20th C


 Maarten Maartensz:  Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek

 Books - general


Books - Special

Under the above heading I give a series of books that concern philosophy in some religious or political tradition.

For Western philosopy in general see Sites - General. And note there are no clear, simple and clean divisions here: Western Medieval philosophy was Christian; published philosophy in 20th Century socialist countries was Marxist. Also, there are no value-judgements: Very interesting and valuable work was done in Christian, Islamic, Hinduistic, Buddhistic and Chinese backgrounds.

I am not well read in any of the above topics, but I know something about them. Also it should be remarked that I am an atheist with little interest in theology and that what I have read in non-Western philosophy usually had one of four motivations: My interest in metaphysics; mysticism; logic and well-written books.


As I remarked, I am an atheist, and therefore theology has not much interest for me, since it seems mostly fantasy to me - which is, incidentally, also what faithful theologians should think about faithful theologians of other faiths.

Even so, being an atheist while one lives, as I do, in a century in which there have been many and great scientific advances is easier than it would have been in earlier times, when all or nearly all of the science mankind possesed was produced, copied and guarded by theologians, many of whom were at least as much interested in genuine knowledge as are scientists.

Also, to show that religion is not mere nonsense nor completeley fraudulent and indeed not even all false, it is useful to start with mentioning a wellwritten text by an English Anglican writer, who also wrote very well on philosophy of science:

Edwin A. Burtt: Man seeks the Divine. This is a scholarly clearly written survey of the major religions, that seems quite impartial and is very wellinformed. It is by an English Anglican, who got well-known by his excellent text in philosophy of science "Metaphysical foundations of Modern Science". According to Wing-tsit Chan, who is an expert on Chinese philosophy whose work I like, Man seeks the Divine "is the best book for the understanding of Asian religions."

Augustine: Confessions. Augustine was a bishop of the Catholic church and is a saint of that Church. He was a very intelligent man who wrote a beautiful prose. The Confessions are his autobiography, and is interesting, apart from the quality of its prose, for psychological reasons, because it shows that a Catholic bishop at Augustine's time could well be a more lively and interesting character than modern Catholic bishops seem to be, and for philosophical reasons, because Augustine has very interesting things to say about time.

Aquinas: Summa contra Gentiles and Summa Theologicae. Aquinas is another Catholic saint and the person most responsible for the intellectual foundations of Catholicism. The two summas are his main works, and are meant to summarize the reasons why heathens (gentiles) are mistaken, and to provide the main systematic ideas of Catholicism (or Christian philosophy, for Aquinas lived before the Reformation). Neither the one nor the other carries much conviction for me, but Aquinas obviously was extra-ordinarily intelligent and serious, and many of his ideas and distinctions are sensible and useful (though others, like the need to burn heretics, are not).

Ockham: Summa Logicae. Ockham was not a saint, though he was a Franciscan friar and an extra-ordinarily intelligent man, who had highly interesting original ideas about logic and universals. Most of his work has so far not been translated, but there are useful translations of parts of the Summa Logicae.

Bishop Butler: Fifteen sermons preached at the Rolls Chapel. This is a work by an English Anglican bishop, first published in 1726. It is listed here because Butler had a fine mind, a clear style, and a commonsensical approach to moral problems. "Probability is the guide to life" is one of his famous aphorisms. There is a useful introduction to him in Pelican: Austin Duncan-Jones: Butler's Moral Philosophy, and he is also treated well by C.D. Broad in "Five Types of Ethical Theory".

Dr. Johnson: The Rambler. Samuel Johnson lived in the 18th C and became famous through his writing the first good dictionary of English and being the subject of Boswell's biography, which is such a great biography because it has such a great subject who must have been a most amazing conversationalist. He was also a sincere Anglican Christian, and The Rambler is his most serious collection of moral essays.

