Sunday, July 23, 2017

Four Ways To Misuse Words

There are lots of ways to misuse words. Today I’m only going to talk about four. I’m interested in the situation that occasionally arises with emotionally or politically charged terms. It’s been happening for a long time with “terrorist”, we all watched it happen over the last year or two with “fake news”, and yesterday I heard someone say that it’s happening with “gaslighting”, although I haven’t noticed that one myself. Sometimes people talk about the phenomenon by saying “when people say [word] what they really mean is [concept]”. Here the concept is not what you’d expect a dictionary to say the word meant; it’s the concept that applies to the things these people in fact apply the word to. For example:
  • ‘When people say “terrorist” what they really mean is “enemy combatant”.’
  • ‘When people say “fake news” what they really mean is “news unfavourable to me”.’
  • ‘When people say “gaslighting” what they really mean is “saying things I don’t agree with”.’

I don’t think this is usually the best way of putting it, and I think it obscures the distinction between at least four ways of misusing words.

Ignorance: The word conventionally means one thing, but I use it to mean something else, because I’m mistaken about the convention. For example, if I thought that “cat” meant what “octopus” means, and so I said “cats live underwater and have eight tentables”. Or I might think that “fake news” meant what “untrue news” means, and use the term “fake news” to describe any news story I don’t think is true.

Lying: I know what concept the word conventionally expresses, but I use it for things that concept doesn’t apply to because I want to mislead people. For example, I might want people to think that cats live underwater and have eight tentacles, and so I’d say “cats live underwater and have eight tentacles”. Or a news story might come out which wasn’t favourable to me, and so I’d mislead people into thinking it was deliberately made up by saying “that’s fake news”.

Bullshit: I don’t really care what the word means, and I may not know what it means, but I do think that it’d be rhetorically advantageous to apply the word to it so I go ahead and do it. For example, I might have heard people calling stories “fake news” and getting some rhetorical mileage out of it, so I call stories I don’t like “fake news” as well.

Inflation/Defining Down: I know that using the word for something stretches the conventions governing the word without necessarily breaking them, but I use the word anyway because I want people to categorize it with the central cases. For example, I might refer to something as fake news when it was really a result of a combination of sloppy reporting and wishful thinking, because I want people to lump the reporter in with people who deliberately make stories up.

There’s probably some overlap here, and one kind of use might shade into the other. But I think only the first one is properly a case of using a word when what you really mean is something else. Maybe, when people say “when people say X they just mean Y” they’re usually being metaphorical and just mean “when people say X it just means Y”. But maybe not. And there’s a difference between what someone means by a word and what you can infer from the fact they’re using the word. I don’t think people who talk this way always have that distinction clearly in mind. It’s a pretty fuzzy distinction in a lot of cases, so that’d be understandable, but the distinction’s there. I think in at least some cases this is part of the irksome tendency on the part of a certain kind of person to attribute all the ills of the world to the imprecise use of language.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Load Of Rubbish

A crash of rhinos. A parliament of owls. I’m not above leafing through a book of miscellaneous lists once in a while, and such books occasionally have a list of collective nouns. I’ve got views about collective nouns.

Sometimes a collective noun will have become a word in one of the normal ways, and it will be used when people aren’t actually talking about collective nouns, and competence in speaking the language involves knowing what it’s used for. A certain kind of social grouping among lions is called a pride, and a different kind of grouping among ants is called a colony. If you call the lions a colony and the ants a pride then you’re making a linguistic mistake. I’m not sure exactly what kind of mistake it is. I think it’s probably a worse mistake than if you talked about a swarm of sheep or a flock of bees. It’s more or less just unidiomatic to talk about a swarm of sheep, but an ant colony really isn’t a pride. Maybe I’m being too harsh or not harsh enough on one of these kinds of mistake, but the point is that they’re mistakes. You’re flouting the conventions internalized by competent language users if you talk about a pride of ants, unless something very odd is going on.

Anyway, that’s not what a lot of collective nouns are like. Basically what happens is this. People know that there are collective nouns for some things, like lions, ants and bees. Glossing over the fact that a pride of lions isn’t just any old group of lions gathered into the same place at the same time, they notice that lots of things don’t have collective nouns. So they make them up. They make suggestions that are supposed to be fitting or satirical or simply euphonious, and congratulate each other when someone comes up with a good one. It’s a parlour game. As an extension of the parlour game, people will sometimes propose more or less comprehensive lists of the things. They don’t usually catch on, of course. The parlour game produces proposals for established usages, not established usages. Perhaps “murder of crows” is one that caught on. But usually they don’t catch on.

