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I have a question about reading certain philosophers, specifically Kant in my

I have a question about reading certain philosophers, specifically Kant in my case, as "pre-requisites" for other philosophers. I'm not particularly interested in Kant, but I've been interested in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger for a long time now. I've heard though that to appreciate any of these three, you have to understand Kant first, so I recently started to read A Critique of Pure Reason. I'm sure I'll get something worthwhile out of the book if I stick with it, but I'm wondering whether you think it's worth taking on this demanding project just to prepare me for reading other philosophers. I'm also curious, in general, do you think there are certain cases where it is vital or important to read one philosopher's work before taking on another's? I've heard too that before you read A Critique of Pure Reason, you should read Descartes' Discourse on the Method, which would be another demanding project.

In the full sense of the word this question is unanswerable. I don’t know a serious educated person who does not worry about it. On the one hand, if you do not read philosophers in the right order you are bound to miss the significance of something the later person says. I’m not saying you run the risk of missing that significance; you are guaranteed to do so.

And yet this is a half-truth, because there is plenty you will miss if you start back at the beginning of philosophy and proceed to the end. First of all there’s the obvious problem of motivation that your question implies. If you have to read Descartes before Kant, and Aristotle before Descartes, and so on, you will have been lost or sidetracked before you ever reached the people like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard who first drew your attention. Demanding a strict chronological reading list is impractical.

There’s another kind of problem that affects even industrious people who are incapable of being bored or sidetracked. In many cases we don’t see the full significance of an earlier thinker until we encounter a later thinker. This is what makes some of the later people so important as philosophers, that they bring a new dimension and a new kind of interpretation to what their precursors had said. A passage in Plato on the coldness of ice means more after we read Aristotle on essential predication. Spinoza’s critique of negative emotions becomes livelier and psychologically more significant in light of the way Nietzsche develops the same points. In some ways you learn more about each philosopher by reading the chronology in reverse.

Well, no one can read through the history of philosophy in both directions at once. A general chronological approach, guided by a good teacher, is the best place to start. You acquire a sense of the history of philosophy as a whole and then read on your own to fill in the details. But if you are approaching this entirely on your own, I suggest you start with the philosophers who pique your curiosity. If you are inquisitive at all, you will go from them to their predecessors wanting to know more about why they say what they do. Eventually you’ll see that you need to have a sense of every philosopher on the list; and although Kant might seem like just words on the page if you begin with him, the day will come (after Nietzsche and Schopenhauer) when the Critique of Pure Reason reads like a page-turner, now that you see what its implications will turn out to be.

In the full sense of the word this question is unanswerable. I don’t know a serious educated person who does not worry about it. On the one hand, if you do not read philosophers in the right order you are bound to miss the significance of something the later person says. I’m not saying you run the risk of missing that significance; you are guaranteed to do so. And yet this is a half-truth, because there is plenty you will miss if you start back at the beginning of philosophy and proceed to the end. First of all there’s the obvious problem of motivation that your question implies. If you have to read Descartes before Kant, and Aristotle before Descartes, and so on, you will have been lost or sidetracked before you ever reached the people like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard who first drew your attention. Demanding a strict chronological reading list is impractical. There’s another kind of problem that affects even industrious people who are incapable of being bored or sidetracked. In many cases we...

This is a follow-up to Miriam Solomon's statement describing philosophy:

This is a follow-up to Miriam Solomon's statement describing philosophy: "Philosophy involves more than deductive logic--it involves the exercise of "good judgment" which in fact we do not understand very well." (june 5, 2014) Can someone tell me more about what this "good judgment" is, please? I studied philosophy in college and I can't recall any of my professors ever suggesting that there was some elusive guiding principle in philosophy beyond what could be articulated...Instead, I was taught that it was about starting with premises and then executing deductive reasoning. Are you now saying that there's something mystical in there that philosophers can't articulate but which guides their work? That seems counter the way I learned philosophy, where the professors seemed particularly intent on articulating things clearly.

I'll just add that, for similar reasons, "good judgement" is equally important in mathematics, and nothing is more deductive than mathematics.

I can’t resist offering the follow-up to Miriam Solomon’s response, not because I’ll say what she would say, but precisely because I think I come at this question differently from her. So with any luck you’ll get a second perspective on the same fundamental thought. Your professors were right to insist on the clear articulation of ideas and on the careful argumentation that takes us from premises to conclusions. Clarity and validity are two of the most important tools that philosophers work with. Some philosophers will agree with me that other tools or techniques are essential as well, such as the method of philosophical interpretation; but calling for more attention to philosophical interpretation does not have to mean neglecting argumentation. But even if we stick to clear terms and valid arguments, there are going to be more fundamental questions that guide us. What terms are worth clarifying? The important ones, of course. What subjects do we make arguments about? Again, the important...

