Help me understand the way the world works!
April 13, 2011 4:46 PM   Subscribe

I follow politics and current events, especially international politics, fanatically. I know next to nothing about economic systems, philosophy (particularly political philosophy), sociology, and other basics of social science that could be useful when trying to make sense of the world, though. I would like to change this.

Some background: I recently came across a book called The Coming Insurrection, written by the "Invisible Committee." I'm reading it in bursts when I have a chance, and, while it's got a touch too much anarchism for my tastes, I'm intrigued by what I'm reading. I feel like I'm missing out on a lot of background material, though, which is where I'm hoping you will be able to help.

I would like to read much more political philosophy (is that what you would call this?) so that I may have not just reactionary opinions on politics, but a more developed worldview informed by our great modem thinkers.

Assume I know nothing about philosophy. I've taken a couple of intro-level courses in classical philosophy and ethics, but I'd like to start from square one, so I want to know exactly where I should start. Do I need to have read Plato's Cave to understand Marx? I'm assuming that Marx is an essential, but what do I need to understand before I try to tackle Marxism? Where do the seemingly innumerable forms of communism and socialism factor in? I've seen names like Deleuze and Foucault and Negri on MeFi before (and also while exploring the background of The Coming Insurrection), but I'm assuming I need to have a better foundation in philosophy before I'm able to tackle those texts.

I feel like I'm covering a lot of fields (economics, politics, sociology), but maybe there's even more! Based on a MetaFilter discussion from several months ago, I watched Adam Curtis's Century of the Self, and think that a lot of the content in the film, while not necessarily something I agreed with, was important in pushing me to learn more about human nature. But to understand that film, I felt like I needed a lot more background in Freudian theory than my psychology degree ended up providing me with.

So, MetaFilter, I think what I'm asking for is for you to help me build my reading list for the next several decades.
posted by dcheeno to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Some stuff for 'liberal' philosophy

Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes
Two Threatises of Government, John Locke
Reflections on the revolution in France Edmund Burke
The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith
The Social Contract Jean-Jacques Rousseau
A Theory of Justice, John Rawls
posted by the mad poster! at 4:53 PM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Start with Étienne Balibar's The Philosophy of Marx. That's the best place to get oriented enough that you'll know where else to go afterwards.
posted by RogerB at 4:57 PM on April 13, 2011

Economics-wise, I've gotta say that whether or not you agree with his conclusion, Gregory Clark's A Farewell To Alms was one of the most thought-provoking books I've read in a long long time. Every few pages I had a "Wait, I've got to think about this and go dig up some more background information" experience.
posted by straw at 5:06 PM on April 13, 2011

The Oxford Very Short Introductions series is usually a good place for an absolute beginner to start with questions like these. Among other things, they have intros to political philosophy, capitalism, and (coming this fall) global economic history, and each is supposed to feature working scholars giving informal tours of their topics using vivid anecdotes and imagery.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:10 PM on April 13, 2011

Do you want contemporary stuff or a more historical focus? If you're trying to get a background it may help to know what type of political philosophy you're looking for because its a big field and you could read at length and still not read everything.

Marx himself is actually a pretty clear writer, The Marx Engels Reader (its a red book, no pun intended) has a good selection and I would start with the Communist Manifesto or Capital.

If anything reading some Hegel would help but I don't think its necessary and could be very frustrating.

If you liked The Coming Insurrection you may like John Gray's Black Mass, which is quite readable and about the current situation or Giorgio Agamben's The Coming Community. Zizek isn't everyones cup of tea and he's not the best writer but First As Tragedy Then As Farce is interesting and quite contemporary.

I could talk about this stuff for a long time but I'll stop now.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 5:12 PM on April 13, 2011

Also came to recommend First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, with the caveat that it alternates between clear and enjoyable and dense and philosophy-heavy.

