I am interested in self-learning philosophy, but I am faced with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle: being dyslexic (metaphorically speaking) while reading serious philosophical works (including books, papers, etc.). All of these things (even most SEP entries) are way over my head, because they seem either cryptic (when written by analytic philosophers) or extremely cryptic (when written by continental philosophers).

My aim is to understand what philosophical giants had to say as well as to be able to comprehend modern philosophical works.

As of now, everything I know about philosophy has come to me from Wikipedia articles, this website, some SEP entries and, most importantly, the book Philosophy: A Text with Readings by Manuel Velasquez.

[By 'philosophy' I of course mean its main branches, the discipline itself is way too broad to "learn".]

What advice can you give me to achieve my goal? I am really at a loss here.

  • 3
    The IEP is less academic than the SEP; you might find it easier to browse. Aug 1, 2016 at 3:23
  • Thanks for the suggestion, I had heard about it but never really browsed through it. I like the fact that I can grasp the majority of what is written and that the encyclopedia itself is written by academics, but I don't think that this will ultimately help me reach my goal. Aug 1, 2016 at 4:02
  • Sure; I was thinking of it as a kind of orientation to the main body of philosophical thought; I began self-learning philosophy twenty years ago with Russell's Short History, but a resource like this would have been much more useful. Aug 1, 2016 at 4:26
  • I heard somewhere that Russell's books on the history of philosophy are not too reliable. Aug 1, 2016 at 4:57
  • 1
    Do you want to understand all big philosophers, like... from Aristotle to Wittgenstein?
    – viuser
    Aug 3, 2016 at 1:44

4 Answers 4


Not all philosophy is equally impenetrable. Modern academic philosophy is very hard to read because it is entirely aimed at a graduate+ level academic audience. In contrast, classic philosophy was often aimed at a general(ish) audience. It can still be difficult, depending on the lucidity of the writer, and how different their cultural context was, but it doesn't require the same level of prior knowledge. Of course, the concepts themselves are still often difficult to wrap your head around, but that's the whole work of philosophy.

If you go back before the current era, you'll find that the primary sources in philosophy are often considerably more accessible than the commentaries. The commentaries tend to assume prior scholarship, and almost inevitably push their own assumptions and interpretations, which can muddy the waters rather than make them more clear.

Plato's work is all written to communicate directly with different segments of his audience. It isn't hard to read in a good translation, although the unfamiliar cultural context can be baffling at times (as can Plato's uncompromising Idealism). Taken together, his Republic and Symposium are the foundational key works of all Western philosophy. Descartes' Meditations are quite short and very clearly written. I personally dislike Hume, but he's easy to read (and has a wicked sense of humor) once you get used to the old fashioned style. The literary work by Sartre and Camus is compelling just as literature, in addition to its philosophical merits. Kierkegaard is more poetry than prose, if you can get past that, he's a good read. Lao Tzu is elliptical and aphoristic --that's apparently a core feature of the Chinese language --but not hard to read (in a good translation). Ecclesiastes is very accessible. (Conversely, Hegel and Wittgenstein and to a lesser extent Kant and Aristotle, are notoriously hard to read, while Confucius is obscured by an excess of culturally specific references.)


A few tips:

  • Avoid encyclopedia entries (SEP/IEP) at this stage. They are usually pretty good, but mostly aimed at those with some familiarity of the subject matter. Check them out after you've done some reading.
  • Avoid Wikipedia. It's completely unreliable when it comes to philosophy (with some exceptions of course, but it would be hard for you to tell).
  • Avoid "a short introduction to everything" kind of books. They only give you a superficial idea of the topics discussed.
  • Tackle one subject at a time.
  • Textbooks are great. They are aimed at students and the authors' main goal is usually to present the subject in a clear and engaging manner. I'd start with these.
  • Primary sources (classic books, articles) are usually not written with those goals in mind, but you should read them as you go along.

Some books I personally recommend:

(These cover only some areas of philosophy, of course. Others such as ethics and aesthetics are missing here.)

These are all accessible (the philosophy of mind one a little less than the others). I'd go with either Epistemology or Philosophy of Language first (this is biased of course). Just go with what interests you most.

  • Absolutely all of your tips make absolute sense to me, with two exceptions: (1) I seem to make sense of IEP entries, why not read them every once in a while? (2) As I already mentioned, primary sources are way over my head at the moment. Aug 1, 2016 at 9:28
  • @MichaelSmith I pretty much agree. To clarify: (1) it's perfectly okay, but be sure to read about those subject more thoroughly (e.g. in a textbook), (2) some are more accessible, but read them only after a thorough introduction.
    – E...
    Aug 1, 2016 at 9:32
  • Every book you recommended sounds very interesting to me, can you tell me which one is the most accessible? I understand that this is a very subjective question, but I will have to actually spend my money on the book, so I don't mind the subjectivity of your answer :) Aug 1, 2016 at 9:40
  • And the the more books you can recommend, the better. I will spend my money, time and energy on the most accessible one :) Baby steps, baby steps... Aug 1, 2016 at 9:41
  • I generally agree with this answer, but you might just note that your list of recommended books covers a fairly defined range of philosophical interests (i.e. no social and political, no aesthetics, not theology, ontology only as a subset of philosophy of science, etc.) Aug 3, 2016 at 20:41
  • Read a couple of classic books, say a dialogue by Plato, Meditations by Descartes;
  • choose a question (or a group of related questions) which you think is of the kind of questions philosophers bother to discuss, try to develop your own answer to it (with some kind of decent argument, written, focused), look for a couple of essays which discuss the same, and learn why your own answer is clearly poor
  • keep going
  • 2
    Not sure if primary texts are the best way to get started...
    – user2953
    Aug 1, 2016 at 9:34
  • 1
    I would defend my advise saying that in philosophy, differently from math or biology, to read classics is part of the business. Why it so, it could be a nice philosophical question to ponder about. Another (minor) reason is that to read classics of philosophy is indeed amusing.
    – mario
    Aug 1, 2016 at 10:26
  • @MichaelSmith stop telling people off, please. some classics are over your head. not everything is as hard
    – user6917
    Aug 1, 2016 at 11:37
  • 1
    @MATHEMETICIAN "some classics are over your head. not everything is as hard" - do you know me better than I do? Aug 3, 2016 at 15:22
  • 1
    @Keelan - The problem with secondary texts is that they inevitably have their own perspective, and can actually make it harder to understand the original ideas. Aug 3, 2016 at 21:17

The fact that your dyslexia is metaphorical suggests that you have the reading comprehension for studying philosophy, and even the insight. You probably lack a grounding in philosophy actually is (long story short, IMHO arguments on what to believe).

So, pick a philosophical subject, e.g. the philosophy of science, and read a handful of introductory books on it. Ideally choose them through 1st year undergraduate curricula. You can often find these on-line.

This is preferable to broader introductions (philosophy for idiots / intelligent people) because they will be written for philosophy students, not to bamboozle the general public.

Then, the only issue with something like SEP will likely be boredom (I find its pacing / entertainment value is a bit hit and miss)

Oh and as mentioned, stay away from encyclopedias especially wikipedia, they will only hurt you

  • @MichaelSmith which bits?
    – user6917
    Aug 1, 2016 at 11:19
  • just trying to help, and i think my advice is good.
    – user6917
    Aug 1, 2016 at 11:20
  • 1
    I am sorry for my inappropriate behavior. Could you rephrase "Then, the only issue with something like SEP will likely be boredom.", as I don't really understand what you mean. Aug 3, 2016 at 18:19
  • @MichaelSmith no need to apologise :) will edit
    – user6917
    Aug 3, 2016 at 19:30

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