Short readings in philosophy
June 11, 2024 6:57 AM   Subscribe

I have no attention span. I would like to learn a little about notable moments/movements in philosophy. What should I read?

Mostly what it says on the tin. I checked out the audiobook of Will Durant's history of philosophy and it is of course hilariously huge and is not gonna work. I guess primary sources are preferable anyway.

Essays are preferable to books. Existentialism is of particular interest. I don't think this is a particularly likely-to-have-a-lot-of-answers question so I'll leave it at that!
posted by less-of-course to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I really enjoy learning through things via incorporating concepts into fiction. Sophie's World really helped me pick up some philosophical concepts.

I can also recommend The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast. Each episode is about half an hour. Mind you, it does what it says on the tin, covering the entire history of the subject.
posted by tripsix at 7:04 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]

I haven't read it since high school but I remember enjoying Sophie's World. Extremely digestible chapter by chapter overviews of various philosophers/ies, tied together with enough narrative to keep up the attention span. It's not quite what you're asking for but it's where I would go.
posted by phunniemee at 7:05 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I mean it is a huge tome but the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism consists of accessible short extracts covering the main points from a good number of all of the philosophers ever from Ancient Greece to now.

There’s also the Penguin “Great Ideas” series.
posted by Balthamos at 7:40 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]

If you want a guidebook of short but rigorous explanations with an actually surprisingly good amount of quotes from the primary sources, try this one:

Michael Bruce & Steven Barbone, Just the Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Arguments in Western Philosophy
posted by demonic winged headgear at 7:58 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction series is perfect for this; it covers a large variety of academic topics, from broad (Introduction to Philosophy) to specific (Existentialism).

If you're willing to watch videos, I'd highly recommend the YouTube channel Philosophy Tube. Abby Thorne, the creator, started the channel while in university to share what she was learning during her philosophy degree, and she always puts her sources in the notes if you want to go deeper.

In podcast land, the BBC radio show "In Our Time (with Melvyn Bragg)" is a fairly reasonable 50 min per episode, of which there are hundreds. I appreciate this show for using a panel of experts, which helps add additional perspective especially in areas where there may be academic debate. The website has helpfully made a list of all the eps about philosophical subjects.
posted by radiogreentea at 8:22 AM on June 11 [4 favorites]

Best answer: For existentialism, Camus' Myth of Sisyphus is a good place to start.

American pragmatist Charles Peirce is a good contrast, and his essay On the Fixation of Belief is a fun read.

For a cranky aesthetic philosopher's take on things, Theodor Adorno is always enjoyable, and his Minima Moralia is a great introduction, comprising writings of lengths even shorter than essays.

One of Walter Benjamin's essays, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, is a good one to be familiar with for someone interested in sampling what other philosophy students encounter early on at most American universities.

Bernard Lonergan's a pretty interesting recent philosopher, and his essay Common Sense as Object, from his book Insight, is worth the time.

Some say Socrates was an existentialist, so there's that, but even if he weren't, I'd still recommend Plato's Apology to anyone wishing to learn about philosophy. It's not technically an essay but it's still a quick read.

Among Plato's greatest followers, but of a very different cast of mind, is Cicero, whose essay On Duties presents a great man's thoughts on leading a good life.

One mustn't omit Nietzsche, obviously, and if a short attention span is a consideration, The Antichrist is the length of a small book, and pretty representative of the genre.

Mikhail Bakunin wrote an essay called What is Authority with a fairly provocative take on the subject; he's not necessarily a foundational philosopher but he's well-regarded among certain circles in the literary set.

There are so many great essays out there it's hard to pick among them, but in terms of use-value in modernity, and probably the best of his works for someone not wanting long treatises, Aristotle's Sophistical Refutations is a good defense against all variety of chicanery, and particularly topical these days.
posted by cthlsgnd at 8:23 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]

There's an A Very Short Introduction about philosophy as well as one specifically about existentialism (if you find you like the format, there are also volumes about other schools of philosophy).

Sophie's World, either as book or graphic-novel adaptation, is another good option.

It's going to be a little harder to find Philosophy for Beginners, from the Writers and Readers series of graphic/text hybrid books, but if you like comics it might speak to you.
posted by box at 8:24 AM on June 11

Existential Comics may make a good supplement to more academic texts. Existential is right in the name, but they also cover other philosophical realms.
posted by subocoyne at 8:43 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]

I enjoyed the Action Philosophers! comics.
posted by brainwane at 9:20 AM on June 11

Existentialism is of particular interest
Kierkegaard: an introduction [gbooks]
posted by HearHere at 9:42 AM on June 11


Maybe start with their article on Existentialism.
posted by at at 9:48 AM on June 11

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is sort of like an academic journal version of wikipedia for philosophy. I used it extensively during my undergrad philosophy degree to help understand difficult and specific language in the texts we were reading. That was 20 years ago and the site has only improved since then. There are fewer/no links in the body of articles, unlike wikipedia, but there's always the Table of Contents and the "related entries" at the bottom of each entry.

Check out the page on Consequentialism, for instance, which I got to by looking under U for Utilitarianism and it said, "see Consequentialism." It starts with a basic overview and then goes into some of the main components of the topic and then has a bunch of citations and related entries.
posted by msbrauer at 10:46 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

This might not be what you're looking for, exactly, but I find it funny and it scratches my itch. Primary sources aren't nearly as fun, and these are relatively "accurate" translations:
posted by booooooze at 11:18 AM on June 11

I remember enjoying Thomas Nagel’s What Does It All Mean?
posted by wittgenstein at 12:08 PM on June 11

How to be Perfect by Michael Shur
posted by MundaneNoodle at 12:25 PM on June 11

Wikipedia is actually pretty good for quick overviews for the curious, with plenty of detail if you want to dig deeper.

(They (some schoolteachers) always say that primary sources are better (for citing on essays), but for getting a sense of an overall concept, secondary sources are often more useful for understanding contexts, and for pointing out biases.)
posted by ovvl at 6:15 PM on June 11

The academic publisher Routledge has been putting out a book series titled 50 Puzzles, Problems, and Thought Experiments, each devoted to 50 such topics in a different philosophical subfield. Each article is just a few pages. They're intended for undergraduate classes, so they're accessible to laypeople. They have or have forthcoming volumes on Ethical Theory, Bioethics, Mind, Aesthetics, Language, Free Will, and Epistemology.

Full disclosure: My spouse wrote one of them and was asked to do so because of an entry he wrote for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, another good resource.
posted by jocelmeow at 10:25 AM on June 12

To add a little spice to the many good recommendations above, I'd add Bruce Fink's The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance for an introduction to Jacques Lacan, the anti-philosopher. (The Lectures on Lacan podcast is great too, if podcasts are also your thing.)
posted by tovarisch at 12:41 PM on June 12

As far as "short" goes, I would read:

"The Allegory of the Cave" and Is God a Taoist?

And considering the times in which we live, you probably should read through some Frank Wilhoit quotes.
posted by forthright at 12:59 PM on June 12

I enjoy flipping through Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.
posted by casaubon at 5:48 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]

Mike Schur wrote How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question as kind of a companion guide to his show The Good Place. It's very approachable, gives an overview of many different philosophers' works.
posted by emkelley at 2:41 PM on June 17

« Older Chairs similar to Secretlab?   |   Help me find cool, weird, rare edible herbs for my... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments