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Sunday, 12 June 2011

Ciaran's Philosophy Reading List

Hello people.

This article isn't for everyone.  It's just for people who want to actually develop their own abilities as philosophers.

It's not an exhaustive list, but it is the list I would give my younger self as the absolute best place to start.

When I say start, what I mean is to start on the genuinely new path of Global Philosophy.  To find out more about what that is, check this link.

I'll start with Western Philosophy first.

Your absolute number one port of call here is a man I continually reference, called Bryan Magee.  He metabolised the entire Western Tradition.

He is a model of clarity, famed for it.  His writing is crystal clear, and he never obfuscates or claims more than he knows.

The first book you want to read is called

Confessions Of A Philosopher.

It is a semi-autobiographical work that contains a crystal clear analysis and overview of the entire Western Tradition.  It also gives a brilliant account of Karl Popper's work on the philosophy of science, which is instrumental to the new approach.

Once you've read that, then check out "The Great Philosophers" by the same guy, Bryan Magee.

The Great Philosophers is a set of interviews with the world's top specialists in the work of these people.  Magee is just like the light cutting through the darkness here, and his ability to bring clarity to this body of work is unreal.

Once you've read that you've geared yourself up to fully appreciate his magnum opus - The Philosophy Of Schopenhauer.

It is superb.

He's written scores of books, and not a one is less than excellent, but these are the three.  The reason you want to read them in this order is that by the time you finish, you will have got a crystal clear understanding of every major central idea of the Western tradition, all set in clear context, with the high-watermark of Western philosophy in clear view.

Three books to read - that's a pretty big payoff.  I do recommend you do it like this - this is the advice I would give to young Ciaran had I a DeLorean equipped with a flux capacitor.

Now, Eckhart Tolle is a very different kind of writer to Magee.  He's has all the flaws of an Eastern thinker - intermittent vagueness, and an occasional urge to use the word 'energy' in a way not strictly recognised by physics - but he also has this intense clarity of communication and a very stripped down way of talking about things, that I can only assume comes from his background as a Cambridge academic.

The Power Of Now is a brilliant piece.  It really Westernises Zen as much as it can be Westernised without dropping the reverence.  What this did for me was give me an 'in' - a clear understanding of enough of the core shape of what Eastern thought is all about that when I then came to hit the harder tomes of ancient wisdom, I wasn't just giving myself a headache.  I could see far deeper into them all, and that's because of the simplicity of Tolle's insight.

He's not flawless in the way he talks about it, and his style may grate for some, but I have found nobody who can bring the insight from the Eastern tradition into as clear a focus as he.

The Eastern texts I would highly recommend that you read personally are these:

1 - The Platform Sutra. - It is basically the equivalent of the Bible, but for Zen.  A tour de force.  Free online.

2 - The Tao Te Ching - The one work of Lao Tze.  It's up there with the most beautiful best poems ever, and it's profound to boot.  Free online.

3 - The Bhaghavad Gita - This is beautiful, there's no getting away from it.  Like a distillation of the Hindu Upanishads (the core basis for Indian philosophy).  When you read it, really search hard to get a version that is not relentlessly embedded with some scholar giving a page of theological analysis after every paragraph.  Just the Gita, thanks.

Those are probably your big three.

As for more modern pieces, it's really Advaita which has the heavy hitters.  Two really rise above the crowd.

1 - Ramana Maharshi's "Be As You Are" - a collection of dialogues collated by a fellow called David Godman if memory serves.  Free online on Scribd.  He's very good.

2 - Nisargadatta Maharaj's "I Am That" - again, this is free online and is a collection of dialogues.  This man has the patience of Job.  More edge than Maharshi, not quite as cuddly.  Brilliant.  Free online.

That's Eastern thought.  There is, however, another wisdom tradition that's far closer to home.  If you're from where I'm from.  Not if you're from India, or something.  Obviously.

