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I'm self-learning philosophy, but am untrained in linguistics, and fear obscurantism. So I prefer and find more helpful 'paraphrases': (which I define to mean) other philosophers' rewrites and glosses, of the originals, in enjoyable plain simple 20th-21st century English (or French).
Should I read the paraphrases before the original philosophical works? I assume:

1. that the author is a fair, learned philosopher, who genuinely tries to explain and simplify the original work, dispassionately and objectively.

2. the availability of (cheap!) such paraphrases.

3. the important worth in reading the originals, but dearth of time prevents reading both the original and paraphrase.

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    Assumption #1 is a big one... I'd suggest reading the original and looking for help from other sources if you get stuck. However, since you are starting from zero, "paraphrases" will be the quickest way to get started and build a base. – ProfessorFluffy Jun 22 '15 at 21:37
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    The University of Chicago always uses the original works (translated if necessary) in their course curriculums never with editorials. Oliver Wendel Holmes, considered by many as the greatest US Supreme Court judge, taught himself (when in his 90s) to read ancient Greek so he could read Plato in the original. – Swami Vishwananda Jun 23 '15 at 5:28
  • The royal road to philosophy is the history of philosophy, reading original sources without context can be as misleading as reading a loaded commentary. If you are eager to jump in start with Plato's dialogues, few philosophers write as lucidly, and after all "Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato" (this is Whitehead's joke with a big kernel of truth), Republic is a good one to start with. Friedman's book Parting of the Ways is a good introduction into Kant and post-Kantian thought, he is not neutral, nobody is, but he is fair to viewpoints of others, and a good explainer. – Conifold Jun 23 '15 at 18:48
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    As someone engaged in a late-in-life self-tutelage in philosophy, I sympathize. I decided just to spend somewhat luxuriously on books, so I get glosses, commentaries, and originals. For someone like Badiou or Frege, say, I always read a short overview first to see if I want to invest time in the originals. For many philosophers, you can get a dictionary of terms, and I find these very helpful for Kant, et al. I read Hegel's "Science of Logic" at weekly readings with others (read 10 pages aloud, discuss) and it was very good way to deal with a difficult text. – Nelson Alexander Sep 17 '15 at 20:02
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Whether it's useful to start with a paraphrase or the original text of historical philosophical works depends entirely, I am sorry to say, on your goals and your background. More helpfully, however: if you are a relative newcomer to Philosophy or to an area or period of Philosophy, it is usually preferable to start with an overview. Philosophers generally write to participate in a larger conversation, and generally speaking you will miss a lot if you don't have some sense of how that conversation has gone before the point when they enter it.

Of course, there are goals for which I would recommend the opposite. For example: If you have as a goal understanding what Jeremy Bentham meant by "pleasure," read Bentham. He's a clear writer in English, on a relatively non-technical topic, and you'd need to see the details of his phrasing to fulfill your goal. If you have little background in Philosophy, but want to know what Kant thinks about cognition, by all means start with an overview or paraphrase. (Challenging writer, originally in German, on a technical topic, about which you don't necessarily need to see the text to get a good sense.)

Incidentally, if you happen to be interested in early modern and modern Philosophy, especially European Philosophy from 1500–1900, I strongly recommend looking at the Early Modern Texts site developed by Philosopher Jonathan Bennett. He has translated or smoothed historical texts into contemporary English, vastly improving legibility, generally — and especially for introductory purposes — with little loss or alteration of meaning. They do not pretend to be definitive versions for scholars, but they generally make a first experience of a historical text much more pleasant.

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  1. Assumption 1 is almost impossible to guarantee. I fell into that trap when I first got started on Nietzsche. Your best bet, short of investing in reading the original, is making sure that you examine several (as independent from each other as possible) sources on the same topic/philosopher.
  2. The originals are usually cheaper than the modern guides to them, because the copyrights have expired. In my case, on the Amazon Kindle, the originals are free, compared to modern commentary on them which can be quite pricey.
  3. Try to go through some overview courses on a specific topic, then choose which original you want to read. You won't be able to cover everything in one lifetime. I am sure that you can find short lists of necessary reads for a given topic.
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    Though as a caveat, if one is reading the work in a language rather than the original, the free translations are sometimes much poorer than recent ones. – virmaior Jun 22 '15 at 23:59
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    Independent of any personal feelings about Heidegger, this would be a stronger answer without the postscript. You should move that to a comment on the original question. I'd be happy to upvote the rest. – Chris Sunami Jun 23 '15 at 13:32
  • Staying away from Being and Time is a good advice for a beginner, one would need to read up on Heidegger a lot before attempting that. A better entry point would be his short essays, or the What is Metaphysics lecture. – Conifold Jun 23 '15 at 18:33
  • @Conifold It's still specific advice in response to a general question, and it doesn't read as objective, even if there are reasons behind it, because those reasons aren't provided. – Chris Sunami Jun 23 '15 at 19:59
  • Thanks @Conifold for defending my position, but my original intent was a misplaced attempt at humor. I am removing it per Chris Sunami recommendation. – Alexander S King Jun 23 '15 at 20:26
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I don't think that reading a more recent rewrite is going to be helpful, or is even necessarily a good idea.