James: Varieties of Religious Experience. William James became famous with the Principles of Psychology, and after that was one of the founders of Pragmatism (with Peirce and Schiller). He wrote beautifully on all subjects, and "Varieties" is no exception. It is concerned with mystical experiences, of which James himself had one, and describes and discusses these with great lucidity and clearness. If you want to know what living religion is really about this is the book to read.

Aldous Huxley: The Perennial Philosophy. Huxley was a novelist and a mystic, and his "The Perennial Philosophy" is his collection of selected and commented texts from the mystics. Since most of the ones he selected are Christian, I mention the work here. If you want to have some understanding of what mysticism is about, this is a good beginning.



I am not a religious person, and I found the Koran in translation boring reading, though I am willing to believe it is very fine Arabic. Even so, between 700 and 1200 (Christian dating) Islamic countries were more civilized in many respects than Christian ones, and most Islamic philosophy (theology) builts on Aristotle and other Greek philosophers, just as in the Christian and Western traditions since the Middle Ages.

Although I have read a little Islamic philosophy (in translation, since I don't know Arabic), what interests me most in it is Sufism, which is a collection of related but not identical teachings about mystical experience in the Islamic tradition, and possibly also of teachings which were not allowed by the Islamic political and theological orthodoxy, which always tended to be authoritarian and forbidding.

The Sufi traditions produced some of the greatest poetry written in Persian and Arabic, notably by Omar Khayyam, who must have been a great mind, who was a Sufi, a poet and a mathematician, among other things. It should be remarked that like Zen in the West, Sufism in the West seems also to be a field cultivated by religious frauds, and that I personally regard "Sufism" by Idries Shah fraudulent.

Rumi: Masnavi I Ma'navi. This is a classic very long poem. The edition I know is an English translation and abridgment by E.H. Whinfield M.A. Here are some lines from it (p. 31 of my edition):
   Where are "We" and "I?". There where our Beloved Is!
   O Thou, who art exempt from "Us" and "Me" -
   Who pervadest the spirits of all men and women;
   When man and woman become one, Thou art that One!   

Omar Khayyam: Rhubiyat, as translated by Edward Fitzgerald. Omar Khayyam was a mystic, a poet and a mathematician, and it seems that the term "algebra" derives from a translation of his mathematical work. He also wrote great poetry, which was - freely, I am told - translated in the 19th C by the Englishman Fitzgerald.


I don't know Sanskrit, but it is an interesting fact that India produced an enormous amount of philosophy, that is mostly written in Sanskrit and that parallels the West in many ways, even though it was written without much or any influence from the West. The Hindus started it all, apparently around 1600 B.C. and were followed by many schools and traditions, both within Hinduism, and without Hinduism, such as Buddhism.

There are many translations, though I would guess that what has been translated is only a small percentage of what is available.

Radhakrishnan & Moore: Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. This contains translations of selections of many texts from Indian philosophy and theology, though I would guess it is closer to Radhakrishnan's points of view that can be combined with true objectivity. Even so, I liked the selections and the text.

S.N. Dasgupta: A History of Indian Philosophy. These are 5 volumes by a great Hindu scholar and idealist philosopher. I read most of it and liked it, though I would have liked to read more about logic and less about the things Dasgupta was more interested in, such as medicine.

Karl Potter's volumes


I was born in 1950 in Amsterdam and so had my teens in "the swinging sixties", in which Buddhism, in part through The Beatles, became quite popular with young people. I was exposed to quite a lot of it, but not much impressed by it until I started to do some serious reading myself.

The result of that reading is that I am still in no way a Buddhist, but at least I know that there were many traditions and approaches in it, and that it contains some fine philosophy, especially epistemology.

Alan Watts: The Spirit of Zen. This used to be a popular introduction to Zen, and deservedly so, for it is wellwritten and informative, even though it may be much doubted that Watts ever achieved any kind of real mystical enlightenment - which is a property he shares with the great majority of more boring writers on Buddhism and Zen.

