There is no doubt that the past philosophical texts have provided very useful ideas and have contributed significantly to society. However, because these books have been around for some time a lot of the essence of their ideas have trickled into pop-culture.

For example, I pick up a self help book at the bookstore, browsing through it I usually note a lot derivative ideas from past philosophers. To me it would seem that one who doesn't have the time to work through a classic some of the other , what I like to call "pseudo-philosophical books and tv shows" seem to put forward derivative but similar ideas.

Wouldn't it be more useful to read the contemporary philosophy, from where I believe actual new ideas for society s benefit come from? I'm sure I'm over simplifying but what do you guys think? And if you want, what would be some of the first-class existentialist of the world today?

4 Answers 4


I would say that the "ordinary individual" would find it easier to read the older philosophers in their original texts, while contemporary philosophers would be very difficult for such a person to follow. Contemporary philosophy has gotten very technical and typically one requires a lot of prerequisites to understand what is being said. The older authors on the other hand usually wrote with a broader audience in mind. When DesCartes or Hume wrote they intended that any reasonably literate person should be able to understand what they were writing. Modern philosophers write mainly for other philosophers, usually in the format of very problem specific technical papers published in specialized academic journals. Every now and then one of them will publish a broad topic book summarizing her or his ideas with the general public in mind, but that's not aways the case.


You raise a good point. I was wondering about it since I read few months ago some greek materialist philosophers, Democritus, Epicurus and Aristippus. I will take this as an example but I am sure you can apply that to other old philosophers.

First of all, it is really easy to read: especially materialist wrote for people and not only an elite of the society like it is the case of most of the modern philosophers - academicians writing for other academicians. In its garden, Epicurus was discussing with everybody, including slaves, old people, prostitutes, ... He exposed simple arguments, like the ones of his tetrapharmakon - the 4 main principles of epicureanism - whose the first one is "Don't fear god".

The second reason it is worth reading these old philosophical texts is that you will have a better understanding of more recent philosophers. For example, it is complicated to understand Epicurus (300BC) without Democritus (400BC), but also Lucretius (50BC) without Epicurus, Spinoza and Marx without all the previous ones, and so on.

By reading old texts, you will also discover that from the beginning, different schools fought each others: stoics, epicureans, platonists, etc. And these schools were always, and are still, fighting each others, under other names: you will have a sharper understanding of modern philosophical debates.


Simply because an idea is contemporary doesn't automatically mean that it's useful, correct or valuable - it can simply mean that it is modish; ie fashionable - only in hindsight will people have a clear enough insight to detect whether in fact it was useful, correct or valuable; some people will be clear sighted enough to see it then.

Self-help books are the wisdom literature of today; this is a tradition with a venerable pedigree - there are scribes in Pharoanic Egypt that wrote comparable advice on papyri. They're orientated towards practical advice; and therefore aren't pseudo-philosophical - they aren't competing with actual philosophy per se.

To add to Kings excellent answer: older anything is generally easier to make sense of than the most up-to-date scholarly work today: compare Newtons laws with Gauge theory; or Platos Republic with econometrics; or Euclids Geometry with Grothendiecks Schemes.

And there are reasons for this - mainly that now is later than then, and depending on how one counts time, much later - exponentially later; this movement of time has generated from the seed of scholarly thought a tremendous apparatus (a dispotif in Agambens sense - taken from Foucault) within which contemporary scholars move as apparatchiks (as satirised by Borges in his inimitable hieratic prose, for example in his short story La Biblioteca de Babel (The Library of Babel).


You could read something like the book The Story of Philosophy to give you a survey of some of the older philosophers in a modern perspective.

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