Many people want to study philosophy on their own, outside of college or school, but aren’t quite sure where to start.
With so many philosophical movements, sub-disciplines, philosophers, and great books, it’s common to feel lost in a sea of possibilities.
A thousand questions arise: Should I start with a book or an online course? And if so, which book? Which course? And when am I supposed to read the classics?
The lack of direction distracts and ultimately discourages the would-be student.
That’s why I created this resource.
This guide provides you with a roadmap for your self-education in philosophy — a systematic, step-by-step approach for learning Western philosophy by yourself, from scratch.
Before diving into the steps, let’s cover what you’ll learn over the course of this self-education journey if you follow the process at least pretty closely.
What You’ll Learn By Following This Self Education Roadmap
By completing this self education roadmap you’ll give yourself a well-rounded education in Western philosophy, and you’ll do the following:
- Enhance your critical thinking, argumentation, reading, writing, and analysis skills.
- Learn the history of Western philosophy and its most famous philosophers and ideas.
- Gain a grasp of basic logic.
- Receive exposure to the main branches of philosophy.
- Read classic philosophy books and attend great online lectures and courses.
Most importantly, through this process, you’ll learn more about your interests and can follow them to pursue specific sub-disciplines, from political philosophy to epistemology, within the stupefyingly large and intellectually engaging discipline that is philosophy.
A Note on the Roadmap’s Structure & How to Use it
Keep in mind that this roadmap is logically constructed. It’s a product of experience in self-directed study and research of university curriculums, the principles of self-education, and advice from online philosophy teachers and experts.
In other words, there are reasons, which will be made clearer throughout the article, why certain steps come before others.
For example, reading primary source philosophy books is easier once you’ve learned the specific techniques for reading philosophy. And assessing a philosopher’s arguments is easier if you’ve already gone through a primer course in critical thinking and logic.
That said, no two learners share the exact same goals, background, and learning styles. Some learners might follow this roadmap exactly and find that it works perfectly for them.
Some might skip logic books and get right to the primary sources, while others geek out on the logic textbook exercises.
Others might use the roadmap simply for inspiration to create their own self-directed philosophy study plan, and still, others might skip steps or jump around the guide. That’s all okay.
The main thing you need to do is to stick with your studies. The best way to ensure you don’t get demotivated or bored and give up is to do what works best for you, to do what makes studying fun and stimulating to you specifically.
That’s why self-education is so awesome. You can forge your own unique path through the mystical forests of thought.
Want to Study Philosophy like a PHIL Major at a Top University?
The roadmap in this article is great for the total beginner who values flexibility.
But if you want to self-study philosophy with more of a university-style approach, subscribe to our newsletter to receive a free DIY philosophy curriculum, based on Yale’s philosophy major requirements:
Newsletter subscribers will get this curriculum in their inbox plus a bi-monthly email filled with helpful tips and inspiration on self-study, polymathy, and reading.
The 7-Step Process for Self-Learning Philosophy
Below are the seven steps for giving yourself an education in general Western Philosophy using textbooks, books, online courses, lectures, and other cost-efficient resources.
It includes a set of logically flowing steps designed to take the beginner with no knowledge of philosophy to someone with a strong foundational education in philosophy.
Below is a preview of the steps for self-learning philosophy:
- Read a Book on the History of Philosophy
- Take a Few Intro to Philosophy Courses
- Learn How to Effectively Read Philosophy Texts
- Teach Yourself the Basics of Logic
- Read Great Works of Philosophy
- Supplement Your Readings with Other Online Resources
- Follow Your Curiosity and Keep Learning
Depending on how many of the books you read and courses you take, how closely you stick to the program, and how much time you have on your hands, this roadmap can take on average anywhere from 3 months to several years to complete.
Someone who really gets obsessed with reading the classics might read 100 of them and end up never finishing (or leaving their bedroom).
Crazy as it is, that would certainly be a good way to become well-read.
Use it as you please. All guides should take second seat to your curiosity. What matters most is that you’re consistently studying the subject you want to learn more about.
Important Note!: Keep in mind that philosophy is a huge field. What you’re striving for by using this guide is to acquire a strong foundation in philosophy and a knowledge of your personal interests. Once you have that, you can pursue self-study in more specialized manner, whether that’s focusing your readings on a theme like justice, an author like Schopenhauer, or a subdiscipline like analytic aesthetics.
