And now for something
completetely different... good modern philosophy
Yes, they exist - and yes, like
almost all good things, they are rare, and they deserve to be
known and savoured, so in this piece I will name some really good
modern philosophy books and briefly say why I think they are.
But first I should say what is a
"modern philosophy text". As I wish to use the term, at least in
this piece, it is a text about philosophy that was published
since 1900 and that is not postmodern.
This is not quite as the term is
used normally, for in terms of
philosophical periods, the modern period starts around 1600,
but I do not want to consider books from that period, but only
from the last century or so, and also I have used "modern" in
opposition to "postmodern",
for I think the last school of philosophy is not real but
bogus philosophy - a kind of
nihilism with pretensions and media appeal, but related to real
philosophy and real science as are journalism and prostitution
related to the subjects of real wisdom and real love.
Also, it should be mentioned in
this context that "philosophy", broadly and vaguely speaking, but
precisely enough for the moment, was a rather different sort of
thing in the 20th Century, in the West at least, than in earlier
centuries, and for several reasons, that deserve to be listed in
part, for they are somewhat curious and interesting.
First, there was much more of
philosophy about and around in the 20th century (again in the
West, especially, but this I will leave tacitly understood in the
rest of this text), for four different sort of reasons:
- There was much more freedom
to discuss philosophies of all kinds (including religions for
the moment) freely than in previous centuries.
- There was much more attention
paid to philosophies of many kinds in the daily and periodical
press and media, that only came into existence in the end of
the 19th Century.
- Practical implementations of
the politicial philosophies of fascism and communism ruled
dictatorially in large countries over many millions (and
appealed to many millions outside these dictatorships).
- Philosophy was taught as a
special subject on a much wider scale in the universities than
ever before, which fuelled the printing of lots more books
about philosophy than in previous centuries.
The first two points are -
perhaps - somewhat ephemeral or fleeting, in the sense that a
public, and especially a public with daily public media, may
discuss much and may even do so heatedly without this making much
of a real difference, but they do constitute a real difference
with earlier centuries.
The third point was of
fundamental political, social and human importance, as it ruined
the lives and chances of many millions, and shows that
philosophy really is of practical importance - but it also is
about philosophy run insane, or dictatorial or populist, which is
practically and politically important, but not cognitively so,
which is what I am concerned with here.
The fourth point means that
there was in fact a flood of philosophy books of all
kinds, schools, contents and qualities published in the 20th
Century, of which any one person can have read only a small
Note that much of this -
probably by far the greatest part - was not so much serious
philosophy as serious publishing: There was a market for
it, unlike in previous centuries, either because it had become
fashionable for - would be - intellectuals to be informed about
philosophy or to have philosophical opinions or because it
catered to philosophy courses in Western universities.
As it happens, I believe that I
have read more modern philosophy than almost anyone. There must
be some who have read more, but (i) they are very probably
professionally employed as teachers of philosophy at some
university and especially (ii) it is unlikely they have read as
widely as I have, for professional philosophers tend to be
well read only in their own academic specialisms, and not outside
As it happens also, although I
have read widely in modern philosophy, I have read critically,
the modern philosophy I like (or indeed: can take seriously)
is almost always of the analytical, scientific and
realistic kind, since only that kind of modern philosophy
may hope to escape Hume's severe judgment that most philosophy is
little better than sophistries and illusions, that are designed
to make life seem bearable or worthwile, rather than being
designed to further finding the
So here is a brief list of
good philosophical texts in English, followed by some
explanations why I think they are good and deserve reading. I'll
list them in the order from introductory to demanding, and
give summaries below:
1. Nagel & Cohen: Introduction to
Logic and Scientific Method
This is an introductory
university text for beginning students and interested laymen that
dates back to the 1930ies, and that has been published and
republished in various formats until, at least, the 1970ies. The
edition I mean is the full edition, that gives a readable
and basic if today also somewhat old-fashioned introduction to
logic and philosophy of science, including the foundations of
probability theory and statistics.
It is in some ways definitely
out of date, but it does give a good and clear introduction to
realistic, analytical and scientific philosophy, without being
partial or excessively formal, and it also does a good job of
relating philosophy to science and to daily life.
