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Classic philosophy texts

[ Bikerman is maintaining a list of philosophy texts in the sticky, which is great. However, i'm transcribing new books and unfortunately he hasn't been around to update the list. Also, one criticism i've always had of his list is that he merely lists books without any explanation of why they're important to philosophy... or even what they're about at all.

So what i'm doing here is my stab at the philosophy texts list version 2.0. A couple of things are different in this list. First of all, the way it works is that in this first post, the list of texts is just a list of links to posts about those texts. Each link takes you to a post that explains what the text is about and why it is important. And of course, the post will give you several links where you can find it, but it will also give you links to discussions about the text, and commentaries, that can sometimes help a lot in understanding complex philosophical texts.

Another thing i really want to do is encourage everyone to contribute. So feel free to post in this thread with comments or questions about texts, or suggestions for others to add. If you want to add a comment about the text to include in the text's post - about why it's important, or other things about it - just let me know (ie, just go ahead and post your comments in the thread with a note that you want them added to the text info.

Because this is a totally new idea, i suspect it will take some time before people fully grasp how it will work. I'm going to populate the list a bit to start - with my own comments - so you can sort of get an idea of what it will look like. Feel free to comment in the topic about any of the texts, about the topic design, about other texts that could be added, or just miscellaneous comments/questions about philosophy texts in general - don't be shy. ]

✧ ✧ ✧ Classic philosophy texts ✧ ✧ ✧

This is a list of some of the most famous and influential philosophy texts, with some info about them, and links to where you can find them.

The texts are organized by author, alphabetically (by the author's last name, where relevant), with the author's name, the title, the year, and a list of some of the related philosophical topics.

Feel free to discuss any of the texts listed here in this topic - or any other philosophy texts that might be of interest. (Try to keep discussions focused on the text, not the philosophical ideas in the text - those would be better served in a dedicated topic.)
Perpetual Peace
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

Published: 1795

  • Political philosophy
  • Social philosophy

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Indi wrote:
Kant is unquestionably one of the most influential philosophers of the post-Enlightenment era (in fact, it was Kant who first called it the Enlightenment). He revolutionized thought about thought - about reason and built an entirely novel moral philosophy built entirely on pure, logical reason. Along the way, he also heavily influenced the fields of aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics, and even astrophysics.

The late 18th century must have been an amazing time to be a philosopher. They were just coming off the tail end of the Enlightenment, which - that point - change human civilization in revolutionary ways more than any other period in history. Before the Enlightenment was the Dark Ages - after the Enlightenment was the modern era. Institutions that had been absolutely powerful and unshakable for thousands of years were crumbling. The Divine Right of Kings was giving way to secular democratic republics with the birth of the USA and the French Revolution. The notions that some people were "higher" than others, who were mere "savages" was starting to fade, and with it, millenia-old traditions like slavery, and the distinction between "nobility" and "serfdom". All this change thrilled the thinkers at the time... and they started to dream a truly dream:

The end of all war.

This was not a passing fancy. They were very serious about the idea. With the world getting smaller, the needs of advancing societies growing, and the deadliness of war weaponry increasing exponentially, it really seemed possible that - in time - nations would realize that using war to get what they want was simply not worth the effort. You may have heard that World War Ⅰ was called, by the people of the time, "the war to end all wars". Nowadays, most people believe they meant this metaphorically, but they didn't... they meant it quite literally. They seriously believed that the scope of the death and destruction during WWⅠ was the final straw that would - at long last - convince the nations of the world to band together and work seriously toward a true and lasting peace. And they did try! They tried very seriously, creating the League of Nations, talking about a universal language, and many other ideas that sound fantastic now.

Unfortunately, no one could foresee the coming of the 20th century dictator, or the coming of trans-national superpowers. As we all know, the peace after WWⅠ was only transitory, and once again the world plunged into war. And they've done so again and again since.

But the dream is not dead. In fact, in the last 10 years or so, interest in perpetual peace has revived - and with it, interest in Kant's essay. There are several institutions working seriously toward making perpetual peace a reality. And it all started with this essay.

