What should they be reading? Which books are worth recommending to students of Philosophy and Religious Studies?

The following is a rather personal list of publications that I would recommend to sixth-formers who wish to expand their horizons a little by engaging in some supplementary reading over and above their course textbooks. Teachers who are inclined to read around the subject may enjoy some of them too. Note that I am restricting myself here mainly to books related to Philosophy and Ethics.

A big problem is identifying titles that may appeal to A level students and that are also relatively easy to understand, especially when it comes to those who might be finding Philosophy and Religious Studies difficult. Fortunately, there are still quite a few to choose from.

One of the most important virtues with respect to the authoring of pop philosophy books is clarity. Fortunately, Nigel Warburton has the common touch in this regard. Each chapter of this estimable publication somehow manages to be wonderfully lucid, and yet this is not achieved at the expense of oversimplifying the core ideas of the philosophers whose thinking is encapsulated within the space of a few brief pages in each instance. Plus, many of the philosophers (and theologians) mentioned are those who feature prominently in the syllabuses for all the major exam boards.

Gary Hayden may be a less well-known author than Warburton but his prose is just as clear, and it is also vibrant and entertaining. The approach he adopts here is similar, with short chapters devoted to the ideas of the major Western (and in some cases Eastern) philosophers. Frequently, the discussions revolve around the most counter-intuitive of their ideas. For example, if Bentham’s assertion that pushpin [an old pub game] is as good as poetry is valid, then it follows that Dan Brown might be preferred to Shakespeare. The implications of other provocative claims e.g. that grass isn’t green (Locke), or that Harry Potter exists (Meinong), receive a similar treatment.

Thirdly, DK publishers’ somewhat artlessly titled The Philosophy Book deploys flow-charts to reduce the arguments of the great philosophers to their bare essentials, and the great thing about Dorling Kindersley is that their books also tend to be beautifully designed and presented, which adds to their appeal.

Next up are Open Court and Blackwell’s ever expanding Popular Culture and Philosophy series of books. In combination, these rival publishers have already issued something in the region of 200 titles and still more are in preparation. Given that the focus is predominantly on TV shows, movies and famous rock bands and musicians, there is inevitably going to be at least one that should hopefully capture the imagination of most students.

Each book consists of a series of essays on philosophical or ethical aspects of whatever happens to be its subject matter, authored by a variety of contributors who are usually, though not always, academic philosophers. To take one example, the recently published Better Call Saul and Philosophy includes chapters that consider whether it can ever be right to defend the guilty, and also whether morality itself ‘is for suckers’. Typically then, there will be articles that overlap with topics that feature in A Level courses. Having personally contributed to two books in the Open Court series, I can confirm that it is always assumed that readers will possess no prior knowledge of Philosophy, so that the style adopted should be easy to read, absorbing and fun.

A full list of Blackwell’s titles can be viewed HERE. In the case of Open Court, no single web page appears to exist with a definitive list of their pop philosophy publications, though a point of entry can be found HERE.

A philosopher who has also written entertainingly and at length about TV shows and movies is Mark Rowlands. In particular, his Everything I Know I Learned From TV : Philosophy for the Unrepentant Couch Potato is an excellent resource for students of ethics, as some of the finer points of Kant’s duty-based system are explained with the help of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while the Aristotelean distinction between the mean in relation to us and the mean in relation to the thing is helpfully illustrated via the example of Cosmopolitan cocktail intake on the part of characters in Sex and the City. Other shows utilised for ethical and philosophical purposes include The Sopranos, The Simpsons, 24, and Friends.

A companion volume to the previous title is The Philosopher at the End of the Universe, in which – among other things – Rowlands relates the first two Terminator movies to the mind-body problem, Minority Report to the issue of free-will versus determinism, Blade Runner to the theme of death and the meaning of life, and The Lord of Rings to the challenges posed by moral relativism. Additionally, Rowlands has authored books on animal rights, fame and celebrity culture, and how keeping a wolf for a pet transformed his thinking about love, happiness, nature, death, and what it means to be human.

Another, more difficult but quite superb text which follows a trajectory that is similar to that of the ethics component of most A Level courses is Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Aristotle, Bentham, Mill and Kant all feature prominently, and there are brief but illuminating discussions of issues such as abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage. Sandel teaches at Harvard, and his course of lectures on Justice have been made available on YouTube. The fact that Sandel favours an interactive approach with his students makes them very watchable. The first episode can be viewed HERE. For OCR students and teachers of Business Ethics, I would also recommend one of Sandel’s other books, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, which is an expansion of an online article he wrote for The Atlantic.

