Thus Spake Zarathustra

This weekend, I hosted one of my philosophy club sessions for the summer. The discussion was on Nietzsche’s magnum opus: Thus Spake Zarathustra. A reader of this blog was recently kind enough to purchase a copy of the text for me from my wishlist, and I couldn’t let that act of charity go unpunished. Today, I am doing a “teaching from the text” post.

For a bit of context, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born in the mid-19th century. He was a very clever Prussian/German child, quickly grasping academics and rising through the social and official ranks in university. His main focus was that of a cultural critic and philologist, both of which naturally lend themselves to philosophical activity as well. When he was relatively young, he started to suffer from a mental illness which has never been fully diagnosed. Many believe it to be Syphilis, but there is considerable reason to doubt that diagnosis.

During his time as a productive member of the continental philosophical culture, the western world was reveling in it’s own greatness. Between the ongoing rise of industry, the new form of nationalism that was emerging, and the social fallout from the enlightenment era, mainstream culture was very self-satisfied. Nietzsche, however, was largely unimpressed. He found the post-enlightenment culture to be hypocritical and could sense the looming prospect of the century of total war to come.

His philosophical writings themselves, due to the political climate in his later life and after his death in conjunction with his continental style of writing, generally serve as a sort of ink-blot test for his readers; a punky young college freshman will read “Beyond Good and Evil” and immediately become a Nihilist, whereas a more well-read individual may read “The Gay Science” and hold a deep discussion with someone over the nature of science and the indispensable role of levity and partying in one’s pursuit of virtue. Many who have been educated in modern American colleges and universities, when they read “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, see Nazi propaganda and elitist nonsense…

Fortunately, enough scholarship has been done on the original writings of Nietzsche and the later editions and translations such that one can actually see beyond the veil of history and get to know the actual philosophy of the man… with a little bit of effort. An important historical fact that puts things into context is that Nietzsche is the Aristotle to Schopenhauer’s Plato. Arthur Schopenhauer was a German idealist from the early 19th century who had a very distinct philosophy. He drew heavily on the material available from eastern philosophy, most especially Buddhism, and mixed it with German Idealism as well as his own curmudgeonly intuitions. The most famous of his works, and the basis of his ontology, is “The world as Will and Representation”; spanning three volumes, Schopenhauer builds a world that consists of a creative force which simply swells up out of nothingness, namely, will.

Nietzsche discovered philosophy through reading Schopenhauer, but he spent a good portion of his time arguing against things that Schopenhauer had said. Most especially that of the universe as will; Nietzsche argued that will alone is inert and that it must be coupled with power, the ability to execute one’s will, and the world would therefore have to at least be the “will to power”. This will to power is at the heart of the rest of Nietzsche’s project, and it’s one that I, myself, am sympathetic to.

Thus Spake Zarathustra is a sort of novel wherein the main character preaches Nietzsche’s worldview to the masses of modernists in the German countryside, to varying effect. Zarathustra is, at the same time, both an avatar for the author as well as a manifestation of his philosophy. The general plot is fairly straightforward: Zarathustra lives alone on top of a mountain, generally being awesome and waiting for the coming of the Ubermench (Superman), he then decides to go down from the mountain to preach to the peasants of Germany. While down there, he preaches “the truth” and some people start following him, but most would rather mock and avoid him. So, Zarathustra takes on a few disciples, leaving “the rabble” to their own devices. After a while, he can’t stand being around lesser men anymore and he returns to the mountaintop.

A while later, he has a vision which tells him that people are perverting and ruining his teachings, so Zarathustra has to condescend again to the rabble and try to sort things out. He makes a couple more friends and preaches some more, sings some songs, goes to some parties, laments that he is so awesome he can’t help it and bemoans how he can’t help but bestow his awesomeness on everyone else… Then he starts showing everyone how to really have a good time and cut loose. All and all, for all of Zarathustra’s solemnity when dealing with the rabble and the false prophets (that is, all of them) of the modern world, his exhortation is always that to be joyous and celebratory, because that’s all that there is that makes life worthwhile in a world wherein God is dead for grief of his love of man.

