Friday, December 28, 2007

So You Want to Study Philosophy: A Reading List

In the last post, I promised to provide a list of solid introductory books for someone starting an investigation into the free will problem. I got to thinking a bit, and decided that I might as well take the time to give a reading list for someone starting to get into philosophy on a wide variety of topics. These books are, for the most part, what I'd classify as "advanced introductory" texts. In other words, they presume minimal prior philosophical knowledge, but also that the reader is intelligent and at least somewhat academically minded. Reading philosophy is very different than reading most other texts, including other academic texts; you'll see what I mean when you begin. In general, these are texts that would be likely to be included in the reading lists of advanced undergraduate courses. I'm only going to deal with a few fields (those in which I feel most confident in recommending books) at first, though I might add more subject areas to the list later. Without further ado, here's the list:

Philosophy of Mind

Philosophy of mind encompasses a wide variety of topics, including the mind-body problem (what's the relationship between the brain and the mind?), questions about the nature of consciousness, artificial intelligence, representation, and a myriad of other questions. Here are a few good texts to get you going (I'll warn you right now that I'm heavily biased toward John Searle, as I studied under him at Berkeley):

  • Mind: A Brief Introduction by John Searle. ISBN 978-0195157345. This is a great introductory text. Searle writes with an accessible, conversational tone, and covers many of the major ideas in the field before presenting his own.
  • Philosophy of Mind, Classical and Contemporary Readings, an anthology edited by David Chalmers. ISBN 978-0195145816. Great anthology that covers most aspects of the field from the Greeks onward. Some of the articles are a little dense (Kripke shows up more than once), but this is perfect anthology to get you started
  • How the Mind Works by Stephen Pinker. ISBN 978-0140244915. Like Searle, Pinker writes in a very accessible tone, and can easily be understood by the uninitiated. Unlike Searle, Pinker embraces the computational theory of mind, which is the dominant theory today. Worth it to understand where many philosophers and cognitive scientists are coming from today. This was published in 1999, so it's a bit dated now, but good nonetheless.
  • Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind by John Searle. ISBN 978-0521273022. This one's a bit more academic, but still benefits from Searle's characteristically clear and clean style. Intentionality is absolutely central to philosophy of mind, and this is a wonderful text discussing it.

Free Will and Action Theory

Questions about whether or not we are free tend to get lumped together with questions about how our actions come to be executed, or what it means to act rationally. The whole field is called "free will and action theory."

  • Four Views on Free Will by John Fischer, Derek Pereboom, Manuel Vargas, and Robert Kane. ISBN 978-1405134866. I had the opportunity to review an early copy of this book when I took an undergraduate action theory class with Manuel Vargas. I was impressed with it then, and I imagine that it's only gotten better. Each author advocates for one of the four major positions within the field (Kane for libertarianism, Pereboom for hard incompatibilism, Fischer for [semi]compatibilism, and Vargas for revisionism). This volume contains the essay My Compatibilism by Fischer, which is the article I referenced in the series of free will themed posts.
  • The Metaphysics of Free Will: An Essay on Control by John Fischer. ISBN 978-1557868572. This is a more detailed exploration of John Fischer's ideas about free will and moral responsibility, including his account of the distinction between guidance and regulative control. A great text on his brand of compatibilism.
  • The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, an anthology edited by Robert Kane. ISBN 978-0195178548. The Oxford Handbook series are predictably excellent, and this is no exception. As with any anthology, the content runs the gamut from the reasonably accessible to the very dense and technical. Still, a round coverage of most of the classical and contemporary ideas in the field.
  • Free Will (Blackwell Readings in Philosophy), another anthology edited by Robert Kane. ISBN 978-0631221029. The Blackwell series are also very good overall. This anthology focuses much more on the current debate than the Oxford anthology, and is perhaps a bit more accessible to the layman, though somewhat less comprehensive.
  • Rationality in Action by John Searle. ISBN 978-0262692823. Searle's a die-hard libertarian about free will, one of the few positions he holds with which I disagree. In this book, he outlines the traditional philosophical concept of "acting rationally"--the orthodox view is basically that a 'rational' action is an action--motivated purely by the actor's own beliefs and desires--then, in predictable Searle fashion, turns the debate on its head and argues for exactly the opposite point. Even if you disagree with his conclusions, this book is worth reading for its clear treatment of difficult technical issues, and for the sake of appreciating Searle's gift for ingenious arguments against orthodoxy.