The essay itself is actually a proposed framework - a plan, really - to make perpetual peace happen. It's in two parts. In the first part, Kant lists the preliminary requirements that have to be put in place before the actual perpetual peace project can begin. In the second part, he lists the three required articles that must be implemented and followed to institute a lasting peace.

Kant also attached some supplements and appendices to the essay, to give some theoretical justification and to answer criticisms.

* The first supplement explains that perpetual peace is inevitable. It will happen, Kant argues, in time, and he explains why.
* The second supplement is very short but rather interesting. There is ancient idea going back to Plato that the leaders of the world should be philosophers - so-called "philosopher kings". Kant explains why this idea is ridiculous, but then he goes on to say that leaders should heed philosophers... even if they do so secretly. In particular, he says, philosophers should not be silenced, even if they're not listened to - this is a nod to freedom of expression.
* In the first appendix, Kant deals with the objection that politicians have to be duplicitous to do their jobs well, and thus their promises of peace can't be trusted, so peace can never happen. He goes through potential underhanded tactics used by politicians one-by-one, explaining why they don't work in the long run. Interestingly some of the things he mentions are still being used quite effectively today - for example "Si fecisti, nega. What you have committed, deny that it was your fault...".
* The second appendix explains that morality and politics are not at odds - in fact, they must be in harmony, or you're doing something wrong (which will eventually fail).

Like all of Kant's writings, it's not an easy read - even when well translated. You really need to sit down and concentrate on the text - you'll often need to read sentences several times over to fully grasp them. You'll probably need to also keep a contemporary-language version nearby, and maybe even some helpful notes. Kant is, unfortunately, hard-core reading. But he really is worth it.
Computing Machinery and Intelligence
Alan Turing (1912–1954)

Published: October 1950

  • Philosophy of Mind

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Indi wrote:
Today, Turing is something of a legend - a visionary genius not fully appreciated in his time, and cruelly harassed by small-minded religious idiots until his tragic and suspicious suicide at age 41. Much of his popular fame comes from his contributions to code-breaking during WWⅠⅠ, but the truth is this was perhaps only the slightest of Turing's incredible accomplishments.

Along with an amazingly efficient way of solving massive systems of equations - LU decomposition - Turing also predicted the existence of oscillating chemical reactions. But his greatest contribution has to be his formalization of computing. Computing was a brand new field - the first stored-program computer only started running in April 1949 (Turing wrote programs for it) - and like all new fields, it was often more guesswork and trial-and-error than science. Then along came Turing. Turing formulated rigorous mathematical concepts for computing - such as the idea of an "algorithm". If he'd stopped there, he'd "merely" be the father of computer science... but Turing went much, much further. He used the mathematical abstractions he devised to study the properties of computers... which didn't exist at the time (this was 1936 and before)... and made some astounding discoveries that still rock the foundations of computing today, such as the universality of discrete-state computing, which basically explains that anything you can compute on any computer, you can compute on every computer, given enough time and memory space. That's why, for example, you can emulate old arcade and console systems on modern computers, or run operating systems in virtual sandboxes on top of other operating systems.

Turing was interested in much more than mere calculation. Right from the start, Turing was serious about trying to build a computer that "thought" just like a human did. In fact, Turing envisioned an adaptive hardware neural net architecture that would be "programmed"... by learning... the same way human infants learn. To this day we still don't have machines like this... they're still "just a few decades away".

In 1949, the idea of "thinking machines" - machines that could think like humans - was a hot and controversial topic. Some big names came out against the possibility, and Turing - as a young hotshot in defiance even of his superiors - shot back. There were objections on all sides, from neurosurgeons who said the brain simply couldn't be reduced to mere mechanical operation, to philosophers who pointed out the dodgy definitions of "mind" and "consciousness", to theologians who blustered that the very idea was blasphemous.

And so, in 1950, Turing wrote a paper.

One of the first things you might notice about it is how sparse the citation list is. That's because at the time it was basically Turing against the world - this was his stand and his alone. He was standing up for his beliefs without any official support, and was even publishing in a philosophy journal (not a mathematical or computing journal) - the paper was a remarkable act of defiance and, yes, arrogance.

