Reading List

Reading Philosophy

Major canonical works should be read not during but before an academic study of philosophy. Traditionally, the task of universities is to provide not the basic introduction, but critical guidance for the understanding of works already known. Familiarity should be acquired at school or at home. Previous knowledge of major works will make your philosophy study more productive.

Those who only read major works during their study should reread them after university. Why? Because, at university, these works are expected to be read in unrealistic time frames. Not everybody is at ease with reading the Critique of Pure Reason in two weeks. The time for discussing such works may be limited as well.

While reading philosophical texts, do not let yourself be carried away by first impressions. Never read a text only once. You should also seek to share and discuss your impressions with others. Reading groups, however imperfect, are an essential complement.

Reading List | Philosophy

This is reading list suitable for those who wish to improve their knowledge of Western philosophy. While some titles can serve as a general introduction to philosophy, others will allow you to deepen your general knowledge.

The list was devised both for prospective students and for committed autodidacts. For a general introduction, a good place to start is Plato. Although Plato’s thoughts have been widely refuted, there is hardly a philosophical subject which was not introduced by Plato. The dialogue form also makes arguments more accessible to beginners.

In the selection below, Plato’s works should be read in the given order of complexity. However, knowledge or Plato’s entire work is useful as an introduction to philosophical thinking. The same applies to the (philosophical) works of Aristotle and Immanuel Kant.

Despite excellent translations, good knowledge of Ancient Greek and German is very enriching for your study. A good reader should be able to consult any passage in the original. If this is not possible, basic notions of grammar and technical vocabulary will also prove useful.

A Selection from Plato

Euthyphro 1
Apology of Socrates 2
Crito 3
Meno 4
Gorgias 5
Protagoras 6
Republic 7
Philebus 8
Charmides 9
Theaetetus 10
The Sophist 11
Parmenides 12

Apart from the above, Timaeus was Plato’s most influential work until the Renaissance. Very popular today is also Symposium on the nature of love, which should be read together with Phaedrus and Lysis. Cratylus is considered the first work to be written on philosophy of language. Phaedo gives an account of Socrate’s death and the mythic dimension of Plato’s thinking.

A Selection from Aristotle

Categories 1
Nicomachean Ethics 2
Rhetoric 3
Politics 4
Metaphysics 5

Categories is the first of six works on logic called the Organon, which also includes Prior Analytics, the most influential work on logic until the 19th century. However, Aristotelian logic has been complemented. Aristotle has also an extensive work on natural philosophy, including On the Soul. Besides Rhetoric, the book Poetics was extremely influential in Western aesthetics until the 18th century.

Metaphysics is arguably one of the most challenging books of Western philosophy. It consists of books of different quality arranged in no systematic way. Book V, however, is a useful glossary of Aristotle’s logic and theoretical vocabulary. It can be read as an introduction to his philosophy, preferably after the Categories.

From Immanuel Kant

Critique of Pure Reason 1
Critique of Practical Reason 2
Critique of Judgement 3
Religion within the Limits of Reason 4
Metaphysics of Morals 5

Kant was writing for an audience well-versed with Aristotle. Before starting with the Critique of Pure Reason, it would be useful to read at least the Categories, where terms also used and changed by Kant, such as “category”, “substance” and “subject”, are introduced for the first time.

Cultivating Philosophy

To understand philosophical thinking, your task is not simply to know who said what and when, but how something was said, how arguments are put forward. Logic will study the structure of arguments. It will help you to distinguish conclusive arguments from fallacies. An introduction to formal logic is essential in order to avoid basic errors.

Philosophy can be pursued at any age and should be a life-time pursuit. Ideally, the cultivation of philosophy will observe three long-term phases:

Familiarity with major works 1
Training under critical guidance 2
Continuous independent study 3

Familiarity should be acquired independently. You should not read a philosophical work because someone asked you. The incentive of others is important, but the main initiative and motivation must be personal. This is why everyone should acquire familiarity in their own pace. A time frame from five to ten years has nothing objectionable.

Nowadays, the best training is provided by an academic study, although the word study is misleading. To say “I have studied philosophy” means in fact “I have been trained to study philosophy”. You cannot say you “studied” Plato’s philosophy if during a seminar you were given extracts of Phaedrus to read within a few weeks. But you can say that through the seminar you were shown some tools for a critical study. You are not yet studying, you are simply learning to study. A time frame of another five to ten years would be reasonable for a good training.

The study is a continuous and independent approach to philosophical thinking. It includes your critical reading of philosophical works as well as your own philosophical thinking. Ideally, the study should be pursued privately, and you should have the opportunity to discuss the fruits of your study with others. While many choose to pursue an academic career after training, the constraints of the academic setting are not necessarily conducive to a free and independent study.

The study of philosophy requires leisure, but this is a subjective concept. In Seneca’s view, leisure requires that a philosopher should have no further occupation in life. Yet Seneca was the richest man of his time. Interestingly, the protagonist of Plato’s Parmenides is a man “who devotes most of his time to horses” (Parmenides, 126 C). This is a groom reporting an extremely complex dialogue between Socrates and Stoic philosophers. Socrates himself is described as a very poor man.

Philosophical leisure cannot be understood as the privilege of a social group. It is not your social class that will provide leisure, but only your commitment. You can be the world’s richest person and have “no time” for philosophy. Yet true commitment will find its time. Commitment is the very art of finding time.

© Gregorius Advena 2020