2. Klaus & Kuntz: Philosophy: The Study of
Klaus & Kuntz is another introductory university text for
beginning students of philosophy, and has the merits of being
clear, fair and well done. Like Nagel & Cohen it will not impose
logical or mathematical technicalities on you, and it also does a
good job of relating philosophy to science and to daily life.
Overall, this seems to me to be
the best introduction to philosophy in one volume that I have
read, especially because of its clarity, fairness and scope.
3. Russell: History of Western
Russell's History of Western Philosophy is reputed to be partial
(to Russell and to analytical philosophy), unscholarly (Russell
didn't know Greek) and superficial (less than a 1000 pages), but
it has the great merits of being well-written, easily readable,
being the only introduction to philosophy or its history that
made me laugh, and to do its job, namely to give a survey of
Western philosophy in one book, by one mind, quite well.
There are better systematic
introductions to the subject, but they are not better written or
more readable, and if all you want is a readable and adequate
survey of the field, this is a fine text.
4. Russell: Human Knowledge - Its scope
and its limits
Russell's Human Knowledge - Its Scope and Limits, in fact was his
last serious book about philosophy, and was not well received,
because it did not fit in well or at all with the dominant
philosophical schools at the time, which were forms of fairly
crude but very pretentions neo-positivism or linguistic
Also, later this text was not
widely read, because it was considered old-fashioned, mistaken,
or not of the right neo-positivist (empirical) or linguistic
kind, but it seems to me a good and interesting statement and
discussion of its subject, written by a philosopher who, unlike
most modern philosophers, could write and who did know science.
So far, the books I have been
mentioning and commenting were (mostly) introductory texts. The
same holds for the following two, except that these are a little
more demanding, especially as regards mathematics
5. Hawkins: The Language of Nature
Hawkins' book is a very fine text on philosophy of science and its
relation to mathematics. It was written by someone who was
neither a professional philosopher nor a professional
mathematician, but who was also, according to Stanislav Ulam, who
was a great mathematician, "the best amateur mathematician I
know". In result, the book is a lot better than most books by
"real" (that is "professional") philosophers of science or
mathematicians on the subject.
It also is well-written and
clear, and the only setback I can think of is that it may require
some interest and knowledge of mathematics to savour and
comprehend it fully.
di Franca: The investigation of the
Toraldo di Franca's book is a fine text
that is mostly about the philosophies of science and of physics,
that was written by an Italian physicist. It has the merits of
being very clear and of discussing rather a lot of the
fundamental ideas of physics quite sensibly and the only setback
I can think of is that it may require some interest and knowledge
of mathematics to understand all of it.
7. Broad: The Mind and its Place in Nature
Broad's text is probably still the best introduction to its
subject - philosophy of mind - in one book, although it dates
back to the 1920ies. It was written by a very capable English
philosopher, who also had good groundings in mathematics and
science, and who wrote very clearly and fairly.
If the book has a setback
(besides not referring to literature written after it), it may be
that it is an impressively fat tome, but that setback is balanced
by Broad's excellent common sense and very readable and clear
style. If you are interested in the subject at all (also if you
are not a philosopher), this is a text you should read.
8. Burtt: The metaphysical foundations
of modern science
Burtt wrote a number of books relating to philosophy and
religion that are all worth reading, because he had a fine mind,
a clear style, and a fair manner of exposition, but the book I
name is the book that made him well-known, and deservedly so.
The book discusses, with many
quotations, especially the precursors of Newton in England, and
makes many points relating to the philosophies of science and of
physics that tend to be not discussed in other texts relating to
these subjects. It really clarifies the subject of its title, and
if it has a setback it must be that it discusses the
contributions to philosophy of very interesting and able
scientific men like Boyle that are not often discussed in
I have finally arrived at the
last two texts, and these differ from the ones I have mentioned
so far in at least four important respects:
- First, these are not
single books, but collections of books with the same
title and subject, of which the number depends on the edition
- Second, these are texts that
are mostly addressed to specialists, notably philosophers of
science, mathematicians, and physicists.
- Third, these texts require
some minimal grounding and abilities in mathematics and logic
(though especially Stegmueller's texts explain a considerable
amount of this quite well).