1. Read a Book Covering the History of Philosophy
In my 9-book reading plan for beginners learning philosophy, I make a distinction between three types of philosophy books that beginners should be reading.
The first category is an “introductory book”. And one of the most effective types of intro books is one that deals with the history of philosophy.
These books expose you to history’s most influential philosophers and their ideas. Also, along with providing a crash course in the language of philosophy, these books gives you a sweeping chronological overview of the subject as a whole, covering the basics of all its periods:
Although your understanding of any specific topic, like existentialism or Aristotle, will be rather thin after finish a history of philosophy, you’ll have an awareness of all the branches, schools, and movements of philosophy. You’ll also see how they’re connected — influencing and borrowing from each other.
Plus, thin knowledge of something isn’t useless. Quite the contrary. Even just knowing that something exists is often incredibly helpful.
For example, even if you only knew the definition of existentialism after reading a history of philosophy, that’s still very useful, especially if it struck you as fascinating.
Later in your self-education journey, you can return to existentialism and study it deeply. This is something you wouldn’t have known to do if you hadn’t been exposed to the term and its basics.
David Epstein covers this concept more in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. But for now, let’s turn to two great books on the history of western philosophy.
The History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russel
In The History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russel, an eminent philosopher and powerful communicator, takes you on a walk through the history of Western philosophy, starting in ancient, pre-socratic times and ending in the late 1800s.
Using accessible and beautiful prose, he introduces you to the tradition’s greatest thinkers, many of whom influenced his own work.
Here’s what Garret Wilson’s review says about it:
“The book is thorough in following the main streams of philosophical thought and showing how the work products of various philosophers interrelate—all this contextualized by Russell’s personal commentary in typical Russellian prose.”Garret Wilson
By reading this book, you’ll receive a serious introduction to Western philosophy.
You’ll learn about the key players — Descartes, Spinoza, Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, and Hegel, to name a few — and you’ll gain an understanding of the discipline of philosophy. Most importantly, you’ll definitely know if philosophy is something you want to continue studying.
The History of Philosophy, by A.C. Grayling
I read parts of The History of Philosophy, especially the ones about the pre-socratics, whose grasping attempts to understand the universe both inspired me and made me laugh.
Thales, the first true Western philosopher, held that water was the essential element in the universe, a reasonable conclusion. As if to prove his point, the man ended up dying of heat stroke at a sporting event.
The book is well-written, engaging, and comprehensive in that it touches upon the most important ideas and the philosophers who invented or developed them. And A.C. Grayling is definitely an aficionado on the subject, being a philosophy professor and public intellectual.
Like Bertrand Russell’s book, it takes you chronologically through time. It’s different in that it also dedicates over 200 pages to 20th-century philosophers like Sartre or Derrida and touches upon Asian and African philosophy.
Michael Dirda, in his review of the book, has this to say about Grayling’s style:
“Over the next 600 pages, Grayling proceeds to summarize the thinking of philosophy’s grand masters from the pre-Socratics to the modern analytic philosophers of language. However, in nearly every case, he also respectfully points out the holes in their arguments.”Michael Dirda. Ph.D. in Comparative Literature
I appreciate that last bit because you get to see a real philosopher at work – thinking, considering, and addressing faults in arguments. Watching this happen in real-time teaches you how to think like a philosopher as well.
To supplement your reading, you could also watch this 80-hour lecture series by Arthur Holmes:
I swear that this guy’s accent and enthusiasm combine to drive the knowledge deeper into my memory than any other professor of philosophy I’ve encountered.
I’ve been watching it lately while taking long walks around town, and while playing Fifa 16 on my beat up Xbox 360.
Want to Read More Books This Year? (And Support this Blog)
Another thing I’ve been using to advance my studies and read more books: Audible.
Sign up for their 30-day free trial and get a free audiobook (2 if you’re a Prime member)!
I’ll also receive 5 bucks for trial subscribers, which will help me continue building Knowledge Lust and supporting you in your self-education.
I like using Audible for the less dense books on my reading list.
For instance, right now I’m listening to The Eye of the World (a fantasy book), so I can spend my eye power and concentration on the harder books in philosophy and literature.