Now, part of the parlour game is that it begins with someone asking “what’s the collective noun for a group of lions/larks/ostriches?” If it was lions, someone could rightly say “a pride of lions”, and they’d be right. That is the established word for a kind of group of lions. You only move to phase two of the parlour game, where people make proposals, if you can’t come up with an answer at phase one. And one thing you might do in phase one is try to look it up. To meet this need, people make lists and put them in the kind of miscellany books I talked about at the beginning of the post. Now, a scrupulous listmaker would do what lexicographers do: look at established usage and see if there is a collective noun being used for a group of ostriches. If there used to be but it’s out of fashion, they’ll let you know it’s archaic or worse. And if there’s never been an established term for a group of ostriches, they don’t put one in the list. Alternatively, the listmaker could piggy-back on the efforts of a scrupulous lexicographer by looking through a dictionary written by one.

But our listmakers are not scrupulous. They want a nice long list with nice funny entries. Unfamiliar entries. So instead of looking at established usage or the records of it found in dictionaries, they copy the lists of proposals made by people who wanted to play the parlour game but had no friends to play it with. I once heard that there was a vogue at one point for sending such lists to magazines, though I don’t know if this is true. So now we have two kinds of lists. Lists of proposals which someone might send in to a magazine as an extension of a parlour game, and the plagiarized lists of lies that turn up in miscellany books.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. We’re all descriptivists now, and in the case of language, when a lie is repeated often enough it becomes the truth. I don’t know if that’s what we ought to say or not. So in the interests of science, I’ll look up “parliament”, “crash” and “exaltation” in the OED, to see if they give a usage meaning a group of owls, rhinos or larks respectively. I’m excited!

Parliament: it does mention “a parliament of owls” as an example of this extended usage:
Parliament definition owls OED.png
The usage of “a parliament of owls” they give is from a book called An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton, which is of course a book about collective nouns. (There may be nothing objectionable about the book. I haven’t read it, and as you can see I don’t have a problem with all instances of people writing about collective nouns.) Note that in the definition the OED gives there’s nothing that makes “parliament” any more appropriate to owls than to larks, and it’s less appropriate to either than to rooks, which the lists invariably say come in murders.

Crash: the entry doesn’t mention rhinos at all.

Exaltation: here’s the screenshot so you can judge for yourself:
Exaltation larks definition OED.png
I too can judge for myself, and I’d point out that the OED’s authors have not found any usages which were clearly not in the context of discussing collective nouns, and they also appear to think that the established way of referring to such a group of larks is as a flight. But of course A Flight Of Larks would not have been a good title for James Lipton’s book.

(The entry for “pride”, of course, has a definition as “A group of lions forming a social unit,” and gives several examples of it being used outside the context of discussing collective nouns. It says it’s an extended usage, but that’s probably accurate.)

So the scrupulous lexicographers at the OED present us with a bit of a mixed bag. A parliament can be a group of birds but isn’t specific to owls. A crash of rhinos isn’t a thing. An exaltation of larks is a thing but not to my mind a very honourable one, though your mileage may vary.

Now, up until recently I had the very negative attitude towards this whole collective noun nonsense that astute readers will have detected in the foregoing. However, the other day I saw some medievalists playing the parlour game on Twitter - they were still on a high from a conference in Leeds, where I live, and wanted a collective noun for medievalists - and I must say it seemed like fairly harmless fun. So I don’t know what to think. I guess if all you’re doing is making suggestions, that’s fine. And if you make a really good suggestion at the right time, say you’re at a medievalist conference and you think of a good one for a group of medievalists, then it might end up as an established term like “pride” or “colony”. That's fine too. But don’t make lists of lies, and certainly don’t go correcting someone when they call a group of rhinos a colloquium just because you read somewhere that we’re supposed to call it a crash.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Bad Deal Or No Deal

Consider these two statements:
  • Eating no bread is better than eating any mouldy bread.
  • Any bread at least as good to eat as no bread is not mouldy.


To avoid ambiguity, let’s put them into Mickey Mouse first order logic:
  • (x)[[Mouldy(x) & Bread(x)] → Better(eatingNoBread,eating(x))]
  • (x)[[Bread(x) & ¬Better(eatingNoBread,eating(x))] → ¬Mouldy(x)]


The two formulations are equivalent: they are both false iff there is some mouldy bread the eating of which is no worse than eating nothing. But there’s a difference of emphasis. The first formulation is something you might say if you were taking an uncompromising line on bread: if mouldy bead is all there is, you’d rather have nothing. The second formulation is something you might say if you were taking a compromising line on mouldiness: it can’t be mouldy or you wouldn’t recommend eating it at all. But a difference in emphasis is not a difference in commitment. Asserting either commits you to the same things.