Moving on, perhaps the best person to describe the intellectual sustenance that can be gleaned from reading Jules Evans, who is a quite fascinating writer on the tangible benefits that accrue from putting the most life-enhancing philosophical ideas into practice, as well as the various means by which we seek to transcend the ego (which should be of interest to students of Buddhism and mystical experience), is Jules himself. However, due to what is hopefully only a temporary glitch with WordPress, it is currently not possible to embed videos in this blog post. However, Evans can be seen talking about his preoccupations HERE and HERE. The second link takes you to his TED talk, ‘How Philosophy Can Save Your Life’. Additionally, Evans’ own website contains a repository of stimulating articles.

Yet another philosopher who is worth singling out for individual attention is Stephen Law. His book The Great Philosophers is a little more difficult than the volumes produced by Nigel Warburton and Gary Hayden that have already been mentioned, but is structured in a similar way: the ideas of the great Western thinkers are once again condensed into a few, helpfully incisive pages. Also worthy of mention is Law’s provocatively titled Believing Bullshit: How not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole, which contains useful chapters on his influential Evil God hypothesis, a comprehensive debunking of Young Earth Creationism, and a comical thought experiment that exemplifies Karl Popper’s views about falsification (‘Dogs are Spies from the Planet Venus’).

Given Law’s avowed scepticism about religious truth claims, and also for the sake of balance, the publications of Peter Vardy (as well as his occasional co-authors Charlotte Vardy and Julie Arliss), are also highly recommended. Vardy’s eloquent, lively prose and in-depth treatment of many of the perennial topics that crop up on A level courses, especially in relation to the Edexcel A Level course and Sexual Ethics, where his ideas are referred to in the specification, make Vardy an invaluable interlocutor for theism, in contrast to Law’s humanism.

Narrowing the focus to ethics, Thomas Cathcart’s The Trolley Problem introduces and explores this famous thought experiment from a variety of intriguing angles. Along the way he makes connections to Bentham’s utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, Aquinas’s Principle of Double Effect, and more besides.

One reviewer summed up Cathcart’s novel approach as follows:

‘In his humorous, charming and slim book [Cathcart] attempts to tackle the dilemma associated with both the trolley and the footbridge scenarios by taking recourse to a hypothetical newspaper account that details the charges against a fictional heroine who is being hauled up by the local prosecutor, under the allegation that she “had no right to play God” by diverting a streetcar toward a single victim, although in the process she saved five other lives. The trial is conducted in a “court of public opinion” where in addition to the lawyers representing the plaintiff and the defendant, there are also opinions and representations from a professor, a bishop, a psychologist, and also listeners tuning into a radio call-in broadcast. Cathcart stress tests the actions of the imagined accused Daphne Jones against some of the most popular concepts in moral philosophy to ascertain whether her actions can stand vindicated.’

Fiction can, of course, provide another means to engage students, and it is not always a matter of trying to get to grips with the works of authors like, for instance, Camus, Sartre, Murdoch, de Beauvoir and many others who are renowned for their novels as much as their philosophical writing.

As a point of entry, Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World is probably the most famous and accessible example that springs to mind when it comes to the genre of philosophical literature, though for those who prefer something edgier, Lars Iyer’s Nietzsche and the Burbs, which in terms of its plotting faintly resembles the E4 TV series The Inbetweeners, might be another one to go for. Like its predecessor Wittgenstein Jr, this novel has received almost universal acclaim. The following synopsis has been taken from the Goodreads website:

‘When a new student transfers in from private school, his state school peers nickname him ‘Nietzsche’ thanks to his mysterious charisma. Nietzsche, like his philosopher namesake, is brilliant but doomed to madness, and his new classmates feel compelled to interpret the deeper meaning behind his arrival. For one, they realize that he should be the front man of their metal band. This darkly humorous and entirely relatable novel follows its shining (and too creative for their own good) cast through the last few weeks of school, leading up to an important gig and even more important exams.’

With the Edexcel syllabus in mind, perhaps a couple of other novels also deserve an honourable mention. First of all, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is a standout. It is based on the author’s Pentecostal upbringing in a Northern town. By turns harrowing and hilarious, those Edexcel students who are looking at same-sex relationships for Paper 2, and new movements in theology for paper 4B, should find this an eye opener.

Another striking work of fiction, this time authored by the Japanese Roman Catholic convert Shusaku Endo, is the novel Silence, which has been adapted for the cinema three times, most recently by Martin Scorsese. Once again, an eloquent summary of the plot can be found on Goodreads:

‘Written mostly from the vantage point of a Roman Catholic priest, a missionary to Japan, early in the 17th century. The events are based on historical facts and the characters on actual people. The succinct introduction by translator William Johnston reveals that the novel begins after the period when daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had once allowed the Christian missionaries much privilege, had twenty-six Japanese and European Christians crucified. Apparently there “stands a monument to commemorate the spot where they died” to this day. Although missionary work continued, there began a savage effort to exterminate Christianity from Japan. The first executions created too many martyrs, so the Japanese officials attempted to force the Christians to apostatize by stamping or pressing their foot on a depiction of Christ or the Virgin, a fumie. If not, they were wrapped tightly and hung upside down in a pit filled with excrement until they signalled their apostasy (with their one free hand) or died.’