Also recommend Marx for Beginners, which is a comic adaptation of Marx's works with an attempt to gloss on the offhand references to philosophy that most folks haven't read.
posted by Jon_Evil at 5:21 PM on April 13, 2011

The whole ____ for Beginners serious is great! Their a really great way to pick up key terms and concepts. Plus like Jon_Evil said they have comics. Post-modernism for Beginners really helped me.

I'm actually writing an essay involving The Coming Insurrection - shouldn't be procrastinating.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 5:37 PM on April 13, 2011

As much as I dislike being too obvious, if you take the excellent reading list from the mad poster! at the beginning of this thread and carefully read through Wikipedia's interpretations, that might be a reasonable starter project. (I might add Alexis de Tocqueville's 'Democracy in America' to the list).

The whole ____ for Beginners serious is great!

Yes it is. It's for beginners, and it's great!

And pay attention to Adam Smith, he didn't invent Capitalism, he just described it, and he had some pretty interesting insights about it.
posted by ovvl at 6:25 PM on April 13, 2011

I can't help adding that the ___ for Beginners series and the Introducing ___ series fit a niche somewhere in the vicinity of a decent Wikipedia article and feature about the same degree of scholarly virtue and accuracy, which is to say some, but they're often far enough wrong as to be deeply misleading. I'm not dismissing the value of a decent Wikipedia article, though, warts and all [Edit on preview: and I agree with ovvl's recommendation to read some].

The VSI series is occasionally dry, and I might dispute matters of opinion and approach, but many are gems of interest even to experts. As an example, Marx: A Very Short Introduction is of interest in part simply because it is Peter Singer's introduction to Marx, though I would agree that Balibar's introduction is a more engaged, probably more useful overview of Marxism.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:32 PM on April 13, 2011

Black Skins, White Masks by Frantz Fanon

Discipline and Punish Michel Foucault

Eros and Civilization by Herbert Marcuse (You'll probably also need to read some Freud for this one since Marcuse goes into both Freudian and Marxist ideas)

The Elementary Forms of Social Life by Emile Durkheim

These cover the sociological aspects of your question better. I took a class last year covering a lot about "society". Feel free to MeMail me so I can send you the syllabi.
posted by astapasta24 at 6:35 PM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's the 'Beginners' series link although they now call it Introducing.
INTRODUCING is a series of graphic guides that covers every key thinker and topic in philosophy, psychology and science, and many others in politics, religion, cultural studies, linguistics and other areas. Each book is written by an expert in the field, and illustrated by a leading graphic artist. There’s no better or more enjoyable way to get your head around the biggest ideas mankind has ever come up with.
posted by Kerasia at 6:53 PM on April 13, 2011

It sounds like you are mainly interested in Continental political philosophy. One thing I have found is that it's hard to understand contemporary theorists without understanding the older stuff, and it's hard to know what's relevant today if you only study the older stuff. So I go back and forth, getting in over my head and then going back and studying theorists that the author is drawing from and relevant to those ideas. That way I have some contemporary context.

But you can't go wrong by starting with Marx. David Harvey has a series of video lectures: Reading Marx’s Capital.

More recently: Mouffe and Laclau's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics.

Hardt and Negri's Empire.

Verso has a series called Radical Thinkers - it's an easy way to see who is influential and important.
posted by AlsoMike at 7:39 PM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

If I were you, I would focus on trying to understand Keynes instead of Marx (just for now, though Marx certainly has interesting things to say), and as for Foucault and his ilk, read this article by Noam Chomsky, and then go out and read some more Chomsky stuff. To understand Keynes, read Paul Krugman's columns in the NYT and his old stuff at slate and follow his blog. He's a very clear writer and is very easy to follow, and if you choose to only take away one thing from this post please read this article he wrote in slate years ago which finally enabled me to wrap my head around monetary policy. Anyway, best of luck!
posted by bookman117 at 9:59 PM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

IMHO, the single most important book about politics is a tiny volume by an economist, The Logic of Collective Action. Easy to read with little or no math, too.
posted by walla at 10:07 PM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill is a personal favorite of mine. Tack that on the end of the mad poster!'s list. Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom pretty well articulates what Friedman and conservative economists believe the role of capitalism is in society.

