View Full Version : Recommendations for introductions to philosophy?

03-05-2016, 08:09 AM
I'm trying to improve my pitiful knowledge of philosophy. Anyone got any recommendations for introductory texts? I'm leaning more towards basic overviews although I realise philosophy is a huge topic and so even getting an overall feel for the subject will probably require focusing on particular strands of thought; for example, a beginners guide to existentialism to augment a beginner's guide to philosophy in general. Anyway, be gentle. Try not recommend stuff with too many big words. If you could recommend something that involves colouring in that would be great.

03-05-2016, 08:52 AM
I have to go by my own experience here, though the temptation is to recommend those that are most often recommended. I've been haphazard over the years, but am beginning to see the advantages of becoming systematic, certainly with philosophy. Anyway:

The Passion of the Western Mind, by Richard Tarnas:


Really does give an epic overview of the development of Western philosophy since the pre-Socratics.

I've learnt since that, of necessity (perhaps), his summations of certain philosophers gives a different impression than reading the original texts. I think this is always going to be the case with summations, though. Among other things, it was, I think, originally this book that planted in me the slow-growing seeds of an interest in the pre-Socratics (and particularly Parmenides).

Philosophy of Mind, by Edward Feser:


Especially important now, because of the current heavy emphasis on neuroscience as the way to all truth. Anyway, I found this book particularly galvanising (of interest) and clarifying (of things previously unclear to me).

Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philophers, etc. etc., by Kathleen Banks Freeman and Hermann Alexander Diels.


Always good to start at the beginning (if there is one). This book gives the complete pre-Socratic fragments, which means this is a primary source (at least, the closest you can get to it without reading Ancient Greek) - another good thing to have contact with. So, the primary texts of the beginning of what in the west is called philosophy. (Of course, you can go further back if you delve into theogony (Hesiod) and, further back, mythology, etc.

03-05-2016, 09:04 AM
Hilarious review of Philosophy of Mind:


Some people really weren't meant to read philosophy.

matt cardin
03-05-2016, 11:40 AM
Quentin is right. The Passion of the Western Mind is marvelous. Tarnas's scope is vast. His insights are keen. His prose style is lucid.

Additionally, Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy remains a really able and helpful overview / survey / bird's-eye introduction to Western philosophy these many decades after it first became a surprise bestseller.

For a more tightly focused book on a specific philosophical tradition that remains really quite readable to non-specialists, I can't recommend William Barrett's Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy too highly.

As a kind of esoteric companion and complement to the Tarnas book (although Tarnas is no slouch himself when it comes to acknowledging the esoteric vein in Western philosophy), Gary Lachman's recently published The Secret Teachers of the Western World is quite impressive and useful. And fascinating. Quoting from the back cover: "This epic study unveils the esoteric masters who have covertly impacted the intellectual development of the West, from Pythagoras and Zoroaster to the modern icons Jean Gebser and Schwaller de Lubicz."

03-05-2016, 12:33 PM
I keep forgetting about the Tarnas book. Thanks to you both for reminding me.

The Lachman book looks interesting but I've already got a few of his books so I'll have to double-check for overlap of contents.

I'll keep an eye out for the other books you both mentioned.

03-05-2016, 12:35 PM
Hilarious review of Philosophy of Mind:


Some people really weren't meant to read philosophy.

I'm a bit worried that I'm going to end up like Otto in A Fish Called Wanda. "Apes don't read philosophy." "Yes they do, Otto. They just don't understand it."

03-05-2016, 07:42 PM
My interest in philosophy is entirely amateurish, but I've been reading about it for more than a few years.

A good encyclopedia of philosophy is, I think, indispensable. I learned a lot from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995 edition; haven't seen the later edition). With a reference book like this, you can easily look up terms, concepts, schools of thought, periods, individual philosophers, etc. The entries are concise and usually written by someone who is very knowledgeable in the specific topic discussed. And the cross-references to other entries will send you hop-scotching all over the book, learning more and more piecemeal as you go. An excellent online reference of this sort is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu/)

Of course, reference works like this tend to be textbook-like in their carefully "objective" tone, which muffles the sheer wild variety and intractable differences of all those philosophers scattered in time and space. I recommend a couple of large surveys that are, in places, unabashedly opinionated (the best pedagogues are not neutral, but you should always be somewhat wary of them): Modern Philosophy by Roger Scruton and A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. You can look at the tables of contents online to get an idea of scope of the books. Both are sharply written and a pleasure to read. The best survey of medieval philosophy I have read is David Knowles' The Evolution of Medieval Thought.