Alright, now onto the next step.
2. Take a Few Online “Intro to PHIL” Courses
If you’re anything like me, you might be tempted to jump straight into the primary sources, the good stuff.
But I’d caution you to hold off. Taking a few online courses in philosophy can help you get more out of your self-directed studies and readings later on.
I remember getting smacked around by the first philosophy books I attempted. I was constantly wondering what I should be looking for in the book and if I was missing something (I often was).
I didn’t know how to do things like analyze an argument or spot the key questions the philosopher was trying to answer.
I did myself a disservice by not learning philosophical skills beforehand, like how to do close philosophy readings, for example.
What I’m getting at is that the main course usually tastes better and is easier to digest if you already have a basic grasp of the fundamentals of philosophy and the tools of the intellectual discipline. Analyzing and appreciating someone’s argument will be easier and more fun.
I’d therefore recommend take an introductory philosophy course online before reading primary sources. Many are free.
Here are some of the best online intro to philosophy courses on the internet that will help you start to think like a true philosopher. Feel free to take all of them if you want.
Alternative Option: Grab your free DIY philosophy curriculum (based on Yale’s degree requirements) if you want to take a university-style approach for this step.
Crash Course Philosophy
Who’s it for: Someone who wants to watch 46 short entertaining videos about the basics of philosophy as a subject.
I’ve always enjoyed Crash Course. With all of its animations and funny segments, brothers Hank and John Green truly know how to make learning fun. I remember watching this Philosophy series during lunch hour at my first job out of college.
While the course is sometimes too silly and light for my taste, it is still able to relay a bunch of important information about philosophy across 46 videos, each running around 10 minutes in length.
They cover topics like how to argue and cartesian skepticism, and they even analyze contemporary issues like conspiracy theorists through a philosophical lens.
This is a great way to get excited about diving deeper into philosophy and getting your bearings in the sea of ideas.
General Philosophy by Peter Millican – Oxford University
Who’s it for: Someone who wants to learn the fundamentals of philosophy mainly through lectures in podcast or video formats from a Professor at a top university.
General Philosophy covers an extremely wide range of philosophical topics and introduces you to the methods used by philosophers in chronological fashion. It’s meant for first-year Oxford philosophy students, but, luckily, they’ve made it public so we get to listen in.
Each lecture is split into 3 or 4 sections running around 12 minutes in length. Each section looks at a specific question like “how do we perceive the world” and then goes over how different philosophers approached answering it. Going through this course is a great way to get an overview of the subject and to reinforce what you learned in your history of philosophy readings.
Philosophy and Critical Thinking — edx
Who’s it for: People who want a video course that will help them sharpen their critical thinking skills.
Philosophy and Critical Thinking is a free, self-paced online course by The University of Queensland. It serves as an introduction to the principles of critical thinking in philosophy.
In this course you’ll learn:
- How to think clearly and critically.
- How to create and analyze arguments.
- How to have fruitful philosophical discussions with peers or friends.
After taking this course you should be well suited to dig more out of the primary philosophical texts you’ll grapple with in later steps.
The Philosopher’s Toolkit: How to Be the Most Rational Person in Any Room
Who’s it for: People who want to learn how how to think, reason, and argue like a philosopher.
The Philosopher’s Toolkit serves a similar purpose as the course above, but it is a bit more advanced. It contains 24 lectures, each around 30 minutes in length.
Taught by Patrick Grim, Ph.D., it is designed to help you think faster, more critically, more clearly, and more systematically about difficult topics. You’ll develop intellectual skills that will serve you through all self-directed studies.
The course accomplishes this goal by taking a look at the tools and techniques used by some of the greatest thinkers of all time, from Aristotle and Plato to Einstein and John Von Neumann, and walking you through how to integrate their thinking practices into your own method.
For example, one tool is conceptual visualization, where you use a pen or pencil to draw sketches and matrices to solve intellectual puzzles.
In short, this course should set you up for success in any field that involves creative problem solving and sharp, critical thinking. If you want a book that accomplishes a similar goal, grab and study a copy of The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods.
Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature – Yale University
Who’s it for: Anyone wanting to experience what it’s like to learn about philosophy in a Yale classroom.