If the paraphrase is simpler, then that means that either they are missing some details, or they are taking ten words when one will do. Furthermore, what you are reading is not what the original philosopher wrote, it is what someone else thought they wrote, which means additional details might have been added (even accidentally) because of the biases/opinion/culture of the interpreter.

If you find the original too hard to read, then by all means read a later book, just keep in mind that what you are reading is not "the philosophy of X as explained by Y", it is "the philosophy of Y, inspired by X".

If your goal is just to get a broad overview of the subject, I'd suggest not even bothering with interpretations of specific philosophers. Instead, look for books that are specifically designed to provide an overview - i.e. "the history of existentialism" rather than "the philosophy of Sartre".

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    +1 I'm not sure why this garnered a downvote, this is a strong answer that directly addresses the main question. Maybe people object to the blanket "no" at the beginning. If I were you, I'd edit that out, it makes your answer feel more didactic than it actually is. – Chris Sunami Jun 23 '15 at 13:29
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    I personally feel this reads much better. Tone is often as important to a well-received answer as content. – Chris Sunami Jun 23 '15 at 13:42
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A paraphrase can be helpful, but don't assume it's correct.

Any commentary on philosophy is unavoidably a philosophical work itself, with its own perspective. This can often be useful (it might give you insight you would never have gained on your own), but it should never be taken as definitive. Philosophers can seem very different in different eras (or through different eyes), simply because different aspects of their work are highlighted or ignored.

As Benubird noted, if you've read only Y's paraphrase of X, you shouldn't consider yourself to have read X, no matter how good Y is. As far as which to read first, I would personally recommend starting with the original, and reading the paraphrase in parallel if the original proves too difficult or obscure.

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The posted answers provide some valuable guidance.

On a more practical note, I would suggest that you have a look at the Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction series. There are almost a hundred books in their philosophy series. These include books on almost all of the major philosophers, schools, and subjects. Here is a link to their philosophy offerings. They are reasonably cheap at $10 - $11 on amazon, where they appear to be popular and well reviewed.

I must confess that I have not read any books in the philosophy series, but I have read many in their science series and they are generally very well written distillations by well regarded experts in each area.

  • The ones on Hegel and Marx are terrific. – Colin McLarty Jun 23 '15 at 12:44
  • The series format allows the writer a bit of essayistic leeway, as opposed to a school aid format. This is good, but makes them very hit and miss. I've found many of the philosophy texts good, even for philosophers I've read. – Nelson Alexander Sep 17 '15 at 19:53
  • @NelsonAlexander Yes, this has been my recent experience. I purchased two in the philosophy series in August. One was a hit (Consciousness); the other a bit of a miss (Knowledge), though not without its merits I found it a bit unfocused and rambling. – Nick R Sep 17 '15 at 20:42
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I think this is a good working assumption; but as one of the other posters have suggested one ought to get a good overview of the subject before deciding and finding what kind of philosophy or philosophers you like.

I find the IEP give good summaries of philosophical subjects at a good level; and they are fair and objective. Also Philosophy without gaps is a set of podcasts by Professor Peter Adamson that gives a great over-view of a broad slew of philosophy which unlike that hoary old chestnut, Russell's History of Western Philosophy covers both Philosophy through Antiquity, Latindom and the Western World - this is philosophy's natural domain; his book of this just covers Antiquity to Europe - and can be considered an update of Russell's book.

Reading the original can sometimes be enlightening, but it very much depends on the specific text; and one's own temperament and situation - for example someone I know admitted to me recently what he liked about Nietzsche mostly was his use of language - and this is because he has an artistic/romantic temperament; I've found that Aristotle's probing of the natural world from 'first principles' in his Physics/Metaphysics (translation by Sorabji) enlightening - but then I am trained in the natural sciences.

One ought to be aware that it's not just what Philosophers have said, but how they have been interpreted that is (and can more) important; one doesn't for example understand Marx as a pure philosopher of economics without understanding how it has manifested itself in the political domain - in which case some political philosophy and history would be useful - plus a counter-narrative to provide critique.

To give an illustration from my own subject specialism; no one reads Newton these days to learn Newtonian Mechanics, with the proviso that when it comes to the philosophy of space/time/matter in which case people like Barbour have and this is because he has a specific interest in Aristotle's notion of time as an aspect of motion, filtered through Mach.

And to add to user Alexander S King's warning here, beware of being advised to read difficult texts by famously difficult philosophers; even with commentary they're virtually impossible to understand without being 'initiated' into how to read it, and how they have been read.

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Yes, read paraphrases first. Your curiosity, intelligence and power of independent critical thinking will prevent you from having your views of an author or work utterly contaminated, either by making you an uncritical admirer, or by putting you off completely. It won't happen. All right, you may be misled on some details, but probably only at a level that would cause lively discussion with your teacher if you were studying formally. Most important: you will find your way to the aspects of philosophy, and to the philosophers, who will interest you most.
Then you can go to the originals.
Another suggestion: before the paraphrases, read an overview of the subject, such as Scruton's. A broad sense of the history of the subject, and of the context in which individual philosophers worked, can greatly increase your pleasure and interest, as well as helping you to find the writers whom you'd benefit most from getting to know directly through their works.
I hadn't read Berkeley for almost 40 years, and was recently reminded about him in reading a general work. What a delight to go back and meet him again after so long.

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