I want to read your exciting and much loved philosophers!
May 27, 2009 10:33 AM   Subscribe

I need your suggestions for interesting, exciting and thought provoking philosophy for me to read this summer!

I am a history student who is going to be spending a month between June/July this year camping with friends in (mostly) Amsterdam, and I want to use this month of absolved responsibility and days of not much to do to finally delve into some philosophy. I have no experience or background in anything philosophy related, besides knowing the one line summaries of the enlightenment thinkers. However, I am not after an introduction or a philosophy 101; instead of starting in some kind of chronological order or having to read the classics I want to read the exciting philosophy that easily provokes you to just sit and ponder the ins and outs of life and the universe. Philosophy that would lead to interesting talking points with my friends on the trip would be a great bonus.

So let me know your tips, recommendations and favourite works that you think suits my criteria.

posted by tumples to Religion & Philosophy (38 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensees by Peter Kreeft
posted by jquinby at 10:36 AM on May 27, 2009

Read Wittgenstein. His notions on mind and language are fascinating, and as a bonus he even showed up Bertrand Russell, as detailed in this passage three-quarters of the way through the "Early Life" section:
Russell was, by this time, increasingly tired of philosophy and envisaged Wittgenstein as his successor who would carry on his work in the foundations of mathematics.[21] He was also frequently overpowered by the latter's forceful personality and criticisms. Faced with criticisms of his work by Wittgenstein, Russell wrote "I saw that he was right, and I saw that I could not hope ever again to do fundamental work in philosophy."
posted by invitapriore at 10:48 AM on May 27, 2009

The Threefold Cord by Hilary Putnam
posted by mattbucher at 10:52 AM on May 27, 2009

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Aphorisms and Waste Books

German physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and satirical writer, best-known for his aphorisms he collected in his notebooks (waste books). Lichtenberg has been admired by such writers and philosophers as Goethe, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, and Wittgenstein. Goethe once said: "We may use Lichtenberg's writings as the most wonderful dowsing rod: wherever he makes a joke, there a problem lies hidden." In his notebooks Lichtenberg examined unsystematically a wide variety of subjects, from society and philosophical questions to psychology and art and literature. Throughout his life Lichtenberg suffered from poor health, but he had hypochondriac tendencies, too.

"The greatest things in the world are brought about other things which we count as nothing: little causes we overlook but which at length accumulate." (from The Waste Books, trans. by R. J. Hollingdale)
posted by aquafortis at 11:00 AM on May 27, 2009

Contrary to popular belief, Wittgenstein is cryptic and dense, and not an ideal getting-your-feet-wet philosopher. A better choice would be the Very Short Introduction to Wittgenstein, which includes plenty of quotes to give you a feel for W's style but also shows you the serious defects in W's work.

Other books:

Baggini - What's It All About? (the meaning of life)

Nagel - What Does It All Mean? (10 or so essays on classic philosophical questions)

Blackburn - Being Good

McGinn - The Mysterious Flame (consciousness)

Nagel - Mortal Questions (particularly the essays on death, the absurd, sexual perversion, and what it's like to be a bat)
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:11 AM on May 27, 2009

Richard Dawkins - The God Delusion
posted by tdreyer at 11:12 AM on May 27, 2009

For a student of history, Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy is an excellent overview of most philosophical arguments in an historical context until the date of its publication. It's dense, but worth it.
posted by cmchap at 11:15 AM on May 27, 2009

Russell's history, like a lot of his other writing, is also very funny. (His The Problems of Philosophy is not so packed with dry wit, but is a short introductory book on the sorts of problems Russell found interesting).

Both are also accessible to someone with no prior knowledge, which is important. You're not going to get a lot out of many of the "great works" if you don't have a bit of background. I'd go for the first big name - Plato, and in particular the Socratic dialogues. Pretty well any of them will make you think about the big questions, and as they are generally written as dialogues with opponents they lead naturally to discussion.

Personally I also like Hobbes, but Leviathan is a big knotty book and most people don't find Hobbes as funny as I do. Locke's Second Treatise on Government is one of the foundational texts of western liberalism, and Rousseau's The Social Contract was also hugely influential.
posted by nja at 11:41 AM on May 27, 2009

Peter Singer's Practical Ethics is a readable introduction to his ethics -- which played a large part in helping change perceptions of animal rights. His arguments are compelling, and lead to strong conclusions about how we are obligated to act, particularly in regard to charity. The conclusions are usually also too onerous for most people, but they're hard to fight.

Simon Blackburn's Think is a good introduction to topics like free will and the mind.

Looking on my shelves, these are the two philosophy books I'd most recommend for a) needing no outside philosophy understanding and b) giving you topics for chat.
posted by fightorflight at 11:52 AM on May 27, 2009

Know what I think you should do? Read through some entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and use their bibliographies and so forth to pinpoint topics that interest you. This is an encyclopedia written by philosophers, meant for philosophers, so it's not like it's any dumbed-down introduction. It is, instead, a really great way to get up to speed with what the main issues on any given topic are and what to read to learn more about them.

The main reason I suggest this is that what's interesting for you is a far cry from what's interesting for someone else. And philosophy is such a wide area, and there are so many crevices and corners that you'll probably find fascinating but would never get mentioned as an answer to a vague question like this.

...But if that sounds like a lot of research, I can give you some advice on the type of stuff that I would think would be the most interesting:
The Philosophy of Horror, by Noel Carroll. What makes a horror film a horror film? What is a monster? How is it possible that we are terrified of these fictional entities, given that they are totally unreal? How do we like being terrified? These are the types of questions Carroll studies, and it's a downright fun read.
Philosophical Papers by J L Austin.. Or pretty much anything by Austin. I love Austin. He's interested in how words work, pretty much, and he uses the nature of language as the starting point to philosophizing in general. In this collection, you get his famous paper, "Other Minds," where he kind of solves The Problem of Other Minds, as well as "On Pretending," where he discusses that oft-ignored capacity of ours to pretend to be something that we're not (just think about it: isn't it a strange behavior to pretend?), and so forth.
On the Plurality of Worlds, by David Lewis. Dude.. This book is crazy. Totally crazy. It's basically a laying out of Lewisian Modal Realism, or the theory that possible worlds (like a world where I don't actually suggest this book) are real. Sure, I introduce it as a crazy idea, but it's some of the most brilliant philosophy of the 20th century. It's not an easy read, though, so be careful. I'm not too sure I should be suggesting it, really.

And, uh.. Well, I could suggest more, but I'm going to return to my original point: philosophy is huge, and there are so many better ways to find top-notch philosophy that will actually be fun for you than to ask a bunch of strangers what's fun for them (and it's my deep, earnest belief that philosophy should always be fun).
posted by Ms. Saint at 11:56 AM on May 27, 2009

Lots of good recommendations. Here's my two cents -

I too suggest Wittgenstein, especially the Philosophical Investigations. Arguably the greatest work in philosophy ever done. For some it is difficult, but its also incredibly engaging and entertaining.

Russell's Philosophical Problems is a classic and rather good intro...seconding his History of Western Philosophy. Its the only over view work worth reading really.

Seconding David Lewis' On the Plurality of Worlds.

Don't overlook some of the old classics. Spinoza's Ethics is incredible.

You might also consider starting with a philosophical topic. Are you interested mostly in metaphysics? Ethics? Aesthetics?
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:19 PM on May 27, 2009

Seconding Mortal Questions by Nagel (and especially the essay "What is it like to be a bat?", which it turns out is available online.

Also, while the editors are sometimes thought less of, I loved the book The Mind's I, which is a great collection of essays about identity, AI, perception, etc. Some of the essays contain more technical language, but all are accessible, and just one of them would easily lead to hours of conversation.
posted by Gorgik at 12:26 PM on May 27, 2009

Sophie's World is a great book. It's a fiction novel wrapped around a philosophy primer. I know you weren't looking for anything textbook-y, but I think the novel and it's context really helps the higher level thinking you were looking for.
posted by CPAGirl at 1:00 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

These two books will give you a good (and lightweight!) introduction to Taoism, one of the few non-dualist approaches out there and a decidedly non-Western viewpoint:

"Chuang-Tzu" (abridged) by Thomas Merton,
"Tao: The Watercourse Way" by Alan Watts.

Bonus: Taoist thought is often funny, and rarely wordy.
posted by msalt at 1:08 PM on May 27, 2009

2nding Sophie's World. It hits on all of the big philosophical thinkers from Plato (I think) on and will probably give you a good idea of what kind of philosophy you'd like to delve into further.
posted by pised at 1:13 PM on May 27, 2009

The Discovery of Heaven, by Harry Mulisch, is a Dutch philosophical novel that was recommended to me when I lived in Amsterdam. Very thought-provoking.
posted by martens at 1:40 PM on May 27, 2009

If you just want something enjoyable to read, Nietzsche is wonderful. The Gay Science in particular is easy to read, full of ideas, layers of meaning, and just great imagery.

I like Hobbes, too, a really witty writer in a lot of ways, though he does get kind of systematic and might not be as fun for someone just starting out, though it depends on your personality. Augustine's Confessions are also an autobiography, so that's enjoyable, and there's a lot of musing about the nature of time, etc - obviously a lot about God, too, but you don't have to believe it - as a historical text it's pretty interesting. Rousseau is another good writer; Emerson's essays are beautiful, though people debate whether he's really a philosopher (but Nietzsche thought he was, so, that's something)...

