10 november 2009


Ten good modern philosophy texts


    Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.
    Hanlon's Razor
   Ninety percent of everything is crud.
     Sturgeon's Law 

And now for something completetely different... good modern philosophy texts.

Yes, they exist - and yes, like almost all good things, they are rare, and they deserve to be known and savoured, so in this piece I will name some really good modern philosophy books and briefly say why I think they are.

But first I should say what is a "modern philosophy text". As I wish to use the term, at least in this piece, it is a text about philosophy that was published since 1900 and that is not postmodern.

This is not quite as the term is used normally, for in terms of philosophical periods, the modern period starts around 1600, but I do not want to consider books from that period, but only from the last century or so, and also I have used "modern" in opposition to "postmodern", for I think the last school of philosophy is not real but bogus philosophy - a kind of nihilism with pretensions and media appeal, but related to real philosophy and real science as are journalism and prostitution related to the subjects of real wisdom and real love.

Also, it should be mentioned in this context that "philosophy", broadly and vaguely speaking, but precisely enough for the moment, was a rather different sort of thing in the 20th Century, in the West at least, than in earlier centuries, and for several reasons, that deserve to be listed in part, for they are somewhat curious and interesting.

First, there was much more of philosophy about and around in the 20th century (again in the West, especially, but this I will leave tacitly understood in the rest of this text), for four different sort of reasons:

  • There was much more freedom to discuss philosophies of all kinds (including religions for the moment) freely than in previous centuries.
  • There was much more attention paid to philosophies of many kinds in the daily and periodical press and media, that only came into existence in the end of the 19th Century.
  • Practical implementations of the politicial philosophies of fascism and communism ruled dictatorially in large countries over many millions (and appealed to many millions outside these dictatorships).
  • Philosophy was taught as a special subject on a much wider scale in the universities than ever before, which fuelled the printing of lots more books about philosophy than in previous centuries.

The first two points are - perhaps - somewhat ephemeral or fleeting, in the sense that a public, and especially a public with daily public media, may discuss much and may even do so heatedly without this making much of a real difference, but they do constitute a real difference with earlier centuries.

The third point was of fundamental political, social and human importance, as it ruined the lives and chances of many millions, and shows that philosophy really is of practical importance - but it also is about philosophy run insane, or dictatorial or populist, which is practically and politically important, but not cognitively so, which is what I am concerned with here.

The fourth point means that there was in fact a flood of philosophy books of all kinds, schools, contents and qualities published in the 20th Century, of which any one person can have read only a small fraction.

Note that much of this - probably by far the greatest part - was not so much serious philosophy as serious publishing: There was a market for it, unlike in previous centuries, either because it had become fashionable for - would be - intellectuals to be informed about philosophy or to have philosophical opinions or because it catered to philosophy courses in Western universities.

As it happens, I believe that I have read more modern philosophy than almost anyone. There must be some who have read more, but (i) they are very probably professionally employed as teachers of philosophy at some university and especially (ii) it is unlikely they have read as widely as I have, for professional philosophers tend to be well read only in their own academic specialisms, and not outside it.

As it happens also, although I have read widely in modern philosophy, I have read critically, and the modern philosophy I like (or indeed: can take seriously) is almost always of the analytical, scientific and realistic kind, since only that kind of modern philosophy may hope to escape Hume's severe judgment that most philosophy is little better than sophistries and illusions, that are designed to make life seem bearable or worthwile, rather than being designed to further finding the truth about things.

So here is a brief list of good philosophical texts in English, followed by some explanations why I think they are good and deserve reading. I'll list them in the order from introductory to demanding, and give summaries below:

1. Nagel & Cohen: Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method

This is an introductory university text for beginning students and interested laymen that dates back to the 1930ies, and that has been published and republished in various formats until, at least, the 1970ies. The edition I mean is the full edition, that gives a readable and basic if today also somewhat old-fashioned introduction to logic and philosophy of science, including the foundations of probability theory and statistics.

It is in some ways definitely out of date, but it does give a good and clear introduction to realistic, analytical and scientific philosophy, without being partial or excessively formal, and it also does a good job of relating philosophy to science and to daily life.