There are three pieces of Christian Philosophy which I have encountered that are genuinely magnificent.  They are stunningly deep pieces, and I would recommend that you read them yourself, and find out what I mean.

1 - The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis.  This is the book that started me on philosophy.  It's incredible.

2 - The sermons of Meister Eckhart. -  He's amazing.  All his stuff is free online.

3 - The Gospel Of Thomas. - The person who you will meet in these sayings is very far from meek or mild.  Free online.

I think that's probably enough for now.  Of all the stuff I've read it's these things which have stayed with me, and which I would, with no reservation, recommend to you as the core part of your research into philosophy.

Have fun...

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

A Brief Note From Bryan Magee On Free Will

Free will.  Kinda a big deal in our day and age.  Us Westerners have it ingrained into our very souls.

I want to put this out there just as a supporting piece to something Stephen has written about the absence of self.

He's pointed out that if there's no you, there's also no anyone.  

Now yes, we've known this from day one - in a sense.  It was always one of the obvious consequences of the absence of self, there's no self for anyone, there never was.

But I think that we may have missed the full ramifications of this.  Maybe not - maybe.  

The thing is - if there's no-one, what is there?  Consciousness, thoughts, bodies, brains - no-one owning it.  But also... no-one pulling the strings.  

No-one pulling the strings.

That's the rub.  There is no puppetmaster directing the flow of life, there's just life.  Everywhere.  In everyone. Life flowing - getting blocked of course, tied into knots by the fundamental lie of the human condition - self - but still.

Anyway, I was reminded of something Bryan Magee wrote in The Philosophy Of Schopenhauer.  An insight Schopenhauer had about free will.

I could re-write the example, but that would be to mangle it, so I give you Bryan Magee's own words:

"If I am ordering a meal in a restaurant I may be free to choose whatever I like from among the alternatives on the menu. 

But I am not free to choose what what I like shall be. 

I cannot say to myself: 'Up to this point in my life I have always detested spinach, but just for today I am going
to like it.' 

Nor am I in a position to ask myself: 'Shall I decide that I am in the mood for fish, or shall I decide that I am in the mood for chicken?'

What I am in the mood for, and what I like or detest, are not at my command. It is not they that are matters of choice for me: they are given to me as accomplished facts, and it is on the basis of them that I make my

I can choose whatever it is I wish to choose, but I cannot will what it is that I shall wish to choose. As it has often been put, I can choose what I will but I cannot will what I will."




Because if you look at it like this, it's actually not difficult to notice that free will, as commonly conceived, is - at the very least - a profoundly simplistic way of looking at the situation.

We can be free (of outside pressure) to do what we like or not.... but we cannot choose what we like.

So actually, when you look at it, this is a lot closer to the idea of life flowing, and only getting irritated when it is blocked or confounded in where it already wants to go.

Why does this matter?  Because there is no choice per se.  Not in the sense that all the data goes to a central processor, gets numbercrunched and then a true choice emerges.

Even if there were a CPU in the human brain (and there isn't) what would the numbercrunching be in aid of?  You'd be looking to get the most optimal outcome from a choice you make.  But optimal by what standard?

Magee's point isn't that we ARE free to choose what to do to get the best out of life - but we are NOT free to choose what we think the best of life IS.

This to me seems related.  I think this is interesting - and I think that there may be something in this.  A new way of looking at the world.  Maybe.  Hmm.



Monday, 3 January 2011


There are few words in the English language who's meaning has been twisted as much as this word.

The fact is that it's been taken and used by millions of people in such a way that it means something very set and specific now.  What it means is - things that have no evidence, or cannot be proven, but I believe them anyway.

And to go further, it also means the 'special goodness' of a person who does that.

This special goodness is seen as a holy and vital thing, to be protected.  You can't be challenging your beliefs too much, or your faith might be shaken.  So don't do it.

Now, here's the thing.  If you have a belief that you have to protect from being challenged, how much faith can you really be said to have?

