Suggested Reading

February 1, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 1:41 pm   Category: Bloggernacle,Reader Questions

In this thread I would like commenters to list (at most) 5 books that other people should read in order to understand your perspective better.  You don’t have to agree with everything or even anything in the book, so long as it helps us understand the ways in which you see things differently.  Some might have trouble coming up with 5 books.  It’s okay if you don’t.  Others will have trouble limiting things to 5 books.  It’s not okay if you don’t.  Finally, the less intellectual baggage the book presupposes, the better. (This helped me choose some authors over others.)

Here’s my (very tentative) list:

  1. Daniel Dennett: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea – Evolution and the Meanings of Life
  2. Richard Rorty: Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers
  3. Jurgen Habermas: The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere – An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society
  4. Alvin Gouldner: The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class
  5. Isaiah Berlin: Freedom and its Betrayal – Six Enemies of Human Liberty


  1. I didn’t put as much consideration into this as I probably should have, but here are 5 books that have influenced my views considerably and would likely help others understand me :

    Douglas Hofstadter: Le Ton Beau de Marot
    Edwin A. Abbott: Flatland
    Harry Jaffa: A New Birth of Freedom
    C.S. Lewis: The Discarded Image
    G. K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy

    Comment by J. Max Wilson — February 1, 2016 @ 5:47 pm

  2. Interesting call on the Hofstadter. I read Godel, Escher, Bach a couple times, but I was never able to get into his other stuff.

    Flatland is always a classic.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 1, 2016 @ 6:27 pm

  3. Jeff,

    Le Ton Beau covers a number of the same ideas as GEB, but it is all interwoven with an exploration of language and art and their relationship to constraints, while at the same time being a very personal book about the death of his wife.

    I know that Flatland teens to be read in relation to mathematics and physics, but Edwin Abbott was actually a theologian and an expert on Shakespeare, not a mathematician. If Flatland is read from a theological and literary perspective it has a lot of very powerful ideas communicated in a concise visual way.

    Comment by J. Max Wilson — February 2, 2016 @ 11:18 am

  4. *tends* not teens.

    Comment by J. Max Wilson — February 2, 2016 @ 11:19 am

  5. Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Boenhoeffer
    Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis
    Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa
    Willpower by Roy Baumeister

    It’s an eclectic list, to be sure (one philosophy text, one text on literary criticism, one work of fiction, and one relatively recent “self help” book). But though I read philosophy frequently, these are the books that have most affected my worldview.

    The Cost of Discipleship has affected the manner I approach the Savior and others, and what it really means to be a disciple.

    Experiment in Criticism is the antidote for the poisoned piles of post modernism and deconstructionism, and seeing it in literature opened my eyes to seeing it everywhere (it really should be required reading).

    Musashi is a fantastic piece of literature on progressing from who you were to becoming who you were always meant to be. What American authors tried to do with the road trip, Yoshikawa succeeded in doing in a samurai epic.

    Finally Willpower is a great book giving practical methods for bringing about the changes the other books inspire.

    Comment by Jonathan A. Cavender — February 2, 2016 @ 11:48 am

  6. Whatever you do, JMax, do NOT read Flatterland, Flatland’s pretended sequel by a different author. It’s really terrible.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 2, 2016 @ 11:59 am

  7. Two lists.
    The first for explaining other people:
    1. 120 days of Sodom
    2. Venus of Furs
    3. Thief’s Journal
    4. Faust
    5. Studies in Pessimism

    The second list for explaining me:

    1. The Trial
    2. Ulysses
    3. The Red and the Black
    4. Portnoy’s Complaint
    5. Breakfast of Champions

    Comment by Martin James — February 2, 2016 @ 5:22 pm

  8. Geeze. That’s actually a hard question.

    I’d say Feynman’s autobiographies (minus the womanizing parts). I even got a job at Los Alamos influenced from that and enjoyed retracing his stomping grounds. His famous Feynman Lectures on Physics get at how he conceived of the world and is pretty similar to me. Although unlike Feynman I can help thinking of metaphysics.

    Probably a Peirce reader of some sort. Heaven knows there are plenty. I really like the Essential Peirce (two volumes although I like the second volume best).

