How to study philosophy as an amateur
Every once in a while, someone who has read the comic emails me, wondering how to get into philosophy outside of school. This should be a subject that I have some expertise in, since I never took a single philosophy class in college, and I am apparently knowledgeable enough to make a philosophy-themed webcomic, at the very least. But responding always leaves me a bit disconcerted, like I've given terrible advice, because what people typically ask for is a book recommendation as an introduction to a specific philosopher. While I usually know which book is the best place to begin for a given philosopher, it's very strange to tell someone to just read something like Either/Or, or god forbid Being and Time without some sort of preparation. So this blog post is my official explanation of how to learn philosophy outside of school, in your own free time.
First off, there is really only one thing to keep in mind when reading a philosophical text, and it's the thing that seems to be the most lacking in new readers: The Principle of Charity. It asks that you read a text in the strongest, most persuasive way possible, regardless of whether you agree with the content. This is extremely important for reading philosophical texts, because many of them will challenge your ideals. Some might even say that is the entire point of reading philosophy, so if you fail in the Principle of Charity, you fail at reading philosophy entirely. That being said, I hate the Principle of Charity. It is the worst. Not because it is bad, but because it seems to fail miserably as a rhetoric. Everyone thinks the principle is great in general. However, no one thinks that they themselves need to follow it more, no matter how much they turn everything they don't agree with into a straw man. If you showed Glenn Beck the Wikipedia page for the Principle of Charity, he would probably say: "That's great, I couldn't agree more! Liberals need to be more charitable with conservative arguments. I, however, am perfectly charitable with their arguments - their arguments are just bad". In that way it's very similar to the Dunning-Krugar effect; in a rather self-fulfilling way, no one seems to think it applies to themselves.
So I am proposing a new principle: The Principle of Science. When first reading a philosophical text, you should read it not as the most compelling argument, but rather as though you were reading a scientific text. The reason for this is simple: scientific texts are taken as fact. Philosophy texts are always presumed to be questionable. When you first encounter Newton's Law that says an object in motion will continue in motion until acted upon, you don't say, "What a load of crap, I threw a meat pie at my cousin Mike just last week, and it stopped on its own accord before it got to him." Obviously, although scientific theories can be overturned, people assume that they are correct, so their only objective becomes trying to understand the theory. However, when Kuhn says that science, like evolution, progresses towards nothing in particular, a lot of people's first reaction is something like: "What a load of shit, science obviously progresses towards the truth", then they spent the rest of the time trying to work out just how wrong Kuhn is. Now, obviously Kuhn's claim is much more controversial than Newton's, and in fact most philosophers don't agree with him, but the point of reading his book shouldnt necessarily be to become a Kuhnian, but rather to understand him. That doesn't mean that you cant critique the ideas afterwards, but understanding the ideas first is much more important than refuting them, and you really shouldn't worry about it too much. In fact, its often more fruitful to read another philosopher's critique than trying to come up with your own.
Context is king.
The other major hurdle to overcome when trying to get into philosophy is that almost every text was written as a response to someone else. It can be difficult to understand what someone means, or why they would think a certain thing, if you lack the context about who they are responding to and the general philosophical climate that they were working in. Without reading Hobbes, it's hard to understand Rousseau; without reading Rawls, it's hard to understand Nozick; without reading Kant, it's hard to understand...well, anyone who came after Kant. So many thinkers are so deeply intertwined that its easy to just get completely lost. Furthermore, a lot of the major philosophical works are written for other philosophers, to convince those peers of radical new ideas. Something like The Critique of Pure Reason is just not going to be easy to read, really for anyone. As a beginner, it is almost certainly not worth the effort, but since you have no way of knowing this, you might just dive in and get discouraged. It is a far better use of time to just use a secondary source, which will often result in a better understanding of the work anyway.
Even when a work of philosophy doesn't specifically refer to anyone else, it will often use a specialized vocabulary. It is probably best to learn the definitions (as they are used in philosophy) of the following words: a priori, a posteriori, deontology, consequentialism, utilitarianism, empiricism, subjective, objective, espistemology, ontology, metaphysics, aesthetics, metaethics, analytic/synthetic.
Below I've listed many of the major works of philosophy, from those that require a lot of context to understand, to those that require very little. In addition, I've noted how difficult the texts might be for an amateur, which other philosophers you should be familiar with beforehand, and included a brief overview. The list is, of course, very incomplete, and additional suggestions are welcome.
Works which require little to no context:
Meditations on First Philosophy, Rene Descartes.
