Philosophy for Dummies
August 20, 2022 10:49 PM   Subscribe

For no real reason other than simple curiosity, I'm wanting to learn more about philosophy. Well, not philosophy ~*~in general~*~ but I want to get a better handle on different philosophers. There are always certain philosophers that when mentioned, I have no idea what they argued, stated, etc. What's a good "general" introduction to different philosophers and their ideas?

I would say that I'm pretty well educated, but I've never formally taken a philosophy class (I don't know the idea just bored me as a university student). There are philosophers that I probably know an "adequate" knowledge about but they're mostly limited to the areas I studied in university, so I'm relatively familiar with Plato/Aristotle, Hegel, Locke, Rousseau, Karl Popper, etc. BUT there are so many well-known philosophers that when I see their names mentioned, I really just think "hmm.. ok... " and make a mental note that I should learn more about them, but I never follow up. A few that I probably wouldn't be able to tell you much about if I was under duress include: Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, Spinoza, Goethe, but the list could go on!!

I don't feel stupid for not knowing much about them and their ideas, but it's just an area I never studied and now I want to know more. I don't really know where to start!

I do know that I *do not* want any book, podcast, documentary, etc. that talks down their audience. Philosophy videos like this make me cringe!!! I don't want anything too dumbed down.

I came across the book The History of Philosophy by A.C. Grayling recently and flipped through it, but I'm not sure... it also seemed too exhaustive?

I guess I'm not too sure how I specifically want to learn more, but I'm just not sure where to start! There seems to be a lot of entry points.
posted by VirginiaPlain to Religion & Philosophy (25 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Sorry, that should be: "There are philosophers that I probably have an "adequate" amount of knowledge about"**
posted by VirginiaPlain at 10:52 PM on August 20, 2022

Sophie's World

I read it in high school. While I don't specifically remember it, I do recall that I had fun reading it and learned just enough about a whole lot of philosophy to not feel like a complete jackass in my college courses later when a philosopher or school of thought was casually mentioned during an unrelated lecture. Philosophy isn't something I've ever been particularly interested in, but it's nice to have a foundation, and Sophie's World was extremely digestible.
posted by phunniemee at 11:11 PM on August 20, 2022 [12 favorites]

It seemed like every philosophy class I took in university would reference the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. They have high standards for their articles.

So if you ever have a topic and you're wondering what the western philosophy back-and-forth positions are, the SEP would be a great place to start.
posted by aniola at 11:48 PM on August 20, 2022 [10 favorites]

My entrypoint into understanding the western canon is via history (and naturally because of geopolitical developments, this will include the muslim world which then quite elegantly brings me to interactions along the silk road cultures so that really leaves out indigenous north american and australasia ones mainly). So I highly recommend the podcast History of Philosophy (Without any gaps). I know, i know! But he has a couple of books out too but if you need a taster, there you go.
posted by cendawanita at 12:59 AM on August 21, 2022

The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell has been the standard pretty much since it came out in 1945, although it necessarily only goes up to pre-WW2.

This means it misses out people like Wittgenstein (probably the most important philosopher of the 20th century) and the French structural/post-structural philosophy of the mid-late century. But if you want to know the position of the famous Western philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Rousseau, Hobbs, Locke, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Berkeley, Kant, etc, in an accessible way, written by one of the great thinkers of the 20th century who is a notable philosopher and mathematician in his own right, this is the book to read.
posted by underclocked at 1:03 AM on August 21, 2022 [4 favorites]

You have enough background that I'd agree with just using the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy for overviews. Also, I get that everyone uses overviews, but it's also not wrong to read some of this stuff a bit like poetry until it sticks that way too.

For Kierkegaard, IMO his stuff alternates between being way too much fun to miss by reading a summary and way too belabored for a non-specialist to worry about even in summary. Fear and Trembling is reasonably central, just ~100 pages, self-contained, and sometimes literary. His journals can be beautiful and wild, and the one-volume but still very long Penguin Classics selections from his papers/journals allows you to jump around from one short, readable entry to another for a wider perspective. If you go further, you kind of want to know his biography anyway.

And for Wittgenstein, my graduate advisor (a linguistic anthropologist) was like, "Just read Philosophical Investigations. It's fairly straightforward, and you probably don't need anything else."
posted by Wobbuffet at 1:14 AM on August 21, 2022 [3 favorites]

So for background, I studied philosophy at A-level where I learned much of the canon, I have a BA which expanded on that a lot and also included specific topics in depth like formal logic, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, etc. and I have a humanities masters degree that allowed me to study things I hadn't previously explored like semiotics, post-structuralism, and phenomenology.

