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Another try – must reads

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• Is the world eternal? YES
• Do humans have contra-causal free will (i.e., can humans do otherwise)? NO
• Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? YES
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• Is virtue necessary for happiness? YES
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• Can we change the past? NO
• Are numbers real? NO
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I have had another student ask “What should I read?”.  I posted on this before, but the stream quickly devolved (or evolved, depending on how you want to look at it) into what people “like”.  I am too sensitive about such things, but I was actually scandalized by some of the lists.  Oh well.  Point here is that what my students are asking for is a list of western philosophers one should read in order to be well read in the western tradition.  So this post is not asking for what you like, or what speaks to you, or even what you find interesting.  It is asking, “what do I need to read in order to be conversant in the western philosophical tradition?”  I will reframe the question a bit as well.  My student asked me, what should I read this summer?So let’s assume this:  You have 3 months to live.  On your “bucket list” was becoming well read in the western philosophical tradition.  What books do you read in those 3 months?The list will be more narrow than before.  “Plato” is too broad, what dialogue would you read?  And while I hope there are primary texts, I think it is fair game to put secondary sources (for instance, a good book on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason since trying to read the Critique would occupy the entire 3 months).

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11 Comments

  1. Huenemann says:

    Vince — No! Don’t read Russell! Or at least, not at the expense of better histories of philosophy. Will Durant is loads better; John Passmore moreso. Actually, Hans Kung’s Does God Exist? offers a great history of western philosophy, of course centered around the book’s title.

    I’m going to ignore the onset of death — with 3 mos. to live I wouldn’t read a thing. And I’ll ignore both the Bible and great literature (like Shakespeare), since they’re outside the scope of the question.

    In three months you should read:

    Plato’s Republic
    Descartes’s Meditations
    Hume’s Enquiry concerning Human Understanding

    If any of those have been read, here are some substitutes:

    Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding
    Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
    Hobbes, Leviathan

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  2. Kleiner says:

    Huenemann is right, with 3 months to live I would not spend it reading. Just a way of motivating the question.

    Plato: The “Republic” is the best choice. In my humble view, you simply cannot call yourself a read philosopher until you have spent time with that book. But if it is too long, you could get “Five Dialogues” and read the “Apology” and the “Phaedo”.

    Aristotle: It is probably too much to read the primary source material. But if you wanted to try, read “Physics” (get the 4 causes) and “Nicomachean Ethics”. But that would be too much, so read Jonathan Lear’s excellent book “Aristotle: The Desire to Understand”. Or, for something easier and faster, read Adler’s “Aristotle for Everybody”.

    Descartes: “Meditations on First Philosophy”

    Hume: “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding”

    OR – just take my Intro class, since I essentially just put my Intro class as my list!

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  3. Kleiner says:

    By the way, I am teaching a PHIL 4900 “Special Topics” next fall where we will read Plato’s Republic for the entire semester. I am really excited for the class. For majors, the class will count toward the metaphysics/epistemology requirement.

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  4. Shaun Miller says:

    I agree with Huenemann: Russell should not be read, at least not that book!

    I still say that The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant is an excellent way to be conversant in Western Philosophy, although Huenemann’s suggestion of John Passmore has intrigued me so I will have to check that out.

    Plato’s Dialogues are good but if I had to pick one, I would probably suggest either the Meno or the Euthyphro, mainly because it’s a nice introduction to Socratic Method, Plato’s Forms, and just the structure of Western philosophy in general.

    I’m somewhat reluctant to put Descartes’ Meditations on there (mainly, I guess, it’s because I’m not a big fan of epistemology) but knowing Descartes is needed to become conversant in Western Philosophy.

    I know there’s lots more, but I really can’t prioritize and pick which one is needed, so I’ll just submit this list for now.

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  5. Mike says:

    Kleiner’s “you can’t call yourself a read philosopher until…” list is going to get me to call myself something else. Apparently “real” philosophers pursue texts rather than life. I’ll call myself an artist, well if I can live up to the term.