Narada: A Manual of Abhidhamma. Western pop-Buddhism is very superficial compared to the real article. Moreover, the real article comes in two basic schools, an early realist one, and a later idealist one, in the West known by the terms of the idealist schools as Hinayana and Mahayana. As far as philosophy is concerned, the earlier schools seem to me more sensible, and the "Manual of Abhidhamma" is from the earlier realist tradition (that still exists, e.g. in Ceylon, where this text was written). My main reason to list it is to refer the naive to a text in which there is a lot of Buddhist scholasticism, some interesting and some abstruse and obscure. There are many more of this kind.

Georg Grimm: Die Lehre des Buddho. Grimm was a German judge who refused to remain a judge under Nazism, and who resigned and wrote this book. He clearly was a convert to Buddhism, and in this fairly thick German book gives his own justification of it from the point of view of a civilized Westerner with some knowledge of Western philosophy.

Japanese text

T. Stchtserbatsky: Buddhist Logic. This is in two volumes, available in Dover paperbacks, and is the work of a Russian specialist of Sanskrit and Tibetan. The first volume explains a lot about Buddhist logic, which in fact to a considerable extent overlaps with epistemology, while the second volume contains translations of quite a few texts, notably by Dharmakirti, who was an exceedingly clever Buddhist logician of the 6th Century A.D.


I do not know any Chinese or Japanese, which probably makes it harder to understand Chinese or Japanese philosophy, since this is bound to depend to a considerable extent on the intricacies of these languages. But there are translations, some of which must be good since they were made by Chinese or Japanese who are fluent in English. Below I list two of these.

Wing-tsit Chan: Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy. This is a thick volume with many translations and good introductions to these. I suppose it is as good an introduction to Chinese philosophy as any, and so better than most. You will find many excerpts of classical Chinese philosophy, including Confucius and Mencius, and a complete translation of Lao Tzu.

Chang Chung-Yuan: Original Teachings of Ch'an-Buddhism. The more current Western term for
Ch'an-Buddhism is Zen-Buddhism, which is quite popular in the West, especially so with people who have not much knowledge of Western philosophy and a taste for obscure deep philosophy with great pretensions. Even so, there is more to Zen than skeptics may think, and this book is a translation by a native Chinese speaker of many of the classic statements by Chinese Zen-masters. One of the many merits of the book is that it clearly shows there were quite a few rather different schools of Zen.

Kapleau: Three Pillars of Zen. If you are interested in having some understanding of what Zen really is about, which is, apart from the satori few reach, disciplined meditation, this is a good book to try, for it is by a fully qualified Western Zen-master, and it contains personal accounts of the experiences of students in Zen-monasteries.

Lao Tzu: Tao Teh King. This is an amazing booklet by a contemporary of Buddha, Confucius and Socrates. There are very many translations in many languages. A good English one is in the above volum by Wing-tsit Chan, and I also read a good German one by Richard Wilhelm. If you don't know Chinese and like this booklet, it makes sense to check out various translations, since the subject-matter dealt with is certainly obscure ("Those who speak don't know; those who know don't speak.") while the prose-poetry is great.

Chuang Tzu: Inner Chapters. Chuang Tzu was an original Chinese mystic, who lived around 300 B.C. and who was a follower of Lao-Tzu but who had a very independent mind and a great gift for literature. His texts have been many times translated under different titles. Because his texts were popular in China, through the ages there have been many additions that were not by him. The term "inner chapters" is often used in the present context to refer to the part of the works attributed to him that he very probably did write. As in the case of Lao-Tzu, it makes a lot of sense to read different translations. (There is an apparently good one by Richard Wilhelm into German, while the translation I read first and was impressed by when I was 19, was Dutch, by prof. Duyvendak.)

Lin Yutang: The Importance of Living. This is a very wellwritten book by an original Chinese who was raised in China in a Western Christian tradition. He tries to clarify the Chinese approach to philosophy, which is in many ways somewhat more realistic, commensensical and less metaphysical and logical than the Western way, even if it looks different to Westerners unfamiliar with Chinese common sense.




 Last edited: 12 Dec 2011.   Top.