Now, the government’s line on the Brexit negotiations is apparently that no deal is better than a bad deal. People take this as meaning that they’re taking an uncompromising line on deals, and they take it to embody an attitude of cavalier intransigence. But consider these two statements:
  • Reaching no deal is better than reaching any bad deal.
  • Any deal at least as good as no deal is not bad.


And in MMFOL:
  • (x)[[Bad(x) & Deal(x)] → Better(reachingNoDeal,reaching(x))]
  • (x)[[Deal(x) & ¬Better(reachingNoDeal,reaching(x))] → ¬Bad(x)]


The second formulation seems to embody an attitude of roundheaded compromise. Don’t criticize this underwhelming deal, they say, because it’s better than nothing. But the two formulations are formulations of the same commitment. In the mouldy bread case the speaker enjoys a certain amount of latitude because of whatever vagueness and subjectivity there is in the word “mouldy”. In the Brexit case the speaker enjoys latitude because of whatever vagueness and subjectivity there is in the word “bad”.


Now with the mouldy bread case, the speaker is at least committing themselves to something. That’s because some bread is determinately mouldy. Suppose the only food available is determinately mouldy bread, and you say that eating no bread is better than eating any mouldy bread. Half the party eats the bread, against your advice, and half the party goes hungry. One half has a better time and you are open to praise or criticism as a result.


Now consider the Brexit case. While we don’t have a whole party to divide up into people taking your advice and people not taking it, we can still compare the actual world with our dimly assigned probability distributions over the space of counterfactual situations. But the government can always evade criticism, whatever consensus history arrives at on the relative merits of no deal and the available deals. Obviously the government are also the people taking the decision, unless they lose the election, and so they could be open to criticism for taking one option if history judges that other available options would have turned out better. There’s no escaping that. But the particular claim that no deal is worse than a bad deal is entirely hedged.


Take any deal you like. If we decide that it’s worse than no deal, the government says it’s bad and takes the credit for being right. If we decide that it’s better than no deal, the government can just say that it wasn’t a bad deal. Similarly, nobody needs to praise the government however things turn out either. If history judges that the available deal was worse than no deal, the opponent can say that of course there are some deals worse than no deal, but there are plenty of bad deals better than no deal too, and if we’d been able to get one of those then the government would have turned it down and been wrong to do so. The word ‘bad’ and the associated concept are flexible enough that nobody ever needs to admit they were wrong about whether no deal is worse than a bad deal. The government shouldn’t be criticized for taking a bad line; they should be criticized for empty, commitment-free rhetoric.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The After Dinner Circuit

It was recently reported that Barack Obama is getting paid $400,000 to give a speech to a Wall Street bank. Obama’s a great speaker, but a lot of people seem to think nobody’s $400,000 great, and so the transaction smacks of corruption. The thinking is that the bank must be getting more than just a speech for their money.


Now, I don’t know if it’s true that the speech alone isn’t worth that much to the bank. There’s a lot of money flying around in banking, and the stakes are high. Maybe if people come to your dinner rather than your competitor’s dinner, you might get a big deal that makes the money back. Or maybe hosting dinners with Obama attracts employees that could otherwise only be attracted with those enormous banker’s bonuses that we love reading about.


But let’s suppose that the speech isn’t worth that much to the bank, and they’re getting something else. Or maybe it is worth it to them but they're still getting something else, because that's how the after dinner speech market works. One possibility is that Obama made a shady deal where he did the bank some kind of regulatory favour while he was in office, on the understanding that they would pay him $400,000, which they are now laundering as a speaking fee. I think that's unlikely, but it’s beyond the scope of this blogpost to persuade you to agree with me that it's unlikely.


What I think is much more likely is that there’s a general understanding that Wall Street banks, and other big businesses, are willing to pay massive speaking fees to politicians after they leave office, and that they offer the gigs to politicians who are friendly to Wall Street and so on while they’re in office, and that on some level this influences the way politicians govern. This kind of thing is insidious and I can see it affecting basically everyone to some extent, without anyone doing anything they could be prosecuted for. That’s not ideal.


What can we do about this? One thing we could do is demand that politicians declare future conflicts of interest. If you’re taking a gig in the medium-to-near future that would constitute a conflict of interest if you had it now, then you need to declare it as if you had it now. I don’t see that it makes sense to have laws or strong norms about present conflicts of interest while relying on the honour system for future conflicts of interest. But let’s assume that’s not going to happen. What can individuals do?


Some people think Obama shouldn’t take this kind of gig. He should set an example, he needs to go high where other people go low, and so on. Even if his governing wasn’t influenced by the prospect of lucrative speaking gigs, he needs to extinguish any suspicion that it was.


