Book Advice from a Nonexistent Bookstore

Now that Newman Books is closed, DC doesn’t have a really good philosophy/theology bookshop. Okay, granted, Newman’s selection could be pretty spotty at times,* and Kramerbooks can be surprisingly good,** but that’s beside the point for those of us who want our critical Latin editions of Ockham and Scotus, 5 different translations of Augustine, more stuff on the Reformation than most stores devote to religion, or a whole section on Aquinas. We want our bookstore, complete with people who know a critical edition from a public domain Latin version. It’s something you just can’t get from Amazon—well, along with the feeling you get from not sending money to Satan’s minions—and will be sorely missed.

But. But! I’m gonna give you the next best thing: a series of lists (what is this, Buzzfeed?) of books worth reading on any number of philosophical*** topics, complete with caveats, explanations, and my own opinions, which are completely right and you should never question ever because they’re right. Some of these are syllabi for imagined courses I’ll never get to teach, but have always wanted to—a few of them I’ve been developing since reading Plato’s Republic, scarily enough—while others are just “look, don’t read bad translations like I did, try these instead.” It’s advice I’d give to hypothetical customers or students, written up in a big ol’ binder at the front of the store that you could whack me over the head with when you disagreed with something I said.

You don’t get the binder, but you do get my opinions. Sorry ’bout that.

1: Philosophy 1013—or, A Good Semester’s Introduction
Four Texts on Socrates: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Clouds, Plato (Cornell University Press, tr. West & West)
Confessions, Augustine, tr. John Ryan
Treatise on the Virtues, Aquinas, Hackett
Discourse on Method, Descartes, Hackett
Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, either Cambridge (tr. Mary Gregor) or Library of the Liberal Arts editions.
The Sovereignty of the Good, Iris Murdoch, Routledge

This one’s kind of a standard nonmajor intro to philosophy reading list—not only the Greatest Hits, but the Greatest Hits That Require No Prior Knowledge (other than, perhaps, other things in the same list) & Are Reasonably Short. Six books that give you an idea of what’s going on that can be finished in a busy semester/about four or five months for Real People who do Other Things. None of these books are too long—I think the Confessions are the longest by about a hundred pages, none of the others are over 150, and, thanks to formatting/parts you can very safely skip, are actually shorter than that—but all of them pack a lot of value into what little length they do have.

Of course, this one’s going to be controversial. No Republic? No Nichomachean Ethics? Something from Aquinas that’s not the Five Ways? Why the Confessions? And what’s Murdoch doing on this “essentials” list? Well, much as I love Republic and think it can change your life—it did mine!—it’s really long, and not the best place to start with Plato. Euthyphro is kind of the standard “Socratic” dialogue, one with several key trademarks of the format, while Apology is the philosopher’s credo in unum deum, the point from which you have to start. I skipped Aristotle not only because I don’t particularly care for him that much, but mostly because I think Aquinas provides a more systematic and ultimately more thought out account of virtue ethics, rather than simply a theory of praise and blame.*† Augustine makes it in as a reflection of Hellenistic and Roman philosophy, both of which get glossed over in a pretty nasty way; even courses that pause in the history of philosophy at Aquinas and the Five Ways tend to gloss over the Romans. Thus, you’re left with the choice between Augustine and Boethius; I like Auggie more, though I think a real case can be made for the Consolation. Descartes you can’t argue with (though if there’s another edition you like, sure, whatever), the Groundwork is one of the few Kant works I’d feel comfortable throwing at an intro course, and Murdoch…okay, this one will take real explanation.

Iris Murdoch is not (currently) what I’d call a pivotal figure in the history of philosophy. She’s a good one, mind you, and I think she’s underrated, but so is Simone de Beauvoir—and a whole host of other people. The problem you run into when making up a reading list like this is that you have to assume the people reading haven’t read, say, Hegel. Or all of Kant. Or, God help us all, Husserl. It’s an introductory list, for people who might one day read those things, but, right now, haven’t, and so aren’t going to understand most shortish works of philosophy written in the last 200 years. Sure, I thought about Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, but that almost assumes you’ve read the Investigations, or are at least familiar with its terminology. Most analytic philosophy, while short, is really technical, and is engaged in horridly arcane discussions that someone new to the field isn’t going to understand why those problems are actually problems. Given a few years, when they’re lying awake in bed wondering about the nature of causality or the relationship between language, logic, and the world, then you can spring Kripke and Lewis on them, but not before. Murdoch has the advantage of being historically grounded, but, at least in the last two essays (which are the good ones anyway), not just namedropping/argumentchecking; indeed, her references can be used to show or teach what happened in the 200 years between her and Kant; she’s reasonably contemporary, showing that philosophy isn’t for the long dead; not only is she female philosopher, but one who references other female philosophers in meaningful ways (not even de Beauvoir does that as often as Murdoch does!); and, miracle of miracles, she’s actually a halfway decent writer. The sixth, contemporary position is always a hard one on this list (I’ve seen everything from Freud to Joseph Pieper to Yves Simon, all of whom have their questionability), but I like Murdoch the best.