Also, I don't necessarily think you need to read primary works by "great" philosophers in order to make more informed decisions. A lot of it is written in an academic and pretty inaccessible way (not all of it. As mentioned before, Marx is pretty readable, but no way I would have even began to comprehend anything Habermas has ever written without somebody holding my hand along the way). For example, as bookman117 said above, reading Paul Krugman (an avowed Keynesian) will probably give you a better idea of how the modern Keynesian views the world than reading Keynes himself.

And since you mentioned the possibility of other things, I would also suggest reading and learning some history as well. For instance, having a little knowledge of the Francophone Africa changes the whole tone of France's current involvement in Africa. Howard Zinn is also a great and very prolific political and history writer. The Zinn Reader is a great primer on his work.
posted by Geppp at 11:28 PM on April 13, 2011

Firstly, read and watch as much Chomsky as you can.

Looking back though, a really brilliant political-economic thinker from the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose work is often overlooked is Thorstein Veblen. I believe he was Einstein's favorite social theorist.
posted by moorooka at 12:52 AM on April 14, 2011

to follow up, if I had to pick just one book to prioritise it would be this one, no question. I read it when I was 18, and it was just like someone coming in and switching the light on.
posted by moorooka at 1:36 AM on April 14, 2011

yeah I forgot Mill's On Liberty, that goes quite nicely with the other works I mentioned. thanks ovvl & Geppp. Also you might be interested in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, similar arguments in a similar era to those I've listed.
posted by the mad poster! at 3:22 AM on April 14, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you everyone! All of these answers have been very helpful and have given me more to explore (which is exactly what I was looking for!). AlsoMike, thanks for throwing out the term Continental philosophy, because now that I know that's the category I'm looking at.

I think that if I were to rephrase my question, I would ask: Which concepts should I understand before I read Marx (and eventually Zizek (Zizek! Thanks, SpaceWarp13!), Deleuze, and Foucault)? What kind of foundation do I need? I have more than enough to go on from all of your suggestions.

I'll be taking a look at the books on the mad poster!'s list (and to the additions by ovvl and Geppp), as well as Chomsky for someone a bit more contemporary (thanks to everyone who suggested him). I'll also be stopping in at the library to grab a couple of those ___ for Beginners books and some of the books in the Oxford VSI series.
posted by dcheeno at 4:16 AM on April 14, 2011

If you really want to understand this stuff well, you do need a crash course in the history of philosophy. For example, Marx was self-consciously reacting to Hegel, who was inspired by Kant, who was provoked by Hume, who was part of the Scottish Enlightenment and its general reaction to Medieval philosophy and theology, etc.

More to the point, until the late nineteenth century, economics was political philosophy. Explicitly so. The Wealth of Nations is actually an abridged title; the full title is An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, and is mostly ethics with a bit of metaphysics. Smith wasn't really doing math at all--what math he does is hilariously bad--but rather writing a tract styled for the edification of a young ruler who wanted to improve his position. These kinds of tracts were pretty common in the early modern period. Machiavelli's The Prince is a leading example. The idea that economics was some kind of scientific discipline divorced from metaphysics or ethics really didn't emerge until relatively recently, and it's helped to obfuscate the most important parts of a number of significant economic thinkers. For example, Keynes thought he was primarily writing an ethical text. Modern economists tend to focus only on the math side of things, because that's what modern economics is, but there's a lot more going on than math.

So a lot of the books recommended above, while critical to an understanding of contemporary political philosophy,* will not necessarily help you understand contemporary political philosophy. We came from somewhere, and understanding how we got here is essential to understanding where exactly it is that we've gotten.

