In order to study computer programming, it is clear what concepts one should study first (for example, if-statements, for-loops, classes, objects, etc.). By comparison, it is not evident what topics one should begin studying philosophy with.

Can somebody suggest a down-to-earth learning approach for philosophy?


16 Answers 16


If you have a college nearby, you could take an Intro to Philosophy class. I took one last semester and enjoyed it so much that I'm picking it up as a second major. The benefit of an intro class is that you:

  1. Learn basic terminology and concepts prevalent throughout philosophy.
  2. Are introduced to a wide range of different philosophies, from Socrates all the way up to 20th century philosophy. At some point in all of this, you should be able to find a particular author or school of philosophy with which you strongly agree and which you greatly enjoy. I personally found existentialist authors like Camus and Sartre to my liking.

  3. Your professor probably won't be speaking in obscure, convoluted language, unlike many authors themselves. Therefore, for example, you can gain a strong idea of Kant's philosophy without having to trudge through The Critique of Pure Reason, which can be a challenge.

Barring attendance to an actual university, aspiring philosophers today have a huge resource at their disposal: the internet. You can find many complete lecture series online. While you don't have the benefit of having an actual professor on hand to answer your questions, there is still much available to be learned this way. Here are some links:

And there are plenty lectures (video or just audio) "shared" online if you know where to look...

  • Thanks @Josh1billion for the OpenCulture.com link. I'm downloading www.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/podcasts/philosophy_for_beginners Looking forward to watching it.
    – SBel
    Jan 20, 2012 at 1:44

Two preliminary suggestions: First, either take a good course in symbolic logic, or work your way through a good introductory course in symbolic logic. If you opt for the self-study approach, we can discuss books. Pat Suppes's is a good one, but there are lots of others.

Second, browse around in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/. (Full disclosure: I work for the encyclopedia.)

I'm happy to continue this discussion, here or elsewhere.

  • 7
    Furthermore: Suppose you're still feeling overwhelmed. What questions in philosophy most interest you? What's your motivation? Why do you want to learn philosophy? What do you think philosophy is? Do you have an example in mind, some text that has excited you, or some teacher who has inspired you, or some question that really has its teeth in you? Tell us more. Aug 28, 2012 at 2:19

I might suggest an alternative to taking a college course: you might be able to find a community philosophy discussion group at meetup.com. One common meetup is Socrates Café, which aims for philosophical discussion without some of the pretentiousness that they sometimes come with it.

I'd also recommend a few books:

  1. Edward Craig, Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (2002)
  2. Jostein Gaarder, Sophie's World (1991)
  3. Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (1945)

Good luck!


Michael Sandel's public lectures about justice might be a pretty good start, if a course isn't what you're opting for. it's very accessible but asks some tough and questions:


I would suggest having discussions with philosophically interested friends over a beer or two about interesting questions big and small such as for example, "how do we know anything?" or "is it wrong for a necrophiliac to practice what he desires if it was done fully in private and with a fully sanitized and well preserved cadaver that has given consent before death? if not, why not?" You might not get anywhere, but it's pretty fun with the right company, and you get a taste of what philosophers have to get good at.

You can talk about some of the reasonably down to earth questions given in introductory lectures like Sandel's or the ones linked to by Josh1billion, or any thing else that might interest you and who ever you're talking philosophy to. As long as at least one of you keep asking a genuine 'why?', you will end up in a pickle (sometimes an interesting philosophical pickle). Resolving and spotting these holes in reasoning, I think, is an important part of the training of a philosopher, no matter which area of philosophy one finds most interesting.

But if you're looking for a rule book, like they give in a programming and such, familiarizing yourself the form of valid arguments will be as close as you can get to that. These will help with spotting where people's reasoning might have gone awry (or are deliberately sneaky.


I don't have a good suggestion for books on argument forms (anyone?).

I also found talking to grad students about their thesis a good way to get up to speed about something I'm not too familiar with. They might appreciate it too, if you ask them the right (interesting) questions.

read the suggested readings of intro course and talk to philosophically inclined folks about what puzzles you will be good too, as it will force you to explain yourself.

what marry didn't know is something that almost everyone reads, almost everyone will form an opinion on but it's actually not that easy to establish your position solidly.

Last but not least the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a philosophy student's best reference (for all those confusing terms). It's free, online and the articles are written by professional philosophers.


I was first introduced to philosophy was when I was eleven. I had a teacher at my school who extremely enjoyed philosophy and he introduced me to Aristotle. As my knowledge was extremely limited at that age we began discussing nothing more than very major philosophical ideas. Something you have no doubt done for you to be interested in philosophy. From then on I tried to read other philosophical texts but I simply could not interpret them to any significant degree. It was five years later that I joined a philosophy class in high school. From this class I was introduced to many texts that have further increased my interest in philosophy.

Now, what does this mean to you?

I found that starting very generally and conversing with others about philosophy was a great starting point. This site is an amazing resource for that. After try to pick up the "simpler" texts. By this I mean the message itself can be seen either plainly, or the author's true intention discovered without great knowledge of the subject. My first major text was the Republic of Plato which I have related to quite a bit in my philosophical studies. Finally the thing that will complete your philosophical studies is discussion. No matter how well you analyse the text discussing with others will open up underlying messages in the text.

