Monday, March 22, 2010

The 12 books that have influenced me the most

Tyler Cowen started this meme, in response to "a loyal reader" who told him:

I'd like to see you list the top 10 books which have influenced your view of the world.
Will Wilkinson, Matthew Yglesias, and many others have given their lists. There's no required number of books, but most people seem to be giving around 10.

Some of the recurring authors are Plato, Nietszche, John Stuart Mill, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Hannah Arendt, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, Michael Walzer, Thomas Kuhn, Derek Parfit, Paul Johnson, and Thomas Sowell. This is all slanted by the fact that the meme was started by a libertarian economist, so the people who pick up his meme are going to be disproportionately libertarian.

Here's my list (I'm excluding multiple-author anthologies and books that are heavily visual):

1. The View from Nowhere by Thomas Nagel. (Previously blogged by me and also my dad.) He looks at many of the classic philosophical problems (knowledge, free will, the meaning of life, etc.) in order to illuminate the frustrating interplay between the objective and the subjective, both of which are inescapably real. (I was glad to see this on the list of a commenter on Tyler Cowen's post.)

2. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume.
3. Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. Kant's book is famously horribly written, while Hume's book is pretty clearly written for the 18th century. Both of them have to be confronted by anyone trying to understand the limits of understanding. They didn't create enduring theoretical frameworks, but they still made progress by waking us up from our "dogmatic slumbers" (as Kant said Hume had done to him).

4. Upheavals of Thought by Martha Nussbaum. Emotions aren't the opposite of reason — they contain intelligent thoughts and allow us to rationally interact with the outside world.

5. What's It All About? by Julian Baggini. This is as pop/mainstream as philosophy gets, but it convinced me that most if not all of the standard proposed solutions to the meaning of life don't work.

6. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (Blogged.) How to structure all the activities in your life to maximize happiness.

7. The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell. (Blogged.) You could file this under philosophy or self-help. The distinction hardly seems to matter.

8. The Moral Animal by Robert Wright. (Blogged.) I'm sure there are more recent books on evolutionary psychology that are better supported (at least because more research has been done since 1994), but I'm not mainly interested in the actual scientific validity of the theory. Wright himself admits that the theory has its shortcomings, but it offers a compelling explanation of human behavior.

9. Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel. He applies his dryly, lucidly analytical style to the kinds of questions that continental philosophy more often approaches with overwrought extravagance and obscurantism. The famous "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" is one of many highlights; others include "Death" (blogged), "The Absurd" (blogged), "Sexual Perversion," and "The Fragmentation of Value."

10. The Mysterious Flame by Colin McGinn. Why we haven't, and aren't going to, solve the mind-body problem.

11. Rationality in Action by John Searle. A refreshingly sane look at the problem of free will. (His shorter follow-up, Freedom & Neurobiology, deals with similar themes but also extends his analysis into political philosophy.)

12. Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. As the back cover says, he makes the case for a revolution in our concern for animals by reasoning from beliefs most people already hold. This is the one book about which I can say it has affected my life every single day for the past 20 years.

Looking over the list, I seem to have been most interested in thinking about thought and its place in our lives, with more emphasis on the inadequacy than the power of rational thought. This emphasis is rather awkward since any such analysis is itself an attempt to think rationally. The View from Nowhere captures this awkwardness explicitly.

Feel free to post a comment either listing the books that have influenced you the most, linking to your blog post with your list, or linking to other people's lists that you've found especially interesting.


Which books didn't influence me as much?

Challenging the whole concept.


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

You're #1 on the Google Blogs search results right now. But dude, I look in vain on any of these lists for "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch," by Philip K. Dick.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I think there's something you can do about that!

Happy birthday!

Jason (the commenter) said...

This is all slanted by the fact that the meme was started by a libertarian economist: naturally, the people who pick up his meme are going to be disproportionately libertarian.

Also, libertarianism tends to be philosopher-heavy and its followers therefore more likely to have been influenced by a book than a Democrat or a Republican.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Good point. I'm not sure if that makes me respect libertarians more or respect philosophy less.

Richard Dolan said...

So, it's Nagel, McGinn and Searle. Could Pinker and Dawkins be far behind?

The odd man out on your list of philosophers interested in how we perceive the world is Kant, and the most obvious omission is Ludwig W (I'm guessing you share Nagel's view on that). But if Kant is to your liking, I'd recommend the papers published by Columbia from a symposium that brought together some of your favorites with their most trenchant critics -- Maxwell Bennett, Peter Hacker, Daniel Dennett, John Searle, Neuroscience & Philosophy: Brain, Mind & Language. It must have been a lively event.

Hacker and Bennett published a much longer statement of their views in The Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. If you think there is no solution to the mind-body problem, you may find their effort to dismantle it as a linguistic confusion enlightening (or perhaps just infuriating). For what it's worth, I've found it much more on the illuminating side of things. But then I would definitely have included the Philosophical Investigations on my list.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I like Pinker and Dawkins, but they're on my list of people I want to read more of, not people whose books have directly influenced me already. They're so often cited that it's possible to be influenced by them without reading one of their books.

If you want to know why I consider Wittgenstein overrated, read the last chapter of A.C. Grayling's Very Short Introduction to Wittgenstein.

The assertion that a major philosophical problem is a "confusion" instead of a real problem strikes me as a cheap trick. It's easy to say that about anything. The word "confusion" in philosophical discussions has become overused to the point of meaninglessness. I simply don't find it interesting or impressive the way the people making this assertion seem to think it is. I have limited free time available to read philosophy, and I'm not motivated to spend this time reading someone pulling the "confusion" move; if I'm going to read a philosophical essay about a certain problem, it's because I actually consider it a real problem and I want to see another person trying to solve the problem, not dismiss it.