Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Only one book

I was just called by a minor minor news organization to comment on tonight's debate. I don't know why they called me. Apparently some jerk gave my name and number as someone who has expertise in public debate. Go figure.

Anyway, after roughly 15 minutes on the phone discussing different views about what public debate is for, etc., the journalist asked me, off the record (so she said), the following question:

I haven't read any Philosophy since my first year of college, and I don't remember anything about what I read. I'm interested in maybe giving Philosophy another try. I have time to read only one Philosophy book. If I like it, I'll read another. If not, not. What do you recommend?

My answer: Mill's On Liberty.

Views?

19 comments:

Krinos said...

Russell's The Problems of Philosophy is breathtakingly good. Hume's Dialogues on Natural Religion runs a close second. That said, Mill is probably more appropriate given your conversation.

729 said...

That was a good choice, especially as a recommendation to a reporter. I probably would have suggested Plato's Apology of Socrates.

Anonymous said...

For something contemporary--and assuming its worth staying with political philosophy--David Schmidtz's *Elements of Justice* is very good. That said, if the person is only going to read one book, I'd also go with *On Liberty.*

Anonymous said...

Dummett, The Logical Basis of Metaphysics.... for sure.

Anonymous said...

A lot of newbies to philosophy really dig Descartes's Meditations. But Mill is cool too.

The Brooks Blog said...

Wuss. Why not Hegel's Philosophy of Right? :)

Your suggestion is very good, although I'd probably run with Plato's Crito: short, sweet, action-packed, and, well, amazing.

Santa said...

My vote is for The Republic by Plato (Bloom translation) or Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics. Two that are near and dear to my heart that you don't need a lot of back story or context to take shine to.

Spiros said...

I think that Plato is a bit tough to dive into without the necessary guidance (and back story about Athens). The dialogue form presents difficulties of its own, too. I know lots of people who had the same experience I did: upon first reading Plato I found him to be unbearable and pedantic. I was wrong, of course. But philosophical power is not what's at issue in this-- it's the right combo of accessibility and depth.

I think Descartes is a good choice, and so is Hume. But the issues driving those texts are more esoteric, more detached I think from what the non-philosopher says he's concerned about. But Mill's defense of free speech, for example, is on target and undeniably brilliant.

English Jerk said...

Mill seems like a very sensible choice to me (and the Apology is great for going right to the heart of the matter), but I’d be inclined to suggest something like Wolff’s In Defense of Anarchism. In general, selecting just one book of philosophy (as opposed to a first book of philosophy) seems like a doomed endeavor; most of the candidates for ‘only philosophy book you’ll ever need’ would be unintelligible without considerable acquaintance with the rest of the philosophical tradition, and thus cannot be the ‘only philosophy book you’ll ever need’ (the candidate I have in mind is Hegel’s Science of Logic). So the selection has to be strategic in the sense that it ought to induce a philosophical condition in the target journalist, rather than just presenting the journalist with a philosophical position (however sensible). The Wolff book is not as significant a work of philosophy as the others, but it’s crisply-written and would, if read, oblige the journalist the reconsider precisely those views about the political system that seem most self-evident—a characteristically philosophical predicament.

Spiros said...

EJ:

I'm a big fan of Wolff's brilliant little book, which I still teach regularly and which still shakes people up. However, also I think that Dahl's criticisms succeed, so I couldn't in good conscience recommend it as possibly the only book this person will read in Philo. Mill, on the other hand, seems to me to be accessible, deep, and even possibly correct.

Glaucon said...

Surely something from Blackwell's philosophy and pop culture series would be more suitable. Mill -- the very idea!

English Jerk said...

Spiros:

I haven't actually read the Dahl book, but now I will. (Some of it is available on Google Books, and it looks great.) Thanks for the reference!

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the negative comments about reading Plato... I'm a second-year grad student, have been exposed to Plato for years now, and still find it intolerable...

The Brooks Blog said...

How about Nietzche's Beyond Good and Evil?

Well, if you're not going to run with South Park and Philosophy...

Spiros said...

Brooks,

I'm sure Nietzsche's not half as bad as 95% of his fans make him out to be. And I know that there are a handful of smart people who find value in him. But I can't see it, and don't have the time to (again) work through his stuff.

The Brooks Blog said...

...and fair enough!

Anonymous said...

Dummett, The Logical Basis of Metaphysics.... for sure.

Good god, you want someone to read Dummett as an introduction to philosophy?

Surely you're joking.

Santa said...

I don't know, I guess I thought a dialogue would be a better intro to philosophy in replicating the dramatic "throw down" which occurs in philosophical debate. I find those types of texts that have that type of element to them much more engaging a read than some of the drier philosophical texts than many philosophy pros like (Wittgenstein's Tractatus, "Goedel, Escher & Bach", Descartes, Kant, and Hegel come to mind).

I like Mill's "On Liberty" and the Wolff book as well, but I do think in order to engage people who have the misconception of philosophy as boring, you have to go for the more extremely dramatic and confrontational side of the discipline (think pro-wrestling in the marketplace of ideas) to get a person more curious and not think of the subject as a snooze fest. As for the critique that Bloom's Plato is a dialogue, well most English language based students have had to read a Shakespearian text more than once in their academic careers (usually the weak Romeo & Juliet or Julius Caesar) and many get turned on to the Bard by them despite the awkward iambic pentameter and usually copious explicatory footnotes.

Anonymous said...

Someone expressed an interest in philosophy. I bought her On Liberty, as you suggest, as well as Descartes' Error.