To that end, I'd start by reading Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder. It's an engaging crash course in the history of philosophy in narrative form. No primary texts though; for that I'd recommend investing in Forrest Baird's Philosophic Classics series. He does a pretty decent job of excerpting the important parts of philosophical primary texts and stringing them together in ways that show the flow of ideas. Over the course of the series, he goes from the pre-Socratics through the twentieth century.

Once you've done a lot of that, you can branch out into the history of economic thought. I highly recommend More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature's Economics by Phil Mirowski,** which is an amazing look at the way economic thought actually developed in the context and terms of its time. A lot of economists, when they do history, basically are looking for a narrative to justify their own positions. Mirowski tries to find out what historical economists actually thought they were doing, which winds up having nothing whatsoever to do with modern issues a lot of the time.

It's a project, but if you really want to get a handle on what's going on, I can't think of a better way to do it. You'll learn a whole ton about the history of Western thought along the way, which is no bad thing.

*Though I'm with MacIntyre here: "The situation is that there is no political situation. What you are observing is a collection of second-order responses to the fact that politics no longer exists."

*One of my professors in law school, actually.
posted by valkyryn at 5:12 AM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I second Sophie's World. It's written to a lower level reading audience, but if you can get over the writing style and just focus on the story of western philosophy presented therein it's quite handy.
posted by the mad poster! at 6:14 AM on April 14, 2011

As you can tell from the responses above there are a few different ways to approach this. At a certain point in my academic career* the approach that I was steered toward was to read the assigned texts 'as if they were poetry' and to not worry about getting every reference or knowing all the background and definitions of terms in advance. Just dive into the text that you are interested and passionate about and read intensely. Stew in it. Soak in it. Immerse yourself. Etc. Etc. To some folks, this is a laughably absurd approach, but it worked for me**. It may also work for you.

And, I think Deleuze and Guattari would be on board with this approach to most of their work so don't be intimidated, get comfortable with massive amounts of ambiguity in the beginning, chances are with some work it'll still be there later just in a different, more interesting and productive form.

Having said it worked for me is not to say that there weren't times where I wish someone had helped me establish a better foundation for my readings in continental philosophy. I probably could've used the advice to pay critical attention to the following three thinkers because they'll be important to what comes next: Freud, Nietzsche, Marx. And, I do feel like I would have gained more from most of the work that I encountered if I had been able to triangulate it against a better understanding of those three. You raised Marx in your question, but I would add to not neglect the other two as you build your foundation.

Sometimes a judicious pairing goes a long way, too. A good example of this would be to check out Nietzsche's Beyond Good & Evil and follow it up immediately with Foucault's Discipline and Punish. Mmmm....tastybooks.

In thinking about some more specifics you raise you may also want to get acquainted with structuralism given how much some of the people you are into have been considered post-structuralist.

Anyway, at the end of the day, if you're doing this for your personal enrichment and enjoyment I recommend a balance to your approach that favors diving in because you can overdo it on the foundation laying and all the "you have to read so and so before you can understand such and such" can detract you from getting to what you want to get to -- which reminds me even PhD's can tire of this (youtube, nsfw language).

* We also didn't have grades, majors or a defined sequence of courses -- it was that kind of school. (And I loved it).
** By worked for me I mean I was fairly well prepared for the graduate philosophy courses that came later and was able to connect up some of the thinking with my life beyond school, too. Though I would also be remiss if I didn't say that some of what you will read may not help you understand how the world works. :)

posted by safetyfork at 10:24 AM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

PS. If you haven't already seen it (Chomsky & Foucault -- excerpts from a debate): 1, 2.
posted by safetyfork at 10:41 AM on April 14, 2011

While a lot of this business is too much languishing for my taste, I find the pov presented in Manuel Castells' Information Age trilogy to be very relevant and thought provoking.
posted by okokok at 11:07 AM on April 14, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you everyone!
posted by dcheeno at 10:21 AM on April 16, 2011

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