    I want to say some Nietzsche and Kafka in there. I always liked Kafka’s short stories much better than his longer ones. But it’s honestly been ages since I read him but at the time in college and immediately after he and Nietzsche were really influential on me. For Nietzsche there’s no one book. And again I obviously disagree with a lot of him although after college I imagined he’d be what an atheistic Mormon might conceive. Now I’m not so sure.

    Feynman’s probably the best source even though I reject a lot of his views. For religion Nibley was always very influential on me even though I disagree with so much of what he wrote. (He’s basically a platonism IMO and about as far away from a pragmatist as one could get)

    Actually I’ll throw in Gordon Dickson’s The Childe Cycle which was hugely influential on my thought although sadly he died before he finished it.

    I might say some phenomenology but I’m not sure reading Heidegger or his kin directly is that helpful for most people. (I know many disagree) I usually point to Moran’s Introduction to Phenomenology but I’m not sure that’d really help people understand me too much.

    Comment by Clark — February 3, 2016 @ 9:47 pm

  9. Jeff G,

    I am interested in a few names on your list. To me Habermas is in a class by himself as a thorough thinker. Next come Rorty and Berlin. Gouldner strikes me as a bit more of a one hit wonder but it is a fun topic. Dennett I find to be an extremely sloppy thinker. The topic is great but he seems to play fast and loose with things. Is it the topic or his own work that puts him on your list? He is also the one I see the list reflected in your posts. Is his influence more indirect?

    Comment by Martin James — February 4, 2016 @ 5:43 pm

  10. * The least reflected*

    Comment by Martin James — February 4, 2016 @ 5:44 pm

  11. Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson
    Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe
    The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
    Red Rising by Pierce brown
    The 3 questions by Leo Tolstoy

    Comment by Matt W. — February 4, 2016 @ 11:24 pm

  12. Martin, I tend to agree with you on Dennett. I confess I find Rorty a tad sloppy as well. Habermas can be interesting. I’ve liked things of his that I’ve read. He’s influenced by the pragmatists in various ways too. Yet in other ways I just don’t buy his views.

    Matt, I keep wanting to like Russian writers. I even took Russian. Yet somehow I can never get into them. I recall reading Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy which were close friends most influential books along with Ayn Rand (of all things). Could really enjoy any of them.

    Comment by Clark — February 5, 2016 @ 10:27 am

  13. Sorry — couldn’t really enjoy any of them. Yet I tried. But I recognize they’re all massively influential on people I respect a great deal. (I especially can never figure out the people who like Rand when so many of their beliefs are fundamentally opposed to everything she pushed)

    Comment by Clark — February 5, 2016 @ 10:28 am

  14. Martin,

    A lot of the books I picked were more popularized versions of where my thoughts actually come from.

    Dennett’s thinking is not all that sloppy, although his casual writing style, based in thought experiments make it pretty tough to isolate the central argument he is advancing. His academic papers are a bit clearer than his popularized books.

    Rorty was a tough one, since none of his books stand out to me as more influential than the others – that and he is far more “romantic” than I am in his hopes for society. Consequences of Pragmatism has a lot of papers in it that really show how deeply the distinction between pragmatism and traditional theory can run. Basically, I agree with him in seeing Dennett (he explicitly points to him) as the Darwinian path from analytic philosophy to pragmatism. Thus, I think Rorty wants to be read in light of Dennett, while Dennett clearly does not return the favor.

    With Habermas, I had a tough time isolating one book, so I picked the one that is most historical and easiest to read – thus setting up the Berlin reading. His Theory of Communicative Action is definitely his magnum opus, but I think Knowledge and Human Interests is a little closer to my own thoughts. Either way, his account of the political transformations of the enlightenment are very close to my heart.

    Berlin is fantastic since he is able to articulate so many of the oppositions to the enlightenment project that seem so foreign to us today. Thus, he is able to present some of the less well known oppositions to thinkers in Habermas’ book. He really shows how many alternatives there are to the assumptions that well educated people tend to take for granted.

    If Gouldner was a one hit wonder, then New Class sure wasn’t it. If anything, it would be his “Coming Crisis of Sociology”, but his entire Dark Side of the Dialectic trilogy is much more central to my thinking. After Habermas and Berlin set up the intellectual and political tensions at play, his Dark Side really focuses on the ways in which intellectuals and academics continue to serve their own political interests today.

