...but you don't know what to start with.

DISCLAIMER. This is a factual node. My intentions are to write (in a somewhat humorous manner) a guide for beginners in the field of philosophy as a hobby. I bear no responsibility for any consequences. So, if after reading this, you find philosophy interesting, you start studying Nietzsche, you become an atheist and finally be burning eternally in Hell, well... in that case, SEE YOU THERE!

First of all, are you sure you want to be a philosopher? I mean, don't you prefer instead to visit this wonderful Mickey Mouse node? :-)

OK, I'm joking, but I warn you, as Walter Sobchak said in 'The Big Lebowski', you are entering a world of pain...

A world of pain??? Why a world of pain?, you'll ask.
You said it man. 'Why'. This is the magic word. If you get involved with philosophy, all your sentences will begin with "Why..." and will end with a question mark. And most of the times there will be no answer. That's why philosophy is a world of pain, because its path is paved with unanswered whys. So, you ask again, what's the point of philosophy? What's its value?

Here's what the philosopher Bertrand Russell has to say about the value of philosophy:

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

So, philosophy is a tool, something like a Swiss Army Knife (but not of the material world, so don't try to open any cans with it :-). You can use it to look into yourself, to find out who you are, what you are, why you are, what is the purpose of your life, is there a God, is there Heaven, is there Hell, what is the source of morality. But careful, don't expect to get 'The Answers', remember what Bertrand Russell said above. Instead, after contemplating into those matters, you will find out what your philosophical inclinations really are and, moreover, you will be able to base your everyday beliefs on logic (after having questioned them). And never forget that the more obvious you consider something, the more questioning it requires.

The first steps

Philosophy, I admit it, is a rather "heavy" word. It is not that easy to wake up one morning, eat your Kornflakes and start writing like Nietzsche. You must take it easy.

OBSERVE & QUESTION. One of the most important things, that will give you plenty of food for thought and stimuli is OBSERVING & QUESTIONING. Observe and Question everything. Find out what is behind things, use your gray cells as Hercule Poirot would say, train them to penetrate facts. Look at that advertisement of this new Nokia mobile. Why did they choose to show a father, being on a trip, away from his family, hearing the first attempts of his little son to say "papa!"? Don't you think they are aiming at your emotions with a rather abusive way?

INTERACT. Do not constrain yourself in the microcosmos of your direct environment. Go out, interact with people, talk to them, provoke them. Talk to very different kinds of people. Talk to skinheads for example. Try if you can see things from their point of view. Try to find out what circumstances formed in them the way they see things. Do you think some people have annoying superstitions? Inquire. Make them feel uncomfortable. Remember it is not bad what you are doing. In a sense, you awake them, you stir them. If you find out that your grandmother is annoyed when you let your slippers upside-down (example taken from MY grandmother :-), let your slippers upside-down. She will tell you not to do so. Ask persistently why. See how people respond when you challenge their unsubstantiated views or opinions. Do they get angry? Do they feel like engaging in a religious-style defense?

KNOW THY SELF. No matter you don't like clubs, go there and see what exactly is that you don't like. Stare at that woman who dances very sensationally alone in that corner. Stare at her contentedness as she moves. Try to understand her like-trance state. Go in the movies and see the Titanic. It is worth giving $5 for seeing a movie you would rather not see, only to be able to see the girls crying at the last scenes :-). If you find yourself also emotionally involved, in a state not crying (thank god :-), but having this feeling in your throat, this difficulty to swallow, try to analyze it. Try to rationalize it. Why do you feel like that? Analyze your behavior. You find yourself angry with something. Observe your actions. Afterwards, try to remember yourself while you were angry. What were you doing? How do those actions look like, now that you have calmed down? You yourself are a great source of knowledge. Always keep an eye on you.

Philosophy is a mental game, regard it as such

In order to start with philosophy, just have some fun, play with it, for example by making irritating, persisting and provoking questions about obvious things to relatives and friends. It doesn't matter at all if they regard these questions as jokes or if they understand that you are just trying to piss them off. Joking or not, just insist that they answer. These questions will help you, first, to have a nice time, second, to start peeping into the field of philosophy and third, to involve also other people into this procedure (you need that, or else who are you gonna discuss these matters with?)

