M. T. writes,
I've followed your blog for a few months now. I feel compelled to say thank you for the content of your posts. They are usually trenchant, always interesting, and occasionally they lead me to delve into topics and categories that I have never explored previously.
Some background: I'm an Arabic linguist for the Navy. I currently live in Georgia, but was born and reared in Florida. I pretty much agree with everything you've said on political topics.
A question for you: I didn't study philosophy, but am extremely well read in history and politics (particularly ancient history). You obviously were a academician, but if I wanted to get grounded in the current state of philosophy, where do I start? The field is so vast, so opaque and confusing. Am I better off just reading Plato and perhaps William James?
Again, thank you for a wonderful blog. I always try to learn something new every day, and your writing makes it easier for me to accomplish that task.
I of course appreciate the kind words, and the regular arrival of letters like this in my mail box is emolument aplenty for my pro bono efforts.
First of all, I wouldn't worry too much about the current state of philosophy because much that is current is ephemeral and even foolish. I would concern myself more with an introduction to the perennial problems of philosophy. To understand the sometimes strange things that philosophers say one must first understand the questions that perplexed them and the problems they were trying to solve. With that in mind I recommend two short well-written books, the first from 1912 and the second from 1987: Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy; Thomas Nagel, What Does It All Mean? I commend the following advice to you from p. 4 of Nagel's book:
The center of philosophy lies in certain questions which the reflective human mind finds naturally puzzling, and the best way to begin the study of philosophy is to think about them directly. Once you've done that, you are in a better position to apprecdiate the work of others who have tried to solve the same problems.
Sage advice. There is no point in studying philosophy unless there are some questions that 'bug' you and to which you want and need answers. Think about them directly, and try to answer them for yourself. Then test your answers against the answers more experienced thinkers have proposed.
For example, suppose you are interested in the question of the freedom of the will. Formulated as a problem, it is the problem of reconciling the freedom of the will presupposed by ascriptions of moral responsibility with the apparent determinism of the natural world of which the agent is a part. So you think about it. You don't get very far on your own, so you seek help. You turn to Schopenhauer's magisterial On the Freedom of the Will for orientation. You get that and more: data, distinctions, the history of the problem and the various solutions, and Schopenhauer's own solution. And so it goes.
The ComBox is open in case anyone wants to suggest titles for my reader.