This is a question about philosophy. Reading the beginnings of Wikipedia's

This is a question about philosophy. Reading the beginnings of Wikipedia's timelines of Eastern and Western philosophers, we find Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Guang Zhong, Confucius, Sun Tzu and a few more as the first philosophers. By the time these guys lived, there were other written non-fiction (or allegedly non-fiction) works. What is the difference between philosophy and the other non-fiction stuff (especially in those times)?

Any responsible answer to this question has to be highly qualified and surrounded by admissions of ignorance. I’ll try not to get bogged down by describing what we don’t know, but you should realize how inconclusive any answer to your excellent question has to be.

I don’t know enough about non-Western philosophers to tackle that part of the question. Let me say a few words about Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, and the rest. Not too long ago the standard claim about them was that they turned thinking decisively away from mythical thinking. Where myths described a world before the world we occupy, an earlier time in which different causes made things happen, these philosophers confined themselves to the world we know and the natural processes at work in this world. So, if they were to describe the origin of the universe, that origin would have to follow causal laws akin to the laws in effect today.

This is our own scientific understanding of the universe today, incidentally. Whatever brought the world into existence must be comprehensible in terms of the processes that bring about changes today.

A few generations after the beginnings of Western philosophy, Melissus of Samos articulated a principle that can be read as an overt statement of that belief. What is now was always the case. Aristotle’s student Palaephatus repeatedly quotes that line from Melissus, and Palaephatus treats the saying (whatever Melissus in fact may have meant by it) as a manifesto about proper explanations. Whatever we assert to have happened then must be of the same order of things as what happens now.

You can see one weakness of this approach to the first philosophers. Palaephatus is writing after Aristotle. The entire tradition of pre-Socratic philosophy already precedes him. He understands philosophy as a break with mythic explanations; I would also argue (and I think most people would agree) that Aristotle understands philosophy in the same way. Aristotle praises Pherecydes for combining general principles of explanation together with his mythological explanations, as if to say that Pherecydes marks a philosophical advance over earlier writers on those grounds.

Where Plato stands on this question is more complex, in my opinion, and I won’t try to address the topic. I will content myself with saying that by the time of Aristotle and then Palaephatus, philosophers were thinking of philosophy as decidedly different from the mythic writing that preceded it.

It doesn’t follow however that the people we’re talking about – Thales and the rest – would have articulated or did articulate their own writings in those same terms. Why would Thales have spoken of magnets having souls, if he took himself to be breaking with mythical frames of reference? Why would Anaximander, whom some consider the first philosopher, have said that things come into existence and then pay the penalty for their injustice in existing, with what sounds to us like a personified story of existence and non-existence, if he were denying the value of mythical modes of explanation?

And yet something is right about this old explanation. Something does change when Thales predicts a solar eclipse on May 28, 585 BC (2,598 years ago yesterday). For now the sun’s eclipse is being treated as a phenomenon to study and to form generalizations about, not a spontaneous intrusion of divine action into the world.

Something also changes when Anaximander, not too long after Thales, proposes that human beings evolved from earlier animals, rather than having been made by gods. Anaximander seeks to explain the origins of the human in processes that would still be at work in the nature of his time.

So, although the simplistic earlier stories about humans making progress out of myth/religion into philosophy/science are one-sided, too easy, and too insensitive to complicating details, there is still an element of truth in those stories that is worth recognizing. This is the beginning of an account of the first philosophical writings.

Any responsible answer to this question has to be highly qualified and surrounded by admissions of ignorance. I’ll try not to get bogged down by describing what we don’t know, but you should realize how inconclusive any answer to your excellent question has to be. I don’t know enough about non-Western philosophers to tackle that part of the question. Let me say a few words about Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, and the rest. Not too long ago the standard claim about them was that they turned thinking decisively away from mythical thinking. Where myths described a world before the world we occupy, an earlier time in which different causes made things happen, these philosophers confined themselves to the world we know and the natural processes at work in this world. So, if they were to describe the origin of the universe, that origin would have to follow causal laws akin to the laws in effect today. This is our own scientific understanding of the universe today, incidentally. Whatever brought...