Online Yale Courses are one of my favorite free ways to learn the basics of a new subject. The lectures, recordings of Yale professors in real classes, are always enjoyable and insightful, and the syllabi always include reading lists full of great works.
Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature is no different. In it, you’ll encounter canonical writings on human nature from the Western philosophical tradition (Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Hobbes, Kant, Mills, Rawls, Nozick, etc.) as well as newer scientific insights from fields like cognitive science and from psychologists like Daniel Kahneman.
The teacher, Tamar Szabó Gendler, a Ph.D. in cognitive science and Chair of the Yale Department of Philosophy, guides you through these sometimes tricky readings and provides helpful commentary on the writers’ most important ideas.
By taking this course you’ll learn the basics of how to do philosophy. You’ll also have an interdisciplinarily-informed view of human nature, which is very important since assumptions about human nature often serve as the starting point for social science and philosophical inquiry.
For instance, Hobbes’s argument in Leviathan about the ideal form of government only works if his analysis of humans as primarily power-seeking and afraid of death is correct. And Adam Smith’s arguments in Wealth of Nations for the free market rely on the assumption that humans are above all else self-interested.
Hey if you’re interested in politics (one of my favorite subjects) check out my political philosophy roadmap. It’s much like this one except more niche.
3. Learn How to Effectively Read Philosophy Texts
Now that you’ve gained a solid introduction to Western philosophy, it’s time to start learning more hard skills.
Philosophy teachers often recommend that students spend time learning how to read philosophy effectively. Spending a bit of time on this will help you get more out of the difficult readings to come.
Reading philosophy books is more difficult than reading other types of books. To understand the texts and their key arguments, you often have to read at a slower pace than you’re used to and mark up the book with underlines, question marks, and notes.
One useful reading method that philosophy teachers often recommend is close reading.
Learn How to do a Close Reading in Philosophy
Close reading in philosophy is the act of reading a philosophical text slowly, carefully, and analytically in an effort to identify the philosopher’s claims and its supporting evidence, and to clearly see the relationship between these two essential elements of the writer’s argument.
Usually, a close reading involves:
- Reading the text with a pen in hand.
- Underlining or numbering claims and their supporting evidence.
- Jotting down your thoughts about the argument and ideas in the margins.
- Marking and looking up words or sentences you don’t understand.
The skill may have been covered in some of the previous online courses. Or, if you’ve ever studied literature, you’ll likely have had an intro to this practice.
Many teachers also have you write close reading papers to show you’ve thought deeply about and understood a passage or section of a philosophy book.
Regardless of how you get it, close reading is an essential skill for reading philosophy books deeply and understanding what the philosopher is saying.
Sometimes understanding just one confusing sentence will unlock the meaning of a writer’s entire argument that beforehand seemed nonsensical.
Here are some resources that will help you learn to read philosophy books well:
David Sadler’s YouTube Course
I love this professor’s self-directed philosophy series. He has three main lectures on reading, starting with How to Read a Philosophical Text.
Consider doing his close reading assignment from the next lecture, Close Reading Pre-Writing Workshop, as practice. Also, his lecture series is also a great way to self-study philosophy with the help of an intelligent, down-to-earth teacher.
University of Edinburgh’s Guide on Reading Philosophy
This guide on how to read philosophy teaches you the step-by-step process for reading philosophy analytically. Among other things, it tells you what questions to ask before cracking open the book and gives you a note-taking strategy to use when reading.
Just developing a basic grasp of close reading will help you dramatically. You don’t need to spend too much time reading about the technique. The real improvements will come as you practice doing close readings on various philosophical texts.
And when a friend brags about reading 60 pages/hour, just smile and say you read 10 pages per hour, and watch their faces change from glee to confusion as they begin to wonder if they’ve been doing it all wrong.
Quick Warning About Reading: Please don’t make the mistake I made of obsessing over reading perfectly. It can be debilitating. If you think you might struggle from this, check out my article How Perfectionism Might Be Stopping You From Reading.
4. Teach Yourself the Basics of Logic
It’s often helpful to learn the basics of logic if you want to have a comprehensive education in philosophy. There’s a reason most college programs have their students take a few courses in classical first-order logic during their first year.