Seconding the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Betrand Russell book mentioned above as being great references that are worth consulting.

Now beyond that, here's a few thoughts that might help you navigate this domain.

Firstly, you are right to run a mile from the "School of Life" type stuff. I would class that as "pop-philosophy", and it isn't just problematic for oversimplifying but because it carries with it a particular political leaning that isn't always apparent. At best it will be there to prop up liberal establishment values, at worst it operates as Prager U style right wing propaganda.

AC Grayling is an interesting example here because he wears two hats, as both an academic, and pop-philosopher / cultural commentator. He was one of my professors at university and absolutely an authority on Kant for example. But politically, he is an enthusiastic reformist liberal - so if you're reading his pop-philosophy, the challenge for you in reading him is to work out when he's giving you "just the facts" so to speak and when he's advocating for his political agenda.

So are you safer engaging with academic philosophy? Not really. There is definitely a way in which right wing thinking can be presented as purely logical, apolitical theory, and left wing thinking is framed as illogical, unjustified, unphilosophical, etc.

That said, in terms of what to actually get stuck into, academic lectures on youtube are great. A good sign is if they cover some of the "continental school" (the critical theorists, post-structuralists, etc) alongside the traditional canon and give them a fair hearing.

What I like to do is attempt to discover and acknowledge the biases in the lecture - so I watch a lecture about someone I already know, e.g. Kant, as a baseline, then watch the same person lecture about someone new I want to know about, e.g. Kierkegaard. I'd recommend that baselining approach as a technique.

The Michael Sugrue channel on youtube is a great example of an accessible academic lecture series. This is the sort of thing I'd recommend exploring, with the provisos above.
posted by iivix at 1:57 AM on August 21, 2022 [4 favorites]

Now that I am Old™, and starting to glimpse shadows cast by the many broad horizons of knowledge that will be forever beyond me, I can give you only one piece of advice. Be constantly aware of the cultural paradigm your philosophical text is written to serve; question the text for suppressed voices and what they might say and understand in your bones that unique valuable philosophical knowledge exists in cultures who do not subscribe to western ontological modes.

In other words, be aware that if your study of philosophy is limited to Eurocentric ways of knowing, it will be narrow (western culture only), shallow (last 2600 years), and hollow (no First Nations perspectives). If nothing else, ensure you read as many texts written by women as by men.
posted by Thella at 2:24 AM on August 21, 2022 [19 favorites]

In additional to the Stanford reference, the series of "History of Philosophy" books written by Copleston are accessible. Find them at libraries or on eBay.
posted by yclipse at 3:44 AM on August 21, 2022

While Stanford Encyclopaedia of philosophy is probably as good as it gets in terms of quick reference, it is a complete waste of time to read ‘about’ philosophers and philosophical schools. I would compare it to reading about composers instead of listening to music. All texts about philosophy are useless, unless it is a book by one philosopher about another. So, for instance, Gilles Deleuze (French philosopher) wrote great books about Kant, Spinoza, Nietzsche and Hume - these are excellent, but more as a way of learning about Deleuze’s take on these philosophers.
Instead of reading about, pick one of the original or translated texts and start reading, most good editions will have an introduction that will place the text in a cultural context which will be a great help.
It is not true that philosophy is difficult to understand, it is only difficult if you don’t know what is the question or problem that this book is attempting to answer or elucidate. But no book makes sense without understanding the underpinning questions. For instance, Orwell’s “1984” is understandable because we know that Orwell was concerned with questions of totalitarianism, language, freedom, etc. without this knowledge this book would be completely opaque to us. Similarly, once you know what Kant was concerned with, or Wittgenstein, or Marx, their works become quite easy to understand. So my suggestion would be to read go to the horse’s mouth rather than waste time on interpretations.
posted by slimeline at 3:51 AM on August 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

To extrapolate one step from what slimline wrote, you own background and opinions make some philosophers easier to understand than others. For example, as a math major, I had an easy time with Pascal, but Sartre was opaque. I don't think I ever understood a sentence of Sartre.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:57 AM on August 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant.
posted by mdrosen at 5:18 AM on August 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

