What About Philosophy?

Let's kick off July with a discussion.

I'm curious about the concept of well-readness and what it covers. Amanda of Dead White Guys & Book Riot had a post exploring this concept a while back. The takeaway seemed to be that you should read widely and thoughtfully to qualify as well-read. The conversation was recently rekindled by Jeff O'Neal's list of 100 books that will take you "from zero to well-read" and the debates over his post neatly illustrated how difficult it is to define and apply labels like "well-read." So far, so good. I admit that I'm not very invested in this debate as concerns literature, but I was wondering whether it should include only literature. 

Quint Buchholz, Book Scales

I sort of get why the sciences are not mentioned here. It's not only about the two cultures divide, about the way in which the humanistic and scientific worlds are constantly portrayed as apart and incompatible, and the ideal of the cultivated or well-educated mind is more often associated with the humanistic side (think of how not knowing who Shakespeare is carries a greater intellectual stigma than not knowing the Second Law of Thermodynamics). When it comes to sciences, there's also the fact that it is not very productive to read the original works as opposed to studying their main ideas from a textbook (I mean, good luck with reading Newton's Principia if that's what you want to do with your life, but still...). So the sciences are not easily-included in the well-read conversation.

But if the goal of being well-read is to be able "to think and converse about the human experience intelligently," shouldn't philosophy qualify? Not as an afterthought ("of course, non-fiction is important too"), but as an essential part of the canon. After all, much of the world (and literature) we know now would simply not exist without philosophy. Whether you want to have an idea of the history of human thought, or to understand a piece of literature in context (sometimes to understand a piece of literature at all), you need to have some knowledge of philosophy. And this is not to talk about the tools and frameworks literary theory borrows from philosophy. 

This raises the question of how far we should go, though. How much and what philosophy should you read to qualify as well-read? Most people would probably agree that Plato's Dialogues are indispensable (or, more accurately, a selection of them is). So is Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, but it's long and dense, so should you read it if you don't have a special interest in philosophy? Most people would probably agree that you should have some knowledge of Sartre and Existentialism if you want to understand the 20th century in literature. Fair enough, but what about other strands of philosophy? Should you be familiar with Carnap or Quine?

So what do you think? Would you include philosophy in the endless stream of stuff you have to cover to be "well-read"? Do any particular works or criteria for selecting them come to mind?


  1. I *want* to agree that you need to have read some Philosophy to be well read, but DAMN that stuff's hard to read (and I say this as a former Philosophy student!) I feel like just having some kind of knowledge OF Philosophy (kind of in a similar way to science, I guess) rather than actually having to have read the texts is enough? Because the Critique of Pure Reason is soooo not the most accessible book, I have to say!

    1. I agree for the most part. And you can definitely get by even in philosophy with just knowledge OF some texts, reconstruction of their arguments etc. What keeps me from agreeing fully is that for some texts I feel like you're not getting everything they have to offer if you just read a reconstruction. I don't want to be that person going around saying, "Man, you gotta experience the Socratic method! It's THE shit." but I suppose that's the kind of place this post is coming from :D

      Of course, this is all under the assumption that there is such a thing as well-read. If it's all subjective, or if there is no well-read in general, but only well-read in X subject, then my problem is solved.

  2. I'd also say that you need to read some philosophy to be "well-read". Most people who I'd class as this have an extensive knowledge of philosophy, which I envy greatly!

    There's a lot of philosophy I'd like to read, but for the last few years my selection process has been one of finding texts I can easily learn from and feel reassured by. To me, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is an indispensable text. It's not too arduous to read, and it applies to so many areas of my own life.

    I enjoyed reading Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy , and it's helped me out with a lot of my literature essays, but it hasn't quite helped me with day-to-day feelings and situations. Perhaps I'll read more dense philosophical texts as I study more and want to challenge myself, but it doesn't quite fit how I feel right now.

    Saying that, if I return to Dostoevksy any time soon I will need to brush up on existentialism...

    1. Great answer. I'd say the Stoics are reasonably popular on the book blogs I follow, precisely for this aspect. Have you read Seneca's letters to Lucilius? One of the most (oddly) reassuring things I've ever read came from one of those letters: "We are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years be behind us are in death's hands."

      Now I feel like making a list of great but accessible philosophy works, but I do need to read/reread a bunch of stuff first. Hmm.

    2. I've read extracts of Seneca's work, but never in full. I keep meaning to buy a copy of his writings, and you've reminded me to get a move on with this!

      That quote on death is definitely one I'd like to remember - thank you for sharing it :)

      I'd enjoy reading such a list! I agree that it would take a lot of research, however. Epictetus and Aurelius would be my suggestions, although maybe I'll have a think about other suggestions (that do not involve Stoic philosophy!)

  3. I would include philosophy and some science (it doesn't matter what). Most of my family are science/medicine oriented and they don't really like to read fiction, but they read things related to their fields. Doctors need to keep themselves updated and they can only do that through reading. Having said that, I'm amazed at how little some humanities people know not only about science but about everyday medicine. I think we all should know how to use an Epi-Pen or some other basic, life-saving devices that are more common than we think!

  4. This is a very interesting post, and I liked reading about your opinion and theories. My opines is that in books as well as in everything philosophy is always present, and a good book should always send a message teach a lesson or give us something to think about.

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