Friday, August 2, 2013

Some possibly helpful books - philosophy

When I began writing a blog, I intended to try and explain meditation in simple, useful terms. Over time, that continues as a goal, but since meditation is very simple and basic, it gets to seem a limited topic after a while.  I began to think of other pictures of what I was doing.  Up to now, the idea of a commentator on life as I see it and experience it, has been a comfortable image.  When a person gets a "doctor of philosophy" degree in say, biology, or in my case, "measurement, statistical analysis and experimental design", the "of philosophy" part is an attempt to say that this person understands and is conversant with the theories, controversies and arguments in the field of study.  Until grad school, I had had no formal courses in the academic subject of philosophy.  I did get a minor in philosophy there but I carefully selected courses that I thought might benefit me throughout the rest of my life.  That means that I studied what I and my advisors thought might be helpful in trying to improve education, not a comprehensive selection of philosophy courses.

My fellows in our little group of NDEA scholars were all secondary math teachers but me.  They all minored in mathematics and thought that my double minors of philosophy and psychology sounded interesting but vague.  They seemed to feel that philosophy was an especially slippery topic that proceeded with few markers and tended to lead nowhere. It is a slippery topic.  Many people would say that all intellectual life came from philosophy, especially the ancient Greek habit of thinking about the world and asking questions. About anything and everything that seemed worth questioning.  The most famous of that sort of philosopher was Socrates (400 years before Jesus).  He is so famous, he only needs one name!

You may know that Socrates is said to have been against this business called 'writing', which he suspected as a new-fangled dangerous technology that would undermine human memory and thought.  We know about him through his famous pupil, Plato, who did write. 

When Soccy was about 70, Athens finally was able to end a long, costly and frightening war.  People were in no mood for his continual questioning every damned thing and somebody accused him of having aided the enemy and undermining the morality and good thinking of the youth of the city.  A trial was held to determine if the charges were true and it was decided they were.  Socrates was condemned to death by drinking hemlock.  At the end of the trial, Plato writes of Socrates' famous "Apology", often considered a fundamental document in the history of (Western) thought.  He was not apologizing for his life but rather explaining why he did what he did and how his activities benefitted the city.  The jury of 500 didn't buy it. 

The apology is available in many places on the web. Plato did write and so did his own famous pupil, Aristotle.  A friend of mine has a son who just published a book on the basic differences between Plato's ideas and Aristotle's.  So, the ideas of neither man are out of the picture completely today but there are many other subsequent thinkers who can be worth reading about.  Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy (1927) was very popular and still is.  Available here in a PDF and here in other many free forms.  More recently, the famous and important philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote "The History of Western Philosophy" (1967). [But you may enjoy his "The Art of Happiness" more.]  And the French professor of philosophy, Luc Perry, has a popular and highly acclaimed "A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living" (2011).

You can put any name you have heard of (Marcus Aurelius, Descartes, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, William James, Karl Marx, John Dewey) into Google and get both basic background and detailed information.  Note that none of this is about the Eastern civilizations which have done plenty of excellent thinking of their own.

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