Ethical Realism

February 18, 2010

How to Become a Philosopher

Filed under: philosophy — JW Gray @ 7:06 pm
Tags: , , ,

Whether you want to read philosophy, argue well, have a philosophy hobby, become a philosopher, or help others learn philosophy, you should start with the basics. Why try to reinvent philosophy entirely on your own when you can learn quite a bit of the basics from other philosophers? They have spent two millennium cataloging and analyzing many common pitfalls and “words of advice.” To introduce yourself to philosophy, you could take some philosophy classes, but it is also possible to try to teach yourself. If you want to teach yourself or others, I recommend using the following six steps:

  1. Read a little about what philosophy is. For example, my free Introduction To Philosophy ebook.
  2. Think about what you would like to get out of philosophy. The more you think about this, the more you will make sure to apply philosophy to your life whenever possible. I have some suggestions here.
  3. Read some “must-read” philosophy books and accompanying interpretive texts.
  4. Learn some formal logic.
  5. Learn about some informal fallacies (errors of reasoning).
  6. Learn what it means to create a good argument.

I have written a free ebook that helps you better understand the above called, How to Become a Philosopher.


  1. This is an excellent introduction to philosophical thought for the general reader. Most introductions are really just the history of various philosophers’ contributions. I would like to combine three of the recommendations in it. One very good point is that intuition is often an unreliable guide; the second is that, given the general methods of thinking outlined in these notes, one should then read certain important works in philosophy, and the third is that one should learn a bit of formal logic. Put together, I would say that one should get a basic understanding of two of the most important contributions to analytic philosophy of the twentieth century — ironically, one by a mathematician, and one by a group of physicists. The one by a mathematician are the two Incompleteness Theorems of Kurt Gödel, and the physicists are the basics of quantum mechanics: the principle of superposition, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. There are a lot of good popular books on quantum mechanics (although beware of the “mystical” or “new age” interpretations); there are a few popular books on Gödel: a good albeit longish one about the first of the two theorems is “Gödel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid” by Douglas Hofstadter. (In a mathematical text, the proof of this first theorem takes a couple of pages or less.) To avoid is the faulty interpretation given by the popular books of Roger Penrose (now referred to as the “Lucas-Penrose fallacy”.

    Comment by reidnomad — May 5, 2014 @ 11:28 am | Reply

    • Why do you think those things in particular are important for people who want to study philosophy?

      Comment by JW Gray — May 5, 2014 @ 6:08 pm | Reply

      • Since a number of “things” are listed in my post, I am going to assume that you are referring to the two mathematics theorems and the two aspects of quantum physics. These results indicate limits on human thought which an uninformed philosopher might mistakenly try to transcend, as indeed philosophers throughout the ages have done, as these limits are counter-intuitive. Before these results, the philosophers could be forgiven for such attempts, yet today such attempts just show that the philosopher in question is either poorly informed or does not understand these results. Specifically, Gödel showed how widespread undecidability, with its important corollaries of incompleteness (First Theorem) for systems which meet certain minimal requirements (as do many philosophical systems) and hence the limitations to assertions that a system makes sense (Second Theorem). Whereas these theorems introduced epistemological uncertainty, quantum physics introduced ontological uncertainty, better known as indeterminacy. The most famous manifestation of this indeterminacy is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (even though it is widely confused with the Observer Principle, which is a classical result), but even more reality-wrenching is the concept of superposition, with its most unusual corollary of quantum entanglement (put on very sound footing by Bell’s Theorem and its subsequent experimental verification), which puts the ideas of space and time on a completely different footing than that envisioned in classical physics (and, of course, in most analytic philosophy). (Relativity had also done that to some extent, and relativistic ideas would also be recommended for philosophers, but quantum physics went much further.) Once one has understood the limits of undecidability and indeterminacy, one can construct more meaningful philosophy, just as a musician can make more beautiful music once she has understood the limits put on music by the laws of harmony. For example, the philosophically fruitful field of Model Theory (modal logic, belief change, Kripke frames, etc.) grew out of developments stemming from the two theorems above; and much of the world around us is now better understood due to quantum theory.

        Comment by reidnomad — May 7, 2014 @ 9:43 am

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