Reading Philosophy
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Reading Philosophy

Selected Texts with a Method for Beginners

Samuel Guttenplan, Jennifer Hornsby, Christopher Janaway, John Schwenkler

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eBook - ePub

Reading Philosophy

Selected Texts with a Method for Beginners

Samuel Guttenplan, Jennifer Hornsby, Christopher Janaway, John Schwenkler

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About This Book

A key introductory philosophy textbook, making use of an innovative, interactivetechnique for reading philosophical texts

Reading Philosophy: Selected Texts with a Method for Beginners, Second Edition, providesa unique approach to reading philosophy, requiringstudentsto engage with material as they read.It contains carefully selectedtexts, commentaries on those texts, and questions for the reader to think about as they read. It serves as starting points forbothclassroom discussion and independent study. The texts cover awide range of topics drawn fromdiverseareas of philosophicalinvestigation, ranging over ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, aesthetics, andpolitical philosophy.

This edition has been updated and expanded. New chaptersdiscussthe moral significance of friendship and love, the subjective nature of consciousnessandthe ways that science might explore conscious experience. And there are new texts and commentary in chapters on doubt, self and moral dilemmas.

  • Guides readers through the experience of active, engaged philosophical reading
  • Presents significant texts, contextualized for newcomers to philosophy
  • Includeswritings byphilosophersfrom antiquity to thelate 20 th -century
  • Contains commentary that providesthe context and backgroundnecessaryfor discussion and argument
  • Prompts readers to think through specific questionsandto reach their own conclusions

This book is an ideal resource for beginning students in philosophy, as well as for anyone wishing to engage with the subject on their own.

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Introduction to the Problem

A question raised by many philosophers in recent centuries has been: ‘What can I know?’ Other versions of the same basic question might be: ‘What can I be certain of?’ or ‘What cannot be called into doubt?’ If a philosopher thinks we cannot know something – or that we cannot be certain of it, or that it must be called into doubt – then that philosopher is known as a sceptic about that thing. A sceptic is a doubter of something. Scepticism is a view that says that things are in doubt.
A traditional example would be scepticism about whether there is a world of ordinary objects ‘out there’. We usually think that we know there are such objects around us, and that we are not just experiencing the contents of our own minds. A sceptic about ordinary external objects would be someone who argued that we do not know this, that we cannot be certain of this, that this should be called into doubt. The kind of conversation which is the butt of jokes about philosophy, the ‘Can I know there is a glass of water here on the table?’ kind, is a conversation you might have with a sceptic about ordinary external objects.
Often a philosophical writer will use scepticism as a tool, in order to discover just what can be known, or what we can be certain about. Then the aim is to strengthen our confidence in knowledge by challenging it to beat the arguments of a sceptic. The sceptic need not be a real person. Rather, one may simply imagine debating with a person who is determined to show that little or no knowledge is possible.
Debating with an imaginary sceptical opponent is an instance of a common technique used in philosophical writing: the technique of conducting a dialogue. Some philosophers have actually written dialogue between two or more characters, Plato being the unparalleled master of this style. But there can be dialogue in more disguised forms in a piece of writing.
Very frequently a philosopher will make a point, then follow it with ‘But someone might object …’ or ‘Suppose someone were to say …’. An opponent pops up in the text in order that the author can ‘reply’, advancing his or her own case by answering an objection he or she has thought of. A still more disguised form is what we could call the ‘dialogue in a single voice’, an example of which we find in our first passage.