How much faith can you really be said to have that what you believe is true, if you have to close your ears to things?

Surely, if you actually did have faith that what you believed was true, you would be totally fine with having it challenged, because your faith would be that if it's real, no challenge can actually change the reality of it.

If it's not real, then who cares?  Best kick that belief as soon as possible.

But also, there's another dynamic, which is very interesting, and hasn't really been looked at.  And this dynamic is key to all science, all true philosophy, and all human discovery.

Pay attention, it's a little bit subtle.  Not too much, but you can't dial this in, so keep your eye on the ball here.

If you have a belief and it is challenged in a way you've never seen before, or never thought before, what happens?

Well, if you have faith that your belief is actually true, you build up the challenge.  You don't hide from it, or call it heresy, or pick at little bitty problems with it.  You, even more than the person issuing the challenge, want to know if it is true.

Can you see?  If it's a belief you hold, you have by far the more invested in whether or not that belief is true.  What this means is, you have far more invested in whether or not that challenge is true.

Is this making sense?  That you're not hiding your beliefs, or protecting them.  If you have faith in your beliefs, you want them challenged and you want to see them challenged well.

Because at the end of the day, what you believe is what you bet your life on, one way or another.  If you're betting your life on something that isn't true, you want to get off that bet as fast as you can.

And after all this, we come to that really interesting dynamic I talked about earlier.  The one that is fundamental to science, and human discovery.

It's this.  That if someone is challenging your belief in a way that you have never seen before, and what you believe actually is true, then building up that challenge, and making it really strong, and staring it right in the eye, won't destroy your belief.

Right?  Because no matter how much you build up that challenge, no matter how strong you make it, if what you believe actually is true, it can't ever destroy it.  There has to come a point where that challenge will collapse, of its own accord.

Most people never do this.  Most people protect what they believe - whether it is religious, or not.  Don't get fooled by the word 'faith' into thinking this is just something that religious people do.  Everyone does it.  It is the norm.

The norm is to protect what you believe, from any challenge.  To pick little holes in the things set against you, and what you believe, and never to truly stare into the heart of them.  To make little sniping attacks, just enough so you can reject and ignore what's being said.

This is essentially how the majority of people, religious or otherwise, deal with challenges to their beliefs.

And if you do this, and continue to do this, then you're in glad company because you're just the same as everyone else.

The other way of dealing with challenges is far rarer, but has massive power.  Specifically, the power to reveal.  To reveal unseen contour and shape.

And it works like this.

If you have faith that what you believe is actually true, you'll stare challenges right in the eye.  You won't be interested in picking at little side-problems or incidental issues.  You want to know if this challenge is true.


If it is true, your belief will be shattered.  But that's ok, because it can only be shattered if it's actually false.  So nothing lost.  Apart from a lie.


But if that challenge falls apart... and pay attention here, this is the subtle bit, the bit that underlies all scientific discovery - if that challenge falls apart, you get to see HOW it falls apart.

Forgive the shouty capital letters, but it's a very important word.

And it's important because the 'how' of that challenge's failure is not something anyone could have predicted. You didn't invent it.  The challenger didn't invent it.  And that challenge will always fall apart in the same way.

And that way - where is that coming from?

Where is that detail coming from?

It's new information, right?  Can you see that.  How a challenge collapses in the core is not information that you had before you looked into it.  It's not information that the person who laid the challenge had - they believed the challenge was strong, that's why they put it out there.

So where is it coming from?

The answer is simple.  Reality.  A challenge that fails reveals a contour - and the deeper you have looked into that challenge, the deeper the contour.

This is how discovery happens, and it all begins with faith.  The faith to throw your beliefs into the fire, and see what burns.  The faith in reality, in the truth of things, to know that the worst that can happen to you is that you lose a lie.

And the best that can happen is that you reveal something about that very truth that you believe that you have never seen before.  Many times, it's something nobody has ever seen before - because so very few people actually treat ideas and beliefs like this.

