Five Edifying philosophy reads you may not know about
Long before I even started writing this book, I was an educator. I’ve been tutoring for over half a decade in a large variety of contexts, but always with a similar theme: philosophy is the key to a better, deeper understanding. If you want to cultivate the clear thinking which will result in long-term intellectual improvement, you gotta go to the people who did it first. They’re better at it than most people. That’s (part of)* why they were first. So, without further ado:
1) Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man by Friedrich Schiller
Ever heard the song ‘Ode to Joy’? Yeah, it’s that Schiller. The composer was a polymath, and while he insists in the preface to this masterpiece that he is no philosopher, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man remains a quiet favorite among many professional philosophers and the intellectual elite. There are dimensions in which it is quite antiquated and problematic, but there is no doubting that Schiller is a must-read if one wants to understand classical aesthetic theory. His command of language makes the read refreshing and engaging, if not morally frustrating at times.
2) Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
Oh boy. This is a doozy of a read, as dense as it is magnificent. Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein’s indisputable magnum opus, was no less of a ‘Copernican revolution’ to our understanding than Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (an immense and profound document on which I will have a dedicated post at a later date). Yet where Kant was concerned with the limits of Metaphysics, Wittgenstein attuned his gaze to the very function of language itself, and showed a profound chasm between what we want to do with language (namely, making truth-claims), and that which is actually possible with such an activity. The result is scary and disorienting, yet potent for the cultivation of a mature understanding of the limits of reason.
3) On Truth and Lies in an Extramoral Sense by Friedrich Nietzsche
This is a short one, and mostly it corroborates Wittgenstein’s thoughts through the lens of so-called ‘Continental’ philosophy. Historically, Nietzsche lived prior to Wittgenstein, so perhaps ‘anticipated’ would be a better word. It is not as rigorous, but the prose is delectable. If you only have time for a quick read, this would be the route to go.
4) The Archaeology of Knowledge by Michel Foucault
This is the work in which Foucault articulates his theory of ‘Discursive Formations’, which are structures of the mind prior to language or reason that dictate what is possible or congenial to the thoughts and concepts of a society at any given point in our history or future. While wildly ambitious and perhaps not overly careful of addressing the concerns of the shoulders on which it stands, it is an endlessly-stimulating read nonetheless.
5) Giving an Account of Oneself by Judith Butler Judith Butler, a titan in feminist philosophy and gender studies, established a powerful critique on selfhood which held as its core proposition that self-understanding is bounded up in the articulation of the self in and by a community. Since these interactions are beyond control of the subject, the result is a dizzying and ultimately thwarted project of identity construction. Building off of this argument, she creates a new, more literate presentation of modern ethics predicated on the consequences of this realization. Butler’s influence on socio-political discourse today cannot be overestimated. For or against her pictures of selfhood, sex, and gender: you cannot lay claim to understanding the overarching milieu of contemporary political discourse without first grappling with her thought, and Giving an Account of Oneself is likely the best foray into her thinking for a generalist in philosophical studies.
I won’t lie. These readings are tough as nails. They are typically undertaken only at the University or in the most elite private prep schools in the country. You may find them frustrating. You may find the process prolonged and at times simply inscrutable. But the main cognitive difference between you and the ruling class is that they’ve known about these things, and have studied them with the aid of an intellectual elite which has yet to submit itself to adequate critique. As Assata Shakur reminds us, “no one will give you the education you need to overthrow them.” But sometimes, they mistake us for their kin, when we’re white and male and have access to student loans. Help me make them regret that mistake. Pick these books up. Give them a genuine effort. Let’s work to get the knowledge we need to step out of the shadows.
*There were race, gender, and class dynamics that made it easier for them. That doesn’t change that these were undoubtedly major revelations for our species, but it does highlight the profound injustices of white imperialism.
What In the shadow of Prometheus is All about
It is no great secret that In the Shadow of Prometheus is first and foremost a philosophical novel. What does that mean? It means that the author believes that the purpose of literature is to convey insight about the world in which we live, the struggle of the human condition, and the journey of meaning-making for a life well-lived.
This puts me in direct opposition to the morays of contemporary mass-media publishing, which holds as its theory of marketing that it must give us entertainment to beguile and fascinate us, whatever the cost. This is starkly misaligned with the mentality of the literary greats of our past. As Goethe notably remarked, we need stories which charm humankind, and edify us too.
Such tales are in woefully short supply these days, which is why I decided to write Prometheus. By consequence, you will notice that many of my influences lie less with modern fiction and more with foundational works in philosophy and religion. For those of you who know me well, this makes perfect sense—my training at Yale was in the philosophy of religion. Hold up! Before you run away at the very sound of such a profession, please know that I am not a dogmatist, or strictly speaking even ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’. But there are texts worth reading in each tradition, and from a historical perspective— religion informs philosophy, which informs science, which informs all of our present world culture. Rather than fixating on civilization’s current state, I look to our legacy and the ways it can and will continue to inform our future.
So what is In the Shadow of Prometheus all about? It imagines a futuristic and fantastical representation of our world in which the modern nation-state collapses, and in its place is a society which predicates authority on two foundations over the political peacocking of our present-day—those new standards being intellectual authority, and ethical review. It looks at the ways in which human nature might interact with such a model for better and worse, and layers on top of this narrative pedagogy in philosophy and religion to help the reader develop the analytical tools necessary to make sense of all that is being said.
My book is not meant to be an easy read. If you want something to merely distract or amuse you: there’s Netflix for that, and hey, I’m all about some quality time for fun narratives like Stranger Things. But if you’re tired of continuing to walk through life without answers or understanding on these important topics, I promise you that In the Shadow of Prometheus is worth your time.
L. Farnsworth Colson