Five Books to Read from the Last Century

I just talked with a graduate student who wants to read the five most important books in epistemology of the past century. It might be fun to see what others think about this question, but I’ll put down my own choices. Here’s my list in no particular order: Chisholm, Theory of Knowledge, 2nd edition (maybe should be Perceiving), Lehrer, Knowledge, Goldman, Epistemology and Cognition, Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy (maybe should be Our Knowledge of the External World), and BonJour, The Structure of Empirical Knowledge. I have major regrets at leaving out some others, but at least my biases are clear!


Five Books to Read from the Last Century — 41 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Buckingham Inquirer » Best Books in 20thC Philosophy

  2. Good choices! I would say Our Knowledge of the External World just edges out Problems of Philosophy. And I would probably put either Williamson’s Knowledge and Its Limits or Peter Unger’s Ignorance on the list before I would add Lehrer’s Knowledge. Tough one, though.

  3. Jon, I suppose your criterion here is groundbreaking value, not conceptual shophistication, right? If it were the latter, every one of those five authors would disagree with you (in light of how their views evolved), and justifiably so, I would think. Maybe the title of your post doesn´t convey the proposed criterion very clearly. Wouldn´t it be interesting to have answers from both criteria?

  4. Claudio, I don’t mind what criteria you wish to employ here. In the post, I mentioned “most important”, and that is what I was trying to give a list for. But I’d be happy to see what you think for other criteria as well. So what do you think?

  5. Jon, if I had to pick just five books as the “most important” (whatever that means) from the last century, I’d pick only post-Gettier titles. I think the philosophical gains of the last four decades are so gigantic that the pre-Gettier works pretty much belong to the pre-history of the field. But, even for post-Gettier titles, there’s an interesting historical value/philosophical value opposition, I think.

  6. Jordan, welcome to the blog! The two you mention were on my longer list, but I think I mistakenly eliminated Williamson’s book, thinking it was 21st century. But you’re right, since I think the publication date is 2000.

  7. Jon, Thanks! Nice to be here. This is a cool blog! Yes, Williamson’s (great) book *just* made it under the fence… If an undergrad asked me for a recommendation of five titles in 20th C analytic epistemology, I would probably go with something very close to your original list — most of those titles are quite readable and presuppose little philosophical background, though of course Chisholm is tough! If a grad student asked me for a recommendation, I’d probably be more likely to break the rules and — assuming that they have read a little epistemology already — hand him/her a big handful of articles and photocopies of juicy chapters (e.g. chapter 3 of Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations). Most of the best stuff is not really book-length.

    If I had been in your shoes I would have had to fight the temptation to recommend personal favorites that are probably bad choices — stuff like Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia. Not a “top five” book, but too much fun!

  8. Picking five books over a century is too hard (and of its nature invidious), so when I’m asked this I take the coward’s way out and just say I don’t know. I do, however, have a stock answer to the question: ‘Which are the three most important books in epistemology in the last 15 years?’ Three books jump out of the list for me (though there are lots of other great books in that list of course): Michael Williams, Unnatural Doubts; Tim Williamson, Knowledge and its Limits; and Linda Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind (in that order, I think). All of them had a huge impact on me, and continue to do so (though I should say that I’m in fundamental disagreement with -at least some of – the main lines of argument in all three of them).

  9. I’m with Duncan: too hard. Few have enough knowledge about the whole century to make the needed comparisons. (There should be some Carnap, shouldn’t there?) Easier, nicer, and more useful to just list some good ones that folks might do well to read — which one can do without committing to them being better than other books that one perhaps isn’t so familiar with. I’m already on record about some relatively recent (late 20th) epistemology books. Going back a bit further (to the middle of the century), but sticking to stuff I know at least reasonably well & that hasn’t been mentioned, here a just a few suggestions. These may be obvious to many, but are worth mentioning b/c wrt each, there seem to be a lot of younger epistemologists who seem to be skipping reading them… Wittgenstein, ON CERTAINTY: I don’t know if could put this on any “best” list: The positions move around (but that’s part of the book’s charm!), but generally seem to me to be out-to-lunch, and not much of a proper argument for much of anything. But I found it extremely suggestive and helpful to think through, and on those grounds highly recommend reading it. Regarding Austin, I’m not a fan of SENSE AND SENSIBILIA, but that book was quite important, and is a good thing to read for that reason. (For epistemology by Austin that I do really like, the essay “Other Minds” is wonderful.) An epistemology book from the early 60s that a lot of people forget about nowadays, but that I think is well worth reading still today is Armstrong, PERCEPTION AND THE PHYSICAL WORLD.

