Philosophy readings
December 8, 2006 6:23 PM   Subscribe

What's a good "gateway drug" as far as a book title for philosophy? Something that will suck me in?

I'm not sure it would be a good idea for me to dive right into Plato (unless you have a good reason for it), as I'm reading on my own limited time and not for any academic reasons. So I'm counting on something with an entertainment slant that can take me deeper into this area... maybe once I figure things out I can take my pick of the more heady/complex stuff.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is just outstanding... I'm not sure how much of a contribution it is in the philosophy field or even whether it is philosophy, but it keeps me turning the pages.
posted by rolypolyman to Religion & Philosophy (32 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Reading the classics a waste of time.

Read Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy.
posted by delmoi at 6:29 PM on December 8, 2006

The Tao Te Ching would be my recommendation.
posted by jrb223 at 6:29 PM on December 8, 2006

To add a little more:

Actually I asked a similar question a couple of months ago. I got The Problems of Philosophy based on that thread and really loved it, along with a few other books, including Russell's The History of Western Philosophy which sounds like it might be boring but it really isn't, although I've only gotten through the part of the book about Classical Greek philosophy.
posted by delmoi at 6:46 PM on December 8, 2006

Jostein Gaarder's novel Sophie's World was a really interesting way to be led through the history of philosophy, and gave it some context for me. I went from there to reading certain philosophers directly.
posted by padraigin at 6:56 PM on December 8, 2006

If you like ZATAOMM, you ought to read The Phaedrus for yourself, as it is not that long, and well worth the couple hours of your time it would take to read it through carefully. It's one of the more widely known and referenced of the Socratic dialogs, and Pirsig made some mistakes in his discussion of it, which he acknowledged in later editions of ZATAOMM. In that, his recollections color his later arguments for the metaphysics of Quality to some degree, and his reasons (and the tenor of his actions) for leaving the University of Chicago.

The various Socractic Dialogues are intended by Plato to be approachable for the common man, and to stimulate discussion. You need no deep foundation to approach them directly, if you are but willing to note the Greek names, and investigate references to gods, heroes and myths yourself, as they come up.
posted by paulsc at 6:57 PM on December 8, 2006

Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy.
posted by gordie at 7:14 PM on December 8, 2006

My gateway drug --- the one that basically motivated me to go to grad school in philosophy --- was Being and Nothingness.

And then I got to grad school and discovered that professional philosophers think Sartre is a joke.
posted by jayder at 7:51 PM on December 8, 2006

Thus spoke Zarathustra or Beyond Good and Evil (Nietzsche), or perhaps Leviathan (Hobbes).
posted by clevershark at 7:51 PM on December 8, 2006

Incidentally, if you like Zen and the Art of Motorcylcle Maintenance, you're certain to like Being and Nothingness.
posted by jayder at 7:52 PM on December 8, 2006

I second Sophie's World - I read it at the beginning of high school, and it definitely turned philosophy from something I vaguely knew of to something tangible and interesting.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 8:03 PM on December 8, 2006

Second Godel Escher Bach - that's great stuff. Also, if you want really readable philosophy, try something silly like Philosophy and The Simpons. Surprisingly interesting and substantial. I also love Bertrand Russell's History Of Western Philosophy. It's also very readable, but maybe doesn't have the entertainment slant that you're looking for (Godel and Simpsons both do).

I agree about Pirsig - What a great book.
posted by crapples at 8:24 PM on December 8, 2006

The Mind's Eye is more accessible and fun than Godel, Escher, Bach.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:09 PM on December 8, 2006

Aristotle for Everybody by Mortimer J Adler is one of my favorite introductory philosophy books. Clean, concise and a pleasure to read. If you want to stick to philosophical novels, the novels Steppenwolf and Siddhartha by Herman Hesse are interesting and fun.
posted by calumet43 at 9:18 PM on December 8, 2006

Second "Sophie's World". An amazing story, and literally a history of philosophy. Totally dizzying.
posted by hermitosis at 9:19 PM on December 8, 2006

The classics are where it's at. They are best read directly.