Despite how reductionist and flippant I am when describing the plot of the story, there is a lot of great fodder for discussion and examination in the text. Zarathustra’s words and actions are pointed and weighty; he brings to bear a striking series of accusations against the hypocrisy of post-enlightenment culture, the solemnity with which people address the absurd (in a pre-existentialist way), the futility of attempting to enjoy a life divorced from one’s own personal virtue. Zarathustra takes social conventions, such as friendships, and professes that everyone has the idea backwards. Where modern culture would insist that a friend is one who will support you in every endeavor and turn against those who do not, Zarathustra reminds his audience that one can only become greater than they are by being made aware of one’s faults and weaknesses. One can only achieve power by way of keeping those close who would remind one of one’s errors and shortcomings. A true friendship, one rooted in will to power, is one wherein a friend desires greatness for his friends, even at his own expense. For example: “If a friend doeth thee wrong, then say: ‘I forgiveth thee what thou hast done unto me; that thou has done it to thyself, however, I could not forgive that!” because in doing ill to one’s friend, one is behaving viciously and injuring oneself.

Ideas like solidarity in the state are also turned upside-down.

“Somewhere there are still peoples and herds, but not with us, my brethren: here there are states.
A state? What is that? Well! open now your ears unto me, for now will I say unto you my word concerning the death of peoples.
A state, is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly lieth it also; and this lie creepeth from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”
It is a lie! Creators were they who created peoples, and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life.
Destroyers, are they who lay snares for many, and call it the state: they hang a sword and a hundred cravings over them.
Where there is still a people, there the state is not understood, but hated as the evil eye, and as sin against laws and customs… This sign I give unto you: every people speaketh its language of good and evil: this its neighbour understandeth not. Its language hath it devised for itself in laws and customs.
But the state lieth in all languages of good and evil; and whatever it saith it lieth; and whatever it hath it hath stolen.
False is everything in it; with stolen teeth it biteth, the biting one. False are even its bowels… Everything will it give you, if ye worship it, the new idol: thus it purchaseth the lustre of your virtue, and the glance of your proud eyes… The state, I call it, where all are poison-drinkers, the good and the bad: the state, where all lose themselves, the good and the bad: the state, where the slow suicide of all—is called “life.”…
Do go out of the way of the bad odour! Withdraw from the idolatry of the superfluous!
Do go out of the way of the bad odour! Withdraw from the steam of these human sacrifices!
Open still remaineth the earth for great souls. Empty are still many sites for lone ones and twain ones, around which floateth the odour of tranquil seas.
Open still remaineth a free life for great souls. Verily, he who possesseth little is so much the less possessed: blessed be moderate poverty!
There, where the state ceaseth—there only commenceth the man who is not superfluous: there commenceth the song of the necessary ones, the single and irreplaceable melody.
There, where the state ceaseth—pray look thither, my brethren! Do ye not see it, the rainbow and the bridges of the Superman?”

He has harsher words, still, for those he calls “tarantulas”.

Welcome, tarantula! Black on thy back is thy triangle and symbol; and I know also what is in thy soul…
Revenge is in thy soul: wherever thou bitest, there ariseth black scab; with revenge, thy poison maketh the soul giddy!
Thus do I speak unto you in parable, ye who make the soul giddy, ye preachers of equality! Tarantulas are ye unto me, and secretly revengeful ones!
Therefore do I tear at your web, that your rage may lure you out of your den of lies, and that your revenge may leap forth from behind your word “justice.”
Because, for man to be redeemed from revenge—that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms…
Ye preachers of equality, the tyrant-frenzy of impotence crieth thus in you for “equality”: your most secret tyrant-longings disguise themselves thus in virtue-words!
But thus do I counsel you, my friends: distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful!
They are people of bad race and lineage; out of their countenances peer the hangman and the sleuth-hound.
And when they call themselves “the good and just,” forget not, that for them to be Pharisees, nothing is lacking but—power!
My friends, I will not be mixed up and confounded with others.
There are those who preach my doctrine of life, and are at the same time preachers of equality, and tarantulas…
With these preachers of equality will I not be mixed up and confounded. For thus speaketh justice unto me: “Men are not equal.”
And neither shall they become so! What would be my love to the Superman, if I spake otherwise?”