Some other people think Obama should take the money. Everyone takes the money, and it’s unfair to demand he make all the sacrifices, especially when the new president brazenly doesn’t care about all his own conflicts of interest and spends government money at his own businesses all the time.


Here’s what I think. It’s too late for Obama. Whatever influence the speaking fees had on his presidency, they’ve had it already. We know he wasn’t planning to eschew the speaking fees, and changing his mind now won’t change whatever decisions he took during his presidency. If he was running for future office, things would be different. But he probably isn’t, and so it’s too late. Obama showed a lot of things were possible, but he can’t show that saving politics from the after dinner circuit is possible. And if he had been planning to do this, regulating Wall Street on the merits and to hell with the speaking fees, then he should have said something about it sooner. Like, when he was in office, or even before that.


It’s not too late for everyone. If you’re in office now, or you’re running for office in the future, and you don’t want politicians to be influenced by the prospect of future speaking fees, pledge not to take them. Or if you aren’t willing to go that far, then at least pledge not to take the really big fees. It’s simple, it’s easy for people to understand, and it doesn’t rely on backwards causation.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Meet Me Halfway

A logician goes to an island of knights and knaves. Knights always tell the truth; knaves always lie. One of the locals says “either I’m a knave or there’s gold on this island”. Is there gold on the island?

This kind of puzzle is a staple of the puzzle books of Raymond Smullyan, and Forever Undecided: A Puzzle Guide To Gödel is no exception. This isn’t just a compendium of brainteasers intended solely for entertainment though; Smullyan has a serious purpose. He’s explaining some of the main results in provability logic by recasting them in terms of the beliefs of logicians with various characteristics when faced with this sort of knight/knave puzzle. It’s a clever idea, and very much the kind of clever idea you would expect Raymond Smullyan to have.

It’s helpful to cast results like Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and Löb’s theorem in different terms, and especially in fairly concrete terms about things people say or the output of a computer program. It helps to explain the content of the results, and helps readers understand their significance. One thing Smullyan is pretty keen to get across is that the impossibility of a system of arithmetic proving its own consistency doesn’t give any reason for thinking such systems aren’t consistent. This makes sense, since we already knew that an inconsistent system could prove its own consistency - inconsistent systems prove everything - so if a system says it’s consistent that’s no reason to think it is. If you ask a resident of the knight-knave island if they’re a knight, knights and knaves will both say they are. Similarly, if you want to know if a system’s consistent, you shouldn’t ask the system itself, and the fact people didn’t properly figure this out until Gödel discovered that consistent systems wouldn’t answer the question doesn’t change that.

As well as discussing the results, the book also contains lots of exercises, with reasonably generous solutions. These are analogous to the kind of exercises you might get in a textbook on provability logic, except they’re expressed in different terms. Now, you might think that doing it in terms of knights and knaves and so on would make the whole thing so much fun that the hard work of getting your head round this material wouldn’t feel like hard work, and before you knew it you’d have all the proofs of the main results in provability logic at your fingertips. This was not my experience. The material is just as hard, and now you have to learn a bunch of new terminology. It isn’t Smullyan’s fault that this stuff is hard, but there are things I think he could have done to make it a bit easier.

First, the book doesn’t have an index, and the chapter headings are often whimsical (“It ain’t necessarily so!”), vague (“More Consistency Predicaments”), or related to the island-hopping framing device (“In Search of Oona”). This makes it difficult to go back and remind yourself of material when it comes up again. This is bad enough when reading a novel, but in a textbook it’s not really excusable. Smullyan hasn’t set out to write a textbook, but he wanted the material to be comprehensible to someone who (unlike me) was approaching it for the first time, and an index and analytic table of contents would have helped with that a lot.

Second, the book introduces a lot of new terminology: reasoners of type 1, 2, 3, 4, 1*, G, G* and Q; normal, regular, peculiar, modest, conceited, reflexive and stable reasoners; Gödelian systems, Löbian systems, and so on. Being a doofus, I wasn’t able to keep all the definitions in my head. Since there was no convenient way of looking them up, a lot of the time I couldn’t understand the exercises until I looked at the solutions to see what followed from a reasoner being regular or stable or of type 3 or whatever. This isn’t really satisfactory, so I skipped a lot of the exercises and solutions, and when I didn’t skip the exercises I often didn’t really know what I was being asked. An appendix in the back saying what all these definitions mean would have been a great help. The last chapter gives a summary of the main results, but that’s not the same thing and doesn’t make the exercises more comprehensible. I’m considering writing an appendix myself and sticking it in the back in case I or anyone else reads my copy of the book again. It’d take some work though, as the definitions are scattered throughout the book and there’s no index.

