12 november 2009


A note on good modern philosophy books

This note is a supplement to Ten good modern philosophy texts and should both correct and explain a possible mistake I might have seemed to make there, but did not - provided you read the text in the context of my site.

The possible mistake I made - if one reads Ten good modern philosophy texts just by itself, without considering the rest of the site it is part of - is that it seems to limit philosophy to what may be regarded as the fairly narrow and mostly technical fields of analytical philosophy and philosophy of science, and that I do not allow for or know of other kinds of or approaches to philosophy.

Let me start with shedding some light on why the books I mentioned all fall rather squarely in one or two approaches, styles or conceptions of philosophy.

It is true that the ten good texts are mentioned fall mostly and mainly within the fields of analytical philosophy and philosophy of science, but there are (at least) two good reasons for this, which I should have indicated in the original piece, but did not, and therefore do so now.

The first and least important reason is that it accords with my own tastes,  interests, and assumptions, which come to this:

I believe that philosophy, as its name indicates, is love of science, and that these days - indeed, since Galileo invented the scientific method of rational axiomatic explanation coupled to thorough empirical testing of testable consequences of these explanations - the sciences, especially the real sciences (mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology), are more philosophical than what's called (academic) philosophy these days, that tends to be, apart from subjects in it related to the real sciences, speculation, bogus, sophistries and illusions, or (also) plain deception, fraud or wishful thinking.

And apart from that belief - which I think is as well-founded and rational as a belief may be, unlike religious and political beliefs, that are rarely or never well-founded or rational - and that dominant interest in real knowledge about real things, and the methods to find and secure it, analytical philosophy and philosophy of science fits best with my tastes in reasoning and argueing, which are mathematical and logical rather than literary or merely verbal.

The second and far more important reason that the ten good texts I mentioned do fall mostly and mainly within the fields of analytical philosophy and philosophy of science is that it seems to me that the last 100 or 150 years (*) there has grown a science of methodology and reasoning, of philosophy of science and logic and probability, that makes philosophy, understood as the investigation and clarification of fundamental problems and assumptions, take on a new aspect - for those whose minds are up to it, for the new science of methodology and reasoning is mostly mathematical or formal.

This means that there has grown a body of knowledge and ideas (not only, and indeed mostly not, in philosophical academies but in institutions of fundamental scientific or mathematical research, that were more or less forced to clarify the foundations of their own sciences) about scientific reasoning, scientific testing and investigation of hypotheses, and what is and is not a rationally useful theory, that is unlike what existed the foregoing millenia, and that is both considerably deeper and much more powerful than the ideas about the foundations of science, mathematics, logic and reasoning before Boole succeeded in mathematizing logic.

Hence there is much to learn from the books I mention, and what one can learn from these books about reasoning, logic, theorizing, experimenting and thinking rationally both goes considerably beyond what previous generations knew about this and may help one to understand what they did and why they failed to do much better.

These are the main reasons why the Ten good modern philosophy texts I listed are best understood as concerned with (the foundations of) the philosophy of science: This is what philosophy really is and should be about, and if there is more to philosophy, at least it should start on a basis like this, if only to be able to correct and elucidate itself.

Having briefly explained this, I turn to the other possible complaint about the list of ten books I gave, namely that I do not allow for or know of other kinds of or approaches to philosophy.

The short reply to this is that this simply is not so, and there are indeed on my site a considerable amount of texts that show this.

Indeed, it is well to provide links to lists of these, if only because these texts are mostly philosophical, neither analytical nor philosophy of science, yet interesting and worthwhile:

  • Classical texts, with my comments: These are more than 20 classics of philosophy (and related fields), mostly with my comments, that concern many kinds of and approaches to philosophy.
  • More or less philosophical texts concerning politics, history and the social sciences: This is a list of again mostly classical texts in these fields that I have read and found interesting, useful or important.
  • My Philosophical Dictionary: Although based on realistic assumptions, that mostly fit philosophy, in so far as it is or may be rational at all, into science, I am interested in quite a number of topics that are properly and historically speaking philosophical, but that do not have much to do with or are not much touched by analytical or logical or scientific methods.

I could mention more, but the amount of reading to master the texts in these three items must take years, and requires a good and well-trained mind to start with, so that I think I can claim that I have established my point that for me also there is much more to philosophy than can be found within the 20th Century new fields of methodology, logic, analytical philosophy and philosophy of science, even though these fields should be basic for the systematic study of philosophy.

What remains true though, in my view of these matters, are these points

  • Especially modern philosophers should know about these philosophical fields that were so much developed in the 20th Century, viz. methodology, logic, analytical philosophy and philosophy of science, and that especially because these (may) shed so much light on so many philosophical problems and texts.
  • Good modern philosophy is based on a good grounding in these fields, whatever the philosophy is specifically concerned with - and this is a difference with earlier centuries: There now is a far better understanding of what scientific reasoning is than there used to be, and to comprehend it requires mathematics and logic.
  • There is a rather wide gulf between systems of or approaches to philosophy that are not informed by such knowledge of mathematics, logic, probability theory and philosophy of science, that indeed risk the chance of being mostly verbal, phony, fraudulent or (self-)deceptions, and those that are.
  • The real interests of most of the great philosophers before the rise of science were scientific or religious: They were not concerned with the supplying of their own verbal sophistries and illusions to fundamentally irrational or scientifically untrained minds in search of an ideology or religion that became so popular, especially amongst academics in the soft sciences, in the 20th Century.
  • A great amount of modern academic philosophy is of no scientific, literary or cognitive value at all, and exists mostly and only because  (1) philosophy has been made into a university-subject and because (2) there always are many more men in search of an ideology than are capable of understanding and doing real science or real philosophy in a systematic way on the strength of their own minds: It is mostly to these types that much of modern academic philosophy is addressed.

So to summarize this note: The main reasons to recommend Ten good modern philosophy texts that all belong to the field of philosophy of science is that it seems to me that it is especially this sort of philosophical knowledge that should be interesting and of concern to people with some serious interest in philosophy, and also that it is the only systematic way to help them avoid all manners of deluded reasoning and most systems of false, phony, ignorant or ideologized philosophy. 


(*) A good starting point to date the beginning is Boole's "An investigation of The Laws of Thought on which are founded the mathematical theories of logic and probability". My own edition is the one in Dover paperbacks, with ISBN 0-486-60028-9. It seems to me to be as important an innovation in logic and the science of reasoning as Aristotle's codifications of the principles of logic.

Maarten Maartensz

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