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Wizard's Lair Bookstore

Esoteric Books: Philosophy

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Confessions of a Philosopher: A Journey Through Western Philosophy ~ Usually ships in 24 hours
by Bryan Magee / Hardcover / Published 1998

"Confessions" is a somewhat misleading term in this context: you won't find any lurid tales between these covers. Bryan Magee's memoirs-cum-histories of philosophy aren't even "confessions" in the self-flagellating tradition of St. Augustine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

So what is "Confessions of a Philosopher," then? It's a fascinating excursion through 2,000 years of wondering about the basic nature of existence and reality. As a 20th-century philosopher, Magee has a lot to say about his peers, and he spares no feelings. The "Oxford philosophers," who decided that philosophy was not about the nature of existence but about the nature of language, yet refused to give any consideration to fiction, are particular targets of Magee's intellectual scorn, while the late Karl Popper, a personal acquaintance of the author, is celebrated as a man who persevered in philosophy's true duties in the face of widespread academic frippery.

If you've ever wondered why we exist, you have what it takes to be a philosopher ... or at least to understand one. Bryan Magee's "Confessions" are thoroughly engaging proof that you don't need a degree to be a deep thinker.

Amazon Price: $18.17 ~ You Save: $7.78 (30%)

Doing the Right Thing: Cultivating Your Moral Intelligence ~ Usually ships in 24 hours
by Aaron Hass / Hardcover / Published 1998

Aaron Hass is a professor of psychology, but it's his experience as a clinical psychologist--heading off suicide and gluing marriages back together--that informs "Doing the Right Thing." Resolutely unconcerned with abstract questions, and deliberately setting aside such tough moral chestnuts as abortion and capital punishment, he offers instead a straightforward guide to two intermingled issues. First, why is it, despite the attractions of selfishness, that we are generally better off when we do what we believe to be right? And second, how, on the most practical level, can we do ourselves and everyone around us the favor of becoming better people?

This is refreshing stuff, especially from someone in a profession that has done its best to treat notions like self-restraint, self-sacrifice, and moral character as distasteful jokes. For Hass, they are nothing less than keys to a cure. The book's treatment of philosophical issues is light; occasional references to Kant or Aristotle are strictly pro forma and essential subjects such as psychological egoism--the popular view that all human action is "really" self-interested--are dismissed with almost flippant ease. But it's worth reading just for the anecdote about what happened when researchers put seminarians under tight deadlines to finish a sermon on the Good Samaritan-- and then ensured that, in order to present their work, they would have to pass by a shabbily dressed man who was coughing and groaning as if in pain. "Doing the Right Thing" also contains other well handled discussions of such matters as whether God is a necessary foundation for workable value and the way that generosity and courage, just like dishonesty and cruelty, are subject to a powerful snowball effect.

Amazon Price: $16.80 ~ You Save: $7.20 (30%)

The Last Word ~ Usually ships in 24 hours
by Thomas Nagel / Hardcover / Published 1996

In "The Last Word," Thomas Nagel argues against what he calls subjectivism, "a general tendency to reduce the objective pretensions of reason." On his enemies list are the architects of postmodernism, social scientists with delusions of grandeur, and philosophers ranging from Hume and Kant to W.V. Quine and Richard Rorty. Regarding reason as based on contingent features of our nurture, culture, or nature, such subjectivists contend that reason is not generally valid, but valid only from our point of view. Challenges to reason in general are bound not to convince: they subvert themselves if based on reason, but are not worth taking seriously otherwise. Challenges to reason in particular domains, such as logic or ethics, are expressed by "ritualistic metacomments declaring one's allegiance to subjectivism" about logic or ethics. But, Nagel argues, the subjectivist claims are unintelligible unless understood as claims of logic or ethics, and therefore can be adjudicated on logical or ethical grounds. The drastically schematic nature of Nagel's refutation of subjectivism is troublesome, inviting the question of whether anyone truly accepts the position that he attacks. It also inspires doubt that his refutation is developed enough to be, as advertised, the panacea for subjectivism. Nevertheless, "The Last Word" is highly recommended to philosophers and to anyone else interested in thinking about reason. Elegantly written and incisively argued, it is sure to provoke discussion--and thus ensure that it will be anything but the last word.

Amazon Price: $19.95

The Invention of Autonomy ~ Usually ships in 24 hours
by J.B. Schneewind / Paperback / Published 1997

At the beginning of "The Invention of Autonomy," J.B. Schneewind modestly explains that he began work on the book "because there were many aspects of Kant's moral philosophy I could not understand," and he therefore sought to understand Kant's remarkable contribution to moral theory by considering it in its historical context. By the time one finishes reading the book, over 500 pages later, it's reasonable to question if there's anything about modern moral philosophy that Schneewind fails to understand.

