The classics boiled down to essential elements

The Twenty Greatest Philosophy Books

March 16, 2007

At The Philosophers' Magazine , we once had an idea for a series in which we would ask eminent philosophers to confess which of the greatest works of philosophy they had never read. Our first attempt at soliciting contributions was met with universal silence but for one, who replied that the whole idea was ridiculous.

The reaction did nothing to throw into question the basic premise of the idea: that despite there being a well-established corpus of key texts in the subject, hardly anyone had read all of them properly. For that reason alone, James Garvey's The Twenty Greatest Philosophy Books should pique the interest of academics. It would not surprise me at all if there weren't numerous Anglophone philosophers who had not only failed to plough through Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation , Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness or Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex but were proud of it. Other omissions might be less forthcoming, or rationalised away: does it only count if you've read every page of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason , for example, or all 285,000 words of John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding?

Garvey certainly sounds as though he has not only read all of the books he discusses, but actually understood them, too - which is no mean feat when the likes of Georg Hegel and Ludwig Wittgenstein are among their number.

Despite spending no more than eight pages on each work, his distillations are master classes in concision, clarity and accuracy. He doesn't make it all look easy, just no more difficult than it need be, which is more than can be said of many of the original authors under discussion. If Kant had written like Garvey, his Critiques may well have been literary as well as philosophical masterpieces.

For prospective students and complete beginners, the book is an excellent introduction to the kind of texts they are going to have to tackle directly sooner or later. For the more experienced, as well as providing a refresher course in books guiltily left unread since undergraduate days, the real fun is in taking issue with the selection. Quite rightly, Garvey doesn't over-explain or apologise for his choices. To do so would to take the whole concept of the 20 greatest books more seriously than it deserves. Furthermore, about three quarters are shoo-ins anyway.

A. J. Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic is one of the most contentious choices. It is fashionable now to see the book as over-rated, but the real reason to doubt the wisdom of its inclusion is that it is hard to see it joining the list of truly great books, to be read by future generations as people all over the world now read Aristotle, Plato, Rene Descartes and Karl Marx. The same could be said for Karl Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery . It might be argued that with any book less than 100 years old, it is just too soon to tell whether it will last, but some seem much more likely to endure than Ayer's or Popper's, such as Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (which is included) and John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (which is not).

Apart from the selection, which is surely intended to provoke debate, all other disagreements are mere quibbles. The competition among philosophy popularisers is getting ever more intense by the minute, and the bad news for the rest of the field is that Garvey seems to understand more deeply, write better and explain more clearly than anyone else. His debut merits immediate inclusion among the "Twenty Greatest Philosophy Introductions".

But I cannot finish without answering my own question: how many of Garvey's selection have I not read? The honest answer, his book has convinced me, is too many.

Julian Baggini is the author of Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind and editor of The Philosophers' Magazine .

The Twenty Greatest Philosophy Books

Author - James Garvey
Publisher - Continuum
Pages - 208
Price - £45.00 and £9.99
ISBN - 0 8264 9053 0 and 9054 9

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