While the history of philosophy is important it is also sometimes overstated. You don't need to travel the Western canon in sequence to understand more recent authors.

The best philosophers to read are the ones who are the best writers. This means Plato, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Simone Weil is less known than the other heavies of the philosophical tradition but she is an excellent philosopher and very approachable. An anthology of hers has just been republished that is very good.

Frequently those who are just getting into philosophy are interested in "worldly wisdom", philosophical life advice. The writers I would put in this genre are all very readable. If this interests you, look at Epictetus, Montaigne, Baltasar Gracian and La Rochefoucauld.

A personal favorite of mine that is within the capacity of a newcomer is Charles H. Kahn's, Art and Thought of Heraclitus. This is a first rate interpretive commentary on the enigmatic aphorisms of a presocratic who has been influential up to the present day. All the aphorisms are included.

By the way, Plato while great is a very difficult and subtle author. Over the last 100 years or so a new approach to reading him has emerged. This is the dramatic reading, which means a strong focus on the literary and poetic aspects of the dialogues. In my opinion the case for this approach to Plato is persuasive. I'm not saying don't read him or that he's too difficult but that a lot of interpretations and introductions to his work take a wrong headed view. Google "Stanley Rosen" + interview for an easy to read introduction to the depth in the dialogues.

Finally, stay away from all German philosophy, except for Nietzsche, until you've read a fair bit and you are sure you're interested. I'm not denigrating the quality of thought but it is the most turgid prose you will ever encounter. All of it.
posted by BigSky at 9:29 PM on December 8, 2006

Yup, Sophie's World.
posted by librarina at 10:01 PM on December 8, 2006

I always recommend "Sophie's World" as an introduction to philosophy. It presents the major topics and major figures of western philosophy within a fictional narrative. It's great, one of my favorite books.

However, I'm not a fan of Russell's "History." It is not a particularly good work of philosophical scholarship. The problem is that Russell often seems more interested in pointing out what he thinks is wrong with various theories instead of giving them a fair presentation. This might not seem so bad, except that Russel simply had a tenuous grasp of the historical theories. So, his analysis often falls short.
posted by oddman at 10:12 PM on December 8, 2006

Zen and the art is one of my two favorite books. The other is Stranger in a Strange Land. It's technically Sci-Fi but there is a lot of insight into humans, religion, philosophy, etc.
posted by jesirose at 10:23 PM on December 8, 2006

A lot of philosophy is abstract and thoughtful and difficult to access at first. One approach is to start with the problem. In the case of Admiral James Stockdale, it was finding himself in a POW camp.

He then started applying the philosophy he had read at Stanford--the camp became a laboratory where his survival depended upon embodying the thinking of thre stoic philosophers, particularly Epictetus.

Try his collected speeches, Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot. Then see where that takes you. If you're of a practical mind, you may find this a much more interesting way to begin.
posted by Phred182 at 10:56 PM on December 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

Dive right into Plato. Seriously. Meno might be a good place to start: It's a pretty quick read, and it's less focused on building up elaborate philosophical ideas (which could make a longer dialog, like the Republic, hard to get into at first), and more focused on confusing you and tearing down your ideas about what you think you know and showing why you might want to do philosophy in the first place.

I'd also recommend Wittgenstein as a very readable, much more modern, philosopher, who you might want to look at before too long (but probably after Plato). Either Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus or Philosophical Investigations would be a good place to start (see which one feels more readable to you). He's brilliant, is very funny, and will get you to do some important thinking about whether philosophy is really worth bothering with after all.
posted by moss at 11:19 PM on December 8, 2006

Sorry, I got that wrong rolypolyman.

