Contemporary Philosophizing

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library - Central LibraryRead Feed

Contemporary Philosophizing

Books that address (some of) the age-old questions

For some, contemporary philosophy is unintelligible or unduly occupied by trolley problems or filled by dry-as-dust statements that adhere to the demands of logic but say nothing about human life. Thankfully, philosophers today are in fact doing a great deal of interesting work -- especially if we understand philosophy to include a wide range of thought activities that examine our lives and the world we live in. Here's a selection of books that do just that, in myriad ways.

A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control by Massimo Pigliucci
Pigliucci journeys to classical Greece and Rome to drawn lessons from the varied body of Stoic works -- but in an unusually practical manner. Here he breaks down Stoic philosophy into 52 week-by-week lessons to help the reader apply teachings to modern life. The overall focus is on cultivating character with the ultimate aim of living a satisfying, virtuous life and on developing the ability to focus upon those things that we can affect -- and not upon what is beyond our influence. Each chapter includes a commentary on how the Stoics interpreted the particular concept discussed; a short, real-world example of how the skill or lesson in question is beneficial; and exercises to put the principle into practice. Also by the same author: How To Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

How To Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well by Catherine Wilson
Just as Pigliucci details Stoicism to the reader with the intent of conveying ancient wisdom to the contemporary world, so Wilson explores Epicureanism, as she sees it, "the most interesting and relevant of the ancient philosophical systems." Epicureanism, she says, does not give license for one to gorge, indulge, and be merry: it is an approach to live a simple and good life. She elaborates the keys to the philosophy, which include reason, respect for the natural world, reverence for our fellow humans, and true appreciation of those things that provide lasting pleasure or eudaemonia (human flourishing or welfare). And she updates references, issues, and difficulties to make the lessons relevant to the world we live in today.

Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality by Hector Macdonald
Truth -- arguably the most important of philosophical topics -- has long been the focus of logic; more recently, various philosophical schools have developed different criteria for what counts as true (or valid) and strategies for achieving it. In this book, Macdonald takes a wider approach, examining everyday situations and discourses to categorize the ways we communicate truths (or untruths), understand and misunderstand them, and then incorporate these truths/untruths and understandings/misunderstandings into action. He writes of partial truths, subjective truths, artificial truths, and unknown truths and shows how a clearer comprehension of the many faces of truth renders us better able to navigate our world and be more influential within it. 

The Year of Living Virtuously (Weekends Off): One Woman's Search for Meaning in an Ordinary Life by Teresa Jordan
Jordan takes a refreshingly non-doctrinaire approach to ethics -- or, specifically, to the effort to live a virtuous life. Inspired by Benjamin Franklin's project of "arriving at moral perfection" by mastering thirteen virtues (temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility) and avoiding the cardinal sins, she determines to follow the same path over the course of a year, focusing on each virtue for a week at a time, with weekends off. The journal she kept to record that year evolved into this book, an engrossing combination of essays, personal anecdotes, retelling of myths and stories, and pieces of wisdom from various thinkers (including, of course, Franklin).

Justice: What's the Right Thing To Do? by Michael J. Sandel
Michael Sandel has become well known (for a philosopher, anyway) during the past several decades for his lectures both inside and outside the classroom on ethics: he presents contemporary issues that evoke strong reactions and differences of opinion, which in turn illustrate our often conflicting ideas about the issues of the day. In this book he does the same thing, and in the process he provides the reader with an examination not just of issues but of various schools of ethical and political thought (utilitarianism, virtue ethics, libertarianism, etc.) and how those ideological frameworks approach those issues. There are no final answers here -- no polemics for a particular approach -- but rather a wise and compassionate exploration of the meaning of justice to which we are all invited.

The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity, Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture by Kwame Anthony Appiah 
Who are you? More to the point, how do you identify -- and how do others identify you, with regard to social categories such as religion, nationality, gender, color, cultural affiliation, and class? Appiah examines the origins of these categories, their uses, the ways in which the derived identities shape lives... and the pitfalls into which we are often led by them. He unsparingly points out the fallacies of these assigned elements of identity, but he also recognizes their usefulness, ultimately arguing for an appreciation of difference and an overriding recognition of all that humanity shares in common. I am human, I think nothing human alien to me. Also by the same author: Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, in which Appiah examines the ways in which our common humanity provides a basis for mutual respect and compassion -- and the necessity in the 21st century of an ethics based upon all-embracing cosmopolitanism.

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton
What can organized religions offer the non-believer? De Botton begins his book with the assertion that agnostics and atheists need to put aside the question that invariably draws the most attention: whether or not a given religion and its constituent doctrines is true. Arguments on that issue are eternal and ultimately useless. However, there is an endeavor for non-believers that is far more interesting and useful: finding the aspects of faith that can be useful in their lives, for religions have many lessons to offer and models that can be employed to great benefit in secular lives. De Botton, himself and atheist, looks to religion for insights into how to build community, make relationships last, advance ethics, use art as a tool for inspiration and compassion, and much else, using examples from various religious traditions, highlighting the psychological and social benefits of various practices, and suggesting how similar secular rituals might achieve similar purposes.