Good Luck, and enjoy your love of wisdom


I think before picking any particular philosophy, it's better to aim for a broad understanding of the history of philosophy, particularly as it has developed in the West. I also highly recommend Sophie's World: it is a very entertaining novel, and all the while offers in simple language a very good understanding of some of the core ideas of important philosophers. Once you become familiar with what philosophy is all about, you can either
1) pick a more thorough treatment of its history by reading Russell or Durant's books,
or 2) start reading some of the essentials.
Here is a pretty standard road map: Plato: Republic
Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, or Categories and Metaphysics if you are brave)
Descartes: Meditations,
Spinoza: Ethics,
Hume: Treatise concerning human understanding,
Kant: Critique of pure reason,
Schopenhauer: The world as a will and representation,
Wittgenstein: Tractatus,
Heidegger: read being and time if you are brave, otherwise at least read a few of his essays such as the origin of the meaning of art, or the question concerning technology.

You also need to read commentaries as not all of these texts are accessible, but get used to, and don't be afraid of, reading original texts, for which there is no substitute. A great collection of commentaries on various subjects is Stanford's Encyclopedia as well as Cambridge companion series.

You may find some of these philosophers (e.g., Heidegger) to be outright lunatics, but do make an effort to read something from them.

Lastly, this is not an easy journey and will likely take many years, and you are more likely to give up in the middle. But even if you do, you will probably come out with something valuable. Remember that philosophy is an activity.


As others have suggested, the best alternative is to take a college class.

If this is impossible, I'd strongly recommend Jay Garfield's video series on "The Meaning of Life". It's not cheap, but Jay's a brilliant scholar and an excellent teacher (I studied with him a few decades ago), and the course is a great introduction to how to read philosophy.

  • Michael, thanks for the suggestion, however there are 2 reasons why I will not do that: (1) the money and (2) the preview I don't like anyway.
    – SBel
    Jan 20, 2012 at 14:29

I'd recommend two podcasts so you can dip your toes in and work out what bits og philosophy interest you, it's a very wide subject as you're no doubt aware.

I'd reccommend the Partially Examined Life and Philosophy Bites.


Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is very boolean. He is also very humorous. Schopenhauer is also very solid, and does not engage useless questions.


I cannot recommend Molyneux, as he is quite evil, and a bit silly. Like that Infowars guy. From wikipedia:

Cult accusations According to Steven Hassan, a licensed mental health counselor with experience on cults, "Partly what's going on with the people on the Internet who are indoctrinated, they spend lots of hours on the computer. Videos can have them up all night for several nights in a row. Molyneux knows how to talk like he knows what he's talking about—despite, this author believes; very little academic research. He cites this and cites that, and presents it as the whole truth. It dismantles people's sense of self and replaces it with his sense of confidence about how to fix the world."[4]


I have a different approach to this. Try to get hold of a college course textbook. It is usually more wide based and less 'technical' than books authored by Kant and Nietzche that are usually quite heavy and are aimed towards advanced readers. Some universities that I know of use certain books not just for their brevity but also for their ability to keep all topics in perspective, so you can choose which topic interests you further and then pick up a book dedicated to the same. My suggestions are

To iterate, try to browse through some general books like the above and then branch out to your favourite reads. It's usually easier and less overwhelming that way, than to go to a bookstore and browse through authors like Hume or Heidegger. It will also help to keep things in perspective.


I have never seen a better source for understanding and really learning philosophy than Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy. It's very easy to read and enjoyable.

I did read it a few years ago and still remember all the details thanks to the story line. I strongly recommend it to anybody who wants to get close to philosophy through reading an adventure novel.

  • 1
    We already had that one.
    – iphigenie
    Jan 12, 2014 at 17:53

I definitely recommend starting with Sophie's World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy to get an understanding of the very nature of philosophy and its evolution throughout history.

After that, I recommend taking a look at Waking Life to get an overview of where millennia of philosophy has brought us.


It's difficult.

Most philosophy courses teach the History of philosophy instead of just what the basic fundamentals are and what leading ideas are. Classes that follow people instead of ideas tend to be a waste of time.

In a nutshell you have:

  • Metaphysics (3 principles: identity, non-contradiction, and excluded middle)
    • Logic (logical fallacies, syllogisms, etc.)
    • Epistemology (how we know what we know)

These branch out widely very quickly, for instance:

  • Logic -> Mathamtics...
  • Epistemology -> Axiology -> Ethics & Aesthetics -> Psychology & Politics

I recommend the small/skinny books:

  • The Philosopher's Toolkit
  • The The Ethics Toolkit

I got started with Stefan Molyneux. He's very consistent in that he stays with the evidence and logic. Here is his Introduction to Philosophy series.

  • Could you spell out who "he" is rather than making people click a link?
    – virmaior
    Jun 26, 2017 at 5:22

Going to class is not essential, there are some great resources on the internet.

I would suggest you cover a basic history of philosophy - from Socrates to Satre - for a more general overview. There are many books about this topic (some even named From Socrates to Satre!).

If you're interested in ethics: I would suggest you start by covering the basics of ethical systems: starting with Kantian deontology and Utilitarianism. It is also key that when learning ethics you learn Hume's Is-Ought distinction and major failing point for philosophy students.

Learn the basic terminology, you can do this by browsing Wikipedia articles on philosophy.

I would highly recommend that you read A Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics for an introduction to Kant, take it with a pinch of salt, as some of his mathematical work has been falsified.

P.S. The Stanford Encyclopaedia on Philosophy is a great resource.

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