So, who’s the book for? I think you’d really enjoy the book if you liked whimsical logic puzzles and were already very familiar with the technical material. (I like whimsical logic puzzles but was only reasonably familiar with the technical material.) You’d also probably get some scholarly benefit from reading the book if your understanding of the proofs of the results was better than your understanding of what the results amount to. I’m the opposite, and I expect that’s normal for people who encounter it through studying philosophy. I guess if you encountered it through studying maths then things might be the right way round for you. Who else would like the book? Well, someone who liked puzzles and would be interested in provability logic but hadn’t seen any of the results before would probably like the book at first but find it became a bit of a slog about 100 pages in. If they’re the sort of person who can read a maths textbook without looking at the index, the contents page or a list of definitions used in the book, then they’d probably be fine. Here’s what Smullyan says about the target audience in the preface:

I have lectured a good deal on all this material to such diverse groups as bright high school students and Ph.D.’s in mathematics, philosophy, and computer science. The responses of both groups were equally gratifying - they were intrigued. Indeed, any neophyte who is good at math or science can thoroughly master this entire book (though some application will be needed), yet many an expert will find here a wealth of completely new and fresh material.

I think that’s a bit optimistic, and if he wanted neophytes to apply themselves and master the entire book then he should have met them halfway with an index, and appendix and a better contents page. But I’ve no doubt people enjoyed the lectures.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Lost Voices Of History

Bertrand Russell was a great philosopher, and he also had a great voice. Since he was a celebrity who died in 1970, he was on TV a lot and you can have a listen to his voice on Youtube. If you hear a voice in your head when you read, as I do but as not everyone does, then I recommend reading Russell in Russell’s voice. It’s fun! With a lot of great philosophers, of course, we don’t have this luxury. There aren’t any recordings of their voices and nobody knows what they sounded like. This seems to me an avoidable shame.

People will presumably continue to do Michael Caine impressions for at least a while after Michael Caine dies, and my understanding is that most people’s Michael Caine impression owes at least as much to copying other people’s impressions as to copying Caine himself. That’s why they all sound the same but they don’t sound like Michael Caine. The Michael Caine impression voice is easy to do, and Michael Caine’s voice is hard to do, and here we are.

It seems to me that the Michael Caine impression voice could be preserved indefinitely, even if all the recordings of his voice and the impression voice were destroyed and no more were ever produced. People would copy each other, and hundreds of years into the future people would still be doing impressions of Michael Caine. And that would be a fine thing.

At least as fine a thing would be if this had actually happened with historical public figures: people had done impressions of them for the amusement of people familiar with the original, the way the impression sounded had become common knowledge, the ability to do the impression had become part of every self-respecting person’s conversational repertoire, and then 470 years on we were all still doing impressions of Henry VIII.

I can’t think of anyone this has happened with in the Anglosphere. All the impressions we do nowadays are of people we have recordings of. Perhaps there are or have been communities who did preserve their ancestors’ voices over the centuries in this way; if you know of any then tell us about it in the comments. It would seem strange to me if that hadn’t happened, but English speakers seem not to have preserved any, so maybe that’s how things are.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Love Poem About Donkeys

March 4 was National Grammar Day in America, and someone I follow on Twitter was running a competition for grammar-themed haikus. I wrote one. It didn’t win. You can see the winners here. But in case you missed it, here is mine.

Donkeys donkeys love
Love donkeys donkeys donkeys
Donkeys love love love.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Stop Reporting Surveys Wrong

There’s a common mistake in the way findings of surveys are reported. It annoys me every time I see it, and when I saw it again yesterday it annoyed me enough to write on my blog about it. Here’s a screenshot of a tweet promoting the article. Can you spot the mistake?


Vox white evangelicals muslims more discrimination.png


Pretty awful, right?


So, the survey asked people which groups they thought faced a lot of discrimination in the United States today. 44% of white evangelicals said Muslims did, and 57% of white evangelicals said Christians did. So more white evangelicals think Christians face a lot of discrimination than think Muslims do. But that’s not what the headline says.


The headline says that white evangelicals think Christians face more discrimination than Muslims. And it follows from the survey’s findings that at least 13% of them do think this, since at least 13% think Christians face a lot and don’t think Muslims do. But it’s still open that 87% think that Muslims face more discrimination. I guess it probably isn't as high 87%, but we just don't know what the figure is. If a survey just finds that at least 13% of people in a group think something, it’s misleading to report the survey as finding that the group as a whole thinks that thing. And if that thing is both false and a dangerous and foolish thing to think, as in this case, it’s especially important not to misleadingly report the group as thinking it.