- Fourth, these texts treat a
lot of material, in a somewhat encyclopedic way, and indeed are
meant to be handbooks of some kind, where one can find many
fundamentals of many subjects.
9. Stegmueller: Probleme und Resultaten der
analytischen und Wissenschaftsphilosophie
Stegmueller - the title means: Problems and results of analytical
philosophy and philosophy of science - I only know in German and
in the form of rather a lot of paperbound so-called
Studienausgabe, but it seems to have been originally in four
thick clothbound volumes, that also have been translated into
English. It has the great merits of being
an excellent summary of
and introduction to its subjects, and it also gives a fine survey
of it, and explains a lot about the foundations of
probability, that tend to be difficult to find elsewhere.
Of all the texts I mention in
this piece, this is most scholarly, the longest, and the most
technical, but it also teaches its readers a lot about many
things. The only setbacks I can think of are that, taken
together, it is a lot of text, if one reads all, although that is
not at all necessary, for the volumes can be mostly read
independently (*); that it is quite thorough,
which has the advantage of explaining lots of things quite well
that other texts don't explain at all (especially as regards
logic, probability and statistics); and that it is written in
scholarly German, which in this case means that it usually
is quite clear but normally is not exhilirating reading.
However... if you really
want to learn about the foundations of philosophy, science,
mathematics, logic, probability theory or statistics, this
is the text to turn to, for it explains much of this really well,
and also with full references.
10. Bunge: Treatise on Basic Philosophy
Bunge is an Argentinian
theoretical physicist and philosopher, of a pronounced realistic
and scientific bend in philosophy, that I like a lot. He wrote
many books, that also are recommendable, but his main work in
philosophy is bound to be the text I mentioned, which comes in
some ten paperback volumes (as I have them), and fundamentally
states his own philosophy, which is realistic, scientific,
strongly related to physics, and very informed about science and
I like Bunge's Treatise a lot,
but I am aware of the setbacks: One must know something about
both science and philosophy to appreciate them; taken
collectively, it is a lot of text; it is - unavoidably so -
somewhat dogmatic in parts; and it contains printing mistakes,
especially in formulas; and to understand it (and correct the
printing mistakes) one needs a fairly good grounding in logic and
mathematics (for which see Stegmueller).
On the other hand, it is a
relief to read a knowledgeable and bright physicist about science
and philosophy, rather than a dimwitted and pretentious
philosopher, and it gives a lot of background, general ideas,
summaries, points of view, and clearly stated principles and
assumptions, that also seem mostly sound and sensible to me, also
if I did not quite agree. And no other twentieth century
philosopher I know of did something like this, on Bunge's scale,
with his thoroughness - to which it may be added that he also has
the merit of writing a clear and readable English.
Summing up: The above
gives a list of useful, interesting, generally well written books
about philosophy, all written in the 20th Century, all well worth
reading, all informed, that ought to keep you from the streets
for half a year at least, if you were to decide to read them all,
and spend most of your time on them, and work through them all.
I did so myself, but not
in half a year, and not consecutively, but in the course of some
40 years of reading in and around philosophy and science. Much of
what I think I have learned about these subjects is to be found
somewhere in these books, usually well explained and with clear
So... if you really want
to acquire some philosophical knowledge and competence, I have
herewith sketched a path towards it, and my final recommendations
of the path I indicated is that none of the above books was
written by a narrow specialist or for narrow specialists; all are
at least tolerably well written; all will teach you things you
did not know before; while the general sum-up of all is that
real philosophy - the trying to solve or clarify fundamental
problems - is these days mostly done by real scientists or
real mathematicians, and not by academic
P.S. There is more on
lines like the above in my
Review of Books relating to philosophy in my Philosophical
Dictionary, with a discussion of 20th-Century philosophers and
their books in
Books - 20th C.
P.P.S. 12 nov 2009:
See A note on good
modern philosophy books for an elucidation that - perhaps
- should have been made in this piece.
(*) That is:
If you have read the initial volume or volumes (or the relevant parts
thereof), that explain logic (supposing you to be naive about
this). Also, it helps if you know some mathematics.