2. Klaus & Kuntz: Philosophy: The Study of Alternative Beliefs

Klaus & Kuntz is another introductory university text for beginning students of philosophy, and has the merits of being clear, fair and well done. Like Nagel & Cohen it will not impose logical or mathematical technicalities on you, and it also does a good job of relating philosophy to science and to daily life.

Overall, this seems to me to be the best introduction to philosophy in one volume that I have read, especially because of its clarity, fairness and scope.

3. Russell: History of Western Philosophy

Russell's History of Western Philosophy is reputed to be partial (to Russell and to analytical philosophy), unscholarly (Russell didn't know Greek) and superficial (less than a 1000 pages), but it has the great merits of being well-written, easily readable, being the only introduction to philosophy or its history that made me laugh, and to do its job, namely to give a survey of Western philosophy in one book, by one mind, quite well.

There are better systematic introductions to the subject, but they are not better written or more readable, and if all you want is a readable and adequate survey of the field, this is a fine text.

4. Russell: Human Knowledge - Its scope and its limits

Russell's Human Knowledge - Its Scope and Limits, in fact was his last serious book about philosophy, and was not well received, because it did not fit in well or at all with the dominant philosophical schools at the time, which were forms of fairly crude but very pretentions neo-positivism or linguistic philosophy.

Also, later this text was not widely read, because it was considered old-fashioned, mistaken, or not of the right neo-positivist (empirical) or linguistic kind, but it seems to me a good and interesting statement and discussion of its subject, written by a philosopher who, unlike most modern philosophers, could write and who did know science.

So far, the books I have been mentioning and commenting were (mostly) introductory texts. The same holds for the following two, except that these are a little more demanding, especially as regards mathematics

5. Hawkins: The Language of Nature

Hawkins' book is a very fine text on philosophy of science and its relation to mathematics. It was written by someone who was neither a professional philosopher nor a professional mathematician, but who was also, according to Stanislav Ulam, who was a great mathematician, "the best amateur mathematician I know". In result, the book is a lot better than most books by "real" (that is "professional") philosophers of science or mathematicians on the subject.

It also is well-written and clear, and the only setback I can think of is that it may require some interest and knowledge of mathematics to savour and comprehend it fully.

6. Toraldo di Franca: The investigation of the physical world

Toraldo di Franca's book is a fine text that is mostly about the philosophies of science and of physics, that was written by an Italian physicist. It has the merits of being very clear and of discussing rather a lot of the fundamental ideas of physics quite sensibly and the only setback I can think of is that it may require some interest and knowledge of mathematics to understand all of it.

7. Broad: The Mind and its Place in Nature

Broad's text is probably still the best introduction to its subject - philosophy of mind - in one book, although it dates back to the 1920ies. It was written by a very capable English philosopher, who also had good groundings in mathematics and science, and who wrote very clearly and fairly.

If the book has a setback (besides not referring to literature written after it), it may be that it is an impressively fat tome, but that setback is balanced by Broad's excellent common sense and very readable and clear style. If you are interested in the subject at all (also if you are not a philosopher), this is a text you should read.

8. Burtt: The metaphysical foundations of modern science

Burtt wrote a number of books relating to philosophy and religion that are all worth reading, because he had a fine mind, a clear style, and a fair manner of exposition, but the book I name is the book that made him well-known, and deservedly so.

The book discusses, with many quotations, especially the precursors of Newton in England, and makes many points relating to the philosophies of science and of physics that tend to be not discussed in other texts relating to these subjects. It really clarifies the subject of its title, and if it has a setback it must be that it discusses the contributions to philosophy of very interesting and able scientific men like Boyle that are not often discussed in philosophy texts.

I have finally arrived at the last two texts, and these differ from the ones I have mentioned so far in at least four important respects:

  • First, these are not single books, but collections of books with the same title and subject, of which the number depends on the edition one uses.
  • Second, these are texts that are mostly addressed to specialists, notably philosophers of science, mathematicians, and physicists.
  • Third, these texts require some minimal grounding and abilities in mathematics and logic (though especially Stegmueller's texts explain a considerable amount of this quite well).
  • Fourth, these texts treat a lot of material, in a somewhat encyclopedic way, and indeed are meant to be handbooks of some kind, where one can find many fundamentals of many subjects.