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  6. Kleiner says:

    For goodness sake Mike, get over it! Call yourself whatever you want, but I am not arguing that philosophy is radically distinct from living, and no one ever said that all you should do is read. That is just silly. I guess not reading will make you wiser? Good luck with that. I’m one that would rather read a bit so he does not have to reinvent the wheel.

    I am just trying to help some students who are interested in becoming well read within our tradition!!! And I think, by the way, that this is a good idea. Why? We are all just trying to live the good life. But life is complicated, and my resources are limited. I can try to sort it all out on my own, but that attempt presumes incredible pride in my abilities to do so. For humble mental midgets like me it is only prudent to stand on the shoulders of giants in order that we may see farther. I’ll let Strauss make my point:


    The facile delusions which conceal from us our true situation all amount to this: that we are, or can be, wiser than the wisest men of the past. We are thus induced to play the part, not of attentive and docile listeners, but of impresarios or lion tamers. Yet we must face our awesome situation, created by the necessity that we try to be more than attentive and docile listeners, namely, judges, and yet we are not competent to be judges. As it seems to me, the cause of this situation is that we have lost all simply authoritative traditions in which we could trust, the nomos which gave us authoritative guidance, because our immediate teachers and teacher’s teachers believed in the possibility of a simply rational society. Each of us here is compelled to find his bearings by his own powers, however defective they may be.
    ” – Leo Strauss, An Introduction to Political Philosophy

    To my two students who have made these requests, I think the lists already posted give you a really good start on your summer reading!

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  7. Mike says:

    A Strauss quote is what you’re going to go with eh?

    You’re right though, this isn’t the right setting for my stupid comments. I really wouldn’t have made such an asinine comment if I had read your whole post before I read your comment. I am an idiot.

    I’m also not pro-Russell. These are good lists!

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  8. Huenemann says:

    Re. Plato’s dialogues — the “Five Dialogues” collection is excellent — Apology, Meno, Euthyphro, Crito, Phaedo. Read them all.

    Re. Kant — yes, secondary lit is better. For his theoretical philosophy, S. Korner and L. W. Beck have very nice, small volumes — I hope they are not out of print, but they may be. Again, Durant is pretty much on target. I’m not sure about helpful readings for his moral or political philosophy. A really good book, but a slightly harder read, is by Richard Velkey — I forget the title just now.

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  9. Kleiner says:

    Re Plato:
    The ‘Five Dialogues’ is a must book. But I don’t think one need read all 5 (in the context of this 3 month reading plan). I would read the Meno (nice look at the Socratic method, but also you get recollection), Apology (Socrates at his best, many think the interpretation of Plato begins and ends with the Apology), and Phaedo (you get a nice view of his metaphysics and epistemology here, along with his view of man).

    Re Kant:
    I do think a secondary source is the best bet. That said, I taught the “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics” in an Intro class some years ago. While many of the students mutineed, there were some that got something out of it. It is much easier than the Critique of Pure Reason (though it still involves some heavy lifting). As a secondary source, I think Henry Allison is good (try “Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense”). There are also “Routledge Guidebooks” to many of these texts these days. I’ve read a few and think they are all right. For very quick introductions, the “A Very Short Introduction” series are worth something.

    On Kant’s moral philosophy: I think people can pick up and read the “Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals”, and that should perhaps have been on my list. Wood’s book, “Kant’s Ethical Thought” is good as a secondary source.

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  10. Plato, Aristotle, Leibniz, Descartes, Kant…all NOT English. Any suggestions on good translations? I’m asking especially from the library collection perspective: do we have good reading copies in the library? Or are we talking about things the student must have in their own collection for the liberal application of pencil? I can stumble through the German, but time to brush up on the ancient Greek! :)

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  11. Huenemann says:

    Steven — Cambridge UP has a good line of translations of all the classic works. And Hackett Publishing also has a good line on the whole (a few clunkers here and there).

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