A foundation in logic empowers you to better understand the texts you’re going to read, as well as formulate your own cogent arguments about your own ideas. It also helps you see and evaluate the structure of philosophical arguments.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s necessary to spend months studying logic and pausing all other readings until you’ve mastered it. No need to learn all the schools of logic.
It’s likely better to spend a few weeks learning the basics of logic. Then, if it’s interesting to you, continue studying it on the side as you read the great works of philosophy. If it’s fascinating enough you could even focus primarily on logic, as it is one of the branches of philosophy. Otherwise, the basics from the few weeks should do.
Below are two books to self-learn logic, “Logic” and “Logic Primer”, each tailored to a different type of learner. Working through one of them should be more than enough to get a university-like education in the fundamentals of logic for philosophy.
Work Through The Textbook “Logic”
In an interview about the best logic books, Tom Stoneham, a professor of philosophy, recommends Wilfrid Hodges’ introductory textbook, Logic, to those who want to self-learn logic for philosophy. It’s designed for someone with no previous training in logic.
It is often used by Universities and is great for autodidacts, as it’s packed with word puzzles, exercises, and quizzes. It’s more so concerned with language and the things you can do with it than it is with symbols, making it great for the student interested in logic in the humanities, like philosophy.
Study the Textbook “Logic Primer”
Logic Primer is also recommended for autodidacts by Tom Stoneham. He says that if you liked algebra, Logic Primer is great for you, as it confronts you with exercises and problems that resemble those in your mathematics classes.
If you want to teach yourself logic, the book has everything you need. In the interview, Professor Stoneham mentions students who missed multiple classes but read this and still did well in his class.
That’s because the book gives you the rules to follow and has you solve problems with the rules to make sure they become internalized as a part of your thinking.
5. Start Reading the Great Works of Philosophy
Now that you’ve acquired such skills as critical thinking, close reading, and logic, and formed an understanding of the basics of philosophy, it’s time to start reading the classic works!
This is by far the most challenging and rewarding step in this self-education roadmap.
Reading even just three of the great works of philosophy can take a few months, but it will be well worth the effort. You’ll come away with a sharper mind and a different outlook on life.
Each book is so jam-packed with ideas that there are entire courses dedicated to helping students understand them.
We’re talking primary source material from the best of the best:
Now I could just tell you to go read Plato. I make the case that he’s the best philosopher for beginners to read first in my article 6 reasons to start with Plato, which I recommend checking out.
But while Plato’s a great place to start, it’s not the only way to enter the classics. There are other approaches. Plus, you probably want to know what to read after Plato even if you do choose that route.
So I’d like to discuss the concept of reading lists in philosophy. Hopefully this will help you structure your reading in a way that works for you.
How to Order Your Philosophy Reading as a Beginner
Many people wonder how to approach their philosophy readings. They, like myself, want to know which books to read first and how to order their readings.
There are two main schools of thought on this matter, and both are valid for different types of people:
- The Chronological Approach: Readers start from the beginning of Western philosophy and read books sequentially, noting how ideas develop. Best for someone who thrives in structure. Check out this reading list.
- The Accessible/Interesting Approach: Readers select from accessible texts that are most interesting to them and read in any order they’d like, building those intellectual muscles before going onto harder books. Best for someone who likes flexibility. Here’s Sadler’s List of 10 Books.
The chronological group’s argument rests on the fact that philosophy builds on itself. A new philosopher is in part responding to previous philosophers, or at least using their findings.
For example, Locke refutes Hobbes. And Hegel is easier to understand if you’ve read Kant. And Aristotle was Plato’s student.
Therefore, it’s often recommended that a new student read philosophy chronologically, starting with the Ancient Greeks, to trace how such big ideas as justice and freedom developed and took their shape over time.
This chronological approach has its benefits, surely, and the dedicated self-learner who works best with a strict structure will enjoy it. But it’s not the only way to read philosophy.
The second camp recommends that new students read the easier texts that interest them most. According to Gregory Sadler P.h.D, you won’t hurt your philosophy self-education by hopping around the canon, selecting the texts that most tug at your curiosity.
In fact, you might improve your chances of following through, seeing as though you aren’t forcing yourself to read books that don’t interest you or overwhelm you too early on.
By following your curiosity, you’ll be more likely to stick to the program, rather than getting bored and dropping out.
