Does one need to be wide read to be a philosopher?

I’m relatively new to philosophy, and I find the moral works of Kant and the works of Plato, Heraclitus, Max Stirner, R.M. Hare and Kierkegaard incredibly interesting and find it quite easy to read through their books and enjoy them, even if I find them hard to understand. Then there are the philosophers whose ideas I find incredibly interesting, but find it difficult to get through their books because I’m a slow reader and have problem keeping my attention from being distracted if I am not immersed in the work.

I would love to read all the works of these former philosophers, but life is too short and, as mentioned, I am a slow reader. So my question is this: ignoring a large list of philosophical books, while focussing on the books of a select few (most likely the six philosophers I mentioned) and occasionally indulging in the works of a select few other philosophers, would I be able to make a career as an ethicist?

R.M. Hare, the man who interested me in ethics, too, is a very slow reader and only read the works of Aristotle, Plato and Immanuel Kant, which he was often embarrassed about admitting, but he was able to work things out on his own and preferred to do just that. I remember a saying: well read does not equate wide read. But even these wise words don’t comfort me, because I worry I am missing out.

So, do I need to be wide read to be a moral philosopher and, on the side, study responsibility, man’s denial of mortality and man’s denial of responsibility?


I say no. I’ve read quite a bit over the past few years and have written very little. Reading too much and finding ever more books to devour can hold one for an eternity of inaction.

Ponty - I don’t have a definitive answer for you. I think you need to be familiar with the basic vocabulary of philosophy, and of ethics. And you need to understand the mechanics of sound argumentation. Knowing the big names in moral thinking is a must. But some of this can be gleaned in school, where you won’t read everything by everyone, and there are books available that can give you a relatively unbiased overview of the field.

Socrates didn’t read much, but he would not be considered among the first rank of philosophers today. Plato couldn’t have read much - while his influence is still felt, he wouldn’t be a giant if he lived and wrote today.

That being said, careers in philosophy are usually had within an academic setting. Fulfilling the requirements of that milieu will see you reading a few writers that are not on your list, I think. It may also find you having to know something beyond philosophy - ethics can get a bit specialised - business, medicine, environment and whatnot. It might be that some other interest - one that you can stand to actually study, will fuel your career.

In the end, you need the degrees and not much else. Randy Cohen, ethics columnist for the New York Times, appears to have read nothing. But that is probably an illusion.

no. you can get the same from a 200 page book that you can get from an hour lecture.

I would say that one has to be at least somewhat well-read to engage in philosophy.

Despite what others might say, there is a distinction between a philosophy and an opinion – oftentimes the difference is quite narrow, but it is there.

Plus, reading helps forge your own philosophy. By understanding others with opinions similar to your own, you can create a philosophy by both the acceptence of some of their tenents as well as your reasoned rejection of other beliefs they held.

Knowledge is power.

The more you read the more capable you are of regarding others thoughts. And FFS it is Philosophy. The love of knowledge! Or whatever. Anyone can correct me if my etymology is a bit off.

Don’t even think of becoming a moral philosopher without reading Nietzsche. And I don’t mean a quick flip through the Genealogy of Morals, I mean the lot.

Well, I have read a lot of Nietzsche and I am aware of his importance in the field. He was, in fact, the first philosopher to grab my interest.

I do agree with you there. And I have found a lot of philosophers I agree with, that have said it better than me (such as Max Stirner and Unamuno), and I have actually found reading philosophers I disagree with to have helped a lot too.

I guess I should put down my own opinion on this better. I lot of people say you have to be wide read in philosophy to have a good enough grasp of various ideas in order to write your own philosophy, but, in my opinion, being wide read doesn’t equal being well read. Someone could have read all the works of all the philosophers, and, because of this, his mind would have been so busy studying so many different opinions in his short little life, that he didn’t have the time to really study any one philosopher in particular, take in their ideas, get to know them inside and out, and then see which bits he agrees with and which bits he disagrees with. Then you could have a person who reads the works of a select few, who he enjoys, he reads them so much he knows them inside and out, etc. etc., and he writes a book about why he agrees with them on certain aspects, why he disagrees with them on other aspects, and what he would do in their place on those aspects he disagrees with and ureka! He’s made a breakthrough and discovered something new - perhaps.

Don’t forget that not all knowledge is True, most is False in my opinion.

The only thing you need to understand and engage in logical practical and useful thought is observation of your surroundings and a keen desire to know the truth regardless of how that content makes you feel.

Also consider the fact that books are not the source of any True knowledge, but the authors frequently are the source of false knowledge.

knowledge is usually defined in philosophic circles as justified true belief…

false knowledge isn’t knowledge


I’d second that. If you’re interested in morality, this book is a must!

How many books that you have read contain only True knowledge in your opinion? Would you even know if it was all true?

I am a radical skeptic. I don’t believe in knowledge.

but you would know its truth via deduction


Then please name the book.

any text on basic simple logic


Book title please.

Reading a lot can help but the best way towards understanding is through discourse. You cannot test your ideas properly or explore your understanding of others ideas without a good conversation. Or at least observing one.

Lurking around on the various philosophy boards is a good way to increase your knowledge of the wide range of views on many subjects. Nothing will broaden your perspective more than a well thought out attack on one of your dearly held beliefs.

Remember, always keep an open mind.

I know what you mean. I’ve read all these books over the past few years and don’t have much to show for it because I’ve just gone through them like a machine to finish some goal of having read mainly the great western books and become aquainted with great minds. In Mein Kampf, Hitler expressed a similar idea about those who are widely read and seem to know nothing. They cannot express theirselves or recall when needed. Sadly, that is what I have become. :frowning:

There is no way I can possibly gain much by trying to fly through these books. I really do plan on picking a few philosophers from now that I know I like and trying to wrestle with them and defeat them.

I’m reading this now. It is quite awesome. I third it.