Let me give you an example of irritating, persisting and provoking question methodology. "F" is a friend of yours, "U" is ...you :-)

...(the conversation raises the issue of killing)

F: ...

U: And why is killing people bad?

F: I thought we were speaking seriously.

U: I AM speaking seriously. Why is killing people bad?

F: Because it is KILLING! And to kill is bad.

U: You still haven't answered why killing is bad.

F: I'll tell you what. Go and kill somebody. And I will come to see you every Sunday in jail.

U: Do you imply that killing is bad, otherwise we wouldn't persecute the murderers? But that is just like saying that killing is bad because the law says it. And then my question would be "If the law said nothing about persecuting murderers, would it be OK to kill?". Is that your sense of morality?

F: No, of course not! Of course it wouldn't be OK to kill. The law does not define what is good and bad, it just reflects the morality of the society. Killing is bad because it is ethically unacceptable. And ethics are defined, for example by religion. And religion does not exactly regard killing as the best thing to do :-)

U: You avoid explaining to me why killing is bad by constantly referring to some higher "authority". So, now you tell me that killing is bad because religion, that is, God says so. And what if God, in his ten commandments said that killing is fine? Would you then take a kitchen knife, and stab me, you bastard? :-)

F: Man! Are you an idiot or what??!!! God would never propose something so absurd like that!

U: Aha! So you mean that the concepts of "good" & "bad" are out of God's jurisdiction. You mean that if God proposed that killing is good, He would be an absurd God. But then how do you explain that in this way, God seems to be subject to morals? What?! God subject to something?! NOW, THAT'S ABSURD! So, you only have the choice to admit that it would be possible that killing would be good if God had said so. Am I right? Eh? AM I RIGHT?

F: Errr...Hmmm... Oh, man, shut up, the Jerry Springer show begins!

You must observe that, you should try to keep the mood of the conversation at very friendly levels. You should joke occasionally. Remember, you do not want to start fighting, it is a game. I mean, use your instinct in order to keep a balance between challenging the other's views (which is essentially discomforting for him/her) and not drive him/her to raise his/her defense shields, because then, he/her will become inaccessible for further/future conversation.

What's next

What's next? READING, READING, READING, READING, READING and in case I forgot to mention, R-E-A-D-I-N-G. Let's say reading for about 5-10 years. Rome was not built in a day. Thousands (do you realize that?! Thousands!) of years of philosophy, created a really vast amount of theories about nearly everything. Here's a list (to start with) of various philosophies as listed in my philosophical lexicon:

Agnosticism, Altruism, Anarchism, Anarcho-Capitalism, Animism, Behaviorism, Collectivism, Consequentialism, Deontology, Determinism, Dualism (Mind-Body), Egalitarianism, Egoism, Empiricism, Epicureanism, Essentialism, Ethical Relativism, Existentialism, Fatalism, General Semantics, Hedonism, Humanism, Idealism, Intrinsicism, Kantianism, Logical Positivism, Materialism Monism, Mysticism Naturalism, Nihilism, Nominalism, Pacifism, Positivism, Pragmatism, Rationalism, Realism, Secular Humanism, Sensationalism, Situation Ethics Skepticism, Social Darwinism, Solipsism, Stoicism, Subjectivism, Thomism, Transcendentalism, Utilitarianism, Vitalism, Zen, and Zen Buddhism are waiting for you!

When I refine and form my own philosophical view about life/human/god/knowledge/morals etc, I will enrich the above list with... dogganism :-). Stay tuned!

May the Internet be with You

The Internet is your friend, since there you can find almost *EVERYTHING*. There are several search engines that will help you find your way through the tons of information available. My favorite is Google (http://www.google.com) and is one of the most powerful out there. One of the problems you will probably encounter while reading, is the inherent complexity of the writings, combined with the possible difficulty you may have with the language in which the essays are written. Do not give up. If your mother-language is english, you are lucky. If your english is fair, you can still make it. Arm yourself with a good lexicon (there are also many freely available on the Internet) and begin reading. You don't need to look up every word, for except from being tiresome, it is also useless. Use your instinct so that you look up only those words, which have a meaning which cannot be speculated by context and is essential for the further understanding.