Now, you might say that from the results of the survey it’s more or less certain that most white evangelicals think Christians face more discrimination than Muslims. I don’t think it is. But even if it is, the reader can be the judge of that. Report what the survey says, and let the reader draw their own conclusions. Or argue for a conclusion. But don’t just misreport the findings of the survey.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Bleak Future Of Boycotts

You’ve probably been there yourself. I know I have. A news story comes out about a company doing some nefarious thing and you decide to express your dissatisfaction by boycotting them. When I was a kid there was something about Nestlé and baby milk, and I suddenly found out just how many things are made by Nestlé. Every so often there’s one about McDonald’s, and more recently there have been boycott-inducing stories about Uber and Byron Burgers. I don’t know whether it achieves what it’s supposed to achieve. I joined in with the Byron Burgers thing, and I didn’t have to decide about the Uber one because I don’t have a smartphone.

It seems like a good idea in principle. A company does something you disapprove of, and you try to stop them doing it by withholding your custom. Or maybe you’re not trying to change their behaviour but you just don’t want to give these ne’erdowells the benefit of your custom, even if it means forgoing their products and services. Cutting off one’s nose to spite someone else’s face makes a certain amount of sense.

Lately I’ve noticed some boycotts being encouraged to protest more mainstream associations like Donald Trump and the Daily Mail. The idea is that if you don’t like Trump then you boycott companies run by people that do, and if you don’t like the Daily Mail then you boycott companies that advertise in the Mail.

In principle this doesn’t make any less sense than using boycotts to protest less controversially awful things. If you think advertising in the Daily Mail is as bad as whatever Nestlé and Byron Burgers did, then it doesn’t really matter that lots of people think the Daily Mail is great. But I worry about where it leads.

It seems to be the received wisdom that politics, at least in America, is becoming more polarized and tribal. If members of one tribe boycott a lot of the companies belonging to the other, the way they already kind of do with media outlets, then you’ll end up with two parallel economies. That’s bad for competition, presumably, but it also might lead to governments from one tribe punishing companies from the other. That sounds bad. I hope it doesn’t happen.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Philosophy Books For Beginners

One thing you sometimes hear is that when you're starting out with philosophy you can't do better than reading the classics. Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Hume's Treatise on Human Nature, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. That sort of thing. I think this is terrible advice. I didn't mention Spinoza, because I thought you might think I was exaggerating, but people do in fact recommend Spinoza's Ethics to beginners. Don't recommend Spinoza's Ethics to beginners!





One thing that is probably unusual about philosophy is that reading the classics genuinely is useful for something other than curiosity and recreation. Physicists don't need to read Newton and Copernicus. Doctors don't need to read Galen and Avicenna. There are probably exceptions to this - biologists seem to benefit from reading Darwin - but philosophy probably has more exceptions than other subjects. Experts and laypeople can get serious insight from reading philosophy books written hundreds or thousands of years ago.


But with a few exceptions, I still wouldn't recommend them to beginners. They're too hard, and even if you get through them it isn't the best preparation for reading other philosophy books. It's some preparation, but it's not the best. When you're starting out learning about philosophy, three main things are important. Maybe more, but right now I can think of three. You want to get a sense of its subject matter, its style, and its history.


By its subject matter, I mean the kind of questions philosophers are interested in. There's a lot of ignorance among the general public about what philosophers actually study, maybe because philosophy isn't taught much in schools. Philosophers also study lots of different things which you probably wouldn't have guessed were parts of the same subject. If you want to get into philosophy, you need to find out what philosophy is.


By style, I mean the way philosophers approach the questions they study. Philosophy is and has been done in different styles in different places. I'm from the analytic tradition, so the style I'm most familiar with is the one where people put forward ideas and arguments, come up with counterexamples or other objections, refine the ideas or patch up the arguments, repeat, step back and try to work out why they're not getting anywhere, look for analogies with things they already think they understand, look at what someone else had to say about it, and so on. It's a skill and a culture and you need to learn the skills and get used to the culture.


By history, I mean learning who all these people are. Descartes, Plato, that crowd. They come up a lot and you'll want to know. If you don't, you won't know what philosophers are talking about half the time. Learning some of the history also helps you get a sense of the subject matter and how different bits of it fit together.


With these goals in mind, some people will probably still tell the beginner to go off and read the Critique of Pure Reason. Well, I haven't read it myself, so I won't comment further on the wisdom of that. But I'll mention some things I have read that I might recommend to beginners who want to get a sense of the style, subject matter and history of philosophy.


The Philosophy Files, by Stephen Law.


This was always going to be top of the list. It's the best book I've read by a long way for teaching the style. It also gives you a sense of the subject matter. I've read it maybe ten times myself, and I lent it to people who wanted an introductory philosophy book until someone didn't return it. Then I bought another copy so I could start reading and lending it again. It's fantastic. It's written as if it's for children and has funny pictures, but it's still the first one I'd recommend to an adult. It's got short chapters, and each one introduces a philosophical issue and takes the reader through it in a lighthearted way that lets you think about the issue yourself and also shows you some of the standard moves. It gives a great sense of the weird combination of intellectual arrogance and intellectual humility that makes analytic philosophers so charming.


