20th C



 Maarten Maartensz:  Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek

 Books - general


Books - Modern

Under the above heading I give a series of bookreferences that concern Western philosophy between 1600 and 1900.


A. Encyclopedias, glossaries and references



Machiavelli: 1. The Prince 2. The Discourses. Machiavelli was a very intelligent top civil servant in Florence (until he got dismissed) who tried to be a realistic political philosopher by studying what politicians and other political leaders do, rather than by believing their words. He is known as a cynic, which was very probably not true, and The Discourses probably give more of his real opinions than The Prince (which was an attempt to get into the favors of a Medici princeling). There is an edition of The Prince with my comments on my site.

Montaigne: The Essays. These are three volumes of essays by a 16th Century Frenchman, dedicated to the question of what one really knows - "Que sais je?" in Montaigne's words: "What do I know?". They are very well-written, quite skeptical, and interesting for many reasons, among which is Montaigne's interest in what is now know as anthropological evidence: Information about the habits, ideas and ways of life of so-called "primitive peoples". There are many editions and translations, and the English one I like best is a rendering of John Florio's translation from the early 17th Century in "Everyman's Library", of which Shakespeare may have read the original edition. 

Hobbes: 1. Leviathan. 2. Body, Man and Citizen. Hobbes was an atheist and materialist in a time when one could be burned alive for either. He was clever and careful, was protected by some people with power, and in fact got very old. Leviathan is his main philosophical work, of which there is a Pelican edition. It is very well-written, though the later part is much concerned with 17th century issues that today only are of interest to specialists. Body, Man and Citizen is a modern selection from Leviathan and other texts.

Pascal: 1. Pensées. 2. L'esprit de géometrie. Blaise Pascal was a 17th century French mathematical genius, who was also a great writer, and somewhat of a troubled soul. The "Pensées" is especially interesting for aphorisms and sharp insights into human weaknesses, but is rather hard going for whoever lacks most or all of Pascal's religious convictions. The L'esprit de géometrie is a beautifully clear statement on the nature of mathematics, written at a time that mathematicians tended to call themselves geometers. The French Pleiade-edition of his Oeuvres contains a lot of fine mathematics and physics, written in a very clear style.

Descartes: Meditations. This is Descartes' main work, and there is a copy of it on my site with my comments. Descartes was a fine writer and an excellent mathematician, but I don't much like his philosophy, which in fact is mostly in defense of Catholicism, for which I think the Scholastics had intellectually better arguments. Indeed Descartes' main "proof of God's existence" is on the lines of the Scholastic Anselm, that was already refuted by Anselm's contemporary Gaunilon, and a little later by Aquinas. Since I just mentioned Pascal, it may make sense to remark that Pascal did not have a high opinion of Descartes.

Spinoza: Ethics. This is Spinoza's main work, supposedly written "more geometrico", that is "in the style of mathematics". Indeed, it starts with axioms and definitions and proceeds with proofs, but - as George Boole noted - it is very difficult to make sense of. Even so, it is interesting because Spinoza attempted to prove that God and Nature are one and the same, and because it does contain a fairly clear if simple-minded treatment of the emotions. It is an interesting fact that in the Dover-edition a considerable amount of his  correspondence is included, from which it emerges that Leibniz's friend Von Tschirnhaus already saw the principal difficulties with the Ethics.

Locke: 1. An Essay on Human Understanding. 2. Treatise on Government. Locke was much influenced by Newton, but also by Descartes, Hobbes and others. The Essay on Human Understanding is the first clear statement of an empirical scientific philosophy and of a sensible philosophy of science. Its' main shortcoming is probably that Locke found it convenient to assume that the human mind is born without any idea or preconception, like a "tabula rasa" (empty table, to be written on by the senses). He also wrote two treatises on government, of which the second was important for the coming to be of modern democratic states, though Locke did not see as far as that.

Leibniz: 1. Monadology. 2. Nouveaux Essays. 3. Works translated and edited by Cassirer. The full text of the Monadology and an excerpt of the Nouveaux Essays are on this site with my comments. They are there because I like Leibniz and admire his mind, not because I agree with him. Since you can find extensive treatments of the first two items on this site, I need only mention at this place that the Nouveaux Essays was in fact a long criticism of Locke's Essay just mentioned. Leibniz's works are still not fully published. There are many editions of selections. A German one I owe and found useful is by E. Cassirer in two volumes. It is called "Hauptschriften zur Grundlegung der Philosophie". For more literature about Leibniz see Leibniz-literature.

