The aim of this text is to guide you through a course of readings that will provide a basic conceptual toolkit that is essential for work in any area of contemporary philosophy. Regardless of your area of philosophical interest, a basic grasp of a cluster of core topics along with central distinctions is necessary for graduate level work and beyond. There is room to debate exactly which topics these are, but the following ten are undoubtedly core in the sense that significant conceptual developments have taken place in respect to each of them in the last 100 years or so, and understanding these developments is necessary for understanding much that goes on in contemporary academic philosophy, and remarkably useful outside it as well.
The topics in this book are drawn primarily from metaphysics, epistemology, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of language, and the philosophy of mind. These fields certainly do not define the whole discipline. But they serve the whole discipline. Key distinctions (e.g. between physical and logical necessity) and concepts (e.g. supervenience), which have their home in these fields, are useful and sometimes essential for work in quite different fields such as ethics, political philosophy, or philosophy already exist. However, they tend to treat topics at length and in isolation from each other – an approach necessitated by detailed treatment. And they tend to treat topics in their own right – not in service of other philosophical enterprises, even quite closely related ones. This inhibits the process of picking up what you need to know about, say, causation in order to work on even fairly close topics, say, consciousness. This is partly a symptom of a wider trend towards specialization across the whole academy, and partly a symptom of the way philosophy has been done in the twentieth century, largely as an isolated subject without practical consequence – a view which I do not share, for reasons I explain in Chapter 10. So this book seeks to link topics together in a way that enables a general and useful understanding of a core set of ideas and distinctions. Besides further study of the topics in this book, such an understanding will serve a wide range of possible intellectual projects within philosophy, and some outside it, too. Sometimes it is said that contemporary philosophy, especially “analytic” philosophy (the focus of this book), does not engage human concerns in the way that philosophy should. That may be true, in the sense that difficulties such as the ones we are about to identify are not forefront in lived human experience. They are mostly discovered in the course of intellectual inquiry, rather than splattered all over us by the firehose of experience. But the problems we are about to discuss are, in fact, deep, and deeply human. We understand very little. The appreciation of this fact, and of the various and intricate ways in which we fail to grasp, understand, or know, is a shock. The human condition appears, on inspection, to be one of massive and unguessed confusion – confusion which is only intensified by the successes of which we are so proud, like cell phones, penicillin, and futures trading. This may not be an attractive conclusion, but to dismiss it as irrelevant to human concerns is to bury one’s head in the sand.