A lot really depends on your temperament and level of interest. I would go browse the philosophy section of a bookstore and get a sense of what you like. Some texts I loved years ago I can't get that excited about now, and some texts I once eschewed I now find interesting, so a lot has to do with mood and just where you are in you life. You may want to figure out if you're looking for ethics or philosophy of knowledge type stuff, and if you're looking for philosophers who provide arguments or those who explore ideas. That will make a difference in whether you prefer Peter Singer or Kierkegaard...

If you just want "idea" books, not necessarily philosophy, you could look up Julian Jaynes - a bit out there but definitely "exciting".
posted by mdn at 1:47 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed John Searle's Mind: A Brief Introduction. It's shortish, written at an introductory levele, and hits a lot of high points and standard conundrums from Philosophy of Mind and philosophy in general. It's definitely written to promote Searle's agenda (rather than being an impartial introduction), but includes much fodder for discussion.
posted by nangua at 2:10 PM on May 27, 2009

Ray Monk's bio of Wittgenstein The Duty of Genius is a good read.
posted by carter at 2:14 PM on May 27, 2009

I do not recommend Wittgenstein (obscure), Kreeft (a conservative religious evangelical more than a philosopher), or Russell's History (often inaccurate).

I do recommend Nietzsche (The Gay Science), Lichtenberg (if you like aphorisms), and Thomas Nagel.

A bit dry I guess, but I say the collection of dialogues "The Last Days of Socrates" (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo) is the best introduction to philosophy and has some drama.
posted by goethean at 2:39 PM on May 27, 2009

Don't read my Philosophical Investigations. Read On certainty, which I think is more accessible.
posted by wittgenstein at 2:40 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

The God Delusion doesn't really qualify as great philosophy, IMO. And Russell's book (which is excellent) and Sophie's Choice are sort of like Philosophy 101 texts, which the OP wants to avoid.

You know what I would recommend? Godel, Escher, Bach. This is a very fun book and will have you up at night pondering the mysteries of the universe.

Another must read that is very fun, light, but also a head scratcher at times is Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

It would also be nice to know what subjects you're interested in. Epistomology? Apologetics? Philosophy of Science?
posted by crapples at 2:48 PM on May 27, 2009

I'd go with Will Durant's Story of Philosophy. It is a good overview and he is a great writer.
posted by Busmick at 2:49 PM on May 27, 2009

Sorry, I just realized you didnt want any introductions but it might not hurt to have one handy ant least for some background info and this one is very readable.
posted by Busmick at 3:04 PM on May 27, 2009

This may have been mentioned, but you might enjoy Nietsche's Genealogy of Morality. You'll find the writing style unique, often confusing, many times hilarious, and very entertaining, and the subject matter may appeal to you as a historian.
posted by jhighmore at 3:04 PM on May 27, 2009

Try Mary Midgley. She's still alive (though very old), her books are very accessibly written and often quite funny, and she is extremely provocative. I would recommend in particular either "Myths We Live By" (2003) or "Science and Poetry" (2001). Both are published by Routledge, although the font size in the pb version of the latter book is for some reason frustratingly small.
posted by ornate insect at 3:14 PM on May 27, 2009

For exciting philosophy, you can do no better than Nietzsche. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is readable without an extensive background in philosophy, will stir every emotion, will provoke endless thought, and is simply a great piece of literature (though I'd be wary of the Thomas Common translation). The Gay Science, as mdn mentioned, is excellent, but I think I would recommend The Genealogy of Morals even above The Gay Science for its combination of excitement and depth of material.

Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary is a real trip, but it largely deals with issues of religion and tolerance, so caveat lector.

I'm also tempted to suggest Schopenhauer, but he really can't be read well without strong familiarity with Kant's philosophy. But then, Kant's Groundwork is probably one of the most exciting books on moral theory ever written.

I would not generally recommend Wittgenstein for excitement, unless you have a particular interest in philosophy of language (or, less likely, in so-called "analytic" philosophy) - his Tractatus is a quick read, and may be exciting to the extent that it is bold, forceful, and abstruse, but the only thing exciting about his Philosophical Investigations is how strongly it rejects his own Tractatus. Of course, Wittgenstein is still eminently readable; the same cannot be said for David Lewis. Ms. Saint was right to call him "crazy" - ideas like his plurality of worlds as an explication of modal statements (if I may steal a phrase from Schopenhauer) "[a]s a serious conviction, ... could be found only in a madhouse; as such it would then need not so much a refutation as a cure".
posted by dilettanti at 3:21 PM on May 27, 2009

Fuzzy Thinking by Bart Kosko is a great read.
posted by Flood at 5:46 PM on May 27, 2009

I want to read the exciting philosophy that easily provokes you to just sit and ponder the ins and outs of life and the universe. Philosophy that would lead to interesting talking points with my friends on the trip would be a great bonus.

