What is Philosophy? How can it help You? What are the best books to read? Has Philosophy been replace by Science?
First, well done on taking up an interest in Philosophy. If you are serious about that interest, though, then you need to be honest with yourself about that very interest.
Are you interested in History? Are you trying to become a better thinker? Are you trying to live a better life, or become a better person? Have you come to Philosophy via the works of someone you admire? Are you coming from a Religious standpoint, or from a Scientific standpoint? It may seem that these questions are unimportant, but there are just as many routes to Philosophy as there are interpretations of its very meaning; knowing where you stand currently will help you determine which direction to walk toward.
Being utterly honest with yourself and digging deeply into your motives will not only help you develop your understanding of Philosophy in general, it is also an exercise in Philosophy itself. If you find the idea of introspection, questioning your motives, and being utterly honest with yourself unattractive, then, well, you should probably stay away from the subject. That said, if you find such inquiry interesting, then you may discover taking up Philosophy to be your best decision so far.
Clarifying your motives and what you hope to discover in Philosophy will help you make decisions about what books to read, what people to follow, what movies to watch, what to think about, what to write about, etc. In other words, it will marshal your energies onto the right path, it will align you, it will make a treacherous journey just a little bit smoother; it will also be much more enjoyable.
The alternative is to take an unstructured, sporadic, inefficient and directionless dive into the muscular and unyielding currents; whilst this may eventually lead you somewhere, you’ll more likely end up either burned out—from not knowing whom to listen to, who to trust, what to think, etc—or worse, following the dangerous and harmful counsel of the likes of Derrida, Marx, and even Nietzsche (although, read properly, some of his work is beautiful, profound, uniquely symbolic).
The upshot of what I am saying is this: find out what it is about Philosophy that interests, inspires, intrigues you—and go with that. For example, if you are mathematically inclined you may find compelling the works of Gödel, Newton, Wittgenstein, Leibniz, or more recently Bertrand Russell and Nassim Taleb. Similarly, if you are into Science, a good introduction may come from Newton, Francis Bacon, Descartes, Kune, Herbert Spencer, Karl Popper or more recently, David Deutsch. If you are more artsy, romantic or poetically disposed, Lao Tzu, Khalil Gibran, Goethe, Rumi, or more recently, Alain de Botton are fantastic choices. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are of a straightforward, prosaic, blunt, stoic nature, there is nothing better than Seneca, Montaigne and Cicero; also prosaic but considerably more dense are the works of Bertrand Russell, Carl Jung, and more recently, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Christopher Hitchens and Charlie Munger.
Regarding which books, simply do a little research into each of their most significant writings—and read them. There is also another—harder, but notbaly more fruitful—way of reading Philosophy, namely, by picking a figure and reading their works in chronological order. With Nietzsche, for example, you would read first and foremost his Wikipedia page, then his ‘Birth of Tragedy’ (first important book), then ‘Untimely Meditations’, then ‘Human, All Too Human’—and so on.
I’ve given you a lot to work with there, which may be intimidating if your Philosophic knowledge is still embryonic. So here is an easier, less intimidating reading list to open you up to what Philosophy is generally about:
- The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho (This isn’t Philosophy, per se, but is a fascinating read that contains much Philosophical wisdom and insight.)
- The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton (Also check out Alain’s organisation The School of Life, which has a fantastic youtube channel about all things Philosophy.)
- Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu (If you’re serious, start with this and then re-read if after reading the others—you will read it completely differently. Then you will understand why it is such a brilliant piece of work.)
- All of Seneca’s letters, but start with ‘On the Shortness of Life’, ‘Consolation to Helvia’, and ‘On Tranquility of Mind’.
- The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran (Just like the Tao Te Ching, this is a short but very deep book, and will read differently every time you pick it up.)
- The Philosophy Book, DK Publishing (This will give you a very brief but useful intro to most of the prominent figures in Philosophy.)
- Meditations, Marcus Aurelius (The fascinating and amusing diary of a man who was at one point the most powerful and important man in the world.)
When you are ready—when Philosophy is running through your veins—there is nothing better than Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Russell was a remarkably clear and profoundly deep thinker, and he took the impossible task of unearthing the whole history of Western Philosophy, fully comprehending it, and explaining it, quite beautifully, to the Layman in about 1500 pages. His way of writing and explaining difficult ideas is almost alien (David Deutsch of Oxford University is very similar), and it makes this book one of the most gratifying reads ever. This doesn’t make it easy, of course—it is a very difficult book in spite of Russell’s explanatory talents—but it does make the struggle far less strugglesome. There is no book—at least that I am aware of—that compares to this masterpiece when it comes to combining depth, lucidity and utility; it will take some beating. It is simply excellent. Of course, the perfect sequence would be to start with this book; but without any previous exposure to Philosophy or History, ‘overwhelming’, would be a grave understatement.
