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We are living in an unprecedented era of philosophical research and development where "big thought" is once again everywhere. And yet I feel like I hear this question so often:

Where to begin studying contemporary philosophy, where are the most helpful (accessible/"friendly") places to begin?

Of course there are introductory books, but I'm trying to get a sense of what primary texts have proven the most useful, whether in providing inspiration to students at the undergraduate level or just in terms of providing a stronger socio-historical understanding of the role of philosophy and the various recent movements and so on.

(This question is not "what is your favorite work of philosophy and why". I'm looking for a well-reasoned argument in favor of a particular text that would provide a good introduction to beginning students.)

  • Books, reference materials, finding out who the contemprary philosephers are and their works and results, where can one find those? – Arjang Jun 10 '11 at 0:05
  • Out of curiosity, what kind of "big thought" are you thinking of? – Cerberus Jun 10 '11 at 0:51
  • I'm worried my response will be a digression -- I've kept it vague to avoid biasing the answers as there are several emerging movements in contemporary philosophy. – Joseph Weissman Jun 10 '11 at 0:58

11 Answers 11

14

Without a doubt, Bertrand Russell's two books: The Problems of Philosophy and History of Western Philosophy - not only are they introductions to timeless problems, the purpose and methods of philosophy, but they also present philosophical perspectives of their very own.

The bias is of course towards Western and analytic philosophy but Russell is a remarkably lucid writer and thinker and his exposition should serve as an exemplar for the teaching and popularization of philosophy. If you want to start anywhere, start there.

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    I agree that Problems of Philosophy is a worthwhile choice. The History of Western Philosophy, much less so. There's an old joke: Russell once said that the only philosopher he understood was Leibniz; he wrote the History of Western Philosophy to prove it. – vanden Jun 11 '11 at 22:09
  • @van: Haha. I think you're giving him too much credit. I thought his wife wrote it! – boehj Jun 12 '11 at 0:20
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    The history of western philosophy is a terrible book - but well targeted. It was very popular in its day. – Mozibur Ullah May 9 '13 at 7:54
  • I actually don't recommend Russell's History of WP because its characterization of post-Kantian philosophy is too biased, inaccurate and premature. It will mislead the newly acquainted reader. – Aloysius Dec 24 '13 at 6:10
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    Russell's characterization of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche are very biased. He mentions Henri Bergson, who is a rarely discussed philosopher now. In pre-Kantian philosophy, he has a bias towards mathematics and logic, against metaphysics and religion. Thus he is not a good way to start on because one of the best way to start on philosophy is to begin from metaphysics - questions of religion, existence that forms the basis of wonder and beginnings of philosophy. – Aloysius Dec 24 '13 at 6:42
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Introductory textbooks are far too boring and textbook-y to ever be a good introduction to philosophy. Chances are, there's a reason that these people didn't just take a formal philosophy class, and I'd almost be willing to bet that these textbooks are part of the reason. Not that they're bad, per se, but certainly dry.

But honestly, my experience tells me that the best way to get involved in any field of study is to just throw yourself into it and start trying to learn as much as you can about it. Too much hand-wringing isn't going to do any good, and fretting about how much there [potentially] is that you won't understand is a waste of time. Yes, there will be plenty of things you won't understand. But that's true for all of us when we started. Read the texts you can get your hands on anyway, and absorb the parts that you do understand. You can always come back later once you've further developed your knowledge to pick up the parts you missed.

And to that end, there's no book that I can recommend more highly than Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy. It's sort of like a combination anthology and introductory textbook, but it reads like neither of those things, which is a big win in my book.

As far as the "friendly" or "accessible" guideline, I've long recommended this book to high school freshmen.

More importantly, Durant attempts to show the interconnection of these philosophical ideas, in addition to presenting each as a separate case. The emphasis is placed on how the earlier philosopher's ideas informed the later philosophers, which is both undeniably true and undeniably useful. It also does quite a lot to make the book an interesting read.

And understanding what came before is absolutely crucial to jumping into the field of philosophy. As much interesting stuff as goes on in contemporary philosophy, all of it is based or premised on the work of people who came before. If you don't have at least some basic understanding of the field, it will be next to impossible to keep your head above water reading the works of contemporary philosophers, even though they might refrain from using such words as "thou" or "thine".

