If someone new to philosophy asked you for a recommended reading, what would you suggest? I’ve asked a fair number of philosophers this over the years and found that there’s more agreement in answers to this question than at least many philosophical questions. Ask about the nature of mind and the replies are all over the place. Ask for a good introductory book, and a lot of people point to Plato. “I dunno, Republic?” is a less than reassuring response you nevertheless hear often. If you’re going to start somewhere, start at the beginning, I guess, and reading Plato is kind of wonderful anyway, at least when compared to something unspeakable written by Hegel or Kant. But do you really want to afflict a beginner with stuff like the divided line and the Myth of Er and the thought that justice in the city and in the soul has to be roughly the same sort of thing?
Maybe not, which is why many people suggest a contemporary book, written by someone deliberately setting out to introduce philosophy to the uninitiated. Simon Blackburn’s Think and Thomas Nagel’s What Does it All Mean? come up again and again. Blackburn’s intro has been around for almost 20 years and Nagel’s book for more than 30, and yet they’re both still going strong — top sellers on Amazon anyway. Those who would push on the novice something with more gravitas might suggest Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, also still killing it on best-seller lists despite being around since 1946.
But here’s the thing, if you ask someone immersed in philosophy not what they recommend but what book they in fact read that got them hooked, you don’t hear about Blackburn or Nagel or Russell — sometimes Plato comes up, but more often it’s something you’d never think to suggest to a newbie.
I’ve heard philosophers say it was a work of science or mathematics, nothing straightforwardly philosophical at all, which got them going. Dawkins’ Selfish Gene, Hawking’s Brief History of Time, something Carl Sagan wrote that they half recall hearing about or reading, a problem they encountered when working in another discipline entirely. Others were pushed in a philosophical direction by religious writing, maybe C S Lewis, or by some text from outside the Western tradition that got them wondering about their own beliefs. Still others found their way into philosophy through science fiction, or fiction more generally. What actually gets people into philosophy often isn’t straightforward philosophy. It’s questions, and here we are again with Plato’s old point about wonder. Or, as Russell puts it for more modern ears, “Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves.”