    Two books that I REALLY wanted to include were Ken Binmore’s Game Theory and the Social Contract and Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method, but I didn’t think their books were quite as accessible and therefore not as worth reading as the others.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 5, 2016 @ 3:56 pm

  15. Consequences of Pragmatism is one of his better books although I think Rorty’s best is still Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. That’s the only one of his books I actually bought. Although I wrote a lot more papers on the former.

    As a funny aside I think I’ve mentioned before one of my philosophy professors and a bit of a mentor at the time had been Rorty’s home teacher. When I was cruising the library shelves looking for a book to use for a paper for this professor an other professor came up and directed me towards Consequences of Pragmatism, partially to tweak my professor Chauncey Riddle.

    I’ve never really read Dennett as a pragmatist. I’ll have to think about that. But then it’s been quite a while since I last read him.

    I’d probably have expected you to pick Feyerabend and was surprised you didn’t. I’m just not as familiar with Berlin or Gouldner.

    Comment by Clark — February 5, 2016 @ 4:34 pm

  16. Jeff,
    I think I’m more materialists in seeing technology driving the enlightenment more than the enlightenment driving materialism. You selections to my way of thinking seem overweighted to the philosophical. Michael Mann’s sources of social power is similar to my way of thinking about the world that they are different kinds of power each operating in at the same time but with unique dynamics. Military, Economic, Ideological and Social. I think I see a lot more diversity in what drives power but it may just be that your focus in your posts is on enlightenment thinkers in an academic setting. I’m more interested in world economic change and demographics. In many ways western morals trends are pretty irrelevant to what is going in the world. Academia itself has pretty much given itself over to research money from healthcare and defense. Intellectuals have less and less power and influence all the time.

    Comment by Martin James — February 5, 2016 @ 4:39 pm

  17. Clark,

    Rorty’s later work pretty much gives up on philosophy except as literature. Then the sloppiness is appropriate because he isn’t arguing to prove anything, just describing ways to get over the fact that theories of truth are useless.

    Comment by Martin James — February 5, 2016 @ 4:44 pm

  18. Rorty wrote that being a liberal means that you think that cruelty is the worst thing we do. This made me realize I was a conservative and that my definition of being a conservative is believing that being cowardly is the worst thing we do.

    Comment by Martin James — February 5, 2016 @ 4:48 pm

  19. Clark,

    For clarification, Dennett definitely does not see himself as a pragmatist and is pretty horrified by Rorty’s suggestion that his (Dennett’s) philosophy points in that direction. The common thread between the two is their strong endorsement of Quine. In fact, Dennett dedicated Darwin’s Dangerous Idea to his “teacher and friend”, Quine.

    Thus, while Dennett definitely tries to resist the quasi-pragmatic, ontological relativism of his teacher, neither Rorty nor I think that his system has the resources to do so.


    Don’t think the economic base or ideological superstructure, to use Marx’s metaphor, is “based” or “grounded” in the other. Instead, they are both sets of practices which must adapt themselves to the other. You’re right that I do focus (largely for practical reasons of post length) on the discourse ethics surrounding truth claims.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 5, 2016 @ 5:45 pm

  20. The book I wish I could put on my list but no one has figured it out yet, is the book that explains the physical basis of concepts and semantics.

    Comment by Martin James — February 5, 2016 @ 6:05 pm

  21. Dennett’s book is exactly about that. Hence the subtitle.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 5, 2016 @ 6:29 pm

  22. Just like with consciousness explained- it didn’t live up to the title.

    Comment by Martin James — February 5, 2016 @ 7:42 pm

  23. Hahaha. Fair enough.

    If you go to his earlier books (Consciousness and Content isn’t bad at all – same for The Intentional Stance) his arguments are a lot clearer and you can understand DDI a lot better. His teleosemantics was one of the original externalist semantics that have since become so popular in the relevant field.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 5, 2016 @ 8:21 pm

  24. Have either of you read Scott Soames? Any good? Also, what do you think of Charles Taylor?

    Comment by Martin James — February 5, 2016 @ 8:36 pm

  25. I read Soames’ Philosophical Analysis in the 20th Century. It’s a great summary of analytic philosophy, but I share Rorty’s view of the 2 volume work when he was still left wondering at the books end why analytic philosophy was at all relevant.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 5, 2016 @ 9:34 pm