Like it or not, philosophy is a decidedly academic discipline, where it's become accepted practice (and some would go so far as to argue necessary) to dress up your thoughts in dense, oddly-worded prose in order for it to be accepted by the "community". That and academics are writing for a far different audience than the rest of the world. In particular, they're writing for each other. They can (and do!) make a lot of assumptions about what the reader is supposed to know, throwing around concepts as if you were as familiar with them as they themselves are. This is quite unlikely for most of us, of course, even fellow academics.

  • I like this answer, except that philosophy is not a decidely academic discipline. Ask Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. – Doug Spoonwood Sep 8 '11 at 20:57
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    The suggested book is on public domain. – Billy Rubina Jul 1 '12 at 6:34
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The question seems to presuppose contemporary sources are the best way in to philosophy. I'd like to reject that assumption.

Much contemporary work is technical and involved and thus not a good entry point. There are plenty of texts written as introductions to the field that aim to be less technical and involved, and some of them are even good. None, however, are clearly as good as many of the classic (and, relatively accessible) works in philosophy.

Someone looking for a way in to contemporary philosophy would, in my view, be best advised to start with Descartes' Meditations, Berkeley's Three Dialogues, Mill's On Liberty, or the like. Almost certainly, time spent reading these will be better repaid than is time spent reading contemporary introductions. From there, follow up an issue of interest in the texts by consulting something like The Cambridge Companion to X and this will give a way in to some of the contemporary debates about that historical text.

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    +1 - I'd say modern philosophy begins with the Meditations. Therefore, it's not unreasonable to say that things discussed since then are contemporary. Your suggestion to go for a classic first up is a good one. – boehj Jun 11 '11 at 22:06
  • It's not introductory to go to the original source of idea like reading all of Meditations... you still have to catch up on centuries of progress, and get bogged down in the things the old philosophers got wrong. Maybe a selection of important passages, in context of how we've progressed since then. You don't introduce yourself to chemistry by studying all the ideas of the 17th century texts. – Graham Jan 10 '16 at 10:20
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An accessible and sensible place to begin is with AJ Ayer's "Language, Truth, and Logic" [full-text PDF: ~26 MB].

It's a work of great clarity and it's not too long. Is it contemporary philosophy? I would argue that yes, it is, even though it's 75 years young.

If you wish to obtain an introductory understanding of logical positivism1 then you should look no further than this book. It will either leave you feeling inspired and raring to dig into the work of the other logical positivists, or their academic opponents such as Quine, Popper & Kuhn.

On the other hand, you may feel that it's an empty book. Great minds had been thinking about the problems raised in the book for over 2500 years. How could it be that a young man could 'solve' all the main problems of philosophy in 200 pages? Solving them by classifying them as 'meaningless' no less! Metaphysics — the cornerstone of philosophy - is summarily discarded.

Put simply, in Ayer's view philosophy becomes, in one corner, the trivial truths of deductive logic, and in the other, pure nonsense. God, ethics, aesthetics are all described as being literally meaningless2.

Whether you agree or disagree with Ayer's position, it is hard to not appreciate the surgical precision with which it is written.

NB: If this is not viewed as 'contemporary philosophy' I can offer another suggestion for newer work in the field of epistemology.


1Some would describe Ayer's position as logical empiricism.

2One must of course read the book to ascertain what Ayer means by 'meaningless'.

4

Recommended Books to start

  1. Plato's The Republic [circa 380 BC] and Dialogues [387 BC]
  2. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics [349 BC] and Politics [384-322 BC]
  3. Rene Descartes' Meditations in First Philosophy [1641]
  4. Baruch Spinoza's Ethics [1677]
  5. Gottfried Leibniz's Monadology [1714]
  6. John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding [1689]
  7. George Berkeley's Three Dialogues beteween Hylas and Philonous [1713]
  8. David Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding [1748]
  9. Immauel Kant's Groundwork on the Metaphysics on Morals [1785] & Prolemogena to any Future Metaphysics [1783]

I highly recommend NOT to start off with any contemporary philosophers. This is because the contemporary field is highly specialized and fragmented, and will get you lost. One very important reason not to is that one of the hallmarks of philosophy is to get you to think for yourself, and so it is essential to know the history and origins of ideas and where they come from, and why is it they are as they are now.

First of all, Western Philosophy after Kant in the late 19th century broke up into various strands.

Analytic philosophy

was founded by Frege, Russell, von Quine and Wittgenstein, who emphasized a mathematical approach to philosophy. Their emphasis was on conceptual clarity, linguistic analysis and logical understanding. This led later to Logical Positivism and subsequently to current philosophy as it is now prevalent in Anglo-American universities.