Berkeley: A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. This is Berkeley's most important book in philosophy, that includes his doctrine that "esse est percipi", and that whatever exists is seen, if not by a man then by the Lord. Berkeley published this when 25; wrote very well; and later became a bishop of the Anglican Church. His doctrines are incredible, but difficult to refute. He also wrote about difficulties and the then newly discovered differential calculus, which he saw very sharply, and late in his life, to the amusement of many, about the medical virtues of tar-water.

Hume: 1. Treatise of Human Nature. 2. Enquiries. 3. Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. Together, these are Hume's main philosophical works, of which the second (two volumes, usually edited as one) are an abridgement and rewriting of the Treatise. There is a good edition of the Treatise in Pelican, but I agree with Hume, and disagree with most academic philosophers, in liking his Enquiries a lot better, since these contain fewer mistakes and clearer prose. Hume as an academic skeptic with a very sharp mind, and his Dialogues refute very many philosophical and theological arguments for God's existence or the eternal existence of the human soul.

Johnson: 1. The life of Samuel Johnson, by Boswell. 2. The Rambler. 3. Rasellas, Prince of Abyssinia. I like Dr. Johnson, for he had a very fine mind and a great gift for prose and logical reasoning, as is easily verified by reading Boswell's Life. He is not often listed these days as a philosopher, since he did not write academic philosophy, but his moral essays, of which The Rambler is the most important collection,  are philosophical in a sense non-academic philosophers find more sensible and easier than most academic philosophy. The same applies to his booklet Rasellas, that appeared in the same year as Voltaire's Candide, and is in many ways similar, though inspired by completely different pre-conceptions.

Voltaire: 1. Dictionary of Philosophy. 2. Candide. Voltaire wrote a lot that nowadays is neither read nor reprinted, but his Dictionary and his Candide are still read and reprinted, and rightly so, because they are witty and sensible. The Dictionary contains remarks about many subjects and persons and is much in the spirit of 18th C Enlightenment, while Candide pokes fun at Leibniz's statement that human beings live "in the best of all possible worlds".

Diderot: 1. The Amazing Diderot. 2. Jacques the fatalist and his master. Diderot was one of the French luminaries of the 18th Century of Reason (that ended bloodily in the French Revolution and Napoleon's dictatorship) and was the main editor of the famous Encyclopédie (which is well worth looking into, if you can find a copy or selections). He was a good and graceful writer, and many of his philosophical texts are conveniently gathered in recently published The Amazing Diderot. If you are interested in a Picardic novel about the intricacies of the problem of free will, try "Jacques the fatalist", for it is funny and sharp-witted, indeed also if the problem of free will is of no interest to you.

Rousseau: Confessions. I don't like Rousseau, but he had an enormous influence on the 18th and 19th Century, and indeed can be seen as the main if not the only philosophical inspirer of the French Revolution. The main reason was that he appealed effectively to the desire for liberty of many and did so in a very fluent style. His Confessions are his own autobiography in two volumes, and make interesting reading (of which not everything can be believed).

Kant: 1. Prolegomena. 2. Kritik der reinen Vernünft. Academic philosophers often pretend to admire Kant and to have learned much of him. I neither admire him nor have learned much from him, except that it cannot be too difficult to write thick volumes of philosophy in a highly abstruse language. However, he almost certainly meant well and was widely read and admired. His own explanation of what he thought he was up to is his "Prolegomena to every future philosophy", which is not thick and much better written than the thick books he got famous for. I have read the "Kritik der reinen Vernünft" both in German and in an English translation by George Eliot's (= Mary Ann Evans) friend G. Lewes, and found the English version less unpalatable than the German, possibly because it contains considerably more dots and hence shorter sentences than the original (that also abounds in unclear references like "diejenige", "welche" etc.). If you want to know most of what was wrong with Kant's philosophy in fine German by a great admirer of his, you should read "Die Kantische Philosophie" by Schopenhauer, which is part of his "Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung".

Marx: Die Frühschriften, ed. S. Landshut. I don't like Marx, but he had an enormous influence on the 20th Century. Why this would be so is difficult to understand from his main work, "The Capital", much of which is turgid and only concerned with economics. The volume I list contain a selection of Marx's writings between age 19 and age 28, and includes "The Communist Manifesto". The last text may make it a little clearer why Marx got popular with ordinary labourers, while the rest of the "Frühschriften" used to be quite popular with leftist academics in the 1960-ies and 1970-ies, because it seemed to them more philosophical and more humanistic than his later work. In fact, most of it is turgid, and much of it obscure. One reason not to like Marx is that without him there would probably not have been socialist dictatorships, since he conceived of the philosophical ideas that went into their foundations. It should be added in fairness that he certainly did not intend the socialist dictatorships, and probably would have abhorred them.

