I am trying to go through a semi-rigorous self-teaching regimen, and I was wondering if I could get some criticism on my approach.

I'm interested in philosophy of economics, social philosophy, and political philosophy. Unfortunately, the breadth of my understanding in general is somewhat lacking, and I have resorted to a chronological method for getting into these subjects (start with Plato's Laws, The Republic, Statesman, etc. Then move on to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, and so on).

I noticed that Karl Marx, John Locke, and others make constant reference to the work of Plato, Aristotle, and the Roman philosophers, so my thinking was that it would be prudent to familiarize myself with those texts before I dive into authors beyond the 16th century. Is this a bad way to approach philosophy?

Would it be a good idea to get an introduction to political philosophy text instead? I've asked around on different forums for suggested reading, and people suggest a little bit out of one book, and a little bit out another. There's a sea of knowledge out there and navigation seems impossible for the uninitiated. Should I focus on individual problems, individual authors, or individual ideas? Should I proceed by interest or chronologically?

Sorry if this is all over the place!

  • 2
    I think proceeding by interest is much better. Chronology in most cases is useless because ideas are not organized in this way. On the other hand your one point of interest may eventually lead to almost any good ideas on the subject of political philosophy in general. I say go by interest. But be devoted to it. Imagine you are in prison -- you have infinity ahead of you and just one book of interest. Eat it slowly.
    – Asphir Dom
    Commented May 10, 2014 at 21:40
  • Last but not least -- Karl is good, why you don't like him? As a starting point.
    – Asphir Dom
    Commented May 10, 2014 at 21:41
  • What problem are you interested in solving?
    – alanf
    Commented May 12, 2014 at 12:05

2 Answers 2


Start with whose writing you find interesting, and look up who they reference. As you read & criticise - and criticism is a must and will happen naturally as different thinkers will contest the same ground, or throw different perspectives. You should begin also to find which questions interest you the most; and try to engage it with contemporary history & politics. Its worth making notes, because the process of writing articulates what has been understood and what hasn't been understood; and also its personal to you and your own thinking.

The best writers will cover a range of problems will be influenced by a whole host of writers and will be influential themselves.

One reason to start from the past is that posterity has already passed some measure of judgement and found there work still worth reading and understanding. Whereas the contemporary situation is opaque, difficult and confused - its in the process of being understood.

One shouldn't read linearly, but on the other-hand one shouldn't read haphazardly. Find out which books in the secondary literature are worth reading that brings out new developments in an established thinker. Its not just the primary texts that are important. I'd suggest reading the secondary literature with the primary texts to hand as a possible method.

I'd also recommend the arts that take the political into account. For example, political biographies - Nelson Mandelas Long Walk to Freedom, is beautifully written and places that period and site of decolonisation in personal & historical context; also political films such as Battle of Algiers or fables and novels - Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brave New World or Doctor Strangelove. The cultural is political - apart from contemporary Anglo-American poetry that seems to have returned to the womb of subjective feelings and intensities. This wasn't always the case - Shelley for example wrote political poetry.

  • "One shouldn't read linearly, but on the other-hand one shouldn't read haphazardly." Good advice. +1
    – obelia
    Commented May 11, 2014 at 23:59

I would add to above that even the anglo-American turning inwards is itself political. My view is that it is a cowardly trauma-response, a fear of confronting the world in poetry, together with a crippling doubt that poetry is not worth writing in such a world (the worst of this sort of work meditates on this very doubt, so it becomes, not even poetry about writing poetry but poetry about the impossibility of writing poetry. Such things can only please the ivory tower.) So much of it seems to be an example of Vico's barbarism of reflection—a cancerous excess of self-consciousness that rots a civilization from within. I view it as vital for poets to courageously face today's earth in all its invigorating horror, which is why I really like Frederick Seidel.

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