crash course in modern philosophy
October 31, 2005 2:01 PM   Subscribe

Suppose I wanted to get a grasp of modern philosophy. What books should I read?

I'm especially interested in ethics, and the evolution of ethical thought through history, as well as modern popular philosophies like utilitarian ethics, critical rationalism, post-modernism (and modernism, I guess). So, what books should I get to learn more about this stuff?
posted by delmoi to Religion & Philosophy (36 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I found Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to be a good start, not having a philosophy background myself. That and Voltaire's Bastards.
posted by loquax at 2:19 PM on October 31, 2005

Best answer: i've seen pojman sold as two separate volumes; if you bought the more modern volume you'd have excerpts from the more recent classics. it'll have something from mills, or rawls, say, but i doubt it has anything pomo.

the oxford readers are pretty good, in my opinion, but i've not read the ethics one and it's pretty thoroughly trashed on amazon (and the omission of the catgeorical imperative seems like a rather reasonable criticism).

do you want a collection of relevant papers, or an introduction written by one person? introductions are "easier", and give a better overview, but they can be a bit boring, imho.
posted by andrew cooke at 2:26 PM on October 31, 2005

Best answer: WRT ethics and utilitarianism, I'd start with Hume. He also discusses epistemology/ontology (the nature of knowledge, and the nature of reality) as a bonus.

Fairly easy to read as he's trying to convince you through examples and thought experiments.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 2:28 PM on October 31, 2005

Go for Barthes' Mythologies. It will wet your whistle for Theory-with-a-capital-T.
posted by allen.spaulding at 2:30 PM on October 31, 2005

I bookmarked Squashed Philosophers a while back. Probably a good place to start to see what you like.
posted by any major dude at 2:39 PM on October 31, 2005 [1 favorite]

Because I think it's important to read multiple perspectives on things, including those you may disagree with, I picked up a copy of Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand.

I don't agree with a lot of what she says, but frankly, I think she's really misinterpreted by her uber conservatives fanboys as well as her strongest "haters" - though my only exposure to her writing is Atlas Shrugged, so I could be off base there.

Still - I think it was an interesting read, and it's more of a really (reaaally) long Novel than a philosophy book.

I'm not sure what you consider "modern" -- are you looking for the most recent decade or two, or does Nietzche count as modern? If he does - you should definitely read Thus Spoke Zarathustra. While I haven't read 'em yet - I've heard great things about the "Zen and the Art" books, so I'll second that recommendation by proxy.
posted by twiggy at 2:44 PM on October 31, 2005

You might want to check out the Introducing... (Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Derida) series, Totem Books USA. They are in comic book form, give an overview that references primary sources, and can be a quick jumping off point.

If you already know the particular subject, you may have some issues with it, but if not they can help you find where to look if you are interested.

Yes, I said comic book form, stop snickering.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:48 PM on October 31, 2005

Best answer: The Rationalists and The Empiricists. These are a good intro to Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Berkeley, Locke, and Hume.
posted by horsewithnoname at 3:01 PM on October 31, 2005

There's always the book used for the Modern Philosophy course I took a couple of months ago: Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources. It's got stuff from (and relating to) Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant. There's a short "editor's note" bit in front of some of the works, to give an overview of the philosopher and the work.
posted by Godbert at 3:03 PM on October 31, 2005

Best answer: History Of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell is the best overview of philosophy I've ever read. It's readable, complete, and it's written by someone who really knows his stuff. Lot's of interesting history in there too.
posted by crapples at 3:08 PM on October 31, 2005

A survey of misfits and outsiders viewed from a philosophical viewpoint can be found in Colin Wilson's classic, The Outsiders. Actually, the entire so-called "Outsider cycle" of books are excellent.

A good introductory site to Colin Wilson.

posted by Independent Scholarship at 3:18 PM on October 31, 2005

history of western philosophy is a great book (crapples, above), but rather idiosyncratic. it also goes way back, and doesn't cover the last 50 years (ish; i guess it stops around the logical positivists and russel's own work in maths). it would be a good companion to reading pojman, complete, but there must be better books on modern ethics.

looking at the description of godbert's link, it seems to focus mainly on the big names, and they may not be as "modern" as you expect (ie they're called modern because they're not ancient greeks) - again you should be able to find something better for just ethics, particularly for recent work.

i'm surprised at the generality of the posts. normally philosophy questions here find someone who can give good, specific recommendations.
posted by andrew cooke at 3:26 PM on October 31, 2005

We used the Elements of Moral Philosophy by James Rachels in my intro to ethics course. I believe this is the standard undergrad text for ethics - it provides very clear, concise descriptions of the basics (egoism, utilitarianism, the categorical imperative, etc). I don't recall it providing much in terms of history or even going into the specifics of what philosopher wrote what, but as someone who came to this material very fresh I found it extremely helpful.
posted by mullacc at 3:59 PM on October 31, 2005

Response by poster: history of western philosophy is a great book (crapples, above), but rather idiosyncratic. it also goes way back, and doesn't cover the last 50 years (ish; i guess it stops around the logical positivists and russel's own work in maths).