But there is no substitute for reading the philosophers themselves (at least those you find most interesting). Even very careful secondary works often misrepresent their subjects, not necessarily intentionally. And the most controversial philosophers (Nietzsche, Marx, etc.) are routinely misrepresented by both detractors and admirers.

And an especially effective way to start learning about philosophy is to follow the (sometimes acrimonious) arguments between and about contemporary philosophers online and in print. You will quickly start to form your own opinions (or at least inclinations-to-opinions), and this gets your mind working on whatever philosophical topics and perspectives are most interesting to you.

03-05-2016, 08:41 PM
One book I found particularly helpful as a complete novice was "The Philosophy Book" by Will Buckingham. It's a fantastic way to stick your toes in the water.

03-05-2016, 08:59 PM
I've got the Buckingham book. Only dipped into it so far but I like what I've read.

03-05-2016, 09:08 PM
I've got the Oxford book and try to use it in the manner you suggested. Also picked up History of Western Philosophy the other day at my local Oxfam. According to one of the staff it was part of a job-lot of philosophy books recently. Unfortunately they've got mixed up in the store room with all the other books and so they're coming out in dribs and drabs. I never know whether to grab each new book as I see it or save my money and wait for something better down the line.

03-05-2016, 09:35 PM
I know you asked for texts, and I apologize for not suggesting such. But, Stephen West's podcast "Philosophize This!" is wonderful for what you are looking for. He's is very articulate, but quite funny and presents in a way that feels like you're having a light-hearted but very informative conversation with a really smart friend over a few beers. It's also completely free, which is awesome for cheap asses like myself. Love it!

Philosophize This! (http://www.philosophizethis.org/)

He's also on Spotify and Youtube.

03-05-2016, 11:45 PM
I have a Spanish edition of Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy by Simon Blackburn in my house, but I have not read it. Is it any good?

03-14-2016, 12:01 PM
Stu, one can only assume you are hard at work perfecting your knowledge of German and pre-Classical Greek, so you can immerse yourself in Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. But in case you are familiar with Diels' work, there is also Kirk and Raven on the Presocratics. Then, for Socrates and the Sophists, Guthrie is good. At this point, you can pick up Durant's History, if I recall correctly, it begins with Plato. I probably also used Russell's overview at some point, but cannot recommend as I don't really remember. I also don't remember which dictionaries and encyclopedias of philosophy I used during my studies, though I do remember my father had one philosophical dictionary published by the Soviet Academy of Sciences, a good laugh that one.

I promise to be more useful when I find time to return to this topic. In the meantime, you can also check the Thread for Specific Philosophers and/or Philosophical Movements started by Michael (http://www.ligotti.net/showthread.php?t=9716).

03-14-2016, 08:35 PM
I'll join the chorus of those praising Tarnas' The Passion of the Western Mind. It's the introductory book I always recommend to anyone who wants an overview of the whole tradition of Western philosophy. While I can't say I feel any sympathy for the jarring New Age ending of the book, it's still the best overview out there.

Scruton's Modern Philosophy is quite good for those wishing to see what the territory looks like from the point of view of a conservative adherent of the analytic stream, but I'd save it for after reading Tarnas.

03-14-2016, 08:46 PM
"Guide For The Perplexed", E.F. Schumacher

03-15-2016, 08:00 AM
My own introduction to philosophy was to simply read actual works of philosophy recommended to me by teachers, friends and associates. I've read and enjoyed works by Hegel, Nietzsche, Bataille, Adorno, Deleuze, and others. I've never really felt I needed secondary works to help me understand these writers. I think in reading philosophy the best introduction is yourself and the situation you are in.

Nevertheless, for a contemporary introductory text I would nominate Boris Groys: Introduction to Antiphilosophy, which is excellent.