Difficulty level: easy Introduces methodological skepticism to modern philosophy (much of which is a reaction against it). Generally you only have to read Meditations I and II, and not bother with the parts where he proves the existence of God. The whole thing is around 30 pages, so it isn't very intimidating either.
Existentialism is a Humanism, Jean Paul Sartre.
Difficulty level: easy Sartre's brief introduction to existentialism is probably the most straightforward of any existential text. It is the transcript of a speech, so it is meant for a public audience, which makes it an ideal place to start with existentialism. (In contrast, Being and Nothingness is long and assumes the reader understands some Kant, Descartes, Heidegger, Hegel, and Husserl.) Sartre, Beauvoir, Dostoyevsky or Camus's novels can also be read as substitutes.
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understand, David Hume.
Difficulty level: medium Extremely powerful and influential work of skepticism, Hume introduces is Is/Ought gap and Problem of Induction. Hume was an especially great writer and clear thinker.
The Socratic Dialogs, Plato.
Difficulty level: easy Most of Platos Socratic dialogs can be read by themselves. The Death of Socrates, and Gorgias are probably as good of a place to start as any.
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius.
Difficulty level: easy Marcus Aurelius's personal journal and meditations on philosophy. This can work as an introduction to Stoicism. While Aurelius was certainly educated on Plato and Aristotle, the text stands alone, although it can be a bit long winded and repetitive at times. It is a great book to digest in small chunks, since it is written as a journal (as opposed to a single argument building over the course of the book).
The Problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell.
Difficulty level: easy Russells text already intended to introduce a layperson to the most prominent thinkers, so it's an excellent place to start.
Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault.
Difficulty level: hard Foucault's major work on the power dynamics in society throughout European history. Foucaults prose is very difficult to understand, and he uses a lot of specialized language (much of which he invents himself). Some people even accuse him of being purposely obscure.
Works which assume some prior knowledge:
Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche.
Difficulty level: hard
Who to read first: Kant, secondary sources on Nietzsche
Nietzsche is generally working off the background of Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers, but I think this is probably the most context-free of Nietzsche's works. Nietzsche is often misinterpreted, especially by beginners, so go through some summaries of him first to get an idea of what to look for in the text, and get a sense of how experts view him.
The Two Dogmas of Empiricism, Willard Van Orman Quine.
Difficulty level: medium
Who to read first: Kant, Wittgenstein
Quine assumes some familiarity with previous conceptions of epistemology, such as Kant and the logical positivists. Quine attempts to dispel the idea that there is a clear split between analytic and synthetic knowledge, and that all knowledge is reducible. If you don't have a good idea what the analytic/synthetic split is, you probably shouldn't read this book yet.
The Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant.
Difficulty level: very hard
Who to read first: Hume
One of the most important and influential works of philosophy, written largely as a response to Hume's skepticism. It's probably better to begin with summaries rather than taking a year to try to plow through it as an amateur. Most other philosophers are heavily influenced by Kant, so youll need a basic understanding of his metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. You can get that from other sources however, so you can avoid reading Kant directly.
Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Difficulty level: hard
Who to read first: the positivists, early Wittgenstein
If you are interested in philosophy of language, both this and the Tractatus can be read on their own, but require high effort and consultations of secondary sources.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn.
Difficulty level: medium
Who to read first: Popper, the positivists
Could be an entry point into philosophy of science, as long as youve already done some brief reading into positivism (though I don't think anyone actually wants to read Carnap anymore).
Either/Or, Soren Kierkegaard.
Difficulty level: medium
Who to read first: Hegel
Kierkegaard generally works in the background of Hegelian thought, and Either/Or was the easiest work by Kierkegaard for me to understand. He can be very difficult to interpret, even for the experts, so going through secondary sources beforehand is immensely helpful.
Being and Time, Martin Heidegger.
Difficulty level: hard
Who to read first: Kant, Hegel
Heidegger was one of those philosophers who thought everyone before him was horribly off-track. In theory, Heidegger can be read on his own, as he was often starting from scratch, but he was very influenced by Hegel, Kant, and Kierkegaard, and his works are again, long and difficult. Unless you are very interested in him, just get an overview instead. If you do want to dive in anyway, you should listen to Hubert Dreyfus lectures first (linked below).
Phenomenology of Spirit, GWF Hegel.
Difficulty level: Hegel
Who to read first: Kant
Just don't. Incredibly long and confusing. I've linked to a nice Hegel lecture below that you can listen to instead. You can also just read transcripts of his lectures, where he tries to be somewhat comprehensible.