    Some essentials from later in the century (I know I’m forgetting many!): Armstrong, BELIEF, TRUTH AND KNOWLEDGE; Harman, THOUGHT; Unger, IGNORANCE; Dretske, KNOWLEDGE AND THE FLOW OF INFORMATION; Nozick, PHILOSOPHICAL EXPLANATIONS; BonJour, THE STRUCTURE OF EMPIRICAL KNOWLEDGE; Goldman, EPISTEMOLOGY AND COGNITION; Williamson, KNOWLEDGE AND ITS LIMITS. Well, there are lots of others that I’m forgetting/omitting, but in the spirit of making suggestions, rather than picking what one claims are the best, I’d say that if all prospective epistemologists would read the above (plus one or, better, both of the Russell books others mention above), the world (at least the world of epistemology) would be a much better place!

  10. For what it is worth, Keith, I regularly recommend your collection of papers on skepticism to students. In fact, I’ve used it as a supplementary textbook in my theory of knowledge class here at Central Michigan University. Carefully working through those pieces is a good use of time! Good work!

  11. What a nice bunch of politicians here! And you’re right, it’s hard, and there’s no point in pointlessly causing ill will. In my defense, I’ll point out one relevant fact, however. There are lots of students who don’t have time to read an extensive list of books or articles, and may not have the interest either. If they come and ask for a list of five books, and all they are given is a list of 10 or 20 or 50 books that are really good, then the recommendation is equivalent in that context to telling them that all the books are equally worth reading, and just leaving them to select randomly from the list. And I *know* that’s not the view here, since I know that some commenting, who’s identities I will protect, think like I do that Williamson’s book is the best book in epistemology in the last 25 years. It’s obviously true, though, that for any list of five proposed, there’s an equally defensible large number of alternative lists. It’s nonetheless interesting to see what people would actually say when the feet are held to the fire.

    So I take the point to be: my feet aren’t to the fire, and I don’t want to say until in that circumstance, because it could cause hurt feelings. Point well-taken; when you grew up where the weather tries to kill you several times every winter, you’re often not as sensitive as one could reasonably wish… 🙂

  12. I’m not much of a politician. Where I have a reasonable basis for an opinion, I usually won’t shy away from saying it for fear of hurting feelings in cases like this. But once you stretch things over the whole of the 20th Century, I personally don’t feel I have much of a reasonable basis for an opinion. I wonder how many do? So I, for one, couldn’t responsibly answer the original question — though I could list some things I thought were good to read.

  13. Maybe it’s my bias toward the philosophy of language, but I am a bit surprised that Naming & Necessity hasn’t been floated–this being the precipitating event for the recent intensive focus on modal epistemology. And hard to ignore Quine’s epistemological work even though most of the important stuff is spread out across various collections. In any event, I would certainly rank the pair right up there with any complete book written in the 20th C.

    And on Keith’s “not-to-be-forgotten-even-if-not-the-tops” classics list I would include Vendler’s Res Cogitans. [In my opinion, it would be a cryin’ shame if Vendler’s work overall continues to be neglected by philsoohers.]

  14. Oops! The Quine pair was supposed to be “Two Dogmas”, “Epistemology Naturalized” but the brackets must have messed with the html.

  15. Without claiming that they are the five very best books in epistemology published in the 20th century, I will say that the following books are ones that I enjoyed immensely, learned from (if only by thinking hard about where I thought they went wrong), and recommend to students: Fred Dretske’s *Knowledge and the Flow of Information,* Arthur Pap’s *Semantics and Necessary Truth,* Ernest Gellner’s *Legitimation of Belief,* Thomas Kuhn’s *The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,* and Richard Rorty’s *Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.* With the exception of Pap’s book, all of these can be read with reasonable ease by non-specialists. At least three of these–Dretske, Kuhn, and Rorty–are distinctive in rejecting some of the deep assumptions that drive traditional approaches to knowledge.

  16. I think I’ve learned more from Alston than anyone else working today–I’d include *Epistemic Justification*. Certainly Russell’s *Problems* or, though it was never published, *Theory of Knowledge*, should be included. Chisholm certainly has to be included–I’d go with Jon’s choice of vol. 2 of *Theory of Knowledge* This is probably against the rules, but how about the Pappas/Swain volume *Essays on Knowledge and Justification*? And, as long as I’m doing that, how about the Midwest Studies from 1980? BonJour’s *Structure of Empirical Knowledge* should be somewhere in here, as well. I reserve judgment on more recent works–let’s see how they’re vetted by time.