2. Philosophy 1023: The Next Semester

Nichomachean Ethics, eh, may as well go with the Hackett, Terry Irwin’s a good scholar and translator, and I’ve yet to meet a different translation I really liked—especially not the Oxford or Selected Works of Aristotle ones.
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, Oxford (unless you want to do Hackett)
Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius, Penguin (unless you need a hardcover copy to chase around in New Orleans while pushing a hot dog cart, in which case, You Need Help)
Philosophical Writings: A Selection, Duns Scotus, Hackett
Pensées, Pascal, Penguin (while we all wait for a good English translation of the Sellier edition to come out)
Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzche, Vintage, tr. Kauffmann

This one fits two purposes: one, you end up reading stuff you missed in the first list, and two, there’s a bit of an overarching theme of the role, nature, and limits of reason to life and certainty. It’s tenuous at times, I’ll admit, but it’s there; all of these books involve some discussion of what right reason is, what forms can it take, to what objects can it be applied, and, very often, some pretty impressive examples of its use. Oh, and at least a few of them are really well-written.

Now, I need no excuses for the Aristotle or Boethius; I think I already made them above. Aurelius is a bit of an odd choice at first glance, but, like I said, Roman philosophy often gets short shrift, and, along with Aristotle, Boethius, and (especially!) Pascal, it forms a nice unity—but an excellent contrast with Nietzche. If anything, I’m kinda pushing the Stoic angle here a bit hard, as well as the various breeds of Christian philosopher, given how different Boethius, Scotus, and Pascal were in philosophy, writing style, and ideas about the use of reason. If there’s any of these books that doesn’t quite fit the theme, it’d be the Scotus—it’s a treatise on metaphysics and philosophy of God, rather than anthropology or ethics, broadly considered—but its discussion of the use and power of natural reason contrasts very sharply with the two books after it. If you’re going to read Pascal saying reason can’t prove or disprove God’s existence (much less that you should love Him), you need to read the Ultimate Godproof first. Also, the Hackett edition of Scotus is about the best; Fr. Wolter and McCord Adams are the best people to edit and translate this—and, as a special bonus, it’s a dual language edition! Those of you who read Latin get a special treat called “figure out how the Hell they figured out THAT is what JDS meant from those three words obliquely referencing Richard of Mediavilla (who?), or that ‘above’ means ’45 pages ago’ rather than ‘last paragraph.'”

Problems with this list: no British empiricism (I wanted to include some Locke, but it’s hard finding the right book), no women (surprise, surprise), no Plato, nothing recentish. They are problems, but, after this list (and perhaps a course of modernity), can be addressed.

Philosophy 2013: A Discourse of Moderns
Descartes, Discourse/Meditations
Hobbes, Leviathan (I like the Penguin myself)
Liebnitz, Philosophical Essays (Hackett)
Locke, Second Treatise, Letter Concerning Toleration, and Essay Concerning Human Understanding (OUP, ed. Nidditch, may as well Hackett the first two)
Rousseau, Discourses (I like the Bedford Masters edition; I don’t know about the new-ish Yale edition, which includes Social Contract; if it’s any good, go with it)
Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, Oxford

You’re going to see these works namechecked a lot by pretty much everyone, even ahistorical analytic philosophers, some of whom practically worship Hume. In grad school, this was known as the part of Doctoral Reading List II (Aquinas through Kant) everyone had to cram for—I had read a fair number of these as an undergrad,† but knew Liebnitz only through reputation, and still get all the treatises/ discourses/enquiries/essays concerning human nature/understanding/knowledge confused. Lots of BOOKS with similar Titles, similar Styles of Writing, similarish Starting Points, and lots of capitalized Nouns and Anachronistic FORMATTING. Sure, the early modern English can be a bit of a drag, and yes, there are editions out there that update it some, but after a while, you get used to it. Or at least I did. Or everyone else started sounding strange and I felt the urge to punctuate and format my papers strangely. Okay, fine, I won’t judge you if you use a modernized version—but be aware that their notes aren’t going to be as good (which is especially applicable to the Hume and its model introduction and notes). Also, if you have time or inclination, feel free to include Spinoza’s Ethics (the Hackett edition, of course), perhaps instead of the political Locke treatises. I should also mention that not many people read all of these in their entireties; if you want to learn how to fake it, find out which subsections people skip, but if you want to seem Brilliant and Learned (or, you know, want to actually finish the @#$% book because It’s Good Stuff!), read the rest. Not that I can exactly scold anyone for not finishing Hume…or figuring out where Leviathan is going before Book III finishes and calling it good enough for now.
And before anyone asks, there’s no reason why anyone in their right minds should read Berkeley. Ever.

