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Searching for Wisdom: Frank Buytendijk’s Recommended Reading List

Originally published December 28, 2012

Okay, I’ll admit it. I used Wikipedia to look up things for my book, Socrates Reloaded: The Case for Ethics in Business and Technology. Wikipedia is good at and meant for getting a first impression of a subject to see if it is worth further studying. I also used Google, searching for popular and academic pages and papers that helped clarify complex topics and arguments. Who doesn’t? The moment some part of my book captures your attention, these are great ways to start learning more, as you probably do daily in your own work and activities.

What is missing from Wikipedia, Google and most other web resources is a rich context that makes you understand the bigger picture. How can trends in philosophy be explained as a reaction to other trends? How did the various philosophers influence each other? What place do certain philosophies have as a product of their time in history? These are not questions that are easily answered by browsing around. They require richer sources.

Following is a very small selection of sources I used in writing Socrates Reloaded. I selected the ones that would be the most interesting for those readers who’d like to  delve a little deeper. From there, dear reader, I am sure you will find your own way through a lifetime of learning.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

These are the best Web resource that I have found. They are comprehensive, both in breadth and in depth. As there are many contributing entries, some are easier to read than others. But overall, this has become my first go-to place if I want to understand a new topic in philosophy.
Justice – Michael Sandel
Harvard University’s main philosophy professor, Michael Sandel, has put a complete series of lectures on YouTube. These lectures are full of humor, student interaction and amazing insights. Watching all of them helped me prepare for a number of themes in the book. Most of what is discussed in the series is also part of Sandel’s book, called Justice. This book is one of the few in-depth philosophy books I read with contemporary examples, and it is really fun to read.
The History of Philosophy – Brian Magee
Probably the best place to start to get a quick overview of the complete history of philosophy is Brian Magee’s book, The History of Philosophy. Abundantly illustrated, it captures the essence of most schools of thought, from the old Greeks and Chinese to twentieth century philosophy.
History of Western Philosophy – Bertrand Russell
However, if you are in for some serious reading, the best overview that I have read so far is Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Russell, a renowned 20th century philosopher himself, argues that if the old philosophers claimed universal truth on a number of issues, it is perfectly okay to challenge those truths with the knowledge and progress of today. Russell doesn’t hold back and doesn’t accept the “you have to see the work of the old philosophers in the light of the world in which they lived back then” excuse. As a famous philosopher himself, Russell presents both a thorough overview and takes position himself. He has skin in the game.
Philosophy for Dummies – Tom Morris
Don’t laugh. This is a very good general overview of philosophy. For dummies? Hardly. It takes extreme skill to describe various philosophical schools of thought in plain and simple terms, without losing the essence of them. A definite must-read. It has been an inspiration for me to learn how to boil down complex discussions to the essence.
Moral Theory, An Introduction – Mark Timmons
In studying philosophy, it won’t take you long to identify the topics that resonate most with you. For me, the topics were ethics and moral theory as bits and pieces of political philosophy. Not the easiest of books to read, Moral Theory provides a thorough overview of all schools of thought in this area.
Contemporary Political Philosophy – Will Kymlicka
Kymlicka’s book is considered the standard overview on political philosophy. Again, it’s not the most entertaining of reads, but it does provide a good overview. Kymlicka focuses on comparing and contrasting different schools of thought, instead of describing them independent from each other.
Examined Lives – James Miller
We are all the product of our time. Even some of the great philosophers had trouble overcoming the shortcomings of their own paradigms. For instance, Hegel reasoned that the 18th century Preusian form of government truly presented the ideal state. James Miller doesn’t describe the various philosophies in different ages; he describes the lives of the philosophers against the backdrop of the time and place where they lived. The title is a very appropriate reference to a famous quote from Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Primary Literature

Most of my recommendations here are secondary literature. Books that describe other books. Yes, I do have Kant’s collected works in my bookshelf, but honestly, that’s the only book I didn’t really read. Some philosophers pride themselves in their work being hard to understand. According to some, philosophy is really only for those who are smart enough to learn a completely new jargon. Jargon may be very efficient in communicating in a very precise way, but I don’t buy that argument. If you claim to have important contributions to make to “the good life” (an important topic in philosophy), then you should be willing and able to allow as many people as possible to benefit from it. Fortunately, some primary literature is very accessible.

The Art of War – Sun Tzu
Not really a book that has a story line or a clear logic in argument, The Art of War is more of a collection of short lessons and statements. Very relevant for today’s business nevertheless.
The Prince – Machiavelli
Who would think a 16th century book could be an entertaining read. Machiavelli’s The Prince certainly is. Unlike most other philosophers, Machiavelli doesn’t describe how things should be, but how they work in practice. It seems many lessons of power and leadership apply as much in the 16th century as they do now.
The Republic – Plato
Most of Plato’s work is written in the form of dialogue, often featuring his master Socrates. It is unclear if Plato is putting his own words in Socrates’ mouth, or is truly representing Socrates’ view. Many English translations have copious footnotes and elaborate side descriptions to explain what Plato is telling us through the dialogues, giving both the pleasure of the dialogue and a thorough background.
If you are in search of wisdom, I am afraid none of these books will provide the definitive answer. But that shouldn’t stop you. Starting with one or a few of these books can be a humbling experience. They may teach you how you can stand on the shoulders of giants. They may tell you where you stand so you know that your point of view is not unique. It is probably discussed (and rejected by others) on a much deeper level than you could do yourself. These books may also greatly help you framing, contextualizing and sharpening your thoughts so you can better reflect. And that may very well be the beginning of wisdom.

  • Frank BuytendijkFrank Buytendijk

    Frank's professional background in strategy, performance management and organizational behavior gives him a strong perspective across many domains in business and IT. He is an entertaining speaker at conferences all over the world, and was recently called an “intellectual provocateur” and described as “having an unusual warm tone of voice.” His work is frequently labeled as provocative, deep, truly original, and out of the box. More down to earth, his daughter once described it as “My daddy sits in airplanes, stands on stages, and tells jokes.” Frank is a former Gartner Research VP, and a seasoned IT executive. Frank is also a visiting fellow at Cranfield University School of Management, and author of various books, including Performance Leadership (McGraw-Hill, September 2008), and Dealing with Dilemmas (Wiley & Sons, August 2010). Frank's newest book, Socrates Reloaded, is now available and is highly recommended. Click here for more information on how to get your copy today.

    Editor's Note: More articles and a link to his popular blog are available in Frank's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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