04 December 2007

Advice on buying philosophy books...

What most sensible people look like about two and a half minutes into a Derrida essay!

In the combox under “Philosophy’s Evil Twins,” SJH wrote:

“Father, perhaps you have a better handle on this than I. Where do you start? There's so much out there to read. As a former Philosophy graduate student (for a while) and as someone who hopes to be a graduate student again (in Philosophy or Theology), but also as a more general question, it's hard to know what to read and in what order. And it's also difficult to think you'll ever make much progress towards reading enough... since there's so much out there that is canonical and since you're also responsible for being up to date with the latest in one's field... and that stuff is cranked out at an incredible rate (especially since everyone has to write a book to get tenure). Any ideas? (Does the question even make sense?)”

The question does make sense and, let me say: I feel your pain! As an undergrad philosophy major at a public university twenty-five years ago, I was taught using textbooks and the occasional primary text. Now, here at U.D., I’m teaching seminars where we use only primary texts…the occasional “history of X” type text will slip through. The difference in these two methods is tremendous.

As I am putting together my philosophy library—with the constant and generous assistance of the blog’s benefactors!—two principles vie to guide me: 1) anthologies in major areas of philosophy will give you an introduction to the problems, vocabularies, personalities, etc. in that area; e.g. something like the Oxford Companion to Kant will lay out basic issues and provide you with a bibliography. It won’t take long for you to see the same names popping up over and over again. This leads to my second principle: 2) buy the books of the people whose names pop up most often, whether as primary authors or in annotations. So, for e.g., for Kant, you want to get Henry Allison’s book, Kant’s Transcendentalism Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense. It took me about fifteen minutes to discover that this is considered a basic “must-have” text in the field.

As I noted in the post below, continental philosophy is more like literature than science, meaning that the range of acceptable genres and styles of writing is tremendous. Here I’ve discovered that one must find an author one can read and enjoy…much like you do when you find and read a favorite novelist or poet. I find some authors to be fascinating thinkers but nearly unreadable writers (J.-L. Marion). For the most part I prefer my postmodernist philosophy in poetic form (R.M. Rilke) or invective (Nietzsche).

The best advice I have is to just jump in! Go to the library, check out an anthology or two on modern or contemporary philosophy and start reading.

1 comment:

  1. IIRC, Copleston's 4-volume "History of Philosophy" is still in print, too..