I’m no philosopher, and philosophy is among the most difficult and technical of subjects. I started reading philosophy when I was 26 (now 70), beginning with Bertrand Russell’s Unpopular Essays. I could hardly have been luckier than to start with this book. Later I took a few philosophy courses at U.C. Irvine, at a time when I was much impressed with A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth, and Logic. The following opinions are penned by a layperson, and can hardly be considered definitive or even defensible, philosophically speaking.
William Barrett: Irrational Man
Currently rereading this with a friend and providing discussion questions; this may become a thing if any others show interest. This book gives an overview of existentialism, as of 1958. The introductory chapters tend to get a bit vague, in a woolgathering way, with many casual (and undefined) references to the human spirit and the like. But his discussions of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre are well worth reading. When I first read this book, I knew nothing of existentialism. Now, decades later, I am in a better position to evaluate it. (Stay tuned)
Bertrand Russell: The Problems of Philosophy
Russell is the most readable philosopher I know of; even when he gets technical, he doesn’t get unnecessarily technical or obscure. This book is deceptively simple. It begins by analyzing sense perceptions, as so many philosophers have done, and makes observations and draws conclusions which will be surprising to the neophyte, but mostly common sense to the experienced philosophical reader. As such, it’s a brilliant introduction to philosophy, with the emphasis on epistemology, apparently Russell’s favorite subject. It’s the one book by Russell that was included in the Great Books of the Western World, Second Edition. Readers who get through this short book may want to tackle a much more challenging and technical book of epistemology by Russell, An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth. In my Collected Quotations are three long quotes from Problems, plus my brief review from 2001. [Update: Not wanting to abuse others’ copyrights unnecessarily, I have removed this document from my blog. I would consider and probably honor requests for a copy by email. It runs over 200 pages in MS Word.]
Friedrich Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil
I’ve read all of Nietzsche’s books at least once, and most of them are well worth your time. I think this is his best and most important book, as well as being far more readable and interesting than his most popular, Thus Spake Zarathustra. It is his one book in the Great Books of the Western World, Second Edition, a good indication that it’s probably important to Western Civ. It’s not easy to summarize, however; the Wikipedia article does a better job than I could. You’ll find this one by turns profound and obscure and outrageous; it’s also, like Nietzsche often is, very quotable.
Ludwig Wittgenstein: On Certainty
Wittgenstein is tough to read. Most people trying to get into him start with his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a book which is far too much like Euclid for my taste and patience. On Certainty is relatively obscure by comparison, but it looks at epistemology in a way that is unique and especially entertaining and interesting. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is undoubtedly more important to the history of philosophy (and it’s in the Great Books), but that one puts me to sleep. This one I’ve read I think three times and I enjoyed it every time.
Thomas Nagel: “Subjective and Objective” (in Mortal Questions)
This brief essay seems to me to give definitive answers to many important questions in epistemology. Many of the most intractable philosophical questions revolve around the difference between two viewpoints. For example, looked at subjectively, nothing is more important (to me) than my life; looked at objectively, nothing is more trivial because in a few years it will be as though I never lived. Philosophy of mind is another area where this is at the heart of the matter: I know that I have a mind, but if one studies the brain, it looks like “nobody’s home.” Nagel offers a way to look at such questions; as far as I can tell, nobody is satisfied with his answers, including me. But they were convincing at one time, and this essay will advance your philosophical sophistication, even if the answers are not the final ones.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: Philosophy in the Flesh
How does it happen that we can understand anything? Why can we understand words at all? Lakoff and Johnson provide the only answer to such questions that is even conceivable to me: we understand words physically. We are biological, living bodies; this fact forms our minds as we behave in the world. Unfortunately, the book is huge, and rather tedious; but you don’t have to read the whole thing (I didn’t) to the get very valuable (to me) nugget of this point of view. If you’re interested in cognitive science or neuroscience or psychology, you really want to make the ideas in this book part of your tools for thought.
Walter Truett Anderson: Reality Isn’t What it Used to Be
This odd book made a deep impression on me when I read it a few years ago; alas, I can’t remember a single thing he said (which is why I type so many quotations). Unfortunately, I have no quotes from this book. I remember it as entertaining and enlightening about a number of mostly unrelated bits of social criticism. I’m not even sure why this book is listed as “philosophy.” What more can I say? I’ll reread it and get back to you.
Daniel Dennett: Freedom Evolves and Elbow Room
Dennett is one of the most popular of current big brains, and rightfully so. His books are chock full of surprising insights and thought experiments. This is one his books on free will, on of the toughest philosophical questions around. Unfortunately, I just can’t remember if this is the book I think it is, or if his Elbow Room is the book I’m remembering. Eventually I’ll settle this question and … you know.
Question settled: It’s Elbow Room that so impressed me. It’s also about ten years newer than Freedom.