If you couldn’t tell by the couple selections I chose to share with you, there are at least a few things Nietzsche has to say to which I am very sympathetic. I used to bristle when people would call him an elitist, because that word was a pejorative in my Marxist vocabulary. As time has gone on, though, I’ve learned that, in fact, both Nietzsche and myself are elitists of a sort: those who can be great ought to do so, and not everyone has that ability or will bother to follow through with such an exercise. In that way, both Zarathustra and myself have a certain attitude: “Not to the people is Zarathustra to speak, but to companions!… I am not to be a herdsman or a grave-digger. Not any more will I discourse unto the people; for the last time have I spoken to the dead.” This wasn’t always my attitude and, reading Nietzsche’s works in chronological order, I get the feeling that wasn’t his original attitude, either.

There is a lot in Zarathustra that certainly isn’t as truthful or as poignant as the other parts… his discourses on the nature of women and religious sentiments themselves somewhat miss the mark, but still ought to be read, so as to better inform one’s position nonetheless. There are a fair number of people that one will run into in the course of daily life, at work, school, the grocery store parking lot, etc. who are unwitting disciples of halfwit Nietzschean professors. So, when someone cuts you off in the parking lot screaming racist obscenities before getting out of his car and sauntering up to the water-cooler next to your cubicle and going on-and-on about how women’s sole virtue is their love of men, you can understand “Oh, this guy must have had a Nietzschean professor back in college and he never grew out of being a frat boy…” and you can decide whether to lay some real Nietzsche on him or to smugly await the superman with the knowledge that rabble like your coworker will soon be obsolete.

Some translations of the work are better than others, as well. There are some that are so far removed from the original German so as to render a totally different ideology from that originally espoused in the text. That is why my favorite edition of the text is the JiaHu Books German/English edition; the translation is pretty solid and the original German is on full display so one can double-check the translators’ work if one so desired.

This work only barely didn’t make my Suggested Reading Lists, but it is an excellent companion to either of the Nietzsche works that did make the lists, as it explores them in a more poetic and novel way.

Zarathustra_big

From Scratch 4.2 Background and name

Chapter 2: The Embodied Mind

Chapter 2: The Embodied Mind

Thesis #5: One’s experience is phenomenological in nature and derived from the senses; the development of the mind and our understanding of the universe is therefore derived from sense experience and interpretation of said experience

In the previous chapter1, I established that all knowledge is experiential. Even matters of “divine revelation”, ESP, or any other alleged spontaneous acquisitions of knowledge are still experiential in nature, as one is still experiencing such an event within their own mind, regardless of whether or not it is actually happening in a manner consistent with how one perceives it taking place. When we first addressed this state of affairs, it was in the context of one being solely informed by experience. In this instance, we are approaching it from an incrementally more nuanced position: that one’s experience is phenomenological in nature and derived from the senses.

Man has an inborn faculty of intellect. The intellect is a complex and frustratingly mysterious thing; I will describe it in as concrete and simple terms as possible. In the words of medieval philosophers, the intellect is the capacity to which matters of fact make themselves apparent, “like a landscape to the eye”2. This is the primary faculty by which one experiences the world, providing man with direct apprehension of the things around him. Essentially, intellect is the seed containing the mind, the ratio3 within man. This is seen in an infant as he begins to focus on various elements within his environment and as he gathers rudimentary sense data.

With sufficient time and experience, the capacity (seed) of intellectus can grow into the faculty of reason. Again, using the medieval scholars, “Ratio is the power of discursive, logical thought, of examination, of definition and drawing conclusions.”4 A more modern and specific definition would be, possessing the qualities of, or capacities for, self-awareness and a fundamental potential to learn and think logically”. The manner in which the intellect receives those experiences is sensational5; an infant may have a very basic set of instinctual “programs” by which they “know” how to feed, breathe, cry, and squirm, but they do not even have control over the movements of their own limbs, let alone any cognitive faculties. The intellect allows the infant to begin gaining control of their movements through the repeated cycle of stimulus and response in each of its limbs. Through prolonged exposure to patterns in environmental stimuli, the infant begins to expect the patters to continue in the same manner: the first fledgeling sparks of reason.