  17. I knew that analytic philosophers today were provincial, parochial, and myopic, but this is ridiculous. Four of the five best books in epistemology in the entire century were all written in the last half of the century? No, I don’t think so. G.E. Moore brilliantly posed the question whether any skeptical epistemology could be better justified than the knowledge claims that it contradicts, and H.H. Price’s book Perception (1932) is a classic on the subject. Whatever you think about Logical Posivitism in the end, A.J. Ayer framed some of the fundamental questions in epistemology brilliantly in Language, Truth and Logic, and in his later book, The Problem of Knowledge. Finally, I’m glad that someone mentioned Arthur Pap’s book, Semantics and Necessary Truth, which is a profound study of the problem of a priori knowledge. It’s sad to hear contemporary philosophers speak as if no one ever did any good work in epistemology before them. Hubris.

  18. OK, Gordon, since your into accuracy: where did anyone here “speak as if no one ever did any good work in epistemology before them.” It’s fine to disagree, and it’s fine to apply whatever criteria you wish to assess importance. But drop the histrionics, please.

  19. I have little standing to suggest titles, since (and now my standard disclaimer) I’m not an epistemologist. But I am keenly interested in this sort of discussion in any area of philosophy. In particular, I’d be interested in which contemporary (20th c. is OK) articles, not books, epistemologists think are most important (a brief list). By ‘important’ I mean either what any well grounded recent PhD whose area is epistemology should have read and mastered, and/or perhaps what any newly minted PhD of any sort should know. What, in other words, should one advise grad students to make sure they’ve read? Gettier & Goodman probably belong on either list. What else?

  20. Analytic philosophy has oscillated between taking philosophical problems very seriously, and dismissing them as pseudo-problems. Both halves of the twentieth century have seen their share of both seriousness and cynical dismissal, but it seems to me that much contemporary epistemology tends toward cynical dismissal of classical problems. In particular, contextualism and reliabilism make lots of classical epistemological problems just disappear. I’m very suspicious of these views for that very reason. I have a very hard time believing that all of my epistemological predecessors were really just confused about how we use the word “know.” Finally, my worry is that if we say that epistemology in the second half of the century is that much better than it was in the first half, then we might completely lose our grip on the force of questions that were asked then more often than they are now.

  21. Robert, without claiming these are the very best, here’s some top choices: G.E. Moore, “A Defense of Common Sense,” “Proof of an External World,”; Alvin Goldman, “What is Justified Belief?”; Goodman, “The New Riddle of Induction,”; Quine, “Two Dogmas,” Grice, “The Causal Theory of Perception,”; Gettier, of course (I’ll leave it to you to guess which of his articles I intend!); and my very favorite of all, Chisholm’s “The Problem of Empiricism” (in part because of its significance for 20th century epistemology and in part because of its connection to Shope’s fallacy).

  22. Jon, those look like the same articles I read in grad school. Is there nothing since Goldman that is now cannonical? Say, Jackson’s ‘Mary’ paper (or is that too ‘mind’ to count?) Or are we trying to avoid toes?

  23. It’s harder to assess the significance of more recent stuff, which is why I avoided it. But Williamson’s “Knowing and Asserting,” and Sosa’s “Reflective Knowledge in the Best Circles” are deep and important, though it’s hard to call them canonical.

  24. Please, Gordon’s comments weren’t ad hominem. They were just unprovoked and unwarranted abuse. Kind of like going up to a complete stranger and saying, “Hey, you’re ugly!” or “Hey, you’re fat!” or “Is your kid retarded?”. I do stuff like that all the time!

  25. While we’re at it, I want to take issue with something Jon said in his initial post. Jon: Your list WAS in a particular order. :o)

  26. Nice, ej, you gave me a good laugh pretty early in the day!

    On Gordon’s comment, as he said, we’ve communicated by email, and all is fine now. I appreciate the show of support here for keeping the tone of the blog at an acceptable level.

  27. In all seriousness, contemporary analytic philosophy suffers from a very harmful self-indulgence. There are all these Blogs, and then there is the Leiter Report, and then there is all the ongoing who’s-doing-what gossip. Anyone looking in from the outside would know exactly what I am talking about. These days analytic philosophers seem to spend as much time talking about each other and how great they are as they do talking about ideas. I won’t resort to histrionics here, but my outburst wasn’t without any cause. Contemporary analytic philosophy could use a dose of something from the outside to temper its sense of “we’ve accomplished it all.”

  28. I appreciated the fact that Dave Chalmers left recent books off his list of important works–time does important vetting and weeding out of fads. I think that the issues that Gordon raises are important ones. As philosophy gets more specialized, we do become more myopic and less sensitive to the quality of the work those before us have done. On his last point, if you didn’t see the long discussion on Brian Weatherson’s blog about just these issues, I strongly recommend it. I am certainly in sympathy with Gordon’s concerns. And, oh yes, I had intended to put Ayer’s stuff on there, but then Bush came on NPR and started talking about Social Security and I got all discombobulated and forgot. So add Ayer’s many important books to my list.


