Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Books that make you think

I often think that an ideal philosophy course would be like a book club or a group of friends getting together to talk about books they have enjoyed reading. And I would like to assign readings that I would also recommend to friends who expressed an interest in philosophy. But there are some things that are important that simply aren't much fun to read (no one likes everything) and, more to the point, it's hard to find books like this. I started reading Simon Blackburn's Think recently and thought it would be perfect for one of my courses. But then I got to chapter 2, which includes a discussion of the private language argument, and it just seemed to be going over too much too fast. So the search continues.

Now a friend of mine actually has expressed an interest in philosophy, and I wish I had good books to suggest. She liked Michael Sandel's Justice and wants to read something similar--accessible and thought-provoking. I hate to use the word 'bleg', but does anyone have any suggestions?


  1. I read Think when the paperback edition was first released back in 2001, or thereabouts. It didn't make a lasting impression on me (partly, perhaps, because I read it on the beach?), but I remember I thought it was rather good.

    The Philosopher's Dog, I find, is a very good book. Beautifully written and well argued. Raimond Gaita writes so well in fact, that it is wise of him to open the book by urging the reader to proceed at a slow pace. The philosophy may seem easier to understand than it actually is. The book isn't much like Michael Sandel's Justice, though. But for someone with an interest in moral philosophy and man-animal relations this certainly is a good place to go.

    For a general introduction, more in the region of Think, I believe D.Z Phillips' Introducing Philosophy is both accessible and thought-provoking, certainly to someone already engaged with The Challenge of Skepticism, as the title reads. It's not so much a general introduction to philosophy as an introduction to a certain way of doing philosophy, perhaps; so as a first book on the subject it may not work very well, but alongside, say, Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy and perhaps Roger Scruton's An intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, it might even make a good philosophy course or at least a reading group. As an introduction to a wittgensteinian way of attacking philosophical problems the book is very good.

  2. Thanks, vh. I think the beach effect might be a problem for me, too. Not that I read at the beach, but I tend to read introductory books in distracting circumstances (a few minutes at a time, just before falling asleep, etc.). And that might be why they often seem too hard for my students to me. That is, they tend to seem difficult enough that I think I might as well give them Descartes, Hume, etc. to read and then do the necessary explaining in class instead of assigning a secondary text to do that job for me/them. I wonder how much I'm fooling myself about this (or just wrong) though. Russell, Phillips, and Scruton all strike me this way, although I've only read Russell all the way through. And I must read Gaita's book soon.

    What I suggested to my friend was "On Bullshit," though I wouldn't recommend buying the book when it's just an essay.

    (By the way, I watched Bent Hamer's Kitchen Stories last night. Very funny. Thanks for the tip.)

  3. On Bullshit is recommendable. First Meditations on Philosophy is also a great book. I just re-read it and was struck by Descartes' almost impossible combination of deep and engaging thought and accessible style.

    If you liked ”Kitchen Stories” you may also enjoy ”Songs From the Second Floor” by the swedish director Roy Andersson. It is very different from Bent Hamer’s film, but still has something in common with it -- perhaps an ineffable scandinavian tone, perhaps a philosophical tone, or perhaps it’s just the very, very, very slow pace. It is funny, though.

    By the way I just tried to comment on your post about Roger Crisp. For some reason my comments refuse to go through.

  4. On Bullshit is recommendable. Meditations on First Philosophy is also a great place to start, I think. Your students are of course forced to read it, but I am thinking of your friend... I just re-read the book and was struck by Descartes' almost impossible combination of deep and very engaging thought and accessible style.

  5. Yes, that's a good suggestion. Thanks. I imagine it might be a hard sell (just because it might sound intimidating or dated or like a school assignment, not because it isn't a good idea), but I should suggest it. I'm planning to read Sarah Bakewell's book on Montaigne, which might turn out to be good too.

  6. Yes, and Montaigne's own essays too!