Boole: A mathematical analysis of the laws of thought. This is, apart from an earlier book by Boole, of which the present work is an improvement and extension, and apart from work by Leibniz that was published much later and in part, the beginning of mathematical logic. It contains Boole's exposition of what is now known as Boolean algebra, and his extension of this to probability theory. It is historically important for many reasons, one of which is that these "laws of thought" are what computers work on. This strongly suggests that there may be more to the laws of human thought than Boolean algebra, but even so this book was the first published major step beyond Aristotle's syllogistic logic. There is a good edition in Dover Paperbacks.

Mill: 1. System of Logic. 2. On Representative Government. Mill's System of Logic was published in the same decade as Boole's work mentioned above, and is Mill's presentation and reworking of the principles Aristotelian logic, to which he added his own principles of induction. It is now outdated, but it is upon the whole a clear statement that, when compared with introductions to modern mathematical logic, shows why the latter was such a large step forward. Mill was a utilitarian and a liberal, and On Representative Government is a long essay on the virtues of this, still much worth reading.

Schopenhauer: 1. Fourfold Root 2. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. 3. Parerga et Parallelopomenina. This lists nearly all of Schopenhauer's published works. The first was his doctoral thesis, and concerns various principles and interpretations of "if ... then ---", and is very clever and clear, showing that Schopenhauer was clearly aware of many problems most philosophers don't even see. (I list an English translation, that seems good, for I don't owe a German version.) Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung is Schopenhauer's main work, and outlines his idealist philosophy, that he found to be quite similar to that expounded in the Upanishads. The third item are two books of essays on all manner of mostly philosophical subjects. The reason I list so much by Schopenhauer is not that I agree with his philosphy, but because he wrote a very beautiful German, and he is a fine counter-example (with Lichtenberg and Nietzsche) to the notion that German writers of philosophy must be turgid and obscure.

Nietzsche: - Werke. I have read all of the Schlechta-edition of Nietzsche, in German, that includes most but not all of Nietzsche's philosophical work. (The edition I have is in four volumes.) One reason to read Nietzsche is that he was a great writer, and another that he was in some ways a good psychologist. It is fair to say there were several Nietzsches - say, an early one, much influenced by Schopenhauer; a middle one, skeptical and science oriented; and a later one, in part romantic, in part obsessed with power, that ended in insanity. I like his German and some of his middle period, but I do not think he was a great philosopher, though he was a great writer. Also, it is fair to add that it is highly probable that Nietzsche would have despised the fascists and national socialists who felt inspired by him, and that it seems to me that Jacob Burckhardt - the great Swiss historian, who was much admired by Nietzsche - contains much of what Nietzsche aspired to in his more rational and balanced moments, also in excellent German. (See: "Kultur der Renaissance in Italien" and "Griechische Kulturgeschichte".)

Peirce: Collected Papers. There is no good edition of Peirce, though it seems one is in preparation. The best there is are the Collected Papers, in six volumes, but these seem to have been compiled with a lot of good will, scissors and paste, and consequently contain pieces of many of his texts, without the context in which they were written. Peirce had a very clear and comprehensive mind, and many interesting ideas, especially in logic, about science, and about metaphysics.  

Dedekind: Was sind und sollen die Zahlen?. Dedekind was a 19th century German mathematician, and this is his attempt to explain clearly what numbers are. The explanation is mostly clear, and in terms of what we call now "sets", though Dedekind called them "systems", and the book is not at all thick (and available in English translation in Dover Paperbacks). Its main shortcoming is its psychological explanation of the concept of infinity.

Frege: Grundgesetze der Arithmetik. This is Frege's main work, which aims to found all of mathematics on logic. It includes - in the edition I have, which combines the original two volumes into one - an appendix in which Frege reacts to Bertrand Russell's letter of 1902 which showed that Russell's paradoxical set of sets that are not members of themselves lead to a contradiction in Frege's system. Frege was a German mathematician, and was the first to show that in principle mathematics could be derived from and based upon a few principles of logic plus a few assumptions about the extensions of the terms one uses. He wrote considerably more on questions of mathematics, logic and semantics, nearly all of which was - since then - translated into English. Two interesting points about his work are that the notation he choose for his system of logic is quite extra-ordinary, and that the logician George Boolos recently showed that what Frege wanted to prove can be proved in a logical system much like the one he set up (but in modern notation) when one appeals to Hume's Principle to the effect that two collections are equinumerous if each element in each collection can be matched with precisely one element in the other collection. (This can be found in Boolos' "Logic, Logic, Logic" and is in many ways a vindication of Frege.)





 Last edited: 12 Dec 2011.   Top.