For a lighter introduction into moral philosophy than the books already mentioned, Michael Schur (of The Good Place, The Office, Parks and Rec, etc.) released a book this year called How to be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question, which he wrote alongside a few philosophy professors and which details all of the different life philosophies he had to study to write The Good Place. Funny + informative.
posted by matrixclown at 5:37 AM on August 21, 2022 [4 favorites]

Nigel Warburton's A Little History of Philosophy is a good outline. There's also an audiobook.
posted by zadcat at 5:39 AM on August 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Maybe this seems obvious but Wikipedia is exactly what you want. It doesn't talk down to you but you don't have to read hundreds of pages. Check out the entries on the pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, or jump forward to Kant, Nietzsche, Sartre. Or cut to the chase and go directly to the Philosophy page.
posted by mono blanco at 6:36 AM on August 21, 2022

I have found the Philosophize This podcast to be a very thorough and entertaining guide to major philosophers.
posted by barnoley at 6:51 AM on August 21, 2022

I haven't ready any of the articles on this site, but 1000-Word Philosophy sounds promising:
Welcome to 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology, an ever-growing set of original 1000-word essays on philosophical questions, figures, and arguments. We have over 160 essays and publish new ones frequently, so please check back for updates, follow on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe here to receive email notifications of new essays.

Some of our most popular essays are in the categories of Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy, Epistemology or Theory of Knowledge, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Religion, and Philosophy of Race and Philosophy of Sex and Gender and we have many other essay categories listed below.

Many of our most popular essays are available as audio recordings.
posted by alex1965 at 7:15 AM on August 21, 2022

I am contractually obligated to recommend Wittgenstein’s On Certainty which is the most accessible introduction to his later thought, IMHO.
posted by wittgenstein at 7:36 AM on August 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

Years ago I was in a PhD program that had me reading French philosophy without a grounding, so I somewhat recently decided I needed a real grounding in my major foundational gaps. As such, I enjoyed listening to the Great Courses on Western Philosophy, although some of the larger ones are split among various lecturers and some were better than others. Honestly part of the reason I nabbed "Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition" was that it was a ridiculous value on Audible credits.
posted by cobaltnine at 8:01 AM on August 21, 2022

I think the Great Courses on Western Philosophy is a great start. I don't think getting into Russell or some of the heavy hitters is probably the best way to start. Philosophy tends to respond to what came before it. In other disciplines you don't necessarily need to understand the history of science to understand Newtonian physics. But I think philosophy you are missing a lot if you don't start out with ancient philosophy up until the modern day.

Also "light" courses like the Great Courses are going to be accessible as is Grayling's History of Philosophy.
posted by geoff. at 9:00 AM on August 21, 2022

Seconding How to be Perfect, and throwing in How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci. They're both light but not dumbed-down.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:57 AM on August 21, 2022

Have you watched The Good Place? Seriously, there's quite a bit of valid philosophical education presented with humor and heart. I keep meaning to read Schur's book, thanks for the reminder, matrixclown.
posted by theora55 at 11:39 AM on August 21, 2022

If there are particular philosophers who you come across and want more information about, the "Very Short Introduction" series is an excellent resource...or supporting resource, if you want a deeper dive into the person and their theories vs the brief overview of how they fit into history that a survey text will provide. I'm a philosophy professor, and I read these to get up to conversational speed on theories and people I didn't study in school. The selection is huge, from specific people to theories, to histories, though the books themselves are rather slim, and the scope of publications isn't limited to theories of philosophy proper. Easy to find in used bookstores, too.
posted by Grim Fridge at 1:41 PM on August 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Van Lente & Dunlavey published the first issue of their award winning 9 issue comic book run of Action Philosophers! in 2005. A Sample.
posted by enfa at 5:47 AM on August 22, 2022

I don't know how much you want to know but I more or less recently came across a youtube channel (Philosophy Overdose) which has a whole series of interviews by Bryan Magee with a number of then living academics/philosophers whose names I recognized talking about some of the big names in the western canon (Kant, Hume, Spinoza, Descartes, Hegel, Marx, Wittgenstein, Sartre, etc.). Magee is British and it looks like the interviews were done in the 70s and maybe 80s for British TV.

Anyways, Magee is smart and I wouldn't be surprised if he's a respectable academic in his own right. The interviews are pretty deep all things considered. The discussion reminds me of something I would have seen with a visiting prof at a University.

This is Magee and John Searle talking about Wittgenstein.
posted by kaymac at 7:42 PM on August 22, 2022

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