Two books that have that provoking function for me whenever I return to them, and also make for good discussions with people who haven't read them, both things in part because of the books' non-systematic presentation -- the modularity of their intellectual-structural units -- are Adorno's Minima Moralia and Kafka's Zurau Aphorisms. The Kafka, as its title suggests, is a straight-up book of aphorisms, with some interesting ones about morality in particular. The Adorno is mostly brief essays, written in a forceful, condensed, elegant style, reflecting upon various aspects of (modern) life. For example.

Contrary to popular belief, Wittgenstein is cryptic and dense, and not an ideal getting-your-feet-wet philosopher.

I haven't read him myself, but I remember really enjoying browsing through a book of selections from his journals in spite of my near-total ignorance of his philosophy. My favorite quote: "Courage is always original." Another good one: "A confession must begin your new life." I think that book had a red cover, but I don't remember its title.
posted by Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh at 6:39 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

The book Mummy is talking about is my book Culture and Value, which is a collection of assorted thoughts from my journals.
posted by wittgenstein at 7:20 PM on May 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Stanley Cavell's first book, Must We Mean What We Say, is philosophically rewarding on many levels. I'd jump in on the Beckett essay, or the Lear one, then go from there to some of the more conventionally philosophical ones. Highly, highly recommended. Wonderful style, far-ranging interests, and, once more for emphasis, engaging to the neophyte as well as those more deeply steeped in his obvious precursors (Wittgenstein, Kant, Austin, a little Hume, a little Hegel)—and I should know, since I've been through it on both sides of a philosophical education.
posted by felix grundy at 8:15 PM on May 27, 2009

I was in that situation many years ago, and, though many would disagree, Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus completely rocked my world, changed my life, etc., etc.

I knew very little about philosophy, but I have a hard time imagining a more "exciting" book in the field, especially for a newcomer who's not interested in starting from point A in the tradition.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:59 AM on May 29, 2009

Nthing Sophie's World.

Also Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It is really a beautiful book and made me feel so much more optimistic about life.
posted by lolichka at 4:17 AM on May 29, 2009

Also Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It is really a beautiful book and made me feel so much more optimistic about life.

FYI, you can read it online for free: http://www.virtualschool.edu/mon/Quality/PirsigZen/index.html
posted by mattbucher at 9:39 AM on May 29, 2009

I want to read the exciting philosophy that easily provokes you to just sit and ponder the ins and outs of life and the universe.

I'm afraid your expectations too high. Don't get me wrong, philosophy is thrilling; but that kind of experience usually results from the rare match-up of a book that is right at your level. Rather than thrilled, you are more liked to be stretched like hell upon your initial foray into philosophy. Even though you don't want to read Philosophy 101, I would recommend that you start off with exactly that--a solid, reputable, unbiased introduction/overview to give you the skill set/mental framework to digest the primary works. For that I would recommend Ed. L Miller's Questions that Matter. Anything by Mortimer Adler is great as well. I highly recommend Ten Philosophical Mistakes. And you can never go wrong with a sympathetic overview of Plato and/or Aristotle.
posted by keith0718 at 11:55 AM on May 31, 2009

I should have mentioned the classic, History of Philosophy, by Fr. Frederick Copleston, S.J. From Wikipedia: "Copleston's Roman Catholic (Thomist) point of view is never hidden. All the same, it seems generally accepted that Copleston's treatment is fair and complete, even for philosophical positions that he does not support. Copleston's work has arguably come to represent the finest and most complete summary of Western philosophy now available."
posted by keith0718 at 2:04 PM on May 31, 2009

I just picked up a book at a used bookstore that made me want to add one more book to my comment:

Confessions of a Philosopher, by Bryan Magee. He introduces you to a lot of philosophical questions, but it's not a dry primer -- the whole thing is based on anecdotes from his own life that caused him to start thinking about these questions. (It's in chronological order starting from when he was 5.) So you can be assured that if he's discussing a problem, he's not doing so out of a sense of academic duty, but because it actually mattered to him on a personal level. It's extremely accessible and engaging, seems perfect for you.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:00 PM on June 3, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for great answers guys! I will be sure to grab the best sounding ones from this list and give them a try.

posted by tumples at 2:10 PM on June 4, 2009

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