Continental philosophy

includes the field of Phenomenology (Later Existentialism); Hegelism, who exposed a form of Idealism (Marxism and Critical Theory arose as a reaction to this); Freud and Psychoanalytic Theory. Structuralism and Post-Structuralism is in part influenced by Wittgenstein.


The Whole and The Part

Why is it important to know how it all started and begin similarly yourself? Because in the realm of philosophical inquiry, there generally may be what is considered the 'Whole' and 'Part'. It is better to start off with the whole so you can firstly, try to figure out the problems for yourself, and identify what questions concern you the most. Is it the quandary of existence? The idea of a purpose? The question of an ideal society?

Most, probably all philosophy starts off with such questions as relates to our life and existence, relating to us as we are and our mortality. It starts off as speculation and wonder about the nature of things. It is only in the last 2 centuries that philosophy became mathematical and linguistic in nature - partly influenced by the scientific age and its insistence of empirical certainty, partly as a result of a dissatisfaction with vague metaphysical concepts. Modern philosophy tilted towards the material world, in one way or another.

Linguistic analysis

arose as result for our need for clarification in order to understand the underlying meaning behind words so as to understand what we are talking about, that is also an offshoot of the scientific age.


It is not clear however that the answers are to found as we become clearer, or if there is even such a thing as an 'answer' at all. A large part of analytic philosophy, influenced by Wittgenstein, accepts the role of philosophy as simply conceptual clarity. A large part of Continental philosophy rejects that. A good part of both strides both sides. The question remains nevertheless whether the role of philosophy is merely to clarify, or to find specific answers. Normative questions continue to remain important to us, philosopher or not.

Good references

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Written by experts in their fields and refereed. Some are quite technical. Heavily analytic but adding a lot of continental topics.
  • Early Modern Texts. Many ancient and modern philosophy Works translated with erudition and adherence to the original by Jonathan Bennett, an Oxford philosopher.
  • Contemporary Debates in Philosophy series. Very good series showing both sides of the arguments of philosophical topics, written with clarity and clear explanation. You can actually find some of them free on Google.

Note about Reading Original Texts

If you acquaint yourself with the language written long before, the use of the words may be different, and have a different sense of meaning. Many of these texts however, have good translations. It is important to read them as they are so that you can get a good idea of what those philosophers are trying to convey, and as best as possible, what they mean in the way they say it. Likewise, to get a feel of the concerns of those philosophers in their own time in the way they convey their thoughts to you through their style and language.

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This is kind of an old thread, but I want to post my $0.02 here too because most of the answers above don't really address the question--they advise one to read the history of philosophy, or they give lists oriented around continental philosophy.

What I will do instead is give a list of some of the most important works a reading of which is necessary to understand the kind of mainstream analytic philosophy that is going on in the US, England, Australia and elsewhere today. I want to recommend two books.

  1. Scott Soames. 2005. Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, 2 vols, Princeton University Press This book is based upon a two semester graduate class in the history of analytic philosophy that Soames has taught at Princeton for years. It's widely recognized as the best secondary source on the history of analytic philosophy out there because it is lucid and readable. It doesn't require much in the way of technical logical apparatus, so it is very accessible to most readers. The text has a couple of important deficiencies, but they are all sins of omission. He doesn't discuss Frege at all, which is peculiar and he tends to focus on issues in philosophy of language (Soames's speciality) and sometimes give less attention to important developments in other areas, such as ethics. Nevertheless, Soames's book is tremendously useful: use it as your guidebook, reading along with the other readings below.
  2. A. P. Martinich, et al, Analytic Philosophy: An Anthology, Blackwell is a good anthology that contains most of the really important papers in the history of analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy is much more an article field than a book field, so if you want to get up to speed you should really check out these articles.

Once you have Soames and Martinich under your belt you're probably ready to dive into which ever topic or field in analytic philosophy you want. So, say you read through these and find that you really want to go deeper in Epistemology. Then I would suggest that you look around on the philosophy department websites at a couple of really good philosophy departments (NYU, Rutgers, MIT, Princeton, Michigan, Harvard, Pitt, Yale) and see if you can syllabi in classes that interest you. Just start reading the stuff listed on the syllabus. That's how you get up to speed on the state of the art in a subfield today.