But Turing made an ingeniously clever move in that paper. He was well aware that he was simply not equipped to go toe-to-toe with philosophers on the nature of "mind" or "consciousness", or even what "thinking" really is. Attempting to argue those terms would have been charging into a quagmire with no escape plan. So what Turing did was pull one of the most remarkable cons in all of academic history - the old shell game. He basically trolled the most brilliant philosophers of the time by playing with their unquestioned assumptions. You see, there was one thing, and only one thing, that all those objecting neurosurgeons, philosophers, and theologians would agree actually thinks: Humans. None of them would dare to say that humans can't think. So Turing didn't have to prove that computers could think... all he had to do is prove that you can't tell computers and humans apart in a thinking challenge. If a computer and a human can both perform the same thinking tasks equally well, you can't rationally say that one is really thinking while the other isn't (unless you can actually rigorously define "thinking", which, the point was, no one can).

Turing proposed a party game called "The Imitation Game", where a man and a woman go into separate rooms, and pass messages back and forth with an interrogator. The interrogator tries to determine which is the man and which is the woman, while the man tries to convincingly pass as a woman (and the woman simply tries to be honest). Sometimes the man succeeds in fooling the interrogator, sometimes he doesn't. Turing proposed replacing the man with a machine, and seeing if it could play the Imitation Game as well as an average human man could.

It was an ingenious hack. In one fell swoop Turing thumbed his nose at all the philosophers who wanted to hem and haw over the meaning of "thinking", and all the brain experts and psychologists with endless empty arguments about brain complexity. In fact, he turned the tables on them dramatically - now if he could actually make a machine that could play the Imitation Game as well as a human, the onus would be on them to explain why that wasn't really thinking.

Today we call versions of that test: the Turing Test.

Turing's paper is a very easy, and pleasant read. It opens with a description of the Imitation Game, and why it circumvents all the problems with naively asking "can machines think?" Then it describes discrete-state computing machines - don't worry, it doesn't get too technical - and the universality of such machines. But the bulk of the paper is simply a list of objections to the idea that machines can think that Turing must have been facing at the time, with him knocking them off one... by... one.

The last section, though, is somewhat remarkable. Up to that point, Turing had basically spent the whole paper saying "****** you" to all his critics... but in that last section, having set the haters aside, he sets to the task of considering how the Imitation Game challenge might actually be won. And here, his tone changes dramatically. He starts sounding like a real dreamer, with fantastic visions of learning machines. Ultimately, Turing was a mathematician and an engineer at heart... for all the theoretical talk in this philosophy paper, he wasn't just whistling fancies - he had serious plans of getting to work on the project as soon as possible.

Mind you, it can be a bit quaint and amusing to modern readers. I found his tortured, patient descriptions of discrete-state computing theory to be simply adorable, but then one has to bear in mind that his audience would have never seen a computer. His credulous section on extra-sensory perception might seem a bit startling to modern readers, but in the 1950s that was an area of very active, and very serious research. And of course, his promise that a machine would win the game in 50 years... which would have been 2000... seems laughable now. But even if his timeline was a bit off, we are closing in on his dream.

Forget code-breaking and beating the Nazis. If you want to point to one reason why Alan Turing is one of the greatest figures in modern history, this is it: One man stood up to the experts and orthodoxies in a dozen different fields - trolling them by throwing their own unquestioned assumptions back in their faces - and threw down a practical and eminently implementable blueprint for a visionary idea that would become a watershed moment in human history. And he wasn't blowing smoke. He was on a mission to make his vision real, and if he hadn't been tragically and shamefully harassed by bigots and idiots, who knows what he might have accomplished. I'll leave you with his closing words:

"We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done."
Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?
Edmund L. Gettier (1927–)

Published: June 1963

  • Epistemology

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Indi wrote:
What is knowledge? Since as far back as Plato, it was thought that we had this question licked: knowledge is belief... that we are justified in believing... and which is actually true. "Justified... true... belief".

But in 1966, Edmund Gettier published an astonishing paper. First of all, it's short - surprisingly short; it's two-and-a-half pages, just under a thousand words. It's also surprisingly free of jargon or complexity.

In it, Gettier uses two examples - thought experiments - to show cases where a belief is justified... and true... but arguably not knowledge. These were the first examples of what have come to be known as "Gettier problems".