Well, it was written in 1945 so I would imagine that to be the case :)

I've seen pojman sold as two separate volumes; if you bought the more modern volume you'd have excerpts from the more recent classics.
There's always the book used for the Modern Philosophy course I took a couple of months ago: Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources.

It seems like these two books would cover a lot of the same territory... Anyone know which book might be better? The Pojman book seems like it might be more complete (acouple hundred more pages, anyway)

Because I think it's important to read multiple perspectives on things, including those you may disagree with, I picked up a copy of Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand.

Ugh, no.

Anyway, keep 'em comming.
posted by delmoi at 4:09 PM on October 31, 2005

The introductory ethics course I took used George Sher's Moral Philosophy. It's a collection of essays by a variety of big-name philosophers, along with a couple paragraphs of editorial contextualization before each essay.

Working your way through it, consulting a Dictionary of Philosophy or online encyclopedia as necessary, should give a great introduction to ethics.
posted by gorillawarfare at 4:37 PM on October 31, 2005

The "history of ethics" requirement makes things a little hard, since your book list would go back a few thousand years.

If I had to suggest a quick overview course in the history of philosophy in general, so you'd have something to build on, I'd say read Coplestone and then read original works from figures that interest you or seem important. It's nine paperbacks, but you can still cherry-pick your favorites or skim through them pretty smoothly. Or just jump through to the moderns - but he died in the 70's so there's nothing more modern than Sartre in there. But you'd still get the history part down. Also, you'd get a taste of the sometimes incomprehensible language used by philosophers.

He was a Jesuit, so he's not quite on the side of the truly postmodern, but neither is he flatly biased against non-religious philosophies & ethical systems. And hey, he debated the existence of God with Bertrand Russell on BBCTV.
posted by bartleby at 4:44 PM on October 31, 2005

VSI to Philosophy, Ancient Philosophy, and Political Philosophy are worth a look. The series also goes into specific philosophers and schools of thought, so you can find what you like without spending lots of time on areas that you may not find interesting at all.
posted by tetsuo at 4:51 PM on October 31, 2005

And after noticing the word modern and the MI:
Ethics and Postmodernism.
posted by tetsuo at 4:56 PM on October 31, 2005

Philosophy for Beginners

posted by scarabic at 5:27 PM on October 31, 2005

Don't forget a nod to Sartre and existentialism. Personally, I've as much appreciation for existentialistism as Jesus had for moneychangers, but a copy of Being and Nothingness and a beret worn at a rakish angle are still a good Saturday afternoon costume for hanging out in artsy coffee houses.

That editorial opinion voiced, serious people tell me that existentialists are the center of postmodernist philosophy, and the anchor of Western culture since 1945. YMMV, or you may decided to take another bus.
posted by paulsc at 5:46 PM on October 31, 2005

which book might be better?

my impression (from the review on the page godbert links to; amazon has no more details) is that pojman has smaller chunks from more people and goes much further back (pojman takes nearly 500 pages before getting to descartes). so for modern coverage, godbert's suggestion looks better. and it claims to include an abridgement of kant's critique of pure reason, which is probably also good from an ethics point of view (although it must be very - my copy is nearly 700 pages long - abridged).
posted by andrew cooke at 6:12 PM on October 31, 2005

ps you might find a suitable article here. or ask your question here.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:23 PM on October 31, 2005

Try Philosophy for Beginners, which is sort of a graphic novel. The amazon link I'm using has some interior pages posted.
posted by thecjm at 6:37 PM on October 31, 2005

i just finished reading Peter Singer's Unsanctifying Human Life. The man takes utilitarian ethics to whole new levels, and the book has a bit of background concerning the ethical context in which he was formulating his more heretical stances. He draws some disturbing conclusions, but they're disturbing because they make you question your inituitions pretty strongly.

If you're reading contemporary ethical philosophy, you really should read Singer.
posted by dkg at 7:22 PM on October 31, 2005

How would contemporary ethical philosophy differ from that of Hume's day or Plato's? Wouldn't the ethical stands involved be rather similar but differ in their particular examples and wordings? Take for example "A 'leader' who thinks God talks to him and acts through him conquers and exploits other countries, reduces many workers to poverty and many poor people to slavery while making sure his buddies benefit materially, devotes much of the loot to a military budget in order to conquer more places and do the same there; how should an individual and/or Society as a whole view such a thing and what if anything should be done?": are we talking about Ashurbanipal, Alexander, Genghiz Khan or G.W. Bush?