"The Invention of Autonomy" is divided into four main parts. In the first part, Schneewind discusses the natural-law theory of morality, as classically expounded by St. Thomas Aquinas, and traces its rise and fall by considering the works of Luther, Calvin, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Charron, Suarez, Grotius, Hobbes, Cumberland, Pufendorf, Locke, and Thomasius. The second part deals with perfectionist approaches, as exemplified by Herbert of Cherbury, Descartes, the Cambridge Platonists, Spinoza, Malebranche, and Leibniz. The third part looks at moral philosophers who, by and large, are inclined to regard morality as independent of God's ongoing cooperation. Most of the canonical British moralists, from Shaftesbury, Clarke, and Mandeville to Hume, Reid, and Bentham, are included. Finally, in the fourth part, Schneewind examines anticipations of Kant's invention (or, perhaps, discovery) of autonomy in the works of Wolff, Crusius, the French philosophers, and Rousseau. He then skillfully relates Kant's moral thought to the rich tradition preceding it.

In comprehensiveness, authoritativeness, insightfulness, and accessibility, there is simply no work in English on the history of modern ethics that rivals "The Invention of Autonomy." Nobody interested in moral philosophy or its history can afford to ignore it.

Amazon Price: $25.95

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (10 volume set) ~ Usually ships in 1-2 weeks
edited by Edward Craig / Hardcover Boxed Edition / Published 1998

In this 10-volume set, we have a truly global encyclopedia of metaphysical thought--not just philosophy, but theology as well. Although it has noticeable British and American sensibilities, the "Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy" is a multicultural affair with over 2,000 individual articles, including entries for Cheng Hao and Baal Shem Tov along with Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant, and it discusses Mahayana Buddhism as ably as it discusses deconstruction theory. Admirable efforts have been made by the individual contributors (all 1,300-plus of them) to maintain such clarity of presentation as to provide a sophisticated yet accessible intellectual primer that requires only a willingness to learn. This is the philosophic equivalent of the "Oxford English Dictionary," doubling as an indispensable reference and a marvelously indulgent splurge.

Amazon Price: $2495.00

Achieving Our Country ~ Usually ships in 2-3 days
by Richard Rorty / Hardcover / Published 1998

There are many shameful incidents in America's past: the institution of slavery, genocidal assaults on the indigenous peoples of this continent, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and so on. What should our response to such acts be? Should we regard the nation as irredeemably tainted by sin and spend our time cataloging its evils, or should we acknowledge its shortcomings and make a conscious effort to turn it into a better nation?

Richard Rorty believes that there is hope for America, but that today's Left is not meeting the challenge. He contrasts the cultural, academic Left's focus on our heritage of shame (which, he admits, has to the extent that it makes hatred intolerable had the positive effect of making America a more civil society) with the politically engaged reformist Left of the early part of this century. "The distinction between the old strategy and the new is important," he writes. "The choice between them makes the difference between what Todd Gitlin calls common dreams and what Arthur Schlesinger calls disuniting Americans. To take pride in being black or gay is an entirely reasonable response to the sadistic humiliation to which one has been subjected. But insofar as this pride prevents someone from also taking pride in being an American citizen, from thinking of his or her country as capable of reform, or from being able to join with straights or whites in reformist initiatives, it is a political disaster."

Amazon Price: $13.27 ~ You Save: $5.68 (30%)

Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers ~ Usually ships in 24 hours
by Richard Rorty / Paperback / Published 1998

The philosopher's task, Richard Rorty writes, is "to clear the road for prophets and poets, to make intellectual life a bit simpler and safer for those who have visions of new communities." The essays collected in "Truth and Progress" show that Rorty is more than up to the challenge. His pragmatic approach is as well suited to brokering peace between "coworkers" Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida as it is to addressing more violent disputes. As Rorty sees it, part of the reason feminism has not been entirely successful in achieving its goals, or ethnic conflicts still rage around the globe, is that we still cling to the notion of an inherent human nature. "Plato set things up," he explains, "so that moral philosophers think they have failed unless they convince the rational egotist that he should not be an egotist--convince him by telling him about his true, unfortunately neglected self. But the rational egotist is not the problem. The problem is the gallant and honorable Serb who sees Muslims as circumcised dogs. It is the brave soldier and good comrade who loves and is loved by his mates, but who thinks of women as dangerous, malevolent whores and bitches."

Instead of trying to answer the question, "What is human nature?" Rorty proposes that we ask ourselves what we would like human nature to be, then make every possible effort to be that. In doing so, he does not reject previous philosophic inquiry, although he believes that philosophers must be willing to admit, as scientists do, when their predecessors got things wrong. If inquiry is the continual grappling with and resolution of problems, rather than a quest for "truth," the lessons learned from the past become invaluable tools to apply to new problems as they emerge. Many people disagree with Rorty's conclusions, but they all seem to agree that he has liberated philosophy from detached contemplation of "the real" and reconnected it to the world we live in. "Truth and Progress" does what all good philosophy should do: it makes you think.

Amazon Price: $15.16 ~ You Save: $3.79 (20%)

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