BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO WESTERN PHILOSOPHY

OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER

I am not a philosopher. I am not an expert in philosophy. I don’t even have a degree in philosophy. What I do have, however, is an unhealthy amount of interest in autodidacticism and figuring out the best way to learn about abstract topics. This beginner’s guide won’t teach you any philosophy, but I hope it’ll teach you plenty about how to start learning it yourself.

If you couldn’t care less about being seduced into starting philosophy, jump straight into Section III. If you’re curious about what I have to say on the topic, you’re more than welcome to read the whole thing. I genuinely hope you find this helpful and enjoyable.

I. WHY LEARN PHILOSOPHY?


On human nature and cookies

Every single day, you come across dozens of philosophers without even realizing it.

They sneakily walk the streets and look at the world through a completely different perspective than you and I do. These peculiar little creatures are ruthlessly curious and will stop at nothing in their quest for understanding. They constantly challenge the status quo and never pass up the chance to irritate those around them. If you have ever talked to one of them, you know very well that the blood of Socrates himself runs through their veins.

I’m talking about kids.

It is no secret that children have a genuine curiosity towards everything that surrounds them. They constantly observe their environment —mostly without judgement— and try to make sense of what the hell is going on at every instance. As soon as you let your guard down, they bombard you with questions like “what’s this thing?” or “where does this come from?” and of course, the most hated one of all, “… but why?”.

Whether you like it or not, you were once a philosopher too. In fact, we were all born philosophers. These types of loaded questions can be annoying, yes, but it’s important to remember that they are fundamentally human.

Consider this: we have done dozens of psychological and linguistic experiments with apes in which we taught them how to use sign language. Over time, some of the smartest species (e.g. chimpanzees) have become remarkably good at communicating with us. They have learned how to convey their emotions quite precisely, answer complex questions and hold basic conversation with their caretakers. But there is one thing an ape who knows sign language has never, ever, been observed to do: ask a question.

… but why? (Cheeky, I know)

For me to ask you a question, I have to presume that your mind is different than mine. If it weren’t (i.e. if we had access to the same information, beliefs and ideas) then there would be no point in me asking you anything. What seems like a pretty obvious thing to us is actually very sophisticated and unique to our species. Psychologists often refer to this as a “Theory of Mind” and it’s defined as:

“the ability to understand that other people have thoughts, knowledge, and feelings that are not the same as yours.”

Cambridge English Dictionary

You can think of it like a precondition for empathy. We humans are not born with Theory of Mind, but rather develop it as we grow up, preferably in a healthy social environment. Here’s a quick test you can use to see if your little 2-year-old nephew has developed his Theory of Mind yet; it’s called the Sally-Anne test:

  1. Sally and Anne are standing inside the same room.
  2. Sally has a basket; Anne has a box.
  3. Sally takes a cookie out of her pocket and hides it inside her basket.
  4. Then, she leaves the room and goes out for a walk.
  5. Meanwhile, Anne takes the cookie out of the basket and puts it inside her box.
  6. Soon, Sally returns from her walk and feels a little hungry, so she wants to eat her cookie.
  7. Where will Sally look for her cookie? Inside the basket or inside the box?

Now, I know what you’re thinking:

  • how can Anne be such an asshole? and,
  • how can anyone fail this test?

You’d be surprised.

For children who have not yet developed this ability, they will answer that, obviously, Sally will look for the cookie inside Anne’s box. I mean, Anne knows it’s in the box and they themselves know it’s in the box, so how could Sally not know it’s in the box? Come on, Sally, get your act together. Similar tests have been carried out on monkeys, all of which have proven they cannot possibly conceive that other organisms have a mind completely independent from their own.

That’s why they don’t ask questions.

Wondering is a fundamentally human thing to do — and no other subject is as good at it as philosophy is. Doing philosophy is, at its core, being human.