Before continuing to analyze the relationship between intellect and reason, it would be prudent to expand on thesis number two. “Reason dictates one’s understanding of the universe.” Reason, or the ratio we defined above, is a uniquely human experience. As mentioned previously, animal “experience” is nothing more than a perpetual cycle of stimulus and response. Conversely, humans have the experience of experiencing; or rather, the intellect serves as an intermediary step between stimulus and response. The intellect, as it develops into reason, begins to identify apparent patterns and categories. This pattern recognition is not infallible6, but is the basis of all human experience. While reluctant to abandon his skepticism, Bertrand Russell expresses a very similar and more detailed opinion as this in his Problems of Philosophy7. His term for this process, which I will borrow, is “induction”.

Following induction, both Russell and I approach “deduction”. Deductive reasoning, also called syllogistic reasoning, are matters of logical calculation. Through induction, one can begin to assume patterns, and can even express them syllogistically. “If the stove top is red, it is hot” is a simple premise, which can be derived from simple experiences. Upon witnessing that the stove top is in fact red, one can assert, “if the stove is red, it is hot. The stove is red. Therefore it is hot.”. This is an assertion which is derived from a combination of experience and reason. However, no degree of experience can account for the initial element of reason that dictates that such a syllogism is possible, let alone reliable. Modern research into early human development, though, has discovered that there are strong indications of innate mathematical reasoning within infants. I assert that these mathematical operations are an example of that very intellectus earlier mentioned. Ultimately, mathematics is an expression of logic in it’s purest form8, meaning that logic is something more than just a mere brute fact9: it is a faculty inherent to man.

Deduction can express hypotheses beyond the realm of immediate experience. While our first example was purely experiential and practical, a brief survey of the philosophical tradition will show that deductive reasoning can be (and is) applied to every imaginable circumstance. The accuracy of these deductions is wholly contingent on two virtues, the accuracy of premises as they relate to reality and its adherence to what Russell calls the”Laws of Thought”10. They are as follows:

  • The law of identity: ‘Whatever is, is.’
  • The law of contradiction: ‘Nothing can both be and not be.’
  • The law of excluded middle: ‘Everything must either be or not be.’

In other words, the “Laws of Thought” is another manner of describing the principle of non-contradiction. The best formulation I have seen of the PNC to-date is, “The logical principle that something cannot both be and not be in the same mode at the same time.”

We are fortunate that we are inherently conditioned such that these principles are immediately apparent to us as they are, themselves, unprovable. Our experiences can serve to reinforce these principles and, through their applications, prove their utility even if one cannot prove them in themselves. Through experiences of particular instances, we can come to a greater understanding of the nuances of such a simple and self-apparent set of principles. All the laws of reason, which will be explained and elaborated as they become pertinent in this work, are simply expressions of the particular nuances of the PNC.

The more abstract or complex lines of deductive and inductive thought are no doubt somewhat removed from immediate experience, either by way of their conceptual nature setting them apart from the physical world or by speaking of physical events that are not within a proximate vicinity to the one deducing. This does not make the reasoning any more or less valid. For example, one can engage in mathematical exercises concerning triangles without referring to any actually existing instances of a triangle. Another instance would be a deduction that determines all kangaroos are mammals, even if one has never seen one before (and isn’t likely to… how many people go to Australia, really?). Both of which are valid regardless of whether the one doing the deducing is immediately experientially present to the subject matter or not.

These rules of logic and their applications obtain in such a manner that renders relativism (in all but its softest forms) impossible. Something is said to “obtain” if it is necessarily true in every instance, such as triangles having three sides or the PNC. I say that these obtain in such a way so as to render relativism impossible because relativism is, fundamentally, a denial of objective truth. Extreme relativism denies all objective truths whereas softer forms only deny particular categories of truth such as moral truths. This denial necessarily results in violations or denials of the PNC. Any instance in which one says, “there is no objective truth,” is an instance in which they are categorically denying categorical statements. This is an age-old objection to relativist thinking11 which has simply been hand-waved by the proponents of relativism. Admittedly, there are more refined and delicate relativist arguments, but they all fall prey to this fallacy at some point or another.

Thesis #6: The mind is an embodied entity; all language and imagining is clearly based in bodily experience and all imaginable entities outside the immediate physical world are conceptualized in a sensational metaphor.

