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Essential Works of Non-Fiction?

Pennglock

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In literature there seems to be a general consensus on the cannon of "great works," and such lists are easy to find. I feel that most educated people will work through the bulk of those classics in their lives without making any kind of special effort.

I am interested in forum members' perspectives on the great works of non-fiction. Personally, my education has a lot more holes in this department than in literature. Works of History, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology and other pseudo-sciences would all be good for me. Mathematics and hard science is a little trickier... I feel that a lot of these concepts you can learn more easily from textbook type materials than you can the original works. In other words Im not about to pick up Euclid or translate Maxwell's original nomenclature.

Anyone want to take a shot a kind of autodidacts syllabus?
 

holymadness

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I suggest narrowing down your scope a little. In history, you could go all the way back to Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, and so on, up until Vico, Eliade, Kant, Hegel, Toynbee, Hempel, Danto, McNeill, Collingwood, E.H. Carr, Herbert Butterfield, Paul Ricoeur, Hayden White, etc. Also, I assume you mean historiography here, rather than actual works of history. If not, then Gibbon, E.P. Thompson, R.R. Palmer, Fernand Braudel, Michelet, Thiers, are what you want, but the list really becomes endless at that point. In philosophy, obviously beginning with the pre-Socratics, moving into the classical Athenians, then up through the scholastics, hit the Renaissance, Enlightenment rationalism, empiricsm, romanticism, positivism, materialism, idealism, existentialism, structuralism, post-modernism... You've got everyone from Heraclitus to Derrida. Canonical writers in science are Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Richard Lewontin, Stephen J Gould, Richard Feynman, etc. But you could also start with Descartes and Francis Bacon. Steven Shapin wrote a good history of the birth of science in pre-modern England about the rivalry between Hobbes and Boyle. Mathematics I don't know much about, although Douglas R. Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is supposed to be excellent. Political science (and sociology), again, is huge. Start with Machiavelli, hit the big names like Weber, Durkheim, Marx, Tocqueville, Elias, Bakunin, yadda yadda... Psychology is also a rogue's gallery of big names: Freud, Nietzsche, Jung, Skinner, Pavlov... Come to think of it, your question isn't very good, mostly because I don't want to type out a list of 1001 non-fiction greats.
I'd check the penguin classics library for a complete listing.
 

tom288

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Ian Kershaw's Hitler
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes
The Prince, Machiavelli
Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler (Not necessarily a good literary work, but interesting nonetheless)
Ordinary Men, Christopher Browning
The Republic, Plato
Will to Power, Nietzsche
Confessions, Augustine

Those are some good standard works you may want to look into.
 