On why you may be immortal

One of the most attractive reasons to learn philosophy is that it’s a meta-subject that can be applied to any topic you can think of: physics, mathematics, love, art, sports, medicine, computer science, law… all of these subjects can be viewed through a philosophical lens. This alone shows why everyone is, in one way or another, deeply interested in philosophy. Yes, we often think about it as an extremely esoteric, boring and time-wasting subject, but I have yet to meet someone who is sincerely disinterested in the fundamental problems it raises:

Does God exist? Why are you here? And are you actually here, or is this a simulation? What is the meaning of your existence? and what happens when you die? Why is killing someone a bad thing? Where does the concept of Good and Bad even come from? What makes something art? Should abortion be legal?

We’ve all wondered about at least one of these questions before.

What is beautiful about philosophy is that, not only does it bravely tackle them head on, but it also tries to do it through logic. Philosophy is about arguments, not faith — that’s what makes it distinct from religion (this doesn’t mean that all philosophers are atheists though; in fact, many of them aren’t).

Let’s run through an example together so you can really get a sense of what this distinction looks like.

It’s not uncommon for people to believe that they have a soul. The idea that there is a “you” that isn’t physical is appealing to many. Now, a lot of people are quick to judge that the concept of a soul is completely irrational and has no room in a logical discussion… but they would be wrong. Philosophers have made attempts to defend the existence of a soul using argumentation before.

Here’s a very simplistic version of René Descartes’:

I can doubt that everything exists; it could very well be that I am living in a sophisticated dream, a simulation or a hallucination. I cannot even trust my physical senses, for they too can be deceiving (e.g. optical illusions, phantom limbs). I have to assume that the external world, including other people, exists.

But if I can doubt the existence of the external world, it means that I can think — and if I can think, it means that I exist, at least as some sort of thinking thing. I cannot doubt that I am doubting. I cannot be deceived by the external world if I do not exist as something that can be deceived in the first place.

Therefore, even if the entire external world, my body and everybody else did not exist, I —whatever the hell it is that I am— would still exist.

In philosophical jargon, we can rearrange it to look like this

  • Premise 1: I can doubt that everything exists.
  • Premise 2: I cannot doubt that I am doubting/thinking.        
  • Conclusion: Therefore, I must exist.

You’ve probably heard of this line of reasoning before. It’s the famous Cogito Ergo Sum: I think, therefore I am. We can expand it a little further still; this next one is known as The Feigning Argument:

  • Premise 1: My body can be imagined by me not to exist.
  • Premise 2: I cannot imagine myself not to exist.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, my body is not identical to what I truly am.

Not too shabby. Now comes the fun part: based on these conclusions, we can come up with the following…

  • Premise 1: Things can only be destroyed either i) by being broken into parts or ii) perhaps by being annihilated by a God.
  • Premise 2: The “I” is indivisible, it doesn’t have any parts (i.e. I don’t have two consciousnesses).
  • Conclusion: Therefore, as long as God sustains, I will exist after death.

In just a few lines, René Descartes has proven that, unless there is a God to prevent it, you will still be around after death. Pretty cool, right?

Now, Descartes’ arguments are not perfect and, as you can imagine, plenty of other philosophers have raised great objections to his premises. As far as we are concerned for now, this is irrelevant (he lived in the 17th century though, cut him some slack). Regardless of whether you think it is a good argument or not, you can’t help but admire how he has taken such a broad, mysterious and intimidating topic and broken it down into tiny little logical steps.

This is the magic of philosophy: it teaches you how to think.

Philosophy doesn’t just question things for the sake of questioning them – it does so for the sake of understanding them. Its motives are creative, not destructive.

The better you get at thinking philosophically, the more you will be able to catch flaws in logic around you — particularly the ones you make yourself. You will learn how to bulletproof your arguments and, soon enough, become a more persuasive writer, speaker and debater. To top it all off, you will learn how to live actively, making sure that whichever beliefs you hold are truly your own, instead of some regurgitated mumbo jumbo passed down from the society you just happened to be born in.

In a nutshell, philosophy —besides being a human activity you were pretty much made to engage in— will help you make sense of the biggest questions concerning your existence, passions, society, family, friends, career, and many other areas, whilst it fosters your ability to reason, put forth solid arguments and understand problems from a different perspective. All of this, of course, as you learn about some of the most brilliant characters and vibrant societies that have existed here on Earth before us. What’s not to like?

