Gregorius Vatis Advena

Reading Philosophy

Ideally, 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 with major works should be acquired at school or at home. In most cases, this approach is no longer practicable. However, previous knowledge of major works will make your philosophy study more productive.

Moreover, those who only came into contact with 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 Kant's Critique of Pure Reason in two weeks. If such is your first encounter with any major work, you should reread them later in more tranquillity.

While reading philosophical texts before or after university, do not let yourself be carried away by first impressions. Rather, you should always seek to share and discuss it with others. Reading groups, however informal and imperfect, are an essential complement to your private studies.

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 readers to deepen their 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, no dialogue of Plato should be wholly neglected. 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 esoteric dimension of Plato's theory of forms.

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. However, Aristotelian logic has been superseded. 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.

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

Cultivating Philosophy

To understand philosophical thinking, your task is not simply to know who said what and when, but most importantly how something was said, how arguments are put forward. Logic will study the structure of arguments. It will help you to distinguish concludent arguments from arguments in which conclusions do not follow from assumed premises. An introduction to formal logic is extremely important 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 and spontaneously. Independently means: You should not read a philosophical work only 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» should mean 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 from the Republic to read within a few weeks. But you can say that through the seminar you were trained with the tools for a critical study of Plato. You are not yet studying, you are simply learning to study. A time frame from 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 class that can provide leisure, but only the degree of your commitment. You can be the world's richest person and have «no time» for philosophy. Yet true commitment will always find time. Commitment is the very art of finding time.

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