Gettier's paper is deceptively simple. In fact, early rebuttals merely brushed him off as making an obvious and silly mistake. But as more people thought about, it became unnervingly clear that the definition of knowledge we had been using comfortable for thousands of years was wrong. Or, at the very least, incomplete. You see, it turns out that if you try simple and obvious "fixes", you end up destroying the vast majority of what we consider knowledge. Unless you want to accept that we have much, much, much less knowledge than we actually have, you need to find a more subtle fix. Either that, or we really do have to admit that a lot of the knowledge we think we have really isn't knowledge at all. It's a damn messy situation.

Even now, philosophers are still struggling to find a way to either save the "justified true belief" definition, or modify it slightly so that it no longer fails with Gettier problems. This is an area of active, feverish research.

And this is the paper that started it.
Meditations on First Philosophy
René Descartes (1596–1650)

Published: 1641

  • Epistemology, Metaphysics

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Indi wrote:
The Enlightenment is the greatest period of change and advancement in human history. The Renaissance, which it followed, is considered to be the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Era – which means the Enlightenment itself is what kicked off the Modern Era. It lasted only around a hundred years, but at the start of those hundred years the world was still a world where the church had absolute authority and kings ruled by divine right... by the end, we had the first secular democracies, and modern science. The Renaissance was rising out of the darkness of the Middle Ages to recover the path we had been on in Classical Antiquity, but the Enlightenment was the beginning of our new path into the future. Even today, we’re still absorbing the aftershocks of the Enlightenment.

And when they name the people who kicked off the Enlightenment, the person named most of all was René Descartes.

Descartes can be a challenging philosopher to work with today, because he had one foot firmly planted in ancient philosophy – which was often as much myth as it was reason – and one foot firmly planted in the future. Famously, he “discovered” his philosophy after he locked himself in an oven to keep warm, and had “visions sent by God”. But he had the revolutionary notion that all truths had to be based on a single logical foundation – so if he could just find that foundation, he could build all knowledge on top of it (and without that foundation, all knowledge is meaningless). He had to do some incredible mental gymnastics to make that work, but Descartes was more than up to the task.

He was as much a mathematician as a philosopher – we still use his Cartesian coordinate system today – so much of his philosophy is grounded in very mathematical thought processes. But he was also very much a “rogue philosopher”, who focused on writing for “the common folk” rather than “the academic elite”. His early works, such as the classic Discourse on the Method were written in French – the common tongue – and much of his method is a sort of an early form of extreme skepticism, where he shrugs off everything that has ever been known or discovered (ie, turning his back on all the “learned men” of the time) and tries to build a new philosophy from scratch, doing things that any peasant could do.

This work was published in Latin. Unlike his earlier works, it was not targeted at common folk, but rather at the learned elite. However, it contains the most complete outline of his philosophy, laid out in a very clear and almost story-like fashion.

The “story” is basically this: A philosopher, Descartes, has left the academies and the halls of reason, and retired to a shack in the middle of nowhere with practically nothing but the bare necessities required to survive – and to write. And then, that philosopher thinks...

The first thing Descartes realizes is that his senses can be mislead, and that he can be deceived about things or make mistakes. Following through on that logic, he realizes that there is NOTHING he can be sure of, even the mere existence of anything.

Or is there? After simply giving up in the first meditation, he begins the second more calmly. He focuses specifically on the question of what he can know, figuring that if he can find one sure thing, he can use that as a springboard to further knowledge. That one sure thing, realizes, is that he must exist. He thinks; therefore he is.

Although there are some spectacular philosophical feats in the meditations, he does rather fly off the rails when he starts reasoning about God. Still, there is more than enough in there that is quite remarkable, and this was the kind of thinking that kicked off the Enlightenment.
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
David Hume (1711–1776)

Published: 1779

  • Metaphysics, Theology

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Indi wrote:
The Enlightenment changed the nature of society and philosophy in amazing ways, but toward the end of it people were getting a little burnt out. The philosophy of the Enlightenment had been rigorously rational – often eschewing everything but pure reason. At its most extreme that even included empirical evidence – Descartes more or less kicked off the Enlightenment by rejecting all empirical evidence and trusting only reason.

