How many people want to start learning about philosophy but don't know where to start?
We often assume that philosophers are born and not made. But, like us, most of them had a moment where things started to get interesting for them. I hated scotch for years and then I found the one scotch that opened up my world. So often it just takes a whiff of something amazing to open up an entirely new part of the world.
How can you get interested in philosophy? What reading makes sense?
Twenty-eight of the world's most important philosophers were asked1 which three books influenced them the most while undergraduate students.
Take a look at some of the responses and maybe you'll find the one book that pulls you in and opens up a new world.
The three most popular answers were:
- Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
- Critique of Pure Reason by Kant
- Dialogues by Plato
Some notable individual responses were:
Daniel Dennett (Tufts University):
“I got to study with Quine and Ryle, but Wittgenstein had died before I encountered his work”.
Shelly Kagan (Yale University):
Catch 22, Joseph Heller: “This is a novel, a work of fiction. It is a humorous book, though it is very dark humor, and the perspective gets progressively darker as the novel moves along. It is set in World War II, and portrays an American soldier who is desperately trying to stay alive while dealing with the insane military bureaucracy and the impossible-to-satisfy demands it makes upon him. But the book speaks to something larger that we all face from time to time, in that it portrays the difficulty and importance of staying whole and sane in a job–or society, or world–that is often both hostile and irrational.”
Night, Elie Wiesel: “This is a work of nonfiction, a memoir, though it is written in a highly terse almost poetic literary style. It recounts the author’s experiences during the Holocaust, when as a young Jewish teen he was shipped to the concentration camp in Auschwitz. This book is haunting and at times unbearably sad, and for me it serves as a unforgettable lesson in how appallingly cruel people can be –and continue to be– to one another.” (Editors note: I found Man's Search for Meaning was better.)
Critique of Religion and Philosophy, Walter Kaufmann: “This is a work of philosophy, written by one of my teachers in graduate school, although I first read it as an undergraduate several years earlier. The book offers unusually penetrating accounts of both philosophy and of religion, and most centrally it criticizes the common tendency to give lip service to one’s religion without taking its various teachings and claims seriously. Kaufmann was not himself a religious man, but he was a serious student of religion, and he knew it was too important to treat in the typical superficial manner.”
Dialogues, Plato: “This is a cheat, because of course this isn’t a single book, but a collection of books, or more properly, dialogues, by the first great philosopher of the western tradition. What I have in mind in particular are the early Socratic dialogues and those that portray Socrates’ last days (like the Apology, or the Crito or Phaedo). In these works, Plato paints a breathtaking portrait of his own teacher, Socrates, as someone who cared about philosophy so completely that he was willing to die for it, rather than give it up. It was this portrait that first persuaded me that the life of the philosopher was both noble and admirable, and something to which I could aspire”.
Derek Parfit (Oxford University):
Methods of Ethics, Henry Sidwick
Utilitarianism, J. S. Mill
The View from Nowhere, Thomas Nagel: “my favourite book published in the 20th Century, and which seems to me to make many very interesting claims about fundamental philosophical questions”.