This experiential and embodied basis of our knowledge is clearly evident in our language. Every aspect of our imagination physical in nature. It is fitting that, when discussing material circumstances, one should use material language. For instance, “that dog is sitting under the tree.” That statement can be a literal expression of a matter of fact. However, while it may feel intuitive, the same material language is used to express abstract concepts. For instance, “The prospect of war weighs heavy on my heart.” In this case, “the prospect of war” is immaterial and possesses no weight as a result. Additionally, one’s heart is unaffected by some immaterial state of affairs external to the person in whose chest it resides. I do not mean to claim that the above statement is devoid of meaning or veracity, but wish to illustrate the metaphorical nature in which we express immaterial concepts. While I lack the space and attention span to enumerate the various metaphorical uses of material language in the style of Wittgenstein, I contend that there is no instance of using language in a literal and comprehensible manner when expressing an immaterial state of affairs.

Upon brief inspection, I see three common uses of embodied language as referencing phenomena metaphorically. Firstly, it is used with regards to invisible material things, many of which we see the effects of but never the things themselves. Secondly, it is used with regards to metaphysical or spiritual12 entities. Thirdly, we employ embodied language with regards to ontological, or divine, concepts13. It would be prudent to, at least exemplify each of these categories and the relationships between them.

Many will object to me asserting that we use embodied language with regards to material objects metaphorically. “Of course we use material language when speaking of material things!” they say, “why would it be a metaphorical use?” With some invisible material things, like most gasses or electrical currents, metaphorical language in unnecessary; it is literally the case that air can push, pull, heat, or cool things as well as electric currents14 and the like. However, in the case of more esoteric fields such as particle physics or quantum mechanics, we do use physical language metaphorically. A couple easy examples would be the “color” of quarks or the “spin” of particles. Quarks are too small to be directly perceived by way of light and color, but the choice of “colors” provide certain useful conceptual assumptions based on our knowledge of actual colors. The same type of metaphor applies to the “spin” of particles, providing those that study and discuss these things with applicable and comprehendable language to do so even if the terms are literally meaningless is such a context.

Admittedly, I have not yet allowed metaphysical or ontological existants15 into this framework but that doesn’t disallow this analysis of language to enter into our discussion. Even if such immaterial things do not actually exist, we still speak of them and the manner in which we speak of them is indicative of the point I am making presently. Metaphysical entities, such as the principles of logic which were discussed earlier or the fundamental laws of physics, are frequently discussed in the language of math or logic; however, they are frequently expressed in physical language in order to make it practically useful. In the case of a particle’s “spin”, quantum particles travel along vectors as if they have angular momentum, like a spinning object, despite not necessarily spinning. Additionally, in the case of non physical narratives, whether fictional or real, such as dreams, out-of-body experiences, revelations, ghosts, angels, etc. are expressed in physical metaphor. An easy example would be the common narrative which occurs in reports of out-of-body experiences, “I was outside my body, kind of floating above it. I was there, but I wasn’t; I could see everything, but not like one does with their eyes. I was also in the next room over and still inside my body at the same time. I could see a long, dark tunnel, but it wasn’t really there, with a light at the end.” The only intelligible manner in which we embodied creatures can describe a circumstance which was clearly non-spatial and non-bodily is by use of spatial and visual language in an approximate metaphor.

Before we discuss ontolocal language, we must first define “ontology”. Ontology, as it is frequently used, is typically assumed to mean “the philosophy of hierarchy” or “the study of existants”. In my usage, ontology is best defined as “the philosophy of that which precedes physics and metaphysics”. This means that there are ontological commitments inherent within the fields of physics and metaphysics which, themselves, require investigation. These commitments typically involve the status of things as either existing or not, the relationships and nature of substances and logical principles.

As one can assume from the above definition, ontological language tends to be complex and ambiguous at times. This area of study tends to involve exclusively mathematical concepts, the nature of eternity/infinity, discussions pertaining to God, and ideas16. Not one of the things on that list are material or sensual things. Typically, in the case of God, anthropomorphic language has become so prevalent so as to make caricatures of the actual concepts themselves (ie. God is a bearded angry old man in the sky who smites people for petty acts of impoliteness.) Not one of those terms are easily applicable to ontology, let alone accurate metaphorical language for ontological concepts. However, this gross abuse of language does not detract from the fact that the only way a human can grasp such concepts as infinity, especially when attempting to avoid instantiating an infinite17, is through metaphorical use of embodied language.