The Bluffer's Guide to Philosophy, by Jim Hankinson


This covers a lot of ground pretty quickly with respect to the history and the subject matter. It's short, it's funny, and when you've finished it you'll know what philosophers talk about and you'll have met a lot of the names. I've read this one several times too.


Those are the first two I'd tell someone to read. What next? Well, you could do worse than reading those again. It won't take long, and it's great fun. But eventually you'll want to read something else.


Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder
The Great Philosophers, by Stephen Law
The Story of Philosophy, by Jeremy Stangroom and James Garvey
A Little History of Philosophy, by Nigel Warburton


All these basically do the same thing, in various ways. They tell the story of Western philosophy from Ancient Greece more or less to the present. It's a great story and it's worth hearing it over and over from different people. The more you hear it the more familiar the characters and their ideas will become, and the better you'll understand all the other stuff.


Sophie's World is a novel structured around a weird old dude giving a course in the history of Western philosophy to a 14 year old Norwegian girl. The Great Philosophers takes you through a lot of the big names in chronological order, focusing mainly on one idea each of them had. The other two basically just tell the story and present the ideas. I didn't love any of them, except Sophie's World, and I expect that's because it was the first one I'd read. I was two years into a degree in philosophy (and French) at the time, but most of the stuff in it was still new to me. They're all good though, and I really do think it's important to get a grip on who all these famous dead philosophers are. They keep coming up, and a lot of the big ideas nowadays are refinements of their ideas.


An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis, by John Hospers


This is the only one that plays the same role as The Philosophy Files, encouraging the reader to work through philosophy problems themselves. It's longer and a lot less fun. But it's good to look at the topics you're interested in and work through them Hospers' way. If you're doing a degree in philosophy then a lot of people teaching you will also probably have read some of it early on in their philosophical educations, so it's an important part of the culture.


The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, edited by Ted Honderich


Don't read this one from cover to cover, and don't carry it around with you. It's a big heavy reference book. It's basically like any other Oxford Companion, but it's good to be able to look up philosophical ideas and people and read something quick and sensible about them. Most of the entries seem reasonably sensible. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a wonderful online resource, but its articles are in too much depth to recommend to beginners. If you look something up in the Oxford Companion and it isn't there or you want to know more about it, look it up in the Stanford Encyclopedia. It's much better than Wikipedia. I wouldn't recommend Wikipedia for explaining philosophical ideas but it's probably fine for a quick biography if you come across someone and want to know who they are.


Logic, by Wilfrid Hodges


This is an introductory logic textbook, including formal logic. It was the one I used as a first year undergraduate and it's better for beginners than the few others I've read. There are loads out there and others may be better. But this one was fine for me and I wouldn't mind recommending it to someone who wants introducing to logic. Some people will tell you that you should learn logic before you learn any other philosophy. I don't think that's true. It's important to understand the style that philosophy's done in but beginners are better off getting that from immersion than from learning to formalize everything. Even learning the names of fallacies, fun as it is, can only get you so far. You can probably already spot them, and learning their names doesn't fully immunize you against them anyway. Logic is a branch of philosophy though and if you want an introduction to that branch then Hodges' book is fine.


You'll also need to learn some formal logic at some point even if you're not studying logic, for two reasons. First, there's a lot of more or less unnecessary use of logical notation in philosophy papers that aren't about logic. Second, if you don't know any formal logic you won't know whether it's relevant to what you're doing or not, which leaves you vulnerable to evil wizards blinding you with arguments you don't understand. You'll also have to read some Wittgenstein at some point for the same reason, even if you don't like him.


That's about it for properly introductory books. But you can, and probably should, also introduce yourself to philosophy partly by reading some philosophy. That's what people are trying to do when they tell you to start with An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. When you're a beginner, reading philosophy is hard. But you can only fully get a sense of the style by reading the stuff, so here are some suggestions beginners might be able to handle.


Meditations, by René Descartes


This is the exception in the lists of classics people tell beginners to read, in that it really is accessible to beginners. It was written for a fairly lay audience, and it shows. It covers a lot of interesting ideas that are central to a lot of philosophy, in a quick and engaging way. (How can we know anything? What is the mind? Does God exist?) The arguments are simple enough, and on some readings bad enough, that a beginner can have a lot of fun engaging with them. It also contains his most famous presentation of the "I think therefore I am" argument without using the expression "I think therefore I am", which is probably some kind of lesson in itself.


Meno, by Plato.


