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Philosophy reading

Part of what makes studying philosophy exciting is that there are no ‘starter problems’ like there are in maths, for example: in philosophy, the things you start by thinking about are the difficult, interesting questions which are also still at the cutting edge of the subject!

One of the best ways to get into the subject is to read some texts by philosophers who are wrestling with various puzzles. There are links to online versions of some of the suggestions below; but where there is no link, various editions of the works listed can be bought quite cheaply online.

Contact us

Dr Chris Jay
Admissions Tutor
philosophy-admissions@york.ac.uk
(+44) 01904 323251

Classics

Some classics which are often recommended to those starting out in philosophy (but which continue to be interesting whatever stage you are at!) include:

Plato (c. 429-347 BCE) 

Try one or more of the short dialogues — e.g. the Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno and Phaedo are all available in various editions individually, or collected together in Five Dialogues (published by Hackett) — or The Republic (which is much longer). Plato writes ‘dialogues’ which are like scripts for a play, and he presents his arguments through the words of Socrates who talks to various people about all sorts of things, trying to understand those things better. So, for example, the Meno deals with how we can ever learn anything, the Phaedo is about the soul, the Crito is about obligation to obey those in political power and the Republic ranges over epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, political philosophy and philosophy of art. The Apology is supposed to be a record of Socrates’s defence at his trial, where he was sentenced to death for ‘corrupting the youth of the city’ with his questioning of received wisdom, and for ‘denying the city’s Gods’. 

Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)

This is a classic text of ‘early modern’ (i.e. C17th & C18th) philosophy, and it deals with knowledge and metaphysics as well as some arguments for the existence of God.

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) or An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) 

These works by Hume are slightly more accessible, but still very good, presentations of the ideas in his Treatise of Human Nature, and both the Treatise and these Enquiries are classics of 'early modern' (i.e. C17th & C18th) philosophy. The Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding deals with knowledge (including great discussions of ‘inductive’ or probabilistic reasoning, and an interesting discussion of the evidence for miracles), whilst the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals deals with ethics.  

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)

This is a classic of feminist philosophy (though its arguments are not uncontroversial by any means amongst feminist theorists), and it makes many astute observations about the plight in society of both women and men of different social classes. 
  
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)

On Liberty is short and has been very influential not just in philosophy but also in politics, law and society more widely. Mill defends a liberal political philosophy and discusses the proper limits of freedom. 

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (1912)

Part introduction, part original philosophy, this is perhaps the most accessible of the works by a key figure in early twentieth-century philosophy. It is mainly about epistemology, metaphysics and philosophy of mind/perception.

Modern

Some twentieth century and more recent things which you might find interesting include: 

Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions (1979)

This is a collection of essays by a leading C20th philosopher, and it includes discussions of various issues in philosophy including consciousness, equality and the meaning of life. It includes his classic essay ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, which isn’t just about being a bat!

Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (1st ed. 1979)

This is a nice introduction to some key debates in moral philosophy, with some really interesting ideas. Singer is a well-known and sometimes controversial contemporary moral philosopher.

Matthew Ratcliffe, ‘The Feeling of Being’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 12, No. 8-10 (2005)

This is an example (by one of our York professors!) of ‘phenomenology’, which is all about paying close attention to describing the nature of our experience. The terms ‘intentional’ and ‘intentionality’ are used here in their common philosophical sense, to mean roughly the idea of being about something, or directed at something: so, thoughts are intentional when or because they are about something (such as a particular person).

Eleanor Stump, Wandering in Darkness, Chapter 5: ‘The Nature of Love’ (2010).

The book is about the problem of evil in philosophy of religion, but this chapter is an interesting discussion of love. It starts with a brief survey of some recent ideas about the nature of love, then presents Aquinas’s ideas about love. So, it is an example of philosophical psychology, philosophy of religion, and medieval philosophy scholarship – from a leading contemporary philosopher of religion and Aquinas expert.

L.A. Paul, ‘What You Can’t Expect When You’re Expecting’, Res Philosophica, Volume 92, Issue 2 (2015) 

It's a really interesting recent paper on rational decision making about things which change your life so much that you cannot predict what things will be like afterwards (such as having children).  

Amia Srinivasan, ‘The Aptness of Anger’, Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 26, No. 2 (2018)

It is a discussion of the ways in which getting angry about injustice can be a good thing regardless of whether getting angry helps to change things. 

Contact us

Dr Chris Jay
Admissions Tutor
philosophy-admissions@york.ac.uk
(+44) 01904 323251