Classic texts for the beginning student

Alan asked:

Discussing which philosophers’ original work to read, GK intimated that Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’ would not be a good choice. Is this because you consider him a poor philosopher, or that his philosophy is so self contained it allows little constructive discussion? Or something else completely?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

How do you know that Spinoza was a great philosopher who is eminently worth discussing? Because that’s what you were told in some lecture course or in a YouTube video? Maybe the speaker was putting you on. Maybe the whole ‘spinoza’ thing is just a big joke played by philosophers on the non-philosophical world.

Spinoza is difficult to read without a supporting secondary text (or lecture course or YouTube video). That’s why when starting out in philosophy it is better to find a classic text that you don’t need to have explained to you, where you don’t need to be spoonfed.

Locke is one philosopher who has suffered from generations of misinterpretation. Reading texts from the 60s you’d think he was complete dumbass. Just read the unabridged Dover edition of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in two volumes from start to finish and you’d have a very good and accurate view of Locke. And you only need to read it once — because he goes to such great lengths to explain himself.

Pity the poor students who relied on the ‘expert guidance’ available at the time without taking the opportunity to judge for themselves!

That’s just one example. There are plenty of classic texts that you don’t need to have explained to you, for example you could try some of the texts in Section 3 of the Pathways introductory book list, which I reproduce here without comment:

George Berkeley Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713)

Rene Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)

David Hume Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779)

Plato Phaedo (around 385 BC)

Ludwig Wittgenstein The Blue and Brown Books (Blackwell)

Kirk, Raven and Schofield The Presocratic Philosophers (2nd Edition CUP)

— You can approach philosophy in the spoonfeeding way or you can see this as an opportunity to learn to think for yourself. The decision you make now will have profound consequences.

[Note added: for more on this topic see my post on the Philosophy Pathways blog On reading.]

2 thoughts on “Classic texts for the beginning student

    1. The full title of Russell’s book, first published in 1946, is ‘History of Western Philosophy and its Connection with Political and social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day’.

      Unlike most histories of philosophy that you will come across, Russell’s history is a work of history, and not just philosophy or history of philosophy, which gives it a special value. That, and the fact that Russell was a philosopher of the first rank, who set his sights on communicating his take on Western philosophy to a wider public — and not some academic in a university department somewhere, writing for student book lists.

      My copy is from the second impression, 1947, and the inside back cover has the label ‘Technical Book Co. Ltd Johannesburg’, where it was purchased by my father around that time. It was then, and still is now, a go to book for anyone who discovers they have an interest in philosophy and is looking to pursue it further.

      If you had one book to take to a desert island, this would not be bad choice. However, it is among very stiff competition for that honour!

      Russell writes brilliantly, and has a deft grasp of his subject. He is also opiniated, sometimes annoyingly so. There are those who would disagree with his judgement that Hegel was ‘mad’ or with his harsh words about Nietzsche. One philosopher he was an acknowledged expert on was Leibniz.

      Read the book. I guarantee that you will not be short of options for where to go next.

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