Hopefully by this point only one question remains in your mind:

II. WHERE DO I START?


On how to get your ass kicked

Let’s begin by emphasizing something very important: philosophy is an action rather than a subject. It’s something you do. You can learn everything about history of philosophy and still be terrible at doing philosophy. On the flipside, someone who knows close to nothing about its history can actually be quite a brilliant philosopher in spite of it.

To really illustrate how crucial this is, let’s bring up on stage the most famous philosopher in history: Socrates – the man who famously knew nothing.

In Ancient Greece, philosophy (which in their language meant “love of wisdom” btw) was, above all, a public exercise. It was about dialogue, debate and argumentation. The modern idea of a philosopher being someone who spends time alone on an armchair wondering about the nature of reality made no real sense to them. Instead, they discussed the current hot topics in a public forum because they believed they could not achieve real knowledge by introspection only: they needed to talk it out.

Out of all the public forum babblers of the time, one was by far the most famous. He was —not coincidentally— the most annoying one of all.

His name was Socrates and he would often walk around Athens trying to strike up conversation with random people. He would stop them as they went about their day and drop heavy hitters such as: “what is justice?” or “what is friendship?”. Whatever they replied, he would try to find flaws in their logic or give solid counterarguments.

Most importantly, however, it was through this dialogue that Socrates helped the other person understand the limits of their beliefs and strengthen their weakest fronts. In a nutshell: he made people think; like a mirror, he helped them realize their flawed presuppositions, prejudices and biases.

As you can imagine, many people weren’t big fans of that… which is why he was sentenced to death.

But anyway.

This type of dialogue is famously known as the Socratic method (or the method of dialectics) and it is the best example to illustrate why you don’t need any philosophical background to do philosophy: you “only” need to ask the right questions in the right way, and conversations are a fantastic and proactive way to do so.

Socrates was not a scholar and carried no books of philosophy with him. Hell, by all accounts, Socrates began philosophy itself as we know it. Before him, philosophy and science were neatly tied together into a single subject. What we now know as Pre-Socratic Philosophy (courtesy of Pythagoras, Thales, Anaxagoras and company) was an attempt to explain the world and universe through logic rather than myth. But it was Socrates himself that steered the focus of philosophy towards us human beings, starting with himself.

Unknowingly, that ugly, bald, smelly and homeless little man had effectively begun the distinction between humanities and science — a distinction still ever-present today.

As you continue to read this article and get to the recommended sources, I would love for you to keep the wisdom of Socrates in mind. In my eyes, the absolute best way to actually learn philosophy (or any topic, to be honest) is to read something that genuinely interests you and then discuss it with friends or family, in person or online.

Never shy away from an interesting conversation, you will be surprised by how willing many people are to engage with these topics, and how much you will realize you don’t actually know as you talk to them.

So yeah, next time you are bothering someone with questions, just say that you are actually trying to sophisticate their reasoning, bring light to their underlying presuppositions and refute their false premises through the timeless application of Socratic dialectics… just know that I take no responsibility for the beating that may ensue.

On stupidity and ambition

All right, with that out of the way, I imagine most of you still want to know how to start reading philosophy, particularly the classics. There are, after all, hundreds of years of complex thought waiting to be read by anyone with enough intellectual hunger and curiosity. To these people, here is my honest piece of advice:

Take it slow.

Let’s say you wanted to play the piano. Would you start by learning how to play Liszt’s Campanella? Of course not. You’d be begging for a cerebral embolism. Similarly, starting philosophy by picking Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit or Heidegger’s Being & Time is as hopeful as it is silly. I have heard of people spending entire university semesters on just the introduction to the latter. Personally, I have never even dared to glance at them in libraries.

Here’s the thing: one of the philosopher’s main tasks is to make you feel stupid. They want to approach a problem in a way you had never even thought of before and bring you along how and why they reached their conclusions. No matter how motivated you are to start learning, if you open up a book and read something like this…

“The being whose analysis our task is, is always we ourselves. The being of this being is always mine. In the being of this being it is related to its being. As the being of this being, it is entrusted to its own being. It is being about which this being is concerned. From this characteristic of being-there two things follow: i) the essence of this being lies in its to-be, and ii) the essence of being-there lies in its existence.”