The ‘Silence’ here is that maintained by God in the face of extraordinary human suffering. So there are obvious issues to do with the Problem of Evil, which features as part of the syllabus for Paper 1 Philosophy of Religion in the case of the Edexcel course, as well as topic 3.2 for Paper 4B, which invites a consideration of the impact of Christian art ‘on Christianity and the lives of Christians as an expression of religious identity’.

Autobiographical and biographical writings by and about philosophers, theologians and prominent representatives of world faiths can also inspire, and a few examples deserve to be highlighted here.

First up has to be Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philosopher. Magee can be be regarded a a sort of godfather to pop philosophy, as in his capacity as a broadcaster, he attempted to make this previously recondite academic subject accessible to a wider public through the medium of both radio and television. The interviews he conducted on behalf of the BBC with what were then some of the most prominent thinkers of the day, including such luminaries as AJ Ayer, Peter Singer and Martha Nussbaum, who regularly feature on A Level courses, can be found on YouTube. Usually, these interviews focus on other philosophers whose ideas are studied at A Level, like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Wittgenstein and many others, including this one about the medieval period. The interviews are models of lucidity, and were subsequently transcribed and published in books such as The Great Philosophers and Talking Philosophy. Confessions of a Philosopher is obviously much more personal but it is beautifully written, and Magee’s withering assessment of logical positivism (quoted HERE), which was very much in vogue when he was a student, is actually reassuring, as it shows that if renowned academics at Oxford can be seduced by an approach to philosophical method that has subsequently been shown to be rather facile, then there may be hope for the rest of us in our struggles to make sense of the theories and arguments that we are obliged to engage with and evaluate.

Secondly, the best autobiographical work that I know of that has been authored by a theologian is Richard Holloway’s superlative Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. Holloway is the former Bishop of Edinburgh and a rather controversial figure, as while he was still in post he wrote a book called Godless Morality: Keeping Religion Out Of Ethics, which was partly an attack on Divine Command Ethics and a response to the homophobia that he was encountering in the Anglican Communion (Holloway had actually performed a clandestine gay marriage ceremony for two of his parishioners as long ago as 1972).

Obviously a book with that kind of title, one which argued that, since we are moving away from a society founded on kowtowing to authority to one based on informed consent, Christianity should follow the same trajectory and simply disregard any Biblical passages that were past their sell-by date and no longer in accordance with secular morality, did not go down well with his fellow bishops, and precipitated his eventual departure from the Church. In his autobiography, Holloway provides a highly engaging account of his time at Kelham, an Anglican seminary that he boarded at as a teenager, and his subsequent career in the priesthood, one which was increasingly attended by a growing sense of disillusionment. The book culminates in an attack on the aforementioned homophobia that eventually simply disgusted him, but its value to sixth-formers is that, as with his other recent writings, in spite of the fact that he now self-identifies as agnostic, Holloway still emphasises the value of the Christian faith and its abiding relevance. So it is very far from being a work that is one-sided and comparable to, say, the New Atheist literature of Dawkins, Hitchens et al.

Another autobiographical publication that A Level students might enjoy is Elaine Pagels’ Why Religion: A Personal Story. Pagels is already well-known to students of New Testament Studies and John’s gospel as a consequence of her much earlier bestselling work The Gnostic Gospels, a title that actually reads like thriller as it outlines the profound impact that the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts had on our understanding of the history of early Christianity. In this more recent work, Pagels describes how she became fascinated with that history, the sexism that she encountered as she was attempting to forge a career in academia, how she dealt with profound personal tragedy while doing so, all while considering the question of why religion persists and still matters in the 21st Century.

Finally, two recent books have been published on the same quartet of philosophers : Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillipa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch. For students and teachers of modern virtue ethics, they are certain to be repositories of valuable information, as well as providing valuable insights into how this ‘gang of four’ became prominent in a field hitherto dominated by men. At the time of writing this blog entry, I have acquired both titles but have yet to read them, though a quick browse suggests that Benjamin Lipscomb’s The Women Are Up To Something may be slightly more pitched towards the layperson, while Claire Mac Cumhaill & Rachel Wiseman’s Metaphysical Animals could be a little more formally academic. However, it must be emphasised that these first impressions of mine are ventured very tentatively. Both studies actually look as though they are outstanding and may well turn out to complement each other. At a later point in time I will review them here.