Online philosophical resources
General philosophy resources:
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
My number one resource when I'm trying to better understand something I'm reading, or get an overview of something I'm unfamiliar with. It is written by professional philosophers, and the quality and depth far outshines Wikipedia.
The Partially Examined Life Podcast
The Partially Examined Life guys want you to treat their podcast like a book club, by reading the material yourself and using the podcast as a discussion group. However, PEL tries to discuss it assuming the audience hasn't read the book they are discussing and doesnt know anything about philosophy. So you can also use it in the way I often do to get a taste of someone you aren't familiar with and seeing if you might be interested in delving deeper into that subject or thinker.
History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps
A philosophy podcast with the very ambitious aim of covering the entire history of western philosophy. Episodes are generally pretty short (around 15-20 minutes) and easy to understand. While there have been over 200 episodes to date, since they aren't skipping anyone, they are still nowhere near the modern thinkers (they've covered up to around 1250 A.D) as of the time of writing this. I'm not sure if theres an easier way to get the basics on Ancient thinkers.
Philosophy Bro summarizes philosophers using humorous, bro-style language. Despite how stupid that sounds, he is surprisingly informative and funny. If you want a quick overview of a philosopher that you are unfamiliar with, and reading the Stanford Encyclopedia is too dry and long for you, this might be a great place to look. Every week, he also answers various philosophy questions from readers.
The /r/askphilosophy subreddit.
If you have a specific question about something you are reading, it can be tedious to wade through huge resources that detail a philosopher's entire thought. Luckily, there are dozens of grad students and experts ready to answer your exact question. Remember, it is very easy to go astray reading philosophy, but you can always get help from people who are more knowledgeable.
Free online lectures by University Professors:
There are an incredible number of lectures available for free online. I always try to listen to lectures before tackling a new thinker to get a general idea of what they are about. Like the philosophical works, treat lecturers like scientists; don't assume that you are smarter than them (as you probably aren't). It's their job to understand this material, and you are just encountering it for the first time. Here are some of my favorites:
Full courses (usually around 30 hours of content):
John Searle's Philosophy of Mind course at Berkeley
John Searle is a world famous philosopher, best known for his "Chinese Room" thought experiment. Here, he gives his ideas about Philosophy of Mind, as well as some of its history and competing ideas by contemporary thinkers (although he is pretty dismissive of anyone who isn't himself). If you are one of those people whos read briefly about the Chinese Room and found it to be "a bunch of crap", I recommend you listen to John Searle's full account. Many people seem to have a terrible misunderstanding of what John Searle actually believes (and why).
John Searle's Philosophy of Language course at Berkeley
John Searle gives his own ideas about language, intentionality, and thought. He also covers a lot of other Philosophers of Language, such as Whitehead and Wittgenstein.
Hubert Dreyfus's lectures on Heidegger
Dreyfus is one of the most respected commentators on Heidegger in the world, and you can get his full Heidegger lectures for free. He makes it pretty easy to understand - at least as much as you can for Heidegger. I very much recommend listening to this before trying to read Heidegger yourself, as it will probably save you from misunderstandings.
Hubert Dreyfus's lectures on Existentialism in Film and Literature (Kierkegaard, Some Nietzsche, Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov)
A series with Dreyfuss unique take on thinkers such as Kierkegaards, Nietzsche, and Dostoyevsky. I particularly recommend it for his analysis of The Brothers Karamaroz, if you have read that book (it is the greatest novel ever written, so you probably should read it either way).
David Rathbone's Lectures on Hegel
Talks about much of Hegel's thought, such as historical idealism, the concept of the self, time, and the sublime. Hegel is one of the more challenging thinkers, so listen to this and read up on SEP before trying to tackle him.
Shorter lectures that cover a single thinker in around an hour:
Rick Roderick, the Self Under Seige Lecture series
Rick Roderick is the greatest. If you are only going to listen to one lecture series, make it this one. He covers Heidegger, Sartre, Marcuse, Habernas, Foucault, Derrida, and Baudrillard. Each episode is about a half hour long.
Rick Roderick, Philosophy and Human values series
Another series by Roderick which covers Socrates, Epicurus, Stoicism, Greek Skeptics, Kant, John Stuart Mill, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Postmodernism.
Gregory Sadler's YouTube page
Gregory Sadler has a wide variety of short introductory lectures on many of the Existentialists, Greeks, Hegel, and more.
YouTube in general.
YouTube might have the most philosophical content of any single platform in the history of the world. My process often starts with YouTube, then SEP, then podcasts, then reading primary material.
In closing, don't be an idiot who thinks you already know it all, or you will be destined to remain an idiot who thinks you already know it all.