— Yes, this is a real quote, from Heidegger

… you’re going to want to jump out of the window — and I don’t blame you.

The truth is, there is absolutely nothing wrong in starting with second sources. I know so many people who are genuinely interested in philosophy and yet give up after 10 minutes of biting into a book by Nietzsche or Aristotle. Of course you’re going to find source texts indigestible; they were written a long time ago, deal with very complex ideas and use particularly precise language. It’d be a miracle if you could just casually open up the Nicomachean Ethics and understand what the hell is going on.

That being said, some first sources are indeed more reader-friendly than others, and among them the works of Plato are probably the most famous and recommended of all. You will find links to online versions of the recommended dialogues (as well as other common beginner first source texts by Descartes) in the “Extra Resources” section of the article. Remember that even though I haven’t integrated them into any of the “main approaches to starting philosophy”, those texts are foundational, and you would benefit of adding them on top of whatever other resources you choose to engage with.

(There can also be great pleasure in jumping into a book without any previous knowledge and just trying to figure it out as you go — provided that the text isn’t too hard and it won’t allow you to wildly misinterpret it.)

Anyway, what will follow now is my humble attempt at making you not jump out of the window. I will try to give something as broad and deep as philosophy a way in, depending on how you want to approach it. Most importantly, I will bombard you with as many resources as I possibly can, so that you can get started right away and are able to keep things fresh.

Let’s get to it then.

III. THREE APPROACHES TO STARTING PHILOSOPHY


#1 THE TOPOGRAPHER

We’re starting off our list with probably the most common archetype of all: The Topographer.

The Topographer is someone who’s trying to get a feel for philosophy. If you’re trying to have a mental map of how certain philosophers (and their respective movements) have sprung and intertwined throughout the centuries, then this approach is perfect for you.

The Topographer isn’t particularly interested in diving deep within a certain topic, and instead prefers to swim around the surface, build some general culture, and scratch that intellectual itch that she has been willing to calm for a while. The Topographer knows that there is absolutely no point in trying to learn philosophy merely for external reasons (e.g. to impress others or sound more intellectual) and instead has decided to do this as a way to cultivate herself and put some of the time otherwise wasted on Netflix to good use.

The recommended approach for The Topographer is the most vanilla and time-tested one of all: learning about the history of philosophy. What’s great about this particular method is that it will allow you to test the waters and see if any particular thinker or topic interests you the most and decide whether you want to go all in or not.

THE TOPOGRAPHER’s Resources

Nigel Warburton’s “Philosophy: The Classics” and “A Little History of Philosophy

I’m a fan of Nigel Warburton’s books. He used to teach at the University of Nottingham but became particularly fashionable thanks to his easily digestible books and podcast. Among them, Philosophy: The Classics is his attempt at explaining the man ideas behind the most important philosophers in chronological order (though he is forced to leave out some giants like Hegel or Heidegger for the sake of simplicity) and A Little History of Philosophy gives you, well, a little history of philosophy. Both a great starting points.

Rick Roderick’s “Lectures on Philosophy

This is the resource I wish someone had shown me when I first got into philosophy. On the right-side of this website you will find links to three different courses by Rick Roderick, one of the best, most engaging and interesting teachers I have had the chance to come across. To top it all off, the man has a very thick Texas accent which makes the whole thing that much better.

Each course consists in eight 45-minute long lectures (just click on the title of each lecture to be taken to the video). The first course (100) will deal with ancient philosophy; the second (200) with Nietzsche; and the third (300) with… well, it’s hard to explain, but we’ll call it the current predicament of the Self. Additionally, each video comes with simple lecture notes so you can go easily back and revisit them afterwards.

Arthur Holmes’ “The History of Philosophy

Moving on, by far one of the most thorough and respected (though albeit kind of boring) free courses on the history of philosophy is the one by Arthur F. Holmes from Wheaton College, which you can find for free on YouTube as well. It consists of 81 one-hour lectures recorded directly from his class and cover from Pre-Socratic philosophy to modern-day thinkers.