Maybe read some other dialogues by Plato too, but hold off on the Republic for the moment. The Republic is too long and it's better to get used to the style first by reading some of the shorter ones. (If you read Plato's Parmenides, stop once it gets weird. You'll wait pages and pages for it to go back to being normal, but it never will, and you'll just wonder what the hell you just read.) It was a long time before I could really get much out of Plato, but Meno was an exception. I found it really funny. Like laugh-out-loud-in-the-library-multiple-times funny. But maybe that's just me. Some people will probably say that reading Plato's dialogues gives you a good sense of how philosophy should be done, but I'm not sure that's really true. Socrates is a bit of a bully. But it gives you a good sense of what the deal is with this Plato guy everyone keeps talking about, and humanizes him a bit. Plus, like I say, it's hilarious.


Existentialism and Humanism, by Jean-Paul Sartre


This is a much better bet than trying to take on Being and Nothingness. It's short, it's informal, and it's for a lay audience. Sartre is giving a talk where he clears up some misconceptions about what his brand of existentialism is and responds to some objections to it. He takes questions at the end. If you like it, go and see a production of Dirty Hands, and The Flies too if you can find one.


Anarchy, State, and Utopia, by Robert Nozick


OK, this is a pretty long book. And beginners probably won't get much out of the bits on Rawls. But some people are into long books, and this one is full of cool stuff. It gives a good sense of the style of analytic philosophy because it's self-consciously written in that style by a super smart philosopher who's really good at it. It's about politics and ethics too, which lots of people like. Obviously handle it with care - you don't want to end up accidentally becoming an actual libertarian or anything. John Hospers, incidentally, once ran for President of the USA as the Libertarian party's nominee. This doesn't really come over in his book, though.


On Suicide, by David Hume.


This is a nifty essay making the case that suicide isn't wrong, done in good philosophical style by one of the all-time greats. Maybe read some other essays by Hume, too. Not the Treatise on Human Nature, though. It's too long, and I once saw someone argue fairly persuasively that in Hume's own estimation the Treatise doesn't represent his best work anyway. If you must read a book by Hume, read the one of the Enquiries you're more interested in. If you get on well with that, you can read the other one.


There's no shame in reading essays, generally. Usually these introductory lists will mostly have books on them. Big books. But everyone likes short books, especially beginners. And essays are even shorter than short books. If you're going to do a degree in philosophy, it's going to be essays you're writing, and mostly essay-length papers you're reading. So read some essays and papers. Here are two to start you off.


A Defense of Abortion, by Judith Jarvis Thomson


This is an incredible piece of writing. Even today, people often think of the ethics of abortion as turning on whether the foetus is a person or not, or whether it has the rights of a person or not. Thomson argues that even if the foetus is a person and has the rights that go along with that, abortion is still morally defensible. The arguments aren't hard to follow and they're another example of good philosophical style by a top philosopher, but they're also important arguments that bear on a debate a lot of people care about. Everyone in the world should read this paper.


The Punishment that Leaves Something to Chance, by David Lewis


Lewis argues that punishing attempted murder more lightly than murder might be fair, in spite of how it seems pretty unfair. It isn't Lewis's greatest contribution to philosophy. It probably doesn't crack the top fifty. But it's accessible and fun, and you don't need much background to understand the arguments. Once you're not a beginner anymore, you can read everything else he's written.


All these books are Western philosophy, but that's kind of by design - I'm in no position to recommend introductory books on philosophy from non-Western traditions. They're also almost all by men though, and that bothers me, because there's a lot of great philosophy by women and giving the impression that philosophy is a men's thing is bad for the subject and for at least most of the people doing it. I couldn't really think of many books by women that I've read and would recommend to a beginner though, and I know this is largely my own fault. So if you're starting out, you should probably also look at some other lists written by better read people than me. They might have a better logic textbook on there too.

Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, by Julia Annas was good, and it's for a lay audience. But it was a long time ago and I don't remember much about it. The Enfranchisement of Women, by Harriet Taylor Mill is probably something a beginner could get on with too. If you enjoy that and want to read something else by her, she also definitely influenced and probably co-wrote some of John Stuart Mill's work, some of which is pretty accessible too. His System of Logic is not recommended reading for beginners, however.


Anyway, once you've got a sense of what philosophy is, which will hopefully be before you've got through the whole list, read some books by women. There are loads of great ones out there. My favourite philosophy book by anyone that I read last year was The Minority Body, by Elizabeth Barnes, which makes the case that being physically disabled isn't necessarily bad for you overall, and that disability identities have a lot in common with identities based on race, gender and the like. It's not an obviously correct position, but that's why she had to write the book. Read it. Unless you're a beginner, in which case you should read The Philosophy Files.