Every so often I put together what I call a “mini-syllabus”; roughly, I pull together several books that speak to a common theme that I think would be either fun or instructive to read together. Sometimes the lists are highly academic and focused, and sometimes the starting text is more of a springboard for further exploration, but they’re never as broad and diverse as traditional syllabi. Today, I’m going to break that trend with a miniature syllabus on my favorite topic: philosophy.
However, this won’t be a full introduction to the subject, but rather an introduction to some of my favorite introductory texts, meaning that this list won’t get into the nitty-gritty details of epistemological, political, metaphysical, aesthetic, ethical, or critical questions that make up the discipline, but instead will acquaint you with a variety of welcoming overtures to the field. Rather than diving into bell hooks’ incredible work on race and gender, or Russell’s clarifying take on the philosophy of language, you will instead get to see how they approach approaching the work they do, and how they invite others to join in the conversation.
My reason for building this list is because, in a lot of ways, this really is the heart of philosophy. The work that philosophers do – answering questions, analyzing possibilities, critiquing assumptions, and more – comes from a core desire that transcends the specifics of any given sub-field. There is, in all specializations of philosophy, a deep and abiding commitment to continue seeking truth and digging for new problems to solve, even when the topic seems to be settled. I’ve written my own exhortations to philosophical inquiry here, here, and here.
Without further ado, I give you my list of favorite invitations to philosophy:
1. bell hooks’ essay on “Critical Thinking“, from the third book in her series on teaching, Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom: This is chapter one of hooks’ third book on the topic, and in it she uncovers the main goal – and primary challenge – of every educator I’ve ever met: guiding students to be self-motivated, critical learners and generators of knowledge. While her focus in this essay is on the classroom, the same lessons can be applied to the independent scholar encountering philosophical arguments on their own time. Rather than simply reading to be instructed, everyone can read critically, and everyone can treat that reading experience as a conversation.
2. Richard Feynman’s commencement speech at CalTech in 1974, “Cargo Cult Science“: This speech takes the same theme as bell hooks’ essay, but looks outside the classroom to see where so many of our barriers to critical thinking come from. While his main focus is eliminating barriers to honest and authentic science, his advice is applicable to any form of intellectual inquiry; it is just as easy to be duped by prose rationalization as it is the manipulation of scientific studies. Just because an argument sounds reasonable does not mean that it is.
3. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” from The Republic: While the entire text is rich and wonderful, the famous allegory is famous for a reason – it frames philosophy as a process guided by an elusive truth, along a difficult path that will force you question everything you hold certain, after which you may never view the world the same way again. The allegory functions very differently in context of the whole work, but as a stand alone piece, it’s still very effective.
4. Thomas Aquinas’ Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate Book 11: The Teacher, especially Article I: Can a man or only God teach and be called teacher?: In this text, Aquinas speaks of both self-guided and traditionally instructed learning as an activity of discovery, rather than as the passive reception of knowledge. In essence, we can acquire knowledge by means of discovery (guided by our own natural reason), or by means of following the discoveries of another. This means that a good teacher will not simply tell you what you need to know, but guide you by demonstrating how they discovered it (which is often much speedier, allowing our community knowledge base to grow and benefit from new discoveries). This is very dry reading (sorry Thomas), but the ideas are exciting. If you are not religious, many of the ideas presented here can be applied to an understanding of truth as natural, rather than super natural (though perhaps not the article about angels).
5. Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Circular Ruins” from the collection Labrynths: A play on the theories of idealism and surrealism, this story begins to complicate the task of philosophy, identity, and teaching in a way that is also entertaining and engaging. It will make you want to explore idealism, existentialism, and more.
6. Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy, especially chapter I “Appearance and Reality” and chapter XV “The Value of Philosophy”: This is Russell’s introductory text, written for brand new students of philosophy. In it, he writes about the difficulties of giving simple answers to what seem like simple questions, and also situates the role of philosophy among other disciplines. For more of my thoughts on these two chapters, see my Philosopher Fridays entry on Russell.
7. Maria Lugones’ “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Perception“, published in 1987 (published online in 2009) in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy: This essay reads to me as a simultaneous extension of and challenge to Russell’s call to “enlargen ourselves” so that we can see things objectively. Lugones explores what makes that so difficult, and describes an alternative that allows us the philosophical benefits Russell seeks while also honoring the reality of life in the complicated context of identity. Her approach includes personal narrative, and then builds through the essay into a view of philosophy as an act of imaginative play that speaks much more practically to the way we can apply the critical thinking skills encouraged in the readings above in our daily experience.
8. Nils Ch. Rauhut’s Ultimate Questions: Thinking about Philosophy: In philosophy, it is often difficult to find an introductory textbook that works for anyone but the scholar who wrote it (there are so many ways to approach the topic), but this one is excellent. While it does at times oversimplify complex topics, it does so in a way that invites the kinds of conversations hooks and Feynman in particular encourage above. I have a couple of minor quibbles with the presentation of some ideas (for example, including Descartes in the section on skepticism based on Meditation 1 is understandable, but perhaps a bit misleading for those who do not continue to read his resolution in Meditations 2-6 into rationalism), but overall it’s a textbook I highly recommend for anyone interested in learning the vocabulary and range of philosophical inquiry.
9. Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, especially Chapter 1: No work more comprehensively lays out the history of philosophical development with such instructive generality; instead of looking in a detailed way at different philosophers, or different philosophical fields, Arendt captures the conversations between competing ideologies, and the effect of that conversation on philosophy, religion, science, literature, economics, and politics in a way that is both descriptive and itself philosophical. Her aim in this text is to shift the conversation of philosophy away from a focus on the quiet eternity of contemplative death to the noisy, complicated, needy, mortal world of the living.
I was going for an even ten items, but I think that should be quite enough to get anyone started – actually, any one of them could easily send a reader off on a path of intellectual discovery. If you do read something here and would like recommendations of where to go next, or have suggestions for other great introductory texts, please don’t hesitate to comment.
5/12 Correction: Lugones’ article was printed in Hypatia in 1987, and was then published online in 2009.