Transferring all my notes from my Mac to Google Docs in preparation for switching to a Chromebook shortly, I’ve been thinking about what, out of everything I’ve read, I would recommend most highly. I aimed for ten tips but have settled for thirteen. There is a huge skew, of course, towards ethics given my interests, but I’ve tried to pick out a range. Having done eight modules for eight weeks each, reading at a minimum five articles per essay, when you add in Prelims and holiday reading I will have easily covered four hundred books or articles. The following have been chosen on the basis that they stand out in my memory far above all the others:
Lawrence BonJour: Externalist Theories of Empirical Knowledge. The first article that really allowed me to grasp the paradoxes of epistemology, and what’s at stake when you embrace a certain theory. BonJour shows how you can only seem to account for the truth of basic knowledge claims by accepting a theory which, in his examples, leads to wildly counterintuitive conclusions. We have tendencies both to affirm and deny that to know something, you have to be aware that you know it. BonJour ends up affirming that position. I blogged on this debate the other week.
Isaiah Berlin: Two Concepts of Liberty. Confused, full of fallacies and hugely dated, yes, but still the best article there is for learning the history of political thought about freedom. An obvious classic.
Susan Wolf: Moral Saints. Would we really want to be surrounded by people that give all their money to charity and spend all their spare time devising ways to cure cancer? These people may be supremely moral, but they just sound boring compared to Fred Astaire and Groucho Marx. Is it really ideal to be as moral as possible? Wolf, outrageously, counters almost all modern moral philosophy in insisting – no.
Alexander Wendt: Anarchy is what states make of it. There’s room for one international relations paper, and it had to be this. A succinct statement of the constructivist thesis, and what’s intuitively so wrong with the realist and liberal schools which suggest nations simply act to try to maximise their power and security: ideas and values also matter, and colour our understanding of the political world. Anarchy need not be violent. It depends what we decide to do.
Quentin Skinner: Liberty before Liberalism. Revolutions were fought in the name of freedom, but that Republican notion of liberty as tied up with democracy was lost with the rise of the idea that freedom is just being left alone to do what you want to do. It doesn’t matter in itself who is in government. Skinner reminds us with a much needed history lesson in this little book.
Rousseau: Discourse on the Origins of Inequality. Short, sharp, radical. Arguably the first political treatise to think about society from the side of the oppressed. A precursor to Marx in its violent attack on capitalism. An insistence that humans are ultimately miserable. A diagnosis of a problem which Rousseau would later try to cure.
Frederick Neuhouser: Rousseau’s Theodicy of Self-Love. An unparalleled commentary on that very diagnosis and attempted cure. If you only read one book about Rousseau, make it this one. There’s no better way to quickly appreciate the power of his assessment of human nature.
Plato: Republic. If you forced me to name a #1, Republic wins. As I’ve said many times, it all began here. The paths were carved out for the next two millennia, and Plato often even picked the right routes. Philosophy without this man and this book would no doubt look very different than it does today.
John Rawls: Kantian constructivism in moral theory. Even more than A Theory of Justice, this extended essay explains the essence of Rawls’ early thought, and how he judged it possible to derive the content of a just society from Kantian ethics. Two titans are, in my view, irreversibly and perfectly connected in the space of sixty pages.
Alan Gewirth: The basis and content of human rights. Before engaging in philosophy, people tend to carry high expectations for its ability to solve key questions conclusively. The subject often falls short of that, offering hugely tentative conclusions and conditional arguments. But one exception is this gem, which for me, again in a Kantian and Rawlsian spirit, offers a knock-down argument for the existence, power, importance of human rights: it’s impossible to deny your own, and you must thereby affirm everyone’s.
Ronald Dworkin: Liberalism. Far from revolutionary, but this explains better than anything the essence of the liberal tradition: its primary premises, and how the majority of its empirical policies down the years can be derived from them.
Christine Korsgaard: The Sources of Normativity. I didn’t really get meta-ethics until I read this crisp introduction and overview of all the various positions espoused down the years. From Plato through Hume to Kant, all theories of what moral judgements are really about are covered excellently here.
Donald Davidson: How is Weakness of the Will Possible? I blogged on akrasia here. It’s easily one of the greatest philosophical paradoxes, and with the benefit of so much history to reflect on on his side, Davidson pens the best analysis to date.