This is how discovery happens.  When you look deep into a challenge - a good one, a strong one - because win, lose or draw, something will be revealed.

Now remember - tiny little, picky, small-minded challenges that have no vision or depth to them, but merely pick at little side issues to look clever, or whatever - these are of very little value in this.  And looking deeply into them usually reveals their hollowness very quickly.

What you're looking for is risk and danger.  If it doesn't genuinely endanger your beliefs, leave it.  Find the stuff that does.  Find the stuff that shakes it, that opens up vistas of the real that throw it all into doubt.

They're the powerful ones, they're the ones that open up the belief you have, and make it work.

If, of course, you have faith.  Real faith.  Faith enough to go beyond belief, and discover something far better than that little human conceit.


Now, philosophy as I practise it can essentially be understood as this process, applied in an industrial way, to the foundational assumptions of pain, suffering, hope and truth.  It's not a particularly complex idea - but the practise is ferociously complex.

To turn this approach inward, into the deepest assumptions of humanity, is a very intense thing to do, and a very difficult thing to do well.

Why?  Well, when you're dealing with the very deepest assumptions and beliefs of human life, the stakes are very high.

It is scary to stare into challenges that will, if true, utterly destroy all hope.  But these are the deepest challenges, and the most potent revelations, and so this must be done.

Another reason is that any new idea about how suffering works has to be tested on real suffering.  And the more powerful the idea, the more accurate it is, the more it must be pushed, and the harder it must be pushed, to get to the breaking point.  And so the nastier the emotional backlash when it comes down - if it does.

There's another big issue as well.

When you see how challenges break down, that does reveal previously unseen contours of reality.  But because you don't know the whole of reality, you don't know where those contours fit into the wider picture.

So what you get is a lot of insights that are very deep, but aren't connected.

Of course, everything true is connected - but the question is how.  And you don't know that.  So a big part of this process (in terms of philosophy) is taking those insights and seeing how they connect.  Trying to find commonalities and patterns that link them up.

However - human beings are pretty damn good at pattern recognition.

Philosophy as I do it takes years to develop.  Years.  There is no short cut.  It's a hard path... but a real one.  And it really does generate insight, both deep revelations and the bringing together of those revelations into a clear and coherent picture - like nothing else can.

The process isn't for everyone.  The theory is simple, but the practise is not.  There are a thousand little rules of thumb that hold it all together, and that only experience can allow you to develop.

So let me leave you with this.  If you want to be a philosopher, as I do it, this is how.  Spend 6 hours a day, every day, for 5 years, doing this and only this, with the deepest things you can get your hands on.  Read widely and deeply.  Don't worry about remembering all the names or quotes - you just want to get to the core of what people are saying, because that's where the really deep perspectives are, and the deep revelations.

Go deep, step back.  Go deep, step back.  Rinse and repeat.

After 5 years, if you push yourself, and if you put in that 6 hours a day, you will have mastered this process to the extent that you will be genuinely able to blow ideas clean apart and get the core of things in a way that is unheard of in this world.

Not.  For.  Everyone.

I'm not recommending you do this.  I'm not saying it's a good idea.  It's what I do.  It's the method I developed.  I don't know of anything else that can do anything like what this method can do.  If I did, I'd be doing that.

But even if you're not interested in being a philosopher (and fair enough, it's something of a mixed bag, and it doesn't have a very good pension plan) you can still use the method above to cut to the heart of things, and see what can be seen.

You don't have to 'go industrial' like I did.  But to really understand things, to really get inside the results of this method and have them change your life, faith is how.

Faith in reality.  That you don't need to protect your beliefs - if they're true, they don't need protecting, and if they're not, they shouldn't be protected.  To stare deeply into every challenge, everything that shakes your assumptions.

It's not just the way to generate deep insight into the human soul.

It's the way to use that insight too.