I’ve been studying philosophy for two years now and it might be daunting to start reading on the many topics or the many different writers. I am at the moment reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and it’s a book I have a hard time going through. Between five and ten pages a day is about the maximum I can read in that book, and I still only understand 20% of it. If I would have started with this book, I would have just given up on philosophy all together and thrown it away as some esoteric mumbo jumbo.
But how to start reading philosophy then? There are a number of different ways you can do so and as with everything there isn’t really a good way of beginning something. You’ll learn along the way. The most important thing is that you do it. That said, here are some strategies for those who really want to dive into philosophy.
Strategy 1: Begin by reading introductions and histories of philosophy. This one is quite straightforward but also one of the easiest ways to start reading philosophy. Oxford University Press has a running series called Very Short Introductions and the books cover a wide range of subjects. They also cover most well-known philosophers. These books are about a hundred pages long but condense quite a large amount of information about the certain topic or people. I can recommend these books in general for those interested in any new academic topic.
If you don’t really have a topic or philosopher you’re interested in yet, you can try reading a history of philosophy. The most recent one, which I have read, is The History of Philosophy of A.C. Grayling and covers not only Western philosophy (although that is its main focus) but also Arabic, Eastern and African philosophy. This gives a short overview of the most important philosophers which have written in our history. Grayling does focus more on analytical philosophy and skips quite a bit of the continental philosophy, but it’s still a decent overview in my opinion. If you want to specify the era, for example if you’re not interested in ancient philosophy or not interested in analytical philosophy and want to read more about continental philosophy, there are numerous overviews or histories which focus on that specific topic or time frame.
Honestly, Wikipedia is a pretty useful tool for this as well, but if you want website which is more directed at philosophy and is actually edited by experts, I can recommend Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. These websites are perfect for research when you’re reading a particular book and don’t understand what is meant by the philosopher. Most likely there is an article that can give some more explanation on the topic. If you’re still struggling with something, you can always ask a philosophy reddit page for answers as well.
If reading isn’t really your thing, then you could also listen to podcasts, interviews or debates. There are numerous lectures, debates and interviews on YouTube, free to watch. A good podcast to listen to for any beginner is the Philosophize This Podcast which you can find on YouTube and Spotify. This podcast works chronologically in the beginning but now it kind of takes different subjects and talks about them for a bit. If you’re interested in a particular philosopher or movement then you can just find the episode you want and listen to that.
The second strategy would be to start chronologically and then work your way through the timeline. It’s not something I would do myself, but I can imagine that it’s hard or annoying when one philosopher references another one and doesn’t explain that philosopher’s theory. Then you have to look up that philosopher and so on (which could be a strategy in and of itself). If you start with Plato, you don’t really have that problem. Plato only references some pre-Socratic philosophers but even then, he explains their views in his dialogues. It is only with Aristotle that philosophers will reference and write commentaries on previous philosophers. So going chronologically can resolve this problem.
But some of the earliest philosophers might not be as interesting as some of the modern ones. Or even worse, they’re even harder to understand. Even though he might not reference others, Plato’s dialogues are quite hard to interpret when reading them. Not in the least because of the narrative structure and allegorical language Plato uses.
The third strategy is to just start reading philosophy that interests you. Philosophy is pretty much anywhere and in everything you do. Self-help books can be viewed as basic philosophy books who try to teach a certain moral viewpoint. Books like Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins are in my opinion philosophically loaden books. They aren’t as profound as Kant or Plato, but they are philosophical, nonetheless. Some of the better insights I have had and have made me grow as a person came from self-help books like Can’t Hurt Me.
These were just some tips on how to start with reading philosophy. I don’t think there is anything particular different from starting to read philosophy than with other subjects. So, most of what I’ve written here, you might already know. These things help me to discover new interesting topics and help me with my academic career in university. Hopefully it was interesting for you too.