Sunday, May 22, 2005

The five book game

Ezra says it's my turn to name the five books I really need to read. I hope it's not cheating to include two of his books on my list, since I've only read the parts I needed for doing my TA work here at Texas, and I need to read more of them...

The first thing I need to read is Rawls' Theory of Justice. Now, I'm not much into stuff that calls itself political philosophy, because I think you just need to find the correct general theory of value (I think it's utilitarianism) and apply that directly to public policy without worrying about any stereotypically political-philosophy considerations. But this is the biggest political philosophy book of the last century, and I'm told that it calls the method I've described above into question. Some of it is also really fun to teach! Showing Texas undergrads with strong libertarian intuitions the argument for why we only deserve what we'd be apportioned behind the Veil of Ignorance was a wondrous experience. It was one of the moments when the kids are like, "I can't figure out why this is wrong, but if it's right, my world is upside-down!" The whole class stayed for a few minutes after the bell to keep arguing it out. I need to read the rest of the book to do this thing properly as a professor.

Then there's Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, another victim of my disregard of political philosophy and another thing I've only read for teaching. I spend enough time arguing with libertarians that I really need to read their book. I've heard that it's an easy read, unlike Rawls, and I'll try to get to it this summer. (BTW, I've got a funny personal story about Nozick which will be shared in a future post.)

The third and final entry on the "I've taught some and I need to read the rest" is the Bible. I want to know more about Jesus, who seems to have been a pretty cool guy. Since I enjoy mythology, I'll enjoy the stuff I don't believe. I also like talking philosophy with religious people, and this'll make those conversations more fruitful. Philosophy of Religion was another great teaching experience, and this will set me up nicely to do that again.

I took an excellent normative ethics class with Left2Right's Liz Anderson last fall, and now I want to read her Value in Ethics and Economics. I've heard (from people sympathetic to economics) that the criticisms of the discipline in there are good.

Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons, which I really need to finish, will end up being one of the most-remembered philosophy books of the 20th century. The stuff on personal identity in section 3 (what makes me the same person today as I was yesterday?) will be a part of any intro-philosophy class I teach to sufficiently smart kids. One of the most beautiful moments I've ever found in analytic philosophy arrives after Parfit has established his reductionist theory of personal identity, on which the connection making someone the same person at two moments is surprisingly slight:

When I believed that my existence was such a further fact [like a soul or something existing separately from one's experiences], I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

Now, whose reading preferences am I the most curious about? I pass the baton to battlepanda, Bunny McIntosh, and Fafnir.

(I restricted myself to relatively nontechnical stuff in this list. Some more technical books that I really need to read are Maudmarie Clark's Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy since I'm a Nietzsche scholar, Michael Bratman's Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason because I've got a sweet counterexample to the closure of rational intending under conjunction and I need to know if it hits him, Frank Jackson's From Metaphysics to Ethics because I won't give up on analyticity, and Jonathan Dancy's Practical Reality -- he's on my dissertation committee because he's the opponent I've always wanted.)


Matt said...

Do read Theory, or at least large parts of it. Hopefully it will cure you of that sort of simple-minded utilitarianism! (Also, read Sam Scheffler's article on Rawls and utilitarianism in the cambridge companion to Rawls- 1st rate stuff.) Good luck w/ the Dancy- I found it impossible, but then, Brit-style talk about reasons never made a bit of sense to me.

justin said...

I've followed this meme through many a blog, and I will finally say it: read the Bible. Yes, much of it is wicked boring. Nonetheless, it is important. It's some of the best stuff ever. History, myth, poetry, all that humanistic BS. the slow parts are rewarded with the compelling pieces...but they are all of a piece.
you need not believe...if modern christians are any indication it HELPS if you don't belive.

Mary said...

As a modern Christian (please understand that we come in a range of philosophies,politics, experiences, interpretation, and degrees of literalism; there is just a very vocal group that is getting the most attention right now) may I suggest the more helpful strategy is to suspend disbelief? Also, please remember that "The Bible" is actually a series of books and letters, consisting of what more PC Christians refer to as Hebrew Scriptures (OT) and Christian Scriptures (NT). Roman Catholics also include the Apocrypha. I also suggest, that at the same time, you check out Peter J. Gomes's book, The Good Book, to get another perspective. I think that if you are teaching university students in a culture heavily influenced by Judaeo-Christian thought (not to mention that Christians, Jews, and Muslims--"people of the book"-share the same basic background as expressed in the OT) the Bible should be a constant source of curiosity and study... I don't mean this in a proselytizing way, but in a way to understand that this is not a book you pick up and read like any other book. Two of my favorite stories are in the Christian Scriptures...because they are in domestic settings rather than dealing in battles and violence...are the Martha and Mary story and The Woman at the Well. To me, these stories have layers and layers of meaning, and confirm to me (along with the Beatitudes) that yes, Jesus was a pretty cool guy.