Monday, 25 March 2013

Introductions to Philosophy - between the University of Edinburgh on Coursera and Nigel Warburton's basics

After reading some philosophical works, some more literary such as Camus' The Stranger, others more academic or theoretical as The Laws of Plato or Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil (reviewed here), I decided it was time to have a proper introduction to philosophy as a whole. I've always been interested in some philosophical fields of study but until recently I felt I knew too little of what it means to be a philosopher nowadays. In order to address this problem I found two simultaneous solutions. One was to participate in an Introduction to Philosophy online course from the University of Edinburgh and the other was read Nigel Warburton's Philosophy: the basics. Most of the themes shared by both I heard first on the course sessions and then reviewed them by reading the book.
I have only good things to say about the course. Most of the speakers were beyond good at introducing the main questions in philosophy and I felt interested in further exploring all of them. Questions addressed went from the concept of philosophy, epistemology - knowledge and skepticism -, mind and morality to things like belief in testimony - more skepticism -, in scientific theories and even the logical plausibility of time travel. Other than the video lectures, the people responsible for each theme also gave advice on further reading, both on resources available online and on books. A cool coincidence was the reference to Philosophy Bites, a podcast by David Edmonds and none less than Nigel Warburton. Most courses in the Coursera platform are repeated after a while so be on the lookout if you're interested. I highly recommend it for those that, like me, have had little or no previous introduction to philosophy.
If I must say that adding the course to the book made it much easier to grasp all the information on each of them, I also must emphasize how well Nigel Warburton's book works as an introduction. Without dwelling much on what philosophy is or what is it's history or it's main authors, the book essentially shows what it is all about by describing and discussing how some important issues are addressed in philosophical inquiry. After a short general introduction about philosophy, the book includes argumentations subject to themes such as the existence of god, the definition of right and wrong, politics, the external world, science, mind and art. In each section we are presented with the main theories for the specific issue, their arguments and counter-arguments, and finally the author recommends further reading for those interested in a deeper analysis.
For those who believe philosophical inquiry to be something theoretical, withdrawn from reality or everyday life, this is a book that will prove you wrong. Some of my favourite chapters, exploring morality (right and wrong), politics or even the concept of art, can contribute to the reader's understanding of some essential ideas, social demands and people's choices or behaviour, and that couldn't be closer to what we need on a daily basis. To realize, even if superficially, where some of the political discourse comes from is fundamental to any active adult citizen, and to know the ideas linked to the ever evolving artistic movements is important to anyone who aims to understand art to its fullness. To save you from a never-ending post, I'll avoid arguing the primordial importance of understanding where our moral standards come from and how they are connected to the reality or to some sense of absolute or relative right and wrong in order to avoid a deeply prejudiced view of the world around us.

Taking all I have just said into account, what I recommend, above all else, is that everyone should be properly introduced to philosophy as a discipline but mostly to what philosophical inquiry has to offer in terms of understanding ourselves and the world around us. If you do this by attending a good course, such as the one on the Coursera platform I mentioned, or by reading a written work on the basics of philosophy, such as Warburton's, or even if, as myself, you do both, it doesn't really matter, as long as you please do something. You'll be doing it for yourself and, in the process, doing something for all of us, because to live in a world of people who understand knowledge, concepts, morals, rules, truths and perceptions would be much better than to insist on keeping what we have now.

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