Suppose you want to recommend ten or a dozen philosophy books to students (not complete beginners) for out-of-term-time reading, books that are positively enjoyable to read, even fun, written with a light touch and some zest, though still thought-provoking and instructive. To make things a bit easier, we’ll allow books published any time in the last fifty years, and include collections of papers. But — and this makes it much tougher — we’ll not allow books on ethics or politics (so no provoking Singer, no very readable Nozick …). And let’s rule out one or two books like Kripke’s Naming and Necessity that are already on everyone’s reading list. So what would you choose?
I’ve been looking along my shelves for inspiration: but since I’ve recently given away a lot of my books, keeping what’s now a mostly rather austere logical collection, that’s not a great deal of help. Here, however, are a few things that come to mind:
- Simon Blackburn, Truth: A Guide (OUP, 2005) [Blackburn always writes enviably well, and can be very funny (try his Lust): this is serious, wide-ranging, philosophy done very readably.]
- Daniel Dennett, Elbow Room (OUP, 1984) [Dennett is always worth reading: what to choose? This is short, full of ideas, and perhaps these days less well-known than it should be.]
- Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (NLB, 1975). [Still a provocation, still fun to read.]
- Imre Lakatos, Proofs and Refutations (CUP, 1976). [Maybe it’s not clear where this leads, but the journey is certainly fun! Maybe more philosophy could be written as this kind of dialogue.]
- David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds (Blackwell, 1986) [David Lewis writes so well that almost anything of his will be worth reading: but experience shows that students can get particularly caught up in the madness of this book! Perhaps I’m cheating by including this here, as — at least in some places — it is already a staple of reading lists. But don’t miss out on the fun if you haven’t read it.]
- Hilary Putnam, Mind, Language and Reality (CUP, 1975). [Another oldie. Does it count as fun? Well, I certainly remember the excitement of reading the papers in the first two volumes of Putnam’s Philosophical Papers when they came out: this is the second of those volumes. There is much here that is still very worth reading for its own sake, written with zest and insight, and there is much which will illuminate later debates too. Dip into it!]
- R. M. Sainsbury, Paradoxes (CUP, 3rd edn 2009) [OK, this is more like a conventional student text than others on the list — but these are fun topics, well handled.]
- Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures (Profile Books, 1998) [Sokal famously wrote a parody of post-modernist abuse of scientic terminology, a farrago of nonsense which was accepted and published in a pomo journal. His book with Bricmont explores the misuse of science, and contains some sane philosophy along with way.]
And now what? Surely some Fodor: but which? Add Quine’s Quiddities perhaps? I gulped down Eric Olson’s The Human Animal when it came out and admire it a lot. In a quite different vein, Edward Craig’s The Mind of God and the Works of Man is wonderful.
But what would you put on your list? (Or if you are still a student, what off-piste reading have you found particularly enjoyable/illuminating?)
Added April 16 A link on Brian Leiter’s estimable blog has attracted readers outside the usual logicky people who follow Logic Matters, so there’s been a welcome flurry of further suggestions in the comments — which shows, inter alia, how very varying people’s ideas of philosophical fun can be!
No women philosophers in my list above? Guilty as charged. The lack has been rectified in some of the later comments below! In a wider-ranging list I’d have certainly included Martha Nussbaum’s Fragility of Goodness and perhaps some others of hers. In the Great Retirement Book Dispersal, hers are indeed are among the few non logic/language/m&e books to survive.