Of course, for writings in your own language, have a look at a local bookstore. But except if someone suggests to you a really good introduction to philosophy book, do not attempt to buy any books titled "A post-modern critic to the essence of Existentialism". It may look fancy and cool in your library, but after reading the first five pages, there will be a strange look on your face :-)

This is why I, personally, suggest the Internet for the beginning. It is full with small essays, medium-sized readings, by very famous philosophers, which should be a very good starting point for you. Below I give some URLs, just to get started. I do not suggest that they represent the whole amount of philosophy-related things you can find in the Internet, they are just a sample (with enough material to keep you going for months, nevertheless).

  • Very useful site for finding writings of many philosophers. Check out also their homepage (http://www.epistemelinks.com) for other useful philosophy resources.

  • A site with innumerable writings of very famous philosophers like Nietzsche, Russell, Wittgenstein, Voltaire and many others. As the name suggests, this is the Heaven of the Atheist ! (could not resist the pun :-)

  • Philosophy Now. A very interesting online magazine with many articles covering a wide range of classical philosophy issues as well as current issues, war, etc.

  • Pathways to Philosophy. An excellent site with plenty of food for thought. Check also their huge question-answer library here: http://www.shef.ac.uk/~ptpdlp/questions/feedback/feedback.html

  • The International Society for Philosophers. How about some philosophy studies? Visit for links, information, studies, distant learning, etc.

  • A very complete site about Marxism. Hosts hundreds of essays of big thinkers and is not only strictly about Marxism, but also about matters that touch general issues of philosophy.

Some examples

Suppose you want to get acquainted with the various philosophies and theories about religious matters, the existense of God etc. A good start for stimulation is to read Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth. It is very easily readable, in the style of a story and deals with people's deceptions regarding religious matters. You can find it here: http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/twainlfe.htm

If you want some stimulation about Man's place and purpose and importance in the universe, try The Theologian's Nightmare by Bertrand Russell. It is astonishingly small (less than two pages), yet, gives a very penetrating glance at matters regarding our existence.

In addition to the above, a very interesting and comprehensible (more than the title suggests :-)  read, is Jean-Paul Sartre's Existentialism is a Humanism, written in 1946, which gives a basic insight at the theory of existentialism and defends it against the various reproaches launched against it. You can find it here:

How should You Read1

The 'How Should I Read?' issue is, a most serious one. Do not get discouraged if you don't understand much. Concentrate on the things that you DO understand. Have a notebook nearby. And for god's sake, do not hesitate to make notes as you read on the books you bought (except if you borrowed them) and on the essays you printed from the Internet. You want to keep track of your own ideas and observations as you proceed with reading and understanding. You will soon find out that philosophical ideas are forming a web. You may read an essay and not quite get the meaning. Leave it. After having read ten other, have a second read. It is probable that this attempt will be somewhat more successful. Nobody expects you to cope with an essay of the father of Existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard just from the beginning. If you don't get a paragraph, don't read it two-hundred-thousand times. You will forget what the whole thing you were reading was about. Read the whole thing again after some days, maybe your subconscious has done the hard work for you.

Since I mentioned the subconscious, I must say that you should never underestimate its function and power. What I want to say is that it is not necessary after reading something, to be able to explain it in every detail. Instead, give yourself some time for digesting what you read. When your idea-web that I mentioned above will start to get tighter and the ideas will start to bond together, everything will start to make sense, and you will be able to explain ideas and concepts much easier. It is a process which requires time, effort and patience.

1 IMHO, always :-)

Some last notes...

You don't have to write 2500 essays and 70 books like Bertrand Russell to be a philosopher. 'Philosophy' is a greek word and means 'the friend' (philo) 'of wisdom' (sophia). So, its easy to be a friend of wisdom, you just have to have your eyes and mind open and learn. And do not think that 'philosopher' means to be over 60 years old, smoke a pipe and talk to nobody. And philosophy is not incompatible with any other earthly activities and interests: After all, I (dogganos) am a Phd (Permanently head Damaged ;-) student in the field of Computer Networks, yesterday night I was dancing at a club, left the place at 6 o'clock in the morning totally drunk and my last writeup was AES may have been broken (cryptography). Yet, whenever, wherever, I never forget to ask WHY. (oh, and I like Shakira if you noticed :-)