Dedalus

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On philosophy, here's a post from another forum:
Ancients This is some interesting things. Who'd have thought that we'd still be talking about their thoughts 2500 years later? Not them! Anyway, read some Plato and Aristotle. Just because Hackett is great, they publish a nice anthology of ancient philosophy (under some name that I can't remember) that includes a bunch of pre-Socratic fragments, a ton of Plato's dialogues (including the entirety of Republic), and a great set of selections from Aristotle. Read what you like, but from Plato, at least read the Timaeus, Phaedo, Crito, Meno, the first part of the Parmenides, Apology, and Republic. From Aristotle, focus on the Metaphysics and Nicomachean Ethics, but pay attention to the Physics. If you only read two works, read the tetralogy of dialogues (I'm cheating) concerning the death of Socrates: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, and Phaedo. Also, read selections from Aristotle's Metaphysics; primarily, the bit on change. Moderns For reference, the modern period begins with Rene Descartes, and ends with Immanuel Kant. Confusing, but there you go. With Descartes, you should read the Meditations and the Discourse on Method. Get the Cambridge edition of the Meditations since it has a selection from the Objections and Replies, which will help explain what Descartes was on about. Leibniz is an amazingly influential figure, and I think that you might want to read the Monadology. It's short, and I'll look through my Leibniz selections and see if I can dig up anything as interesting as that, but it's no big deal if you read nothing else of his. This gets you two of the three rationalist thinkers (the other is Spinoza, who is pretty cool, actually). Let's move to the empiricists. Berkeley (pronounced Barkley) is pretty awesome, so you might want to read Three Dialogues. It's a special English brand of crazy. Still, it's a good romp and it's fascinating. There's also David Hume, who is the patron saint of early analytic philosophy. Just take up his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. He's got a way with words, too, and you'll enjoy it. If you only read two works, read Descartes' Meditations and Hume's Enquiry. Kant Well, here we are. The big one. He wrote a ton of major works (the Critiques of Pure and Practical Reason, among others, are seminal works of philosophy), but all anyone needs to read is the Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics. You might want to read the Critiques later, but they are not necessary at all. If you have an interest in ethics, read the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. This is all the Kant you'll need. The Prolegomena, though, is damn important. [Ed. Note: Henry Allison's Kant's Transcendental Meditation and Strawson's The Bounds of Sense are highly recommended.] At this point, you should be on good enough ground to read almost anything in contemporary philosophy, but be warned: most everyone you'll want to read read much more than what I've recommended. Still, unless you find one figure so interesting that you want to read into their works, this is a good enough foundation for beginning a study of philosophy. You should go back and read other things, but you don't necessarily have to. I recommend starting with modern stuff with some fun things like Friedrich Nietzsche (The Gay Science is a philosophical amusement park), Peter Strawson (Individuals is such an interesting little book), Ludwig Wittgenstein (he'll destroy all your preconceptions about philosophy), Martin Heidegger (okay, not as fun, but read What is Metaphysics?, since Being and Time is murder), Albert Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus is a brilliantly uplifting work), Daniel Dennett (Consciousness Explained is good, and Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves are interesting if you're curious about free will) and Richard Rorty (Read, at least, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature). Hilary Putnam, Donald Davidson, and Thomas Nagel are pretty interesting, as well. Analytic The Preliminaries First of all, you need to do three things: find a symbolic logic textbook, reread Hume's Enquiry, and keep in mind the analytic/synthetic distinction that Kant developed. For a logic book, go to your philosophy section of the library and look through them until you find something that looks good to you. You don't need to become an expert, but you do need to be able to follow a logical proof. This looks like it might push you in the right direction. The Foundations It all started when Frege made some major developments concerning mathematical logic. He was a mathematician, but his works are important. Of course, they are more important for their historical value, but nonetheless they are crucial. Read Anthony Kenny's book on Frege for a good introduction. It's all you need. If you must read Frege, the essay On Sense and Reference is a place to start. Unless you're deeply interested in Frege, you don't need to read his works on formal logic, since the notation is really archaic. Kenny does a good enough job of it, anyway. Then, we've got good ol' Bertrand Russell. He was a fucking smart dude, and wrote a lot (and lived very long), but I think the most you need to read to be acquainted with him is the essay 'On Referring,' which is fantastically important and you'll at least see veiled references to it for the rest of your philosophical life. Of course, if you're more interested, read the lectures Philosophy of Logical Atomism, which sets forth his idea of an ideal language. He wrote a ton, but I can't name anything else off the top of my head. I'm not that fascinated with Russell. While Frege and Russell were preoccupied with logic, G.E. Moore had no use for the complexities and contempt for natural language that they had. He was a 'common sense' philosopher, and he's actually rather interesting. Grab a few of his essays, such as In Defense of Common Sense and Proof of an External World. If you are interested in ethics, you need to read Pricipia Ethica. Yesterday. As a response to his ideas (which are incredibly compelling), read O.K. Bouwsma's Moore's Theory of Sense Data (a short essay), if you can find it. It'll help you understand Moore as a philosopher. Some context is in order: Russell and G.E. Moore were reacting against a very specific movement in British philosophy: British idealism, exemplified by J.M.E. McTaggart (the M. stands for...McTaggart) and F.H. Bradley. Moore allegedly instigated the revolt against Hegelianism and sparked analytic philosophy, but I'm not too up on that bit of history. Wittgenstein was interesting. You don't need to read the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, but you should. It's essentially ideal language philosophy with an eye towards dissolving philosophy and a bunch of bizarre references to Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer. Yeah. Read it, since it's interesting, but get some commentary on it. I can't recommend one, but realize it's really complicated. If you read only two works, read the Moore essays and On Referring. Logical Positivism The less we talk about this, the better. They were essentially a bunch of German philosophers who worshiped Wittgenstein's Tractatus and elevated science up above all other forms of inquiry. The problem? Not a one had any idea how science worked. Still, it's important, so you might want to be familiar with it. Rudolf Carnap had an essay, The Elimination of Metaphysics Through the Logical Analysis of Language, which you should read. It will explain why many analytics ignore and condemn continental philosophy (it's utterly maddening how much influence these guys have had), as well as give you a good view of what positivism is. Then, read A.J. Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic. Now, run very far away and never make the same mistakes these guys did. Ordinary Language Philosophy Finally! Something productive! This stuff is quite a bit different from the other philosophies, since it ignores the whole quest for a logically perfect language and tries to make sure we use our own language properly. Here, we get J.L. Austin, Gilbert Ryle, Peter Strawson, and a whole host of others. Ludwig Wittgenstein (the later) might be put here, and he certainly has affinities with these guys. They wanted to stop us from making mistakes (in Ryle's terminology) or keep us from confusion (in Wittgenstein's). We need to learn how to talk before we can tackle philosophical problems, and I think a particularly clear example is Strawson's Individuals. He talks about how we end up talking about people, not as minds and bodies, but rather as individuals. He builds a metaphysics from it, and unlike the positivists he didn't think that metaphysics was nonsense. This is not a view universally held, but I think it's a good contrast to the positivists. Anyway, some canonical books you should read are J.L. Austin's Sense and Sensibilia, Strawson's Individuals, and Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. Read the Investigations, at the very least. America Many Americans got in on the act, especially after Carnap and Co. had moved to America from Germany. W.V. Quine, for instance, was incredibly important, and you should read a few of his essays: Ontological Relativity, Epistemology Naturalized, and Two Dogmas of Empiricism. The last essay is his most important work, so read it. You thought nobody could disagree with Kant on the analytic/synthetic distinction? Quine did. He's really interesting, and you should read these essays. Get some collections and dig in. He's good. Other Americans include Hilary Putnam (changes his views biweekly), who, along with Quine, came up with the indispensability thesis in philosophy of mathematics. He also helped develop functionalism, semantic responses to skepticism (resulting in semantic externalism), and the causal theory of meaning, among other things. Saul Kripke is a major figure, and most of modern metaphysics makes reference to his book Naming and Necessity. It's complicated, and requires a bit of modal logic, though. You could probably get a good amount from David Chalmers' The Conscious Mind and then go back through it. Don't read Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Ever. Thomas Nagel's The View from Nowhere is important and the ideas are good, and the questions he raises are ones every philosopher should grapple with. Read it. There's also John Searle, a student of J.L. Austin, who wrote a book on speech acts and a book on intentionality. Good stuff. As for some personal favorites, Richard Rorty and Donald Davidson are brilliant. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature will change the way you think about philosophy, even though Rorty's views have changed since then. He's a rather idiosyncratic thinker, so you should not accept his readings of philosophers as anything other than Rorty's readings. If you are sincerely interested, read the philosophers he writes about. He's great, though. Davidson was relatively close to Rorty, and you'll see this pretty quickly. There are some nice collections, and Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation as well as Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective have some great essays. Epistemology Since I hope to get into a graduate program to study this, here's my thoughts on the subject. There are a few major themes that keep arising in contemporary philosophy that become quite clear here, such as internalism/externalism. The major schools are foundationalism (represented by Roderick Chisholm and C.I. Lewis), coherentism (represented by folks like Keith Lehrer, William Alston, early Laurence Bonjour, and to some extent Quine), reliabilism (Alvin Goldman and, I believe, Alvin Plantinga), and various rather idiosyncratic brands of epistemology. Naturalism (Quine is big here, as is Goldman and Hilary Kornblith) tries to turn epistemology into a scientific discipline, pragmatism (Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam, among others) tries to revive James, Peirce, and Dewey in attempts to understand philosophy, and contextualism (Wittgenstein, primarily, though Keith DeRose is big here) puts our beliefs in context. The latter two views are deeply connected (David Annis, a contextualist, though he's quite different from DeRose and I think that he's closer to Wittgenstein, puts Peirce and Karl Popper as the source of the ideas), but still different. Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is essential here. Oh, and by the way, there's a dude named Edmund Gettier who published one paper. It's in every anthology available, and it's two pages long. It must be read by everyone who is interested in epistemology. In the end, grab an anthology that looks good to you. There are bunches, so don't hesitate to run to a library and look through a few. The Stanford Encyclopedia has a bunch of entries that can shed some light on the subject and give you a better starting point than this. Start with http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/knowledge-analysis/ and then move on to http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justep-foundational/ and http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justep-coherence/ for a good overview of the subject. Oh, and here's a treat: http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/to...9/1?cookieSet=1 The entirety of an issue of Philosophical Perspectives dealing with epistemology. Dig in. Philosophy of Science I'd recommend a textbook, but I can't remember which one we used. It was damn good, though, and I'm certain somebody else can name some good ones. Anyway, this was a big field, and it's really interesting today. Some texts that might help illuminate the field: Karl Popper was a big player here. His Logic of Scientific Discovery is interesting and the caricatures that critics paint are totally off. He's still wrong, though. Anyway, it's important. One book that revolutionized the field was Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. If you read any philosophy of science, read this. It's that important. Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend were relatively close and started off as followers and students of Popper, but changed. Lakatos' Methodology and Scientific Research Programmes is a brilliant work, and easily one of the best in the field. Currently, I'm reading Feyerabend's Against Method, which is subtitled An Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. Yeah. He's insane, yet rather spot-on about some things. It's a blast to read so far. Things have moved away from method towards issues within the sciences. I'm acquainted with philosophy of physics, but sadly I cannot recommend any good books, since ours weren't that good. If you know some contemporary physics, it's really nifty and neat to deal with. It's tough as nails, though, and at a certain point you just want to throw your hands up in the air and go "what the fuck, guys?" Someone else can probably recommend something good. This is a request, as well. Philosophy of Mind Another branch that is as interesting as epistemology. Also, I know a bit about it. David Chalmers edited a spectacular reader, and it's got all the heavy hitters: Thomas Nagel (What is it like to be a bat?), Gilbert Ryle (Descartes' myth), Daniel Dennett (Quining qualia), Paul Churchland (Eliminative materialism and the propositional attitudes), Frank Jackson (Epiphenomenal qualia), Chalmers himself (Consciousness and its place in nature), and tons of other cool bits. It is a good reader, but it's heavy. And a bit costly. Still, it's a great place to start. I haven't read any of the textbooks on the subject, but Jaegwon Kim has one and I've heard good things about it. I don't know anything about Susan Blackmore's book. If you're interested in any single philosopher, here's some recommendations. Daniel Dennett is the 500lb gorilla of philosophy of mind. A student of Gilbert Ryle (who wrote the book Two Concepts of Mind), his masterworks include The Intentional Stance and Consciousness Explained. He's a great starting point, since he's so influential and interesting. Paul and Patricia Churchland are essentially the torchbearers of eliminative materialism (there is no mind). Grab Neurophilosophy, as well as Matter and Consciousness. I recommend the latter. Interestingly, the fathers of eliminative materialism? Paul Feyerabend and Richard Rorty. David Chalmers is another big hitter here, and pretty recent. His book The Conscious Mind is what got me interested in the field, and he offers up a dualistic (though naturalized) solution to consciousness. John Searle has written on the subject, and Rediscovery of the Mind, or so I am told, is a pretty good work. I haven't read it, though knowing Searle it's got some good stuff in it. The subject is vast, and there's a reason it's so popular: it's so fucking interesting. For a change, read some Hubert Dreyfus (he has written about A.I.), John Haugeland (his essay The Intentionality All-Stars is really good), as well as some Wittgenstein (the Investigations have some material on the mind) and Davidson (he has a few essays on the subject). And that, as they say, is that. I'm interested in language, as well, but I'm pretty unacquainted with much beyond ordinary language and Wittgenstein.
 

