Table of Contents

Personal Context

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 my views.

Western Philosophy

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.

Eastern Philosophy

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 clearly.


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 politics.

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 leading questions.

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 research.


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 USA-Liberty


Richard H. Popkin, Avrun Stroll. "Philosophy Made Simple" Doubleday, 1956.

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.

Creator: Harry George
Updated/Created: 2008-01-15