Ethics and Morality

Ethics is one of the five major fields of philosophy (the others are metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, and logic), and deals with questions of how we ought to live our lives. Here are some good places to start:

  • Consequentialism (Blackwell Readings in Philosophy), an anthology edited by Stephen Darwell. ISBN 978-0631231080. Another Blackwell entry here. Consequentialism is the idea that the relevant moral facts of the matter (i.e. the facts that determines the moral status of an action) are facts about that action's consequences, not facts about the actor's intentions. It is one of the most popular (if not the most popular) constellation of views on ethics today, and Darwell's anthology offers a broad introduction to arguments for and against it.
  • Virtue Ethics (Oxford Readings in Philosophy), an anthology edited by Slote and Crisp. ISBN 978-0198751885. Virtue ethics originated with Aristotle, and are based around the idea that being moral consists in having one or more virtues (e.g. courage, temperance, etc.). I'm not a big fan of this theory, but it's an important one in the ethics debate, and this is as good an anthology as any.
  • Groundwork Concerning the Metaphysics of Morals, by Immanual Kant. ISBN 978-0521626958. Ah, the Groundwork, how I love/hate thee. Kant advocates the idea that acting morally has nothing to do with bringing about the best consequences, but rather depends entirely on acting in accord with an overarching moral theory called the "Categorical Imperative." The essay is short, brilliant, and very, very difficult. Read it, read it again, read it again, and then maybe you'll have some idea what he's saying. Then maybe you can explain it to me. This is a tough one, but well worth the effort--when you finally finish it, you'll feel like you've just run a mental marathon, and you'll understand why Kant is widely considered to be one of the most brilliant humans to have ever lived (even if his theories might not be correct).
  • The Ethical Brain: The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas by Michael Gazzaniga. ISBN 978-0060884734. While perhaps not a philosophy book per se (Gazzaniga is a neuroscientist, not a philosopher), this is still an excellent book for anyone interested in the field of ethics. I've got a soft spot for anyone who attempts to resolve seemingly intractable philosophical problems with an appeal to neuroscience (if I had to sum up my overarching academic project in one sentence, that would be it), which is precisely what Gazzaniga does in this book. He considers various aspects of morality and various ethical dilemmas, then explains how they can be explained by/resolved by a detailed structure of neuroscience. This is a "pop science" book--i.e. written for mass consumption-- so it is very readable and interesting, though those with a significant background in philosophy, neuroscience, or cognitive science will probably find it lacking in detail.

Philosophy of Perception

I'm fascinated with issues surrounding perception, particularly color perception. This is a very diverse field, with contributions from philosophers, biologists, cognitive scientists, computer scientists, and others; a lot of philosophy really intersects here. I consider it to be a subset of philosophy of mind, but it's worth its own list here.

  • Action in Perception by Alva Noe. ISBN 978-0262640633. Noe begins the book by laying out his central thesis: "Perception is not something that happens to us, or in us; it is something we do." From this thought provoking beginning, Noe goes on to discuss various aspects of perception (focusing primarily on vision, though touching on other modalities) with a clear, lucid style and judicious use of science and philosophy. This is philosophy at its best, in my opinion: Noe presents a concise and well thought out exploration of the problems in the field, and presents what he thinks is a plausible solution to them, all designed to help cognitive scientists untangle the conceptual confusion that he thinks surrounds this topic. Noe's a rising star in philosophy, and this is a great example of why.
  • Vision and Mind: Selected Readings in the Philosophy of Perception, an anthology edited by Alva Noe and Evan Thompson. ISBN 978-0262640473. Another very good anthology, which focuses mostly on modern (i.e. last 50 years or so) explorations of perception in all its forms. Some of the articles are a little dense, but that's to be expected.
  • Readings on Color, Volume One: The Philosophy of Color, an anthology edited by Byrne and Hilbert. ISBN 978-0262522304. Within perception, I have a particular interest on color perception. My senior thesis as an undergraduate / writing sample for graduate school admissions was on color perception, and this anthology helped me a lot as I was writing. I could probably include an entire section just on color, but we'll leave it at two books. The second one being...
  • The Quest for Reality: Subjectivism and the Metaphysics of Color, by Barry Stroud. ISBN 978-0195151886. This is a detailed and rigorous examination of what we mean when we say "Tomatoes are red." Barry Stroud writes with a lucid style (though not so clear as Searle's) that is very easy to follow. His eventual argument (that colors aren't really objective or subjective at all, but something in between) also resonates strongly with me, as it is very much in line with my own idea (though Stroud appeals less directly to contemporary neuroscience).

I think that'll do to start with. Perhaps more to come later...


That 0ne Guy said...

Got any book recommendations for Logic?

Jay Erker said...

I would like to read Deleuze but would like some back up reading so that I am able to understand the context in which he writes. Can you recommend some books to start out with?

Jon said...

Hey Jay,

Alas, I cannot: Delueuze is the epitome of authors outside my area of expertise. I don't know much about the Continentals at all.

Marjolein said...

I found you! (Marj here)

I was looking up "Why should you study philosophy" and look what I found! I'm so happy :)

This is a really helpful blog! I decided yesterday that if I'm going to study philosophy for real, I needed to start reading. The only thing I've read so far are Sophie's World, some of Peter Watson's stuff, and Brian McGee.

My parents are big fans of Steven Pinker. His articles from the New York Times are always hanging around the house.

I'll let you know when I've read everything!