I want to read philosophical texts, however I have not done so because I am daunted by the prospect of it. I guess this stems from the nature of ideas, that is they are usually in dialogue with other ideas that have preceded them. Ideas don't exist in vacuums, given this we must be acquainted with what has come before in order to make sense of what is being said in any given text. This is like falling into a rabbit hole; most ideas are connected, so where does one actually stop? The descent is seemingly infinite, given this where should one start reading?

A good reading of a philosophical text to me would require you to identifying, analyse and evaluate all the arguments being expounded upon. But this is made difficult for two reason:

  1. What I have said about ideas being referential
  2. The jargon: most philosophical text use baffling jargon, which adds another hurdle in comprehending a text

In essence I feel that you need to versed in the culture of philosophical ideas in order to fully understand them. Philosophy is challenging, I've accepted that, but how do I tackle the challenge? I'm particularly interested in the philosophers of the Enlightenment period.

So my questions are:

  1. What are the prerequisites to reading the progenitors of enlightenment era philosophy?
  2. What texts, ideas, arguments must I be familiar with before I can grapple with the ideas these philosophers present?
  3. Where is a good place to start?
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    It has been said that all Western Philosophy is founded on successive rejections of Plato. Given that, I'd suggest Plato as an introduction to reading any other Western philosopher. – Chris Sunami Apr 14 '15 at 17:31
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    It would also be helpful to know who/what specifically in enlightenment philosophy you want to read. That would affect what background knowledge is necessary. – virmaior Apr 18 '15 at 2:19

I strongly suggest Stephen Toulmin's Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. He presents philosophy, politics, society, and the conflicts which [he claims] powerfully drove Enlightenment thinkers to think Enlightenment things. He explains the "Quest for Certainty" (also known as the "Cartesian anxiety") as a reaction to the incredible certainty of the Protestants and Catholics which thwarted successful dialog and resulted in war. There are two options: (i) critique the certainty; (ii) come up with something more certain, to compete. This historical sketch fits well with observations such as the following:

The case of Leibniz gives us some clues to the underlying things at stake for many of those who dreamed this same dream. As a boy, Leibniz tells us, he conceived of what he called a characteristic universalis—or "universal system of characters"—that would be able to "express all our thoughts". Such a system, he declared,

will constitute a new language which can be written and spoken. This language will be very difficult to construct, but very easy to learn. It will be quickly accepted by everybody on account of its great utility and its surprising facility, and it will serve wonderfully in communication among various peoples.


Nowadays, we can hopefully see this for the naïveté it deserves. This doesn't keep people from asking about constructed languages, but I think history has taught us that language and culture are deeply intertwined. To provide a bit more of an idea of what Cosmopolis discusses:

    In the three hundred years after 1660, the natural sciences did not march along a royal road, defined by a rational method. They moved in a zigzag, alternating the rationalist methods of Newton's mathematics and the empiricist methods of Bacon's naturalism. (104)

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