(It's not like I can swear I know the answer, just that I think I've intuited the basics; of course I might be talking out my ass again.)
posted by davy at 7:55 PM on October 31, 2005

davy - i think you're confusing ethical problems and responses. your example argues that the same ethical problems occur throughout history. but that's not the same as saying that people would have made the same judgements about them in plato's, hume's, or our own time.

indeed, that's not true - opinions have changed a lot. in very broad terms: plato felt that a strong state, where everyone minded their own business and followed a virtuous, conquering leader, was a good thing; hume, in contrast, felt that moral decisions were largely personal - you might object to george w bush, but if he himself sincerely believes he is doing the right thing, then who are you to criticise him?; kant, to throw in a final example, was the person who popularised up the idea that we should do to others as we would have done to ourselves.

remember that we have the advantage of hindsight. to us, all three of those stances are familiar. but plato, for example, had not heard hume's arguments that cast doubt on a lot of things that had previously been considered certain. so while we can choose from any of the responses i outlined, plato could not.

so ethical respones do change through time, even if (some) ethical problems do not. there's no reason to think that contemporary ethical philosophy will not be different again (go look at the peter singer links just above!).

(apologies that this is rather clunky, i'm not that interested in ethics...)
posted by andrew cooke at 8:58 PM on October 31, 2005

Sophie's World is a decent novel that blends the history of philosophy with a novel. I skipped over most of the plot, a weird meta narrative. But the philosophy content is written in a very easy to read and understand question and answer format.

It does stop at Satre and has big omissions like Mills and Wittgenstein, but the fact that you can read it in a day makes it worthwhile.
posted by afu at 10:59 PM on October 31, 2005

I really enjoyed this simple little book:

The Philosophy Gym

It's written by philosopher Stephen Law. He introduces several classic problems and thought-processes in bite-size chunks. Each of the 25 chapters is 2 to 4 pages long, and deals with a separate problem. Examples include (I'm paraphrasing here) "Can you have morality without religion?", "Is it right to eat meat?", "Where did the universe come from?", "Is homosexuality acceptable?" etc etc. The chapters are often framed as debates between two characters, and Law "interjects" to illustrate the nub of the point each is making, their thinking and its historical precedents, as well as some of the flaws.

Law says that he deliberately doesn't reach any "conclusions" in these debates, and leaves them open for the reader to think about. In truth, he makes his views perfectly clear in about 20% of them. However, he does a very good job of presenting the opposing viewpoints.

It's an excellent lay-persons introduction, although it is very simple. Don't bother reading this if you're after lengthy, historical detail on the history of philosophy. Do read it if you want an easily-digested introduction to "practical" philosophy. It certainly clarified a few things for me.
posted by ajp at 3:49 AM on November 1, 2005

Would you consider an Audiobook? The Great Ideas of Philosophy is wonderful, 60 lectures covering the entire field in a very accessible and likeable style, Professor Robinson knows his stuff and is a truly great teacher. Although not very hard to find, the lectures are now downloadable directly from The Teaching Company and well worth it.
posted by grahamwell at 7:10 AM on November 1, 2005

can i add, to all these excellent recommendations, that a philosophy book, in fact no book, exists "on its own", that is to say objectively. i'm going to be harangued by some of the positivists here, but every book is written with some sort of agenda, and therefore omits or highlights what the author felt was more "relevant" to what they perceive of as philosophy. a straussian/neoliberal scholar (bloom, etc) would highlight plato, the classics (ie hegel, etc) as being "vital" whereas a contemporary feminist philosopher, or say critical theorist, would dismiss them as being dated, denying agency, or advocating, it could be reasoned, extremism (hegel>weber>heidegger>yay fascism!). therefore all i am trying to say, read with a grain of salt. much like politics, there is no "one" philosophy. read a lot, and come to your thoughts about it.
posted by yonation at 7:29 AM on November 1, 2005

By including Plato and Hume, who differed greatly, I meant to acknowledge that typical responses differ over time -- and even in Plato's Athens there were philosophers who disagreed with him. But the problems themselves don't differ much. Details will vary, but when it comes down to it there are only so many ways one can fuck somebody over: I can beat/torture you, rape you, enslave you, harm your loved ones, steal from you, humiliate you and/or kill you. So the task of ethical philosophy is either to convince me I should not treat you like that -- or condition you to like it.
posted by davy at 7:18 PM on November 1, 2005

Does the Center Hold? and Looking at Philosophy (both by Donald Palmer) are easy-to-digest recaps of the past few millenia of Western Philosophical Thought. Plus, pictures!
posted by Eideteker at 7:24 PM on November 1, 2005

It just struck me that in the last sentence of my last comment I did not much separate "theory" from "practice".
posted by davy at 7:31 PM on November 1, 2005

I second The Philosophy Gym mentioned above.
posted by DeeJayK at 12:25 PM on November 2, 2005

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