  29. There are a lot of good suggestions above, and a lot of suggestions I haven’t read (!), but I’m surprised no one has put in Carnap’s Aufbau yet. I think that belongs in there.

  30. I think it makes a great deal of difference whether one is trying to list good books, important books, influential books, or books that are worth reading. Surely the Principia is important, but is it worth reading? (I know, I know — I’ve read the endorsement by Quine.)

    Here, for the fun of it, are some epistemological books that I think are well worth reading from the 20th century — in fact running only through 1950 — that I suspect very few current epistemologists have actually read:

    * A Treatise on Probability by John Maynard Keynes
    * Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits by Bertrand Russell
    * An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation by C. I. Lewis
    * The Ground of Induction by Donald C. Williams
    * Logical Foundations of Probability by Rudolf Carnap

    I’m not saying that they are the best books of the century, but to echo Keith’s comment above I think the world would be a better place if prospective (and current) epistemologists would read all of these closely.

    For good reads, how about these:

    * Philosophy in the 20th Century by A. J. Ayer
    * A. J. Ayer by John Foster

    These two books give the reader a cross-section of philosophical issues, including epistemic issues, and they’re beautifully written. Foster is a superb expositor, fair yet sometimes critical. Even when I disagree, I find myself admiring the combination of clarity and rigor in these books.

    My votes for the most important books toward end of the century would have to include these:

    * The Structure of Empirical Knowledge by Laurence BonJour
    * Laws and Symmetry by Bas van Fraassen
    * Evidence and Inquiry by Susan Haack
    * Metaepistemology and Skepticism by Richard Fumerton
    * Warrant: the Current Debate and
    * Warrant and Proper Function by Alvin Plantinga

    This isn’t by any stretch a list of the books I agree with. I’m closest to Fumerton, agree with BonJour on externalism, agree with Haack on many of her criticisms but not on her critique of foundationalism, and I disagree with most of Plantinga’s work but think he’s a brilliant and provocative guy. But it’s a list of important books, most of them also good.

  31. I just ran across this list but was struck by how one sided the best of lists seem to be. I am also struck by how off the current track my thought are. I did think I ought to at least give some honorable mention here to three books/authors not even mentioned. It is difficult for me to think of epistemology in the last 100 years without considering the work of Lovejoy [The Revolt Against Dualism], Cassirer [e.g. The Phenomenology of Knowledge], Whitehead [scattered in various writings], Merleau-Ponty [The Phenomenology of Perception], and Gadamer [Truth and Method]. These might not be the ‘best’ or even the ‘most important] but their critique and overview instigate a revolution in epistemological thought.

  32. Wilfrid Sellars’ book-length article ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’in 1956 anticipated many of the later ‘internalism vs. externalism’ debates in epistemology (as Ernest Sosa and Michael Williams have recently noted), as well as some of the most important later positions concerning self-knowledge and privileged access. The books by Lehrer, BonJour, and Harman were all inspired by this work of Sellars’. It’s a top-five work in twentieth century epistemology, I think, though it wasn’t published as a book.

  33. Wilfrid Sellars’ book-length article ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’in 1956 anticipated many of the later ‘internalism vs. externalism’ debates in epistemology (as Ernest Sosa and Michael Williams have recently noted), as well as some of the most important later positions concerning self-knowledge and privileged access. The books by Lehrer, BonJour, and Harman were all inspired by this work of Sellars’. It’s a top-five work in twentieth century epistemology, I think, though it wasn’t published as a book.

  34. Wilfrid Sellars’ book-length article ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’in 1956 anticipated many of the later ‘internalism vs. externalism’ debates in epistemology (as Ernest Sosa and Michael Williams have recently noted), as well as some of the most important later positions concerning self-knowledge and privileged access. The books by Lehrer, BonJour, and Harman were all inspired by this work of Sellars’. It’s a top-five work in twentieth century epistemology, I think, though it wasn’t published as a book.

  35. Wilfrid Sellars’ book-length article ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’in 1956 anticipated many of the later ‘internalism vs. externalism’ debates in epistemology (as Ernest Sosa and Michael Williams have recently noted), as well as some of the most important later positions concerning self-knowledge and privileged access. The books by Lehrer, BonJour, and Harman were all inspired by this work of Sellars’. It’s a top-five work in twentieth century epistemology, I think, though it wasn’t published as a book.

  36. A bit different take, but I suspect there will be some agreement.

    1) Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions
    2) Goldman’s Epistemology and Cognition
    3) Devitt’s Realism and Truth
    4) Plantinga’s Warrant and Proper Function
    5) Fumerton’s Metaepistemology and Skepticism


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