Finally, it helps to define what Philosophy actually is. The best way to think of it is as a medium between the certainties of religion and the uncertainties of Science. Over the thousands of years since its birth, Philosophy has taken on several different meanings and served many more different functions; before Science, for example, Philosophy was Science (or vice versa). Hence, being aware of Philosophy’s evolution is important, especially when studying older texts, schools and individuals.
Despite much debate and irresolution, the role of Philosophy today, in my opinion, is quite clear. Religion is build upon a foundation of certainties—rigid, fixed, unchanging ideas about the cosmos, morality, heaven and hell, etc. Science, on the other hand, is built upon a ‘foundation’ of uncertain belief1—changeable, unfixed, fluctuating, subject to experimentation. Philosophy sits both over and in between these two pillars of civilisation: on the one hand, it applies the art of critical inquiry to religion, helping us separate wheat from chaff; on the other hand, it helps Science decide where to focus its energies, and determine what its discoveries mean in the practical and moral sense. You could say, I suppose, that Philosophy injects uncertainty into religion, and aspects of certainty into Science.
Philosophy is a never-ending rabbit hole of allurement, inquiry, discovery, thrill, despair, and everything else you can imagine. It deals with arguably the most important concern of all, Human Nature, and it does so within historical, practical, moral, Scientific, poetic, mathematical and usually, skeptical frameworks; not only does this make it enjoyable, it makes it worthwhile, meaningful, rewarding, and most importantly, relevant. Philosophy will develop your thinking skills; it will help you live more fulfilling, rich and purposeful life; it will make you a better person, by showing you the way to virtue; it will dramatically improve your understanding of this strange but wonderful world in which we all live; it will enhance your ability to understand things which you do not yet know; and it will improve your relationships with nature, with yourself, and with others, by teaching you the fundamentals of human nature.
It will not be easy, however; there are just as many difficult, painful to swallow, disgusting, immoral and barbaric elements to Philosophy as there are elements of beauty, richness, profundity, value and practicality. Living is fundamentally about finding meaning through all the chaos, struggle, and disarray that is life itself; that unfolds when we just ‘leave things be’, on an individual or societal level. In this sense, the dark side of Philosophy is just as crucial as the bright. The value in Philosophy—like in life—is working through the darkness and making sense of things.
History attests to what modern Science now proves: the sufferable, dark and barbaric side of human history stems from our ill-equipped and brutish nature, that is, from our animal biology. Meaning and Purpose, for Apes (from which we have evolved2), is basically this: eat, sleep, fight, kill, survive; to reproduce, and to either rule or follow. But this is not how we (the conscious humans) think about Meaning and Purpose today. The problem is that we don’t actually know how to think about them—that is, we don’t have a satisfying and general answer. But whilst we don’t have an agreed upon answer, our biology does, and it is not pleasant—and will step up to the plate at any given opportunity.
But there is an answer, in my opinion, and it is thus: Meaning and Purpose, for us morality concerned, caring and conscious beings, is to be found in overcoming this ill-equipped nature of our biology, this kept-under-the-hood but inescapable dark side of human nature, this inescapable reality that life is, by definition, struggle. Even for our ancestors it was a struggle, and they (depending how far you go back) were less concerned with Morality and rationality than us; seen as these modern concerns are not part of our hundred-thousand-year-old biology, it is understandable that life is hard: we are making it so. But we must—and will—continue, because the alternative is to go back to our savage roots.
Continuing the struggle, however, does not mean we cannot live deeply meaningful lives and that we must live miserably with the reality that we are all selfish, cynical beings, ill-prepared for our own conscious desires and needs–quite the contrary: it is overcoming the obstacles, in the very struggle that is life itself, that we find, that only can we find, the deep meaning and purpose our spirit so violently cries out for.
A life void of emotion is depression; that is, emotion and depression cannot co-exist in the same person. The first step out of depression, therefore, is to ‘reawaken’ oneself, to reopen one’s eyes to the struggle of life, to feel pain and need and want. The next step is to take responsibility for it within one’s own life. The final step is to take action. Meaning, purpose, bliss, joy and happiness are to be found in the last step. A more common state is unhappiness, which is not depression; unhappiness is fuel.
That meaning and purpose can only be felt through action, through taking responsibility, and through struggle is, still, a generalisation. The specifics are too great in number to discuss, but examples include: teaching others, through writing, lecturing or otherwise; in caring for others, through medicine, nursing, or personal care; in charity work; in building a company that provides real benefit to humanity; in art, be it music, storytelling, dance, poetry, film, painting, drawing, or any other form of creative expression.
…You’re teetering on the edge of the diving board. You’ve just be informed of the temperature, a little about the depth, and even less about the currents. You know why you are there (you think), and you have well-rehearsed your diving technique. But only you can take the plunge. Will you?
- a better way of explaining Science would be as a philosophy of uncertain belief, but this is confusing because it uses the very word we are trying to define
- We have evolved from wild Apes; wild apes are savages. Even if you do not believe in evolution, consider the fact that humans and Apes have ≈99% identical DNA.