King Francis

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Ancients This is some interesting things. Who'd have thought that we'd still be talking about their thoughts 2500 years later? Not them! Anyway, read some Plato and Aristotle. Just because Hackett is great, they publish a nice anthology of ancient philosophy (under some name that I can't remember) that includes a bunch of pre-Socratic fragments, a ton of Plato's dialogues (including the entirety of Republic), and a great set of selections from Aristotle. Read what you like, but from Plato, at least read the Timaeus, Phaedo, Crito, Meno, the first part of the Parmenides, Apology, and Republic. From Aristotle, focus on the Metaphysics and Nicomachean Ethics, but pay attention to the Physics. If you only read two works, read the tetralogy of dialogues (I'm cheating) concerning the death of Socrates: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, and Phaedo. Also, read selections from Aristotle's Metaphysics; primarily, the bit on change.
massive gap here
Moderns For reference, the modern period begins with Rene Descartes, and ends with Immanuel Kant. Confusing, but there you go. With Descartes, you should read the Meditations and the Discourse on Method. Get the Cambridge edition of the Meditations since it has a selection from the Objections and Replies, which will help explain what Descartes was on about. Leibniz is an amazingly influential figure, and I think that you might want to read the Monadology. It's short, and I'll look through my Leibniz selections and see if I can dig up anything as interesting as that, but it's no big deal if you read nothing else of his. This gets you two of the three rationalist thinkers (the other is Spinoza, who is pretty cool, actually). Let's move to the empiricists. Berkeley (pronounced Barkley) is pretty awesome, so you might want to read Three Dialogues. It's a special English brand of crazy. Still, it's a good romp and it's fascinating. There's also David Hume, who is the patron saint of early analytic philosophy. Just take up his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. He's got a way with words, too, and you'll enjoy it. If you only read two works, read Descartes' Meditations and Hume's Enquiry.
 