Additionally, we, as (apparently) willing creatures, tend to use mindful language to express the behavior of non-willing and/or necessary beings. Where we may have refined our language in physics since Empedocles, “Things fall because like things desire to be proximate to like things,”18 we certainly still fall into this trap. Again, it is most common in the more esoteric areas of physics and in ontological discussions, such as particles “seeking out each other” or being “entangled” despite lacking a will or an actual entangling medium. That doesn’t change he fact that we use a language that is limited to embodied experience as a metaphor for more advanced concepts.

There is yet another likely mistake that one can make in reading this chapter. That mistake would be assuming that I am conflating the mind with the body (or the brain). I will not make a case to either materialism, idealism, or substance dualism here. Instead, I intend to explore the manner in which we express such concepts linguistically.

One of the most interesting cases of language operating in an unexpected manner is with regards to the self. For example, phrases commonly used are “my body”, “my mind”, “my soul”, and “my self”. We speak of certain aspects of ourselves in the same manner we would speak of our property; “my car”, “my robot slave”, etc. This linguistic phenomenon implies two things. Firstly, it implies that one’s mind, body, soul, self, and property are each distinct entities which are not reducible to one or the other. Additionally, it implies that what exactly an individual is is either an amalgamation of the above listed possessives, or something radically distinct from them.

We will address the question of what exact relationship the mind and body have, whether they are the same thing, one reduced to the other, or as two distinct and intermarried elements, later in this book19. The additional question of what, precisely, the individual is will be addressed briefly, but it will require far more space and time in order to reach a meaningful answer than I have available in this work. It will also require more intermediary steps than the mere twenty needed to discuss the mind-body problem. For now, it will suffice to merely express the manner in which our mind is embodied, practically speaking.

For fear of being accused of making the same mistake that Nietzsche made,20 I feel compelled to leave a disclaimer at the end of this chapter. I recognize that being a young American, my sole focus in this chapter is the way an individual thinks and speaks in American English. However, I believe, based on my limited grasp of Latin and Japanese as well as my exposure to Hebrew, Greek, and Spanish, this argument still obtains in some manner or another in every human language, with some slight modifications.

95 Theses

1Ch1, “Epistemic Assumptions”

2 Pieper pg 139

3Reason

4 Pieper 139

Also, Thesis #22

5Pertaining to the senses

6A state of epistemic affairs where one in incapable of being wrong

7Russell, Problems of Philosophy chapter 6

8 citation

9Something that simply exists without the possibility of explanation

10Russell ch 7

11The discussion between Thrasymachus and Socrates in Plato’s Republic (Book one, Chapter one) is an easy example.

12 I am not equivocating the two, mind you

13 In this case, the two may at times be equivocated

14Also, electromagnetism

15Simply defined, “a thing which exists”

16 Not to mention imaginary things like unicorns and free national healthcare

17For an introductory example of this type of reasoning, I recommend reading “The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy”.

18Aristotle attributes such a claim to Empedocles in his work De Anima

19 Chapters 8 & 9

20Namely, being a philologist instead of something a little more… real.

Philosophy Reading Lists

Intro To Philosophy Reading List

A few people have asked me to compile some sort of list of philosophical texts directed at teaching philosophy to someone who has had little or no exposure to philosophy, academic or otherwise. Some of the requests were for a list that would teach someone how to do philosophy, while the other request was directed less at learning how to do philosophy and more directed at simply getting a survey of the ideas that were out there. As such, I’ve created two lists which, admittedly, are very similar. Each one has twelve entries so that one could, theoretically, complete the list in one year. Some of the texts are definitely longer than a month’s worth of reading, though, and a few are shorter than what one could conceivably read in one month, so it’s more a game of averages and desires than it is any hard-and-fast rules.

DSCN1491

Method List:

This list is directed at learning the methods and tool-set of philosophy. I arranged the texts in an order such that they build on each other, so I suggest moving through them in sequential order. All of the links below will send you to amazon to purchase a hardcopy of the book, but nearly every one of these books can be found in some format or another for free on the internet. I prefer to have a physical copy when reading philosophy, so I can highlight text, make annotations in the margins and mark pages with sticky notes. It’s a much more visceral experience that way, and I find it easier to review old notes when using a physical copy than a softcopy.

