have
been loaned out over the years.]
John Burney. "Early Greek Philosophers" Meridian Books, The World
Publishing Company, 1957.
If you started with Plato you can be overwhelmed. But starting with
the earlier philosophers gives the impression of some intelligent
fellows sitting around, drinking beer, and chatting about how to think
Rene Descartes "Meditations". Laurence J. Lafleur, translator. Bobbs-Merrill co, 1960.
Rightfully famous for both cartesian coordinates and for "Cogito ergo sum".
Irwin Edman. "The Works Of Plato". The Modern Library, 1928.
We read Plato for two reasons. First, because he recorded Socrates's
discussions. Second, because he did original work of his own on
Of the two, Socrates is the more interesting. The Socratic method
(keep asking questions until the student discovers truth), is used in
MBA and Law schools. It works if the facts are readily apparent, and
all that is needed is juggling them into a sound framework.
But this leads to odd conclusions if you use math as the topic. When
Socrates leads a shepard to the square root of 2, he concludes the
truth was there all along, just waiting to be discovered. Instead,
these days we'd say the act of discussing allowed the student to form
and test mental models, and that the teacher guided the process with
Interesting as Socrates is for the theory of thinking, Plato's work on
politics may be more important. Carefully thinking through the
mechanisms of people working together -- in the face of good times and
bad, war and peace -- leads by steps to the "social contract" notions
behind world democracies. And reminds us that we must be ever
vigilant lest the tyrants regain control.
Richard McKeon. "Introduction to Aristotle" The Modern Library, 1947.
To the Greeks, he was the one who made observations and drew
conclusions from nature. To the early Renaissance he was Truth
itself. These days he is respected for having pushed toward the
scientific method, though his conclusions are now overtaken by modern
Lucretius "On the Nature of Things". Penguin Books, 1961.
Often cited as the origin of the notion of atoms.
John Stuart Mill. "On Liberty". Bobbs-Merrill, 1958.
A clear statement of just how much a government may interfere with its
citizens' lives. See also my
Richard H. Popkin, Avrun Stroll. "Philosophy Made Simple" Doubleday,
Short, straightforward exposure to the key issues. If you are new to
the game, start here (or a modern equivalent).
Jean Jacques Rousseau. "The Social Contract" Willmoore Kendall,
translator. Henry Regnery Co, 1954.
This is the classic claim that governments are an agreement among
people -- who may break those contracts if the governments go awry.
Bertrand Russell. "The History of Western Philosophy". Simon &
Schuster, 1945. ISBN 0-671-20158-1.
An 800-page tome. Uneven in spots -- rumor has it some of the chapters
were done by Russell's grad students. An excellent one-stop-shopping
exposure to Western issues.