chorse123

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There's an interesting publishing series called BOOKS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD that you might want to check out. Karen Armstrong on the Bible, Hitchens on Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, Janet Browne on Origin of Species, P.J. O'Rourke on The Wealth of Nations, etc.

It is great to read the originals, but there are books where the original (like Adam Smith) can be a less valuable use of time.

If you want to really start from the beginning, grab the syllabus for a Western Civ class.
 

globetrotter

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this is a great list, but I would suggest that almost all of the books require either a companion book or a class to understand. I read about half of the philosophy books in university, and wouldn't have understood anything about them without taking lectures, and often reading companion books.


Originally Posted by Dedalus
On philosophy, here's a post from another forum:
 

Huntsman

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Originally Posted by globetrotter
this is a great list, but I would suggest that almost all of the books require either a companion book or a class to understand. I read about half of the philosophy books in university, and wouldn't have understood anything about them without taking lectures, and often reading companion books.
I tend to think this is true -- the discussion fostered is where the understanding is. Alone, the road is long.
 

scarphe

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the list lacks Pierce for logic and philo of language. he proabaly should be added.

A minor note should be given to rossini for philo of religion as well.
 

FLMountainMan

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Originally Posted by designprofessor
Guns Germs &Steel by Jared Diamond
Don't know if it would be "essential", but it draws together some big threads on how civilization took the course it did.


Yeah, but a few of his theories in there have been absolutely shredded in the anthropological/historical/genetic world. See Beyond the Dawn for starters. It's good food for thought, but there are some gaping logical holes in it.
 

holymadness

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Originally Posted by globetrotter
this is a great list, but I would suggest that almost all of the books require either a companion book or a class to understand. I read about half of the philosophy books in university, and wouldn't have understood anything about them without taking lectures, and often reading companion books.

Originally Posted by Huntsman
I tend to think this is true -- the discussion fostered is where the understanding is. Alone, the road is long.

Indeed, it's difficult to imagine extracting anything useful from these books without engaging in the 'great conversation' of which they're a part.

Two other common pitfalls of autodidacticism:

1) Operating in a vaccum -- most of these books are read without any understanding of the historical context from which they emerged. So while you may appreciate Confessions as a seminal work of Catholic theology, you won't really understand it if you don't know anything about the Gnostic heresy or Augustine's position on neo-Platonism.

2) Operating in an echo chamber -- as noted above, many books that have become canonical are not considered so now because they are still thought to impart useful knowledge, but because they made seminal contributions to human understanding at the time. This applies even to very recent works, as someone pointed out about Jared Diamond, whose subsequent work Collapse received even worse reviews. Edward Said should never be read without the counterpoint of Joshua Teitelbaum and Meir Litvak, and Judith Butler should never be considered without first consulting Martha Nussbaum.

Not that I dislike autodidacticism; I happen to think that in many ways it's much more useful than a structured liberal arts education. But it tends towards a lack of thoroughness and superficiality by being so flexible, and reading seminal works alone is surely not enough to produce a learned person. OP definitely needs to take one thing at a time, choose a specific area to focus on to begin with, and build up a good repertoire of texts dealing with that topic before moving on to the next one.
 

Piobaire

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Pennglock, here is a set of books that will give you fair grounding in Western philosophy: http://www.amazon.com/Frederick-Copl.../1616OC9WOFRMJ You can delve as deep as you want into orginal writings, after you read this series, but this is just the thing to get you rolling.
 

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