Introduction to Descartes

This short piece is one of the most famous pieces of philosophical writing. There can scarcely be a student of Western philosophy anywhere who has not read and puzzled over the First Meditation, written by the French philosopher René Descartes in 1641.
René Descartes (1596–1650) was one of the greatest thinkers of his day and is often called the father of modern philosophy. He did important work in physics and mathematics, and in philosophy was most influential for his views about the foundations of knowledge, and his distinction between mind (or soul) and body. He was in search of a complete system of knowledge, in which he would prove the existence of God, understand the nature of the human mind, and establish the principles on which the material universe can be studied. The Meditations on First Philosophy was published originally in Latin and in French. It is a masterpiece of compressed argument from the period of Descartes’s mature philosophy.
Descartes gives his First Meditation the title ‘What Can Be Called into Doubt’. He tries here to press doubt to its limit. The basic pattern is this: the author argues that something or other can be doubted, finds a reason for resisting that doubt, then invents a new reason for pushing the doubt further, then finds another reason for resisting, then invents a new reason for doubting. Hence the description ‘dialogue in a single voice’.
Descartes is not a sceptic: he is using a dialogue with scepticism in pursuit of knowledge. But he is trying in the First Meditation to give the sceptical line of thought the strongest argument he can find. The aim is to discover certainty, but to do so only after making doubt as thorough as possible.
There are six Meditations altogether and, although they form a relatively short work, Descartes announced large ambitions in its subtitle: he wanted to demonstrate the existence of God and the distinction between the body and the soul (the distinction known as dualism). But for now the reader should concentrate simply on the selected passage, which consists of the whole of the First Meditation in an English translation.

René Descartes, ‘First Meditation: What Can Be Called into Doubt’

Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them. I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last. But the task looked an enormous one, and I began to wait until I should reach a mature enough age to ensure that no subsequent time of life would be more suitable for tackling such inquiries. This led me to put the project off for so long that I would now be to blame if by pondering over it any further I wasted the time still left for carrying it out. So today I have expressly rid my mind of all worries and arranged for myself a clear stretch of free time. I am here quite alone, and at last I will devote myself sincerely and without reservation, to the general demolition of my opinions.
But to accomplish this, it will not be necessary for me to show that all my opinions are false, which is something I could perhaps never manage. Reason now leads me to think that I should hold back my assent from opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable just as carefully as I do from those which are patently false. So, for the purpose of rejecting all my opinions, it will be enough if I find in each of them at least some reason for doubt. And to do this I will not need to run through them all individually, which would be an endless task. Once the foundations of a building are undermined, anything built on them collapses of its own accord; so I will go straight for the basic principles on which all my former beliefs rested.
Whatever I have up till now accepted as most true I have acquired either from the senses or through the senses. But from time to time I have found that the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.
Yet although the senses occasionally deceive us with respect to objects which are very small or in the distance, there are many other beliefs about which doubt is quite impossible, even though they are derived from the senses – for example, that I am here, sitting by the fire, wearing a winter dressing‐gown, holding this piece of paper in my hands, and so on. Again, how could it be denied that these hands or this whole body are mine? Unless perhaps I were to liken myself to madmen, whose brains are so damaged by the persistent vapours of melancholia that they firmly maintain they are kings when they are paupers, or say they are dressed in purple when they are naked, or that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass. But such people are insane, and I would be thought equally mad if I took anything from them as a model for myself.
A brilliant piece of reasoning! As if I were not a man who sleeps at night, and regularly has all the same experiences while asleep as madmen do when awake – indeed sometimes even more improbable ones. How often, asleep at night, am I convinced of just such familiar events – that I am here in my dressing‐gown, sitting by the fire – when, in fact I am lying undressed in bed! Yet at the moment my eyes are certainly wide awake when I look at this piece of paper: I shake my head and it is not asleep; as I stretch out and feel my hand I do so deliberately, and I know what I am doing. All this would not happen with such distinctness to someone asleep. Indeed! As if I did not remember other occasions when I have been tricked by exactly similar thoughts while asleep! As I think about this more carefully, I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished ...

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Citation styles for Reading Philosophy

APA 6 Citation

Guttenplan, S., Hornsby, J., Janaway, C., & Schwenkler, J. (2021). Reading Philosophy (2nd ed.). Wiley. Retrieved from (Original work published 2021)

Chicago Citation

Guttenplan, Samuel, Jennifer Hornsby, Christopher Janaway, and John Schwenkler. (2021) 2021. Reading Philosophy. 2nd ed. Wiley.

Harvard Citation

Guttenplan, S. et al. (2021) Reading Philosophy. 2nd edn. Wiley. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Guttenplan, Samuel et al. Reading Philosophy. 2nd ed. Wiley, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.