  1. Philosophy in 7 Sentences ~ Douglas Groothuis: This book, as you will see, is the only piece of secondary literature on the list (Except for maybe the Kreeft book, it gets fuzzy when one is discussing the Bible). I largely dislike reading secondary literature first. I prefer to read the original text and then secondary literature if I need assistance in interpreting the context of meaning of the original text.
    In the case of Groothuis’ book, though, I really feel that it gives an excellent overview of the history of philosophy and the methods of doing philosophy while not trying to encompass everything. It’s an excellent work to cut one’s philosophical teeth on and prepare them for the labor that is to come next.
  2. Prior Analytics ~ Aristotle: Aristotle, in my mind, is really the first systematic philosopher. Sure, Socrates, Plato, and their contemporaries did philosophy, but none did as well as Aristotle in building an entire systematized methodology which encompassed just about every area of the intellectual life of man. In most cases, he was tragically ill-informed but, regardless, he is the one that got systematic philosophy off the ground.
    One of the areas that he was largely correct in, though, was his approach to what the medieval philosophers called the Trivium. In reading the Prior Analytics, one should get a feel for both how dense and dry philosophical texts can be while also getting a solid basis in the methods of reason. Don’t worry, Aristotle will be, by far and away, the most difficult read on this list, so it’s all downhill from here.
  3. Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences ~ Rene Descartes: Usually, people just call it “Discourse on the Method”. Most Philosophy 101 classes will read Descartes’ Meditations, which isn’t a bad idea; it’s a fun read and it has both an argument for the existence of God in it as well as a general exercise in the methods of skepticism. However, the Meditations draw nearly all of it’s ability to perform heavy-lifting from Descartes’ Discourse on the Method. Since this list is designed to turn you into a philosopher in about a year or so, it would make sense to go for the meatier text and let you read Meditations on your own time, for aesthetic enjoyment.
  4. Problems of Philosophy ~ Bertrand Russell: This book is another one that can be a bit dense. Russel is largely credited with the creation of modern logic and, upon reading his works, it’s easy to see why. In “Problems of Philosophy”, he addresses certain issues with logic and epistemology which still bother modern philosophers. It made the list because it further demonstrates the methods of philosophy while also giving the reader some things to think about and ponder while away from one’s books.
  5. Conjectures and Refutations ~ Karl Popper: This is the biggest book on the list so far, and if one is crunched for time, it may work out to confine oneself to secondary or tertiary sources on the material… such as podcast episodes or something akin to a sparks notes. The book was dedicated to F.A von Hayek, who only barely didn’t make the list, being usurped by his students, it’s no wonder, then, that this book should make the list; about 500 pages long, it covers a wide swath of epistemology and philosophy of science in a way that is categorically applicable to philosophy as a whole. It was a strong influence in my understanding of both the scientific method as well as the general methods of reason. It was also a key stepping stone in my road to liberty, despite things like liberty being little more than a side-note to the general thrust of the text.
  6. Symposium ~ Plato: After so much epistemology and logic, not to mention the density of the texts presented, it may be a relief to read something a little less involved and more entertaining. Plato’s Symposium explores a fun scene in which a bunch of Athenian celebrities get together, drink heavily, and discuss the nature of love. While there are some wild theories and mythologies presented in the story, the characters are clearly doing two things in the story. Firstly, they are showing the “right ways” and “wrong ways” of doing philosophy, as well as showing what type of personality is like to emerge from what philosophy (or vice versa). There are a lot of good secondary sources and a lot of bad secondary sources. I recommend reading the text first and, if one is interested in learning all the little nuances in the text, traveling down the rabbit-hole of secondary sources.
  7. An Absurd Reasoning and The Myth of Sisyphus ~ Albert Camus: Almost as fun as the Symposium, we now explore existentialist philosophy. Camus really was the arch-existentialist, and the two texts that seem to have the most philosophical eight to them would be An Absurd Reasoning and The Myth of Sisyphus. While there were some great novels and plays written by existentialists and I recommend reading them, this list is intended to give my reader tools with which to do philosophy on her own. I think these two essays most effectively encapsulate existentialism in as small a package as possible.