9. Stegmueller: Probleme und Resultaten der analytischen und Wissenschaftsphilosophie

Stegmueller - the title means: Problems and results of analytical philosophy and philosophy of science - I only know in German and in the form of rather a lot of paperbound so-called Studienausgabe, but it seems to have been originally in four thick clothbound volumes, that also have been translated into English. It has the great merits of being an excellent summary of and introduction to its subjects, and it also gives a fine survey of it, and explains a lot about the foundations of logic and probability, that tend to be difficult to find elsewhere.

Of all the texts I mention in this piece, this is most scholarly, the longest, and the most technical, but it also teaches its readers a lot about many things. The only setbacks I can think of are that, taken together, it is a lot of text, if one reads all, although that is not at all necessary, for the volumes can be mostly read independently (*); that it is quite thorough, which has the advantage of explaining lots of things quite well that other texts don't explain at all (especially as regards logic, probability and statistics); and that it is written in scholarly German, which in this case means that it usually is quite clear but normally is not exhilirating reading.

However... if you really want to learn about the foundations of philosophy, science, mathematics, logic, probability theory or statistics, this is the text to turn to, for it explains much of this really well, and also with full references.

10. Bunge: Treatise on Basic Philosophy

Bunge is an Argentinian theoretical physicist and philosopher, of a pronounced realistic and scientific bend in philosophy, that I like a lot. He wrote many books, that also are recommendable, but his main work in philosophy is bound to be the text I mentioned, which comes in some ten paperback volumes (as I have them), and fundamentally states his own philosophy, which is realistic, scientific, strongly related to physics, and very informed about science and physics.

I like Bunge's Treatise a lot, but I am aware of the setbacks: One must know something about both science and philosophy to appreciate them; taken collectively, it is a lot of text; it is - unavoidably so - somewhat dogmatic in parts; and it contains printing mistakes, especially in formulas; and to understand it (and correct the printing mistakes) one needs a fairly good grounding in logic and mathematics (for which see Stegmueller).

On the other hand, it is a relief to read a knowledgeable and bright physicist about science and philosophy, rather than a dimwitted and pretentious philosopher, and it gives a lot of background, general ideas, summaries, points of view, and clearly stated principles and assumptions, that also seem mostly sound and sensible to me, also if I did not quite agree. And no other twentieth century philosopher I know of did something like this, on Bunge's scale, with his thoroughness - to which it may be added that he also has the merit of writing a clear and readable English.

Summing up: The above gives a list of useful, interesting, generally well written books about philosophy, all written in the 20th Century, all well worth reading, all informed, that ought to keep you from the streets for half a year at least, if you were to decide to read them all, and spend most of your time on them, and work through them all.

I did so myself, but not in half a year, and not consecutively, but in the course of some 40 years of reading in and around philosophy and science. Much of what I think I have learned about these subjects is to be found somewhere in these books, usually well explained and with clear references.

So... if you really want to acquire some philosophical knowledge and competence, I have herewith sketched a path towards it, and my final recommendations of the path I indicated is that none of the above books was written by a narrow specialist or for narrow specialists; all are at least tolerably well written; all will teach you things you did not know before; while the general sum-up of all is that real philosophy - the trying to solve or clarify fundamental problems - is these days mostly done by real scientists or real mathematicians, and not by academic philosophers. 

P.S. There is more on lines like the above in my Review of Books relating to philosophy in my Philosophical Dictionary, with a discussion of 20th-Century philosophers and their books in Books - 20th C.                        

P.P.S. 12 nov 2009: See A note on good modern philosophy books for an elucidation that - perhaps - should have been made in this piece.

(*) That is: If you have read the initial volume or volumes (or the relevant parts thereof), that explain logic (supposing you to be naive about this). Also, it helps if you know some mathematics.

Maarten Maartensz

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