  26. I’m more interested in contingency than irony and solidarity. Rorty and many others overestimated how effective brute force is in sustaining a moral system. Consider a differential equation of moral beliefs. It seems to be something of a punctuated equilibrium with both linear stable periods and extreme reversals. I don’t think the empirics of morals tell us positively what morals to hold. I agree that the model we hold of morals constrains what moral models we build but the argument I have been making is that you can’t avoid this critique because our moral position right now involves teaching morals to our kids and supporting the morals of our moral community. My position is that this is nearly impossible to do right now because we don’t understand how morals are changing under different moral teachings sufficiently to be effective. A simple example would be how too much or too little moral certainty of a parent effects the morality of the child. Too much can make the parent seem irrelevant and too little make the parent seem unknowledgeable.
    All the models seem oversimplified to explaining the nonlinear aspect. Belief on abortion would be an example. Why are younger people revisiting the issue? There much more diversity of belief than most people want to admit because they want to get people to agree with them morally so they oversimplify.

    Comment by Martin James — February 6, 2016 @ 9:24 am

  27. “Rorty and many others overestimated how effective brute force is in sustaining a moral system.”

    I absolutely agree. I find Rorty’s criticisms great, but his positive position is more than a little utopian. I think Binmore’s two volume book that I mentioned above is the best way I’ve ever seen for framing moral equilbria in terms of game theory…. unfortunately, he is a better thinker than he is a writer. The book has fantastic ideas, but isn’t very well executed.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 6, 2016 @ 12:21 pm

  28. I’ll take a look at that. It is interesting to me the different “interests” that make up what is optimized under these approaches and how evolutionary interests include hedonic and status interests of individuals.

    Comment by Martin James — February 6, 2016 @ 2:37 pm

  29. Not very exciting perhaps, but aside from the scriptures I might list:

    Charles Murray: Losing Ground.
    Thomas Sowell: Knowledge and Decisions.
    Bohm / Hiley: The Undivided Universe.
    Mark Noll: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 8, 2016 @ 1:06 am

  30. Martin (24) I’ve only read Soames’ various analysis of 20th century analytic philosophy. I have his two volume Philosophical Analysis back home plus one other I can’t recall off the top of my head. It does a good job and is definitely worth reading. I wish he’d engaged more in some of the criticisms but c’est la vie. It’s been about 10 years since I went through all that though so my memory of it is a little fuzzy.

    Charles Taylor is one of those authors most people at lds-herm keep raving about and I know is very influential among many. I have to confess I keep trying to get into Taylor but somehow I never make it terribly far. Maybe it’s time to give an other go at A Secular Age again.

    Martin (26), my brother’s done a bunch of work on mathematical modeling of a lot of that sort of thing. More politics than ethics although they end up blurring a lot. He gave me a reading list (although a lot of it is pretty technical and heavy on math) but I can’t seem to find it right now. He’s been applying a lot of it to Trump and then similar movements in Europe.

    One book he recommended that I’m hoping to start this week that’s less technical is Beneke, Chris Beyond Toleration The Religious Origins of American Pluralism. Sounds like the sort of thing you guys might like.

    Comment by Clark — February 8, 2016 @ 9:08 am

  31. Got that reading list from my brother. Note I’ve not read any of these but he strongly thinks their useful.

    Norezayan Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict

    List & Petit “Aggregating Sets of Judgments: An Impossibility Result”

    Peter Turchin Secular Cycles

    Comment by Clark — February 8, 2016 @ 10:13 am

  32. I don’t really comment much here, but here’s my list (in no particular order):

    1. A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller
    2. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, by Wayne Booth
    3. The Churching of America, 1776 – 2005: Winners and Losers in our Religious Economy, by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark.
    4. Approaching Zion, by Hugh Nibley
    5. Analyzing Prose (2nd edition)and Revising Prose (5th edition), both by Richard Lanham

    Comment by Ivan Wolfe — February 8, 2016 @ 10:59 am

  33. i Wolfe,
    I’ve never read Wayne Booth. What does he have to say about D.H. Lawrence? I never really understood what Lawrence was reacting to until I read Middlemarch and experienced the moral claustrophobia it induces.