Philosophy 2112: Long, Everyone (Says They) Know(s) It, and (Mostly) Worth It
Republic, Plato (tr. Bloom)
City of God, Augustine, FOTC or New City editions
Summa T., Aquinas; the Benzinger Bro’s translation is standard†*
Critique of Pure Reason, Kant, Cambridge
Being and Time, Martin Heidegger, SUNY Press
Being and Nothingness, Sartre; Washington Square Press (though I’ve heard of a newer edition from Citadel, but can’t vouch for its quality)

So, let’s be quite blunt here: almost nobody in their right mind is going to have read all of these cover-to-cover. I can’t prove I’ve actually read all of the Summa T., though I suspect I have…well, except for Book III. I’m absolutely sure I never finished Kant, know I skipped the 3H section of Sartre the first time I read it, and am terrified of whatever is in the half of Sein und Zeit I ran away from screaming, though I always mean to finish it as Lenten penance. While people who have read all of the Republic aren’t uncommon (I don’t think you should be allowed to have a liberal arts degree if you haven’t at least been assigned large chunks of it), it pales next to those who made it as far as Book II before giving up—yes, I’m the third person to own my copy, and, judging by the highlighting, the only one to make it to the end…or even the middle. As for City of God, there’s going to be something in it that doesn’t interest you at all. Scriptural commentaries, the history of Rome Gibbon was responding to,†** and lots of stuff about the Neoplatonists.

So yes, perhaps an abridged version (like length’s really why people are scared of Kant) might be the answer—but which parts to cut? Yes, many (most?) classes reading Republic skip over Books VIII and IX, the parts describing wrong regimes and their origins, but that’s where Plato lays out much of his theories regarding the desiring part of the soul. Cut the scriptural commentaries and history from City of God, and you’re left without Augustine’s view on his own world and how it came to be, written as it was all falling apart. Trying to make a summa of the Summa, while it’s been done, is almost an exercise in discovering your own philosophical and theological biases and commitments; do you prejudice metaphysics and natural philosophy at the expense of philosophy of law and ethics or angelology, as so many Thomists seem to do, or do you focus on the practical or spiritual sides at the risk of giving your readers an incomplete grounding in realist metaphysics they’ll need to do theology? Why should you cut the Heidegger/Husserl/Hegel chapter of Being and Nothingness, given that Sartre explains their ideas more clearly than they do—even if he can be a bit of an unreliable narrator. Can you even abridge Heidegger successfully without going insane?

Now, truth be told, many more people are familiar with the arguments advanced in these works than have actually read them. Do I know what Aquinas thought about how angels assume bodies out of air, even though I don’t remember having read that part of Book III of the Summa? Yeah, but that’s because I read his Sentences commentary. Even if you haven’t read the B version of the Transcendental Deduction, Henry Allison has a pretty good description of it that actually corrects a lot of the misconceptions you’ve probably heard before you read the actual thing itself—misconceptions that were perpetuated by people reading descriptions of Kant rather than Kant.. Lots of this stuff is found elsewhere, but it’s someone else’s views, someone else’s agenda, and someone else’s context. Read theirs to find out what you missed, what other contexts are, and what else you should know, but have the book handy. Given how often all of these works are misinterpreted or, at the very least, misused, you’ll be glad you have it.

A Side Note About Bloom’s Plato: This is something I wanted to mention, but didn’t quite find a place to shoehorn it in: the Bloom translation is not only the Standard Translation, one you use because it’s part of the Culture, but also a monument to Straussianism, the dominant re-interpretation of Plato in the last 50 years. Now, while I’m a good historicist and Augustinian interpretivist who doesn’t see any need to go overinterpreting Plato and finding hidden meanings that he must have intended for the Elect to find behind an extra layer of irony nobody’s noticed before, it is important to know about Bloom the Crank, the impact of his interpretive essay, and his actually pretty good translation of one of the most notoriously difficult writers in a language that makes people cry. Plato’s Greek comes about as close as you can get to being untranslatable, due to the density of his really tortured rhetoric (Greek is really, really good for writing very structured and poised prose that’s impossible to unpack) and the philosophical ideas he expounds using obscure features of the language, but Bloom gives it the best effort to date.

Next Time, the specialist lists! Medieval philosophy, interpretation, whackadoo schiznit, literature posing as philosophy, and Stuff NOBODY should EVER read.

*Not to mention weirdly selected—sixteen studies of Hegel, no copies of Phenomenology of Spirit? Loads on Sartre, nothing by Sartre, and good luck finding anything by any other existentialist or contemporary French figure? Spinoza? Spinoza who?
**Though whoever picks their list is pretty obviously a cultural studies/media/other -studies person, given all the Foucault and Žižek, the latter of whom no serious philosopher would touch with a 39-and-a-half foot pole—but hey, I’ve found Searle there as well
***Or semi-philosophical, or “close enough, I want to write about it”
*†Though, the more that I think about it, the more I wonder if Aristotle’s writings on friendship ought to get him included…nah, it’s my list, I get to call the shots here.
†I know I was the only person in a 20-odd person Kant class who’d read even the second Discourse of Rousseau, much less the first one, which nobody reads.
†*And, more to the point, freely available online where it’s not taking up half a bookshelf.
†**Given that we’re more familiar with the Decline and Fall account, Auggie’s seems amazingly cynical.


One thought on “Book Advice from a Nonexistent Bookstore

  1. Pingback: Your Thoughts Needed! | The Leather Library

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