The late Roderick Chisholm of Brown University told me that once a prominent businessman in Providence, RI, called him and asked, “I’ve lately become interested in philosophy, but I’m a busy man and don’t have much time to read. Can you tell me what one philosophy book, in your view, contains the most truth? I’ll read that at least.” Professor Chisholm recommended that this man read Thomas Reid’s Inquiry into the Human Mind— which I wager was the last philosophy book that that businessman read!
I confess to being a bit stumped that Professor Chisholm did not recommend instead the one philosophy book that Professor Chisholm studied every day. As he told me himself, the first thing that he did every morning was to read for 15 minutes from the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, on the grounds, he said, that this exercise put his mind in the right attitude to do serious and rigorous philosophy.
(These stories about Chisholm have been passed on by Keither Lehrer and others. I had the occasion to ask Chisholm about them directly and can vouch for their truth.)
Along the lines of the first story, when I was in graduate school I had a conversation with a fellow grad student, in which I was telling him that I had recently come across the view, which seemed to me correct (I believe it was in Sertillanges’ book on the intellectual life), that there are basically two distinct types of reading–reading “as a critic”, and reading “as a disciple.” When reading as a critic, one’s goal is to find out what is wrong with what you are studying and to clarify the nature of the error; one’s attitude in doing that kind of reading is to ward off and refute something false. When reading as a disciple, one’s goal, rather, is to discover, appreciate more deeply, and understand more fully what is true about what you are studying–one’s attitude in that case is to imbibe and to allow oneself to be shaped intellectually.
I told my graduate school friend that my training at Harvard, and the things I studied, led me to read nearly everything in the first way. He then asked me, “But what do you read in the second way, ‘as a disciple’?” I had to think a long time, so much so that the pause was almost uncomfortable. Then I said: “I think I read only Aristotle, Aquinas, and Thomas Reid in that way.”–Now you have to understand how strange this list would have seemed to my friend, because these philosophers were never taught in any course I took in six years of coursework (undergrad and graduate) at Harvard!
I tell these stories by way of a preface. I have been planning to gives a series of lists, which I will then incorporate and make a permanent category on this blog. So I thought that the first list would be “The Ten Most Important Philosophy Books for Reading ‘as a Disciple’.” These are the ten books which I might recommend (say) to a moderately busy person, who had time to read ten books (not only one), as containing the most truth. I give them Letterman style from least to what I regard as most important. I’ll even include something by Thomas Reid. So here is my first list:
The Ten Most Important Philosophy Books for Reading ‘as a Disciple’
10. Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man
- Excellent for its refutation of the empiricist tradition and defense of philosophical commonsense–a critical work to be imbibed, if you will.
9. John Henry Newman, University Sermons on Faith and Reason (esp. Sermons X-XIII).
- One cannot get clear on what faith is, if one’s understanding of reason is inadequate and crude.
8. Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
- The most beautiful short work of philosophy, which gives the classical view of the world and our place in it in a single glance.
7. Plato, Republic
- Almost all of this book is wise, even if some of it is wrong, and whatever is not true is close to the truth.
6. Plato, Gorgias
- A profound exploration of the claim on us of The Good and its distinction from narrow self-interest and pleasure.
5. Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles
- Yes, this is a better alternative, rather than the other Summa, for “laypersons” to study who are not full-time philosophers. I know several non-philosophers who have actually read this work all the way through; I know almost no one at all, not even many Thomists, who has read the other work in its entirety. Also, the contra Gentiles gives helpful, extra depth in certain crucial discussions.
4. Aristotle, De Anima
- To be studied deeply for “seeing” living things aright.
3. Aristotle, Physics (esp. books I and II)
- Its analysis of nature, change, and causation remain fundamentally true, even if in some cases it is difficult to see how it can be true.
2. Aristotle, Categories
- A book of fundamental importance for breaking free of scientism and for opening up the whole tradition of classical metaphysics built upon it.
1. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
- Without any question, the single most important book for any philosopher to study and meditate upon deeply: it contains an entire philosophical education in itself.
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations — yet this may safely be left out, not only because it contains no truth per se (it is a “destructive” rather than constructive work), but also because one may get a better training in dialectic and in spotting philosophical foolishness through the careful study of Aristotle.