If you can deal with his manners (I know some people cannot, but give him a chance, he’s actually quite heartwarming) then it will be worth the time investment. 81 hours is surely no joke, but if you watched less than one lecture a day you could still have a solid understanding of the history of philosophy by the time summer comes around, which is pretty damn cool. It also goes without saying that you can pick-and-choose some of his videos as well.

Marianne Talbot’s “A Romp Through the History of Philosophy

Next up comes a much shorter introduction by Marianne Talbot from Oxford’s Department for Continual Education. Obviously, considering the institution behind this you can rest assured its good quality content. Nevertheless, as you can imagine, a 90-minute video is going to inevitably glance over a lot of content. Still, I very much recommend it as a first-contact point for those trying to take a peek.

#2 THE MECHANIC

As opposed to The Topographer, The Mechanic isn’t that interested in getting a general feel for philosophy throughout time, and instead prefers to learn about the specific problems it deals with, as well as how it deals with them. The Mechanic doesn’t really care about who came before whom: he just wants to open up the hood and get his hands dirty.

In addition, The Mechanic is particularly interested in applying the tools inherent to philosophy to other areas of his life — like his ability to construct solid arguments or deal with problems from a unique perspective.

If you’re looking into trying to understand the problems that have bothered philosophers for so long, this approach is perfect for you. To do that efficiently, as you can imagine, you will also need to understand the various tools philosophers have worked with to face them.

the mechanic’s Resources

Nigel Warburton’s “Philosophy: The Basics

We’re starting off with Nigel Warburton again. As opposed to his aforementioned book, Philosophy: The Basics does not trace the ups and downs of philosophy from its dawn to our current age. That historical approach is instead replaced with a look into how philosophy grapples with issues such as God, animal ethics, politics, science, mind, etc.

Peter Cave’s “Philosophy: Beginner’s Guide

This book by Peter Cave is a wonderful alternative to Nigel Warburton’s. Again, it won’t present a timeline of philosophy but will deal with questions such as “Are we responsible for what we do?” or “What is the point of art?”. As you move through the chapters, the author will try to sneakily teach you about concepts like a priori knowledge or various logical fallacies as well as short introductions to the most important philosophers.

Julian Baggini & Peter Fosl’s “The Philosopher’s Toolkit” and “The Ethics Toolkit

Both of these books are excellent, and I think everyone should have them in their library. You can think of them as dictionaries of philosophy that explain a compendium of crucial concepts. The first begins by teaching you the basics of philosophical argumentation and moves onto more advanced logic and tools for assessment and criticism. The second is written in the same style but focuses more on ethical matters (obviously). Additionally, each of their sections recommends specific readings in case you want to learn more.

Marianne Talbot’s “The Philosophical Method

Professor Talbot is back at it again with her Oxford lectures, this time for a 90-minute lecture on logic and argumentation. Even though you won’t learn everything there is from this lesson, it is nonetheless a great introduction to the subject.

Gregory Sadler’s “Critical Thinking Lectures

If learning how to build bulletproof arguments and breaking down other people’s thought processes is your thing —or if you just finished Marianne Talbot’s lecture on the subject and are hungry for more— then I present to you Gregory Sadler’s couple dozen 45-minute lessons on the subject. Professor Sadler is honestly a YouTube treasure and has uploaded hundreds upon hundreds of videos to the platform. I mean, this man has a 275-video series just going over a single book by Hegel, paragraph by paragraph — if that isn’t passion for his subject, then I don’t know what is.

#3 THE DIVER

The Diver is someone who couldn’t care less about any of these suckers above and wants to, well, dive straight into a specific philosopher, philosophical period or philosophical branch.

(If you have no idea which are the different areas of philosophy, then I recommend you check this short introductory explanation to each of them, just click on the ones that catch your eye. Alternatively, you can watch this great video by Gregory Sadler).

For the sake of honoring The Diver’s straightforwardness, I’ll just jump straight into the recommended resources myself.

THE DIVER’S RESOURCES

The Book Series “Introducing – Graphic Guide

This series of books covers pretty much any philosophical topic you can think of: aesthetics, critical theory, existentialism, postmodernism, feminism, you name it. They’re extremely accessible and can be read by anyone regardless of their age. I’d say it’s a particularly great way to get teenagers involved.

The Online Library “Early Modern Texts

This website is one of my favorites. It’s basically the child of a team of philosophy professors getting together and looking to curate classic texts and making them easier to read while leaving intact the main arguments, doctrines, and lines of thought. If what you’re looking to do is dive straight into primary sources, make sure to check whether the text you want to read is part of this library before.

Marianne Talbot’s “Branch Lectures”

Of course, Marianne Talbot also has introductory lectures on some of the most important branches of philosophy. You know the deal by now. Find them linked below:

Branches Galore

Perhaps after listening to professor Talbot you are seriously interested in a specific branch of philosophy and would like to read some textbook that covers it thoroughly. Here’s a list of solid starting points which, full disclaimer, I have taken —and distilled— from Reddit user u/TychoCelchuuu‘s recommendation on starting philosophy:

Gregory Sadler’s “Lectures on Philosophers”

Mr. Sadler is making a comeback as well due to his very many playlists on specific philosophers. He has graciously uploaded dozens of highly approachable videos on some of the heavy weights of the industry. You can find some examples linked here:

Encyclopedias Galore

This resource in particular is fundamental. There are two masterful encyclopedias of philosophy online. On the one hand we have Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP), which is probably the most thorough and complete one out there. On the other we have the Internet’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) which is also fantastic and, even though it’s not as complete, is significantly easier to read. If you ever want to check something specific, chances are both of these have an extremely insightful and resourceful article on the topic.

IV. EXTRA RESOURCES


Because you can never get enough resources, here are plenty more, independently of how you want to approach your journey into philosophy:

First Source Beginner Texts

Here are Plato’s five most famous dialogues. They are easy to read (because, again, they’re dialogues) and will introduce you to many insightful and interesting ideas. You can actually buy a specific book which has these five texts, but I have also linked to a free online version for each right below.

Additionally, here are two wonderful texts by Descartes that are also noob-friendly.

Further, you can find a plethora of resources on the fantastic Stoic philosophy in both of the following articles, by yours truly:

Other Famous Books

All of the following books are renowned for being great introductions to philosophy as well. The first is actually accessible to all ages and builds a bit of a narrative as it teaches you philosophy. The next two are designed to make you think about certain dilemmas. Then, Bertrand Russell’s is a classic and will teach you about the all-time problems of philosophy.

Most Useful Websites

Here are plenty of excellent philosophy websites in alphabetical order, some of which I have already mentioned previously. Feel free to browse them when you’re bored.

Most Interesting YouTube Channels

Here are my favorite philosophy-related YouTube channels, in alphabetical order as well. Some of them, specifically Contrapoints, Cuck Philosophy and Philosophy Tube, are politically charged (quite left-leaning) but do a fantastic job of presenting and defending their ideas — which is always welcome.

Best Philosophy Podcasts

Perhaps it is the case that you don’t even want to read or watch any philosophy content. In that case… you might want to just listen to some? Here are some of the best podcasts on philosophy, guaranteed to make your daily commute even more existential-crisis-inducing.

v. closing


Well, that’s about it!

I sincerely hope that at least one of these approaches and resources will increase your appetite for philosophy, especially in the long run. Remember: this is not a race. It can be very easy to become overwhelmed when getting started with a new subject, which is why I have tried to break it down into small manageable pieces.

Now, it very well may be that I have provided too many resources and now you’re overwhelmed and don’t know which one to bite into first. Honestly, don’t worry too much about it; just pick one or two books and give one of the online lectures a go. I’d also recommend to browse any of the YouTube channels or podcasts at random and see where they take you. Finally, I also made an Excel sheet with which you can keep track of your progress on the main online lectures I have shared: just click here and download it (Microsoft version is best).

As always, if you have any questions, comments or recommendations to add up, feel free to comment them below or on our Instagram @projectimpero, and if you enjoyed this article make sure you check some of the other ones:

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