  8. Genealogy of Morals ~ Nietzsche: While not as widely read as other works by Nietzsche, the Genealogy of Morals serves as both a historical work as well as an account for ethics in philosophy and culture. If you haven’t had your feathers ruffled yet, I doubt this text will be as controversial to you as many people seem to expect it to be. Also of note: this, coupled with the above mentioned existentialist text, is a good example of what is known as “Continental Philosophy”, which stands in contrast to Russel, Descartes, Popper, and Groothuis who are members of “Analytic Philosophy”. If one enjoys the rigor and argumentation of the Analytics more, one is probably an analytic. If one enjoys the more narrative and freewheeling style of the Continentals, one is likely a continental. Of course, I write and think like an Analytic, but I enjoy reading continental philosophy much more than I do the Analytics.
  9. Enchiridion (Manual of Epictetus) ~ Epictetus: Back to the Ancients, we explore stoic philosophy, which I think demonstrates both the practical applications of philosophy in daily life as well as giving any individual a useful tool-set for conducting one’s affairs. The main two reasons for this text winding up on the list is because 1) the name is awesome and 2) Stoicism is one of the longest-lived philosophical traditions which is consistently applied to daily life.
  10. Book One of Science of Logic ~ Georg Hegel: I would suggest reading the entire work, but it far surpasses even that of Popper in page count. Most modern continental philosophers are some variation of Hegelian or Marxist philosopher. This is because Hegel was a key figure to the systematization of Continental philosophy in addition to being prolific and provocative. Marx was indirectly taught be Hegel and nearly all of his ideas were lifted directly from Hegel. So, rather than suggesting the Communist Manifesto or some other derivative work, I wanted to go straight to the source. Especially since Hegel’s conception of Being and Nothingness is quite novel and interesting to entertain, I recommend reading the first book of The Science of Logic which covers the nature of Being and Nothing.
  11. Human Action ~ Ludvig Von Mises OR Man Economy and State ~ Murray Rothbard: I proffered both texts, because they each have something to offer. I find Human Action to be more detailed and better arranged, in the spirit of Analytic Philosophy. Man, Economy, and State is just as long, but it is written in a manner that makes it a quicker read and it has been updated to include some more modern discoveries in the field of praxeology (the study of human action). Both Mises and Rothbard were students of Hayek, and they both present a profound understanding of the human condition and the emergent properties of individual human actions in society at large. I know these books are about 900 pages long, but they will so radically alter the way you see the world that there will be no going back. This is the proverbial Red Pill; it’s hard to swallow, but once you do, you’ll become enlightened. Really, all the other texts on this list are simply there to help the reader develop the appropriate tool-set and methodology to be able to fully comprehend either of these texts.
  12. Three Philosophies of Life ~ Peter Kreeft: After such a beast as Human Action, I thought a nice little book that’s totally unrelated to praxeology or analytic philosophy would be in order. Instead, this is a short work which applies certain hermeneutical tools to the Bible, demonstrating how one could appropriately apply the philosophical mindset to issues such as faith and spirituality. It serves as a nice bookend to a list that starts with Groothuis, another modern religious philosopher.
  13. Extra Credit Mad Philosopher 2015: I doubt this book needs much more introduction than it has already had.

DSCN1494

Survey List:

This list clearly got less attention than the above one when it comes to explaining the selections of the text. As above, you can probably find these texts for free on the internet, but it would likely be better to get them from Amazon. If you choose to do so, please use my link, as I get a few pennies for every purchase made through my link. I use those funds to pay for the site hosting and such. This list is directed at giving someone a general knowledge of the philosophical ideas that have been floating around throughout history in a manner that is important to understanding modern culture.

  1. Plato’s Republic

  2. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

  3. Abelard’s “Ethics” and “Dialogue Between Philosopher, a Jew and a Christian”

  4. Descartes’ Meditations

  5. Hobbes’ Leviathan

  6. Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

  7. Marx’ Das Kapital

  8. Russel’s History of Philosophy

  9. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (OR Phenomenology of Spirit)

  10. Neitzche’s The Gay Science

  11. Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State

  12. Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations