How to Get Into Philosophy: A Layman’s Guide to Esoteric Books

To many people, philosophy shelves at bookstores represent an impenetrable bulwark, daunting to layman and casual readers.  Viewing such material, it’s easy to think “Philosophy is only for know-it-alls” or “I’ll have to take philosophy in college before even approaching this stuff…”  I would say though that the best way to take and nourish an interest in philosophy is to find a point of ingress, or an accessible book that will open up the larger world of philosophy.

Philosophers are a lot like writer’s-writers, in that they write oftentimes to please or irk other members of their field, and, not only that, as a new reader of philosophy, it’s taken for granted that you know of all of the work of their peers.  It’s very common in philosophy for one intellectual to build from the thought of another intellectual, or perhaps seek to destroy an edifice of thougth that another has erected.  Starting in philosophy can be a challenge then because it’s very possible you won’t know who the philosopher’s referencing.  Unfortunately, this means when you first start reading, there’s going to be a lot of stumbling around.

Thankfully, some helpful guides have been written.  Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy traces philosophic thought from Plato to the 19th century.  A lot of similar books have been written, and I’d recommend at least skimming these books to gather enough background knowledge of ideas to understand whatever philosopher you plan to read.

When I first tried reading philosophy, I just assumed Plato and Socrates would be mentioned a lot in modern philosophical books, but I was for the most part wrong.  In all of my reading, I rarely come across references to the ancient Greeks.  Fiction authors refer back to the Greeks more than philosophers do.  Here’s a few philosophers whose works do appear a lot, and so I’d recommend you acquaint yourself a little bit with their thoughts, even if it’s just reading a summary or a study guide.

G. W. F. Hegel

Soren Kierkegaard

Friedrich Nietzsche

Immanuel Kant

Baruch Spinoza

Arthur Schoepenhauer

Karl Marx

Jean Jacques Rosseau

Voltaire

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I’m certain I’m forgetting a few of the big names, but you get the idea.  You don’t necessarily have to read entire books by each (but that wouldn’t hurt) but you should strain yourself a bit to get the overall idea of their work.  From there, philosophy becomes much more comprehensible.

Also, some philosophers aren’t particularly hard to read at all.  Nietzsche for example often complained about the complexity of some philosophers, and strived to write his ideas in a straight forward and often aphoristic form.  Albert Camus also strives for such readability.  If you don’t care for existentialism, Bertrand Russel is highly readable.  The most enjoyable and easy to read philosopher I’ve found is Edward Said.  He writes a lot about imperialism and the effect it has on culture, but the nice thing is, he also read a lot of literature and watched movies and listened to music so he frequently used culture–popular and classical–to illustrate his points (he even edited a volume of Henry James short stories for the Library of America edition).

The fiction writer Nick Hornby once joked that one of the big discoveries he made in his life was when he attended a Pink Floyd concert, found himself bored during a long guitar solo, and left the concert, had a beer at a pub, played pool, and came back to hear the next song.  He said it was a revelation that he didn’t have to stick around for everything.  I would say the same goes for philosophy.  Unless you’re a serious philosopher, you really don’t need to read entire philosophy books.  Sometimes the philosophers will get stuck on subjects that don’t interest you for way too long like optics or why plutocracy doesn’t work or why Prussia presents a problem, and you can just skip these sections.  It’s all too easy to get bogged down reading a philosopher’s every single thought (and some of these people are seriously windy blowhards), so just look for whatever the next topic is that’s interesting and jump ahead to there.  I think some of us when we read picture Harold Bloom or Michiko Kakutani standing over our shoulders and criticizing us for our reading habits, and likewise with philosophy you might feel you have Heidegger or Hume looming, but try to ignore these spectres.  The important thing is to get the most YOU can from the texts.

Also, please don’t become one of those boorish individuals who insist on telling everyone at parties that they’re reading Noam Chomsky or Simone de Beauvoir just to seem smarter than everyone else in attendance.  I think most real philosophers would tell someone like that they’re being fascistic.

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