I was referring to The Mind's I.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:52 PM on December 8, 2006

It isn't philosophy in its purest form, but I'd suggest Freud's "Civilization and Its Discontents" as a good selection when you are starting off. It is eminently readable, interesting, and also relatively easy to find some argumentative faults in, which is always good practice. It is more of a sociological work, but nonetheless quite philosophical. As an added bonus, it gives you something to reference when people make stupid comments about Freud's philosophy at cocktail parties, because this is Freud at his best and most useful, divorced from the whole Oedipus thing.
posted by names are hard at 1:31 AM on December 9, 2006

If you enjoy reading interviews, there are some good interview-based philosophy books (1, 2, 3). Each of those books covers a wide variety of topics and philosophers, which gives them an advantage over something like Being and Nothingness for someone in your situation. While BigSky is right that the classics are ultimately "where it's at," you might as well start with something that's written in plain English if you're just trying to get an entree into something more substantial in your spare time.

This series of books on the seven deadly sins could provide a useful gimmick to draw you in.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:05 AM on December 9, 2006

Why not take a literary approach? Sartre and Dostoevsky which often present many ideas of the philosophies they write about without getting caught up in the technical jargon. In my opinion philosophy is not hard if you start at the bottom (Plato) and work your way towards more contemporary times. A lot of philosophy deals with interpreting earlier works and commenting on peers. This is not true across the board, but there have been numerous times where I just didn't get it, then I happened to read another work and the previous rant made sense.

That said, I thought Norton Critical Editions do a fairly good job of footnoting. I've always enjoyed them.
posted by geoff. at 7:08 AM on December 9, 2006

if you liked zen and the art... and are interested in eastern philosophy, there's a book called zen and the art of archery which is about a 70 pg read that is quite excellent. also, alan watts wrote a good book about zen titled the way of zen which is a good gateway to buddhism book.

-to moss: i love wittgenstein, but do you really feel he's readable? i actually like pi because it is so cryptic..
posted by localhuman at 10:02 AM on December 9, 2006

Think by Simon Blackburn is a really solid, easy to read introduction to all the major philosophical problems.
posted by monsterhero at 12:24 PM on December 9, 2006

You might try Philosophy for Beginners, and other books in that series. I also enjoyed Looking at Philosophy. Be sure to read some Schopenhauer. Essays and Aphorisms is a good place to start.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 10:22 PM on December 9, 2006

I spent four years in a philosophy doctoral program, and here is my thought on books that are gateway drugs to philosophy:

Read actual philosophy, not books summarizing what philosophers said.

You'll never be inspired to move further in philosophy if you are just reading summaries. (Robert Solomon has written a couple of popular summary books which I have tried to read, and they are crap. There's another summary book, published by Dover, by a Spanish guy named Julian Marias, and it is crap too.) Those summary books are only good for sketching out the drift of philosophical history, but not for understanding how philosophy is really done.

So, sticking to the drugs metaphor, reading these summary books and expecting to get hooked on philosophy would be kind of like reading descriptions of what it's like to take various drugs, and expecting to get hooked on drugs by that. It ain't going to happen.
posted by jayder at 3:50 PM on December 10, 2006

Simon Blackburn's books strike me as books aimed at yuppies who are too overworked to read anything substantial but want to feel like they're still attuned to the life of the mind so they pick up one of these nicely-designed volumes during their browsing at Borders. It's more of that ridiculous summarizing. Because you are not watching the steps of the philosopher as he/she arrives at his/her conclusions, you will forget what you have read almost as soon as you have read it.
posted by jayder at 3:55 PM on December 10, 2006

I lack jayder's expertise, but for what it's worth (probably not much) I agree with him that it's better to read primary sources. They are philosophy, as opposed to being about philosophy. Also, secondary sources have been known to misrepresent the content of primary sources.

But "philosophy" takes in a lot of territory. What are you really interested in? How do we know what we know and what does it mean to know it (epistemology)? How should we act toward each other (ethics)? Etc. If you don't know, a good survey might help you narrow it down, and give some useful pointers to the best primary sources.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 7:49 PM on December 10, 2006

Nicomachean Ethics.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 8:17 PM on February 2, 2007

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