And after finishing more accessible texts you’ll have built that reading muscle to the point where you’re now capable of hitting the harder texts.
To complicate matters, there are other ways that beginners can read philosophy aside from the two described above.
For example, you can pick one topic like justice, free will, or government and read various philosophers’ thoughts on that topic.
This is recommended by David Baxter in his insightful video on reading philosophy:
That said, it’s rather difficult to prescribe an ordered reading list that everyone should start with since everyone has different tastes, learning styles, and reading abilities.
I do think Sadler has done a good job in his article of selecting influential classics that will be easiest to comprehend for the beginning philosophy autodidact. Although, he does devote a few too many slots to the medieval thinkers for my liking.
That said, here are three books that I’d recommend starting with before using one of the above approaches.
3 Classic Philosophy Books to Get You Started on Your Journey
Below are three books that I read when starting my journey in philosophy. Out of all the ones I read, I think these are the most enjoyable and accessible for beginners.
Two of these books come from Professor Sadler’s list — The Last Days of Socrates and Nicomachean Ethics, both from the Ancient Greeks. It’s usually a good idea to start at the beginning of any intellectual tradition.
The third book by Rousseau is not on Sadler’s list, but he was the author who really hooked me on philosophy and made me aware of its power.
He’s a lucid political essayist, and his ideas are radical and fun, if at times incorrect. So I’m going to spread his ideas to you at the risk of creating another mob of French Revolutionaries.
These three texts are light in technical jargon, something philosophers have a habit of employing and even coining, to the confusion of their readers.
And these works constitute a wonderful and varied introduction to the art of philosophy. After grappling with these texts, the self-learner will be well on their way, free to jump around the canon or follow a more systematic reading list.
The Last Days of Socrates, by Plato
Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates is remarkably accessible for a philosophical classic and includes four dialogues between Socrates and his peers during the time of his trial and eventual execution.
Below are the four dialogues it contains:
- Euthyphro: Socrates, tried for being impious, is outside the courthouse debating the nature of piety.
- Apology: Socrates refutes the charges of impiety and argues for the value of the philosopher’s life.
- Crito: Awaiting execution, Socrates counters arguments from friends trying to persuade him to escape. (my favorite one).
- Phaedo: Socrates gets metaphysical and argues for the soul’s impermanence before his death.
By reading this book you’ll witness Socrates’ thoughts on various subjects, from the importance of upholding the laws to what happens after death.
Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle
Nicomachean Ethics is one of Aristotle’s most influential works and includes one of the most longstanding codes of conduct for a good and happy life.
Dr. Damian Ference, who claims this book has influenced him more than any other, has this to say about Aristotle’s central argument:
“Aristotle argues that an excellent human being is one who is virtuous, which is a person who knows the good, wants the good, and acts for the good.”
Reading this book will help you better understand the origins of our modern ethical codes as well as give you ideas for how to improve as a human being.
Basic Political Writings, by Jean Jacques Rousseau
Basic Political Writings is a collection of the greatest political works of French Philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose ideas, along with those of Montesquieu, formed an ideological tsunami that ran through France in the 18th century and provided the philosophical backbone for the French Revolutionary’s case against the current unjust government.
The first work, on the Arts and Sciences, is perhaps one of my favorite essays I’ve ever read, since it so brilliantly takes the unexpected position against the arts and sciences in French culture, claiming that they lead to the defilement of virtue and morality.
If you’re interested in politics and government, this book is an essential and thrilling read.
5 Tips for Reading the Classics of Philosophy
Whichever classic philosophy book you’re reading, you’re going to run into some tricky parts that confuse you or make you want to pour an extra cup of coffee, or perhaps another glass of whiskey, to figure out what this author is trying to get across.
Below are some tips for making reading hard philosophy books easier and more enjoyable:
- Use Secondary Sources: Be it a Youtube channel or a book written about the classic you’re reading, secondary sources can help you understand classic works of philosophy. You can reference it during the readings or read the book before diving into the primary source as an introduction.
- Consult the Stanford Encyclopedia: If you want to learn more about a specific philosopher or topic, you can likely find a well-written explanation in this free online encyclopedia’s table of contents.
- Take Notes in a Commonplace Book: Writing down your questions, favorite quotes, reflections, and summaries in a commonplace book can help you retain the information. Plus you can easily go back and review the main points of the text.