David Hume appeared at the tail end of the Enlightenment, and in many ways he was a tempering voice that cooled the furious rationalism of the Enlightenment and eased the philosophical world into a new era. Hume rejected the idea that humans were purely rational beings, and argued that we are creatures of emotion... and ignoring that is irrational. He was also interested in questions that many of the most rigorous rationalists could not tackle well – or rather, he wanted to tackle questions that he believed simply couldn’t be tackled by reason alone.

The Dialogues were his take on one of the biggest questions of the time: whether a god existed, and if so what would it be like.

They are presented as a discussion between three people, as recorded by a fourth – Pamphilus – who is reporting it to his friend, Hermippus.

  • Demea represents the traditional religious view. He insists that one cannot possibly use their senses to understand God, because God is beyond human understanding. Instead he insists on relying on pure reason (without any evidence or observation), religious revelation, and faith. He asserts there are certain things about God that have to be true, such as the God exists, and that he is purely good. He presents the cosmological argument for God’s existence – the “argument from first cause”.

  • Cleanthes is Pamphilus’s teacher. He represents what was, at the time, the new empiricist religious view. His position is that it is possible for humans to understand things about God, by observing the world. He presents the teleological argument for God’s existence – the “argument from design”.

  • Philo is the most intriguing character, and the one most scholars believe represented Hume’s views. He switches sides back and forth in the discussing, sometimes siding with Demea, sometimes with Cleanthes. He agrees with Demea that God must be beyond human understanding, and for that reason disagrees with Demea that using pure reason to understand God makes any sense. Then he disagrees with Cleanthes that it is possible to deduce anything about God from nature. But finally he turns the tables and uses the methods of both of the others to prove that God cannot be good.

The Dialogues mostly follow the pattern of one man putting his argument on the table, and the other two taking it apart – first Demea, then Cleanthes, and finally Philo... though notably in Philo’s case, the other two never quite beat his arguments. In fact, Demea ends up storming off.

The ending is a little strange. Despite completely demolishing everyone else’s arguments, Philo sort of gives up and says Cleanthes is right. And Pamphilus, the writer, finishes up by saying Cleanthes won the debate. There is a lot of debate about what exactly that means. On the one hand, some point out that Hume often ended his works with an ironic twist – where the obviously correct person “wins” the debate (in the reader’s mind) but still “loses” in the end (in the story) to whoever was arguing the position accepted by the Church. On the other, it may be that Hume really did believe that even though the accepted arguments for God were all flawed, they still did have more weight than the alternative.

Regardless, the dialogues are a whirlwind tour through philosophical arguments about the existence of God and God’s nature, extremely well-presented, and well-argued.
((This is just a note to myself, to help myself keep track of what i've done, and what still needs to be done.

Texts on Bikerman's list to be done:
  • Immanuel Kant - Critique of Pure Reason
  • Immanuel Kant - Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals
  • John Stuart Mill - Utilitarianism
  • Thomas Nagel - What is it like to be a bat?

Other texts i'm working on:
  • Edmund Abbott - Flatland
  • Gottlob Frege - On Sense and Reference
  • Bertrand Russell - On Denoting
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein - Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Most likely next to be done: John Stuart Mill - Utilitarianism.

Any other suggestions, just leave a comment.))
Unfortunately, for reasons I don't want to elucidate, I've not been able to maintain my VP server and this means that some of the links to materials in this thread are kaput. I plan to move the 'bikerman' domain to another server in the near future (a couple of months) at which point the links will function properly. In the meantime I am grateful to Indi for his work on developing these important ideas/texts.
Hm, that seems to affect the PDF versions of Descartes and Hume. (And the upcoming Mill, which i still haven't got around to.)

I'll leave the links as is for the time being, so when you get set up elsewhere it will be easier to redirect. I don't think it will be a big issue, because in all cases there are alternative links.

I'll also hold off on Mill. Maybe i'll go ahead with Wollstonecraft's Vindication. We could use a woman or two on the list, after all.

Honestly, i'd like to a get a bit more philosophical diversity into the list, too, but it's not really easy. Most of the really interesting stuff is still under copyright. And i don't really want to waste time on ancient crap.
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