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First, it is necessary to define (in a rather pretentious way) contemporary philosophy. Contemporary philosophy, to me, not only is a heterogeneous category, but also defies any easy generalization. I would loosely define it as any kind of philosophy (continental, analytic, orthodox, heterodox, occidental, oriental, psychoanalytic, etc.) put forth in the last 100 years or so.

Also, Mr. Weissman did not specify as to what school of philosophy (I know it is a futile dichotomy, but I cannot restrain myself from making the analytic-continental distinction, especially because the question concerns contemporary philosophy). However, from the context of his question (e.g. ""big thought" is once again everywhere"), I hereto presumptuously assume that he had in mind a specific offshoot of contemporary philosophy: namely, the politico-ideological school, most closely associated with the works of "continental" philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Alain Badiou, Carl Schmitt, etc. You get the idea.

[[So, if you think that I totally misconstrued the question, you can ignore this.]]

I want to first challenge Mr. Weissman's view that there exists an accessible primary text in contemporary philosophy. I can already hear the moans and tribulations of students who are trying to get through even the easiest text (text, not seminar) by Derrida or Deleuze (I'm not even going to Lacan). Okay. I'll say it.

Contemporary philosophy is difficult.

And if this is a surprise, I will remind you of the simplest fact that virtually every discipline (mathematics, physics, literature, you name it) has become increasingly and radically more difficult, specialized and professionalized in the twentieth century. Philosophy is no exception. Although Kant and Hegel are indeed impenetrable to an ordinary Joe, reading Jacques Rancière and Fredric Jameson is nothing like it (some might argue that Hegel is the ultimate philosopher of impenetrability, but that's another topic of discussion).

I guess what I'm trying to say is, to paraphrase Robespierre (as Žižek would), you want an introduction without introduction. I think that introductions are necessary for first-timers. However, since Mr. Weissman insists, I will try my best to provide him with one. My best shot would be:

Slavoj Žižek

Okay. You know the guy; you've heard of the guy. I really think Žižek's books are the most eclectic--in the sense that they incorporate almost all contemporary philosophical ideas (Giorgio Agamben, Badiou...). And his writing style is also riveting, which helps. The more accessible books could be:

  • The Sublime Object of Ideology
  • How to Read Lacan
  • Welcome to the Desert of the Real
  • Looking Awry

And I know that Badiou's In Praise of Love and some of Foucault's writings and interviews of various philosophers are also very accessible, but they are not as comprehensive as most of Žižek's works are.

If you are not yet convinced, Žižek is funny. Literally.

*P.S. Although the question did not ask for this, I'll answer it anyway. I recommend David West's Continental Philosophy: An Introduction because, yes, it is an introduction, but I sincerely believe that anyone who has no or very little familiarity with the contemporary thought would have a lot of troubles when trying to get through a primary text.

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I recommend Ferdinand Saussure's General Course in Linguistics. He is the father of Semiotics which is the study of anything that can be interpreted as a sign. From him, originates the idea of the "signifier" and "signified". This is an excellent introduction to post modern philosophical thought.

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Many more recommendations figure in the main thread, which includes this post that I excerpt below. It recommends some books (that I haven't read though).

[Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey by Roger Scruton] This is a very good book. Scruton is a witty and engaging writer who explains trends in "modern" (i.e. post renaissance) philosophy for the general intelligent reader. He's aware of his own biases and always gives the other side it's due.

[A Short History of Philosophy by Robert C. Solomon] This is a helpful historical survey, also well written non-technical and engaging.

You don't understand Derrida because he's not writing to be understood. Would only that it were a question of jargon and technicalities.

I would start with the two books above, then go to the greeks and work your way forward, always bearing in mind that a given philosopher is a creature of his (until recently almost always his) time.

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Are you in a hurry? Start with Nietzsche, but even here be prepared to read a lot of books to begin to get a grip on him.

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As far as Philosophy of Mind goes I recommend:

(1) Jaegwon Kim's "Philosophy of Mind" (2) Frank Jackson and David Braddon-Mitchell "Philosophy of Mind and Cognition" (3) Andy Clark "Mindware"

Fair warning, there is a certain amount of overlap in these as they're all introductory texts, but they're far from dry! They deal with the development of phil of mind as well as contemporary issues.

In terms of primary texts, John Stuart Mill was a great inspiration to me when I was starting out in philosophy, particularly "On Liberty" and "Utilitarianism" as were Descartes Meditations, classics!

If you can get access to it the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy is always a good place to get a comprehensive and up to date article on all philosophical issues.

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