    Comment by Martin James — February 8, 2016 @ 11:12 am

  34. Clark,
    For me the key to realism in moral modeling is to make the function you are optimizing over endogenous. This is why AI is so interesting. No one knows what an autonomous intelligence like that will pick for its objective. In other words, rationalization is everything. For example, evolutionary theory can’t really explain people who think life is basically an error that should be abolished other than to say there won’t be many of them in the long run.

    Comment by Martin James — February 8, 2016 @ 11:18 am

  35. Martin James:

    It’s hard to sum up concisely, but here’s one quote: “reading [Lawrence], I find myself conversing with a peculiarly insistent, intent, passionate, and wide-ranging friend, one who will respond in some interesting way to every important question I can think of” (451).

    Comment by Ivan Wolfe — February 8, 2016 @ 1:01 pm

  36. Martin, I’m not sure about that, depending upon what you mean about morality being endogenous (at least in terms of functions). That seems to make assumptions about meta-ethics I’m not sure I’d buy.

    I’m not sure evolutionary theory saying much about people who think life is an error beyond saying that what counts is the unprotected sex they have. Lots of nihilists still mange to have a lot of kids. And from a Darwinian perspective all that counts are your kids passing on your genes. We should also remember that it’s genes, not traits, that are passed on. Many traits are very complex and likely the interaction of hundreds and perhaps more genes. Throw in the issue of gene expression and it gets even more complex.

    Comment by Clark — February 8, 2016 @ 3:00 pm

  37. What I’m saying is that if one asks “what ethics should I hold?” then one should include all the possible approaches for deciding what ethics to hold. BTW, you don’t even need to have sex anymore. The infertility clinic guy that substituted his own sperm pulled an evolutionary “fast one” there. (The same case could probably be made for bi-sexual people promoting a same sex ethic as a way reducing competition).
    It seems to me that all the action in ethics or meta-ethics is the basis you use to decide whether you buy the analysis. How does one decide what one should want? This is the question an AI will face that is sufficiently able to have free rein to change itself.

    Comment by Martin James — February 8, 2016 @ 3:27 pm

  38. Ah. OK. That makes more sense. Going from the discussions with my brother I think he sees things in this more dynamic movement of identity groups.

    I think all meta-ethics are just plain wrong although they are often wrong in interesting ways. I think we can make sense of justice and virtue but not in a fully defined way (which is what meta-ethics and often virtue ethics requires)

    I’m quite skeptical of AI but one advantage a hypothetic AI would have is an ability to change itself more robustly than we ever could.

    Comment by Clark — February 8, 2016 @ 3:34 pm

  39. In some sense I think we are an AI and lack free will but are unable to unimagine not having it.

    Comment by Martin James — February 8, 2016 @ 3:49 pm

  40. too many un’s in there.

    Comment by Martin James — February 8, 2016 @ 3:49 pm

  41. My skepticism of AI goes well beyond questions of what free will means. I just am very skeptical of computational theories of mind.

    Comment by Clark — February 9, 2016 @ 9:23 am

  42. To add, despite the hype with Google, I’m also very, very skeptical we’ve really made much progress in AI (broadly construed) the past 20 years. At least all my friends still working in it (and I’ve done a lot in text mining applications) say it’s all been primarily about customizing stuff for particular uses but the basic theories and algorithms really haven’t changed much at all.

    Comment by Clark — February 9, 2016 @ 9:29 am

  43. Clark,
    I am skeptical of computational theories of mind but not of physical theories, broadly conceived. I agree that almost no progress has been made on physical theories of concepts, semantics or natural intelligence.
    There are some areas where more computational power have been impressive with old algorithms such as face recognition. it is not intelligence as we usually think about it but we don’t think about our own intelligence that well anyway by taking for granted what we are good (balance in walking or filtering perception) and overvaluing things we aren’t good at like memorizing and rules based games. Nonetheless, we have to think about it more and more because algorithms drive so many processes (credit, etc.)

    Comment by Martin James — February 9, 2016 @ 10:24 am

  44. I have no trouble with physical theories. Indeed I’d go so far as to say Mormonism is quite compatible with such theories and even privileges them. (Others might disagree)

    Part of the problem is of course that “intelligence” is a woefully ambiguous term.

    Comment by Clark — February 9, 2016 @ 11:25 am