- Find a Reading Buddy: Consider finding a friend or partner and meeting up every few weeks to talk about what you’ve read. This holds you accountable to do your readings and also offers you another mind that can help you if a certain part throws you.
- Get a Philosophy Dictionary: A solid philosophy dictionary will help you find the meanings of the philosophical jargon that confuses you as you read.
Reading philosophy is tough work, but fortunately, the more you do it the better you get. I like to think of it as building muscle. Each time you do a reading, be it for twenty minutes or an hour, you’re working that mental muscle.
Even then, it can be tough going at times, and it helps to have other outlets for learning philosophy that don’t require so much mental focus and energy.
Struggling to hit your reading goals? Read my article on 35 tips that have helped me become someone who reads for 2 hours per day. Inside you’ll also find 4 things that might be holding you back from reading as much as you want to.
6. Supplement Your Readings with Online Philosophy Resources
Now, as you work through a list of philosophy readings, there are some other less cognitively demanding ways to learn philosophy on the side, like podcasts, videos, or mini-courses.
These can be used on their own or as tools to give you insights into the current book you’re reading. I myself love to listen to Michael Sugrue’s YouTube lectures during lunch.
Below are some of the best resources for learning philosophy.
Michael Sugrue’s Youtube Lectures
Michael Sugrue is a former Professor of History who has put many of his most popular lectures up on YouTube. A product of a Great Books Program at the University of Chicago, he has incredible intellectual range and the wonderful ability to discuss difficult philosophical ideas in ways that are easy to understand.
His lectures are especially helpful if you want to learn about specific philosophers and their impact on Western thought. This can be useful for context. For example, you may want to watch a lecture on the philosopher you’re about to read before cracking open their book.
The School of Life YouTube Channel
The School of Life’s Western Philosophy Series has a lot of interesting and short five-minute video essays on the key philosophers and their ideas.
Here’s one about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave:
Apart from bestowing thoughtful musings on the great philosophers, the combination of the narrator’s voice and the classical paintings he uses as background images gives you a sense that you’re learning in some 17th-century European academy.
Philosophy Bites Podcast
Philosophy Bites is a podcast where the host interviews top modern philosophers about bite-sized topics, from body modification to the ethics of spying.
For example, here’s a recent episode about AI and ethics:
It’s a great way to learn philosophy while on the go, like when you’re mowing your lawn or cooking dinner. And, unlike a lot of the previous stuff in this roadmap which focuses on the philosophers of the past, here you get the perspective of modern philosophers on contemporary issues.
Highbrow Philosophy Courses
Highbrow offers ten-day courses on various philosophy topics, from ancient Greek philosophy to women in philosophy. Each day’s course is delivered to your email and takes about 5 minutes to read. At the end of the course, you’ll take a quiz to test your knowledge.
Here are just some of the courses you can find on their site:
This is an excellent way to get a quick lesson in philosophy every morning as you read through your emails and start your work day.
For more resources check out this massive list of online philosophy resources that includes podcasts, courses, YouTube channels, and other forms of educational content.
Want to read more lighter secondary source philosophy books, like Ryan Holiday’s books on the Stoics? That’s what I use Audible for. Sign up for their 30-day free trial and get a free audiobook.
7. Follow Your Curiosity & Keep Learning
If you followed through with the roadmap, or at least did a majority of the steps, you’ll have learned so much at this point.
- You’ll know about the discipline of philosophy, its methods, and its goals.
- You’ll have sharpened your intellectual faculties and formed a foundation in logic and critical thinking.
- You’ll have read some of the most influential works of philosophy ever written, while also taking online courses taught by the best.
This self-education in such an intellectually deep and challenging subject is an impressive task not to be taken lightly.
Through your studies of general philosophy you will have also formed a sense for what philosophy topics interest you the most. You’ll also know your favorite way to learn.
Therefore, at this point, it’s hard to give the self-learner more steps to follow. You know enough to create your own next path. So, the best advice is to follow your interests, read a lot, and keep learning.
What to Do to Further Your Studies
Here are some other ideas for what to do next in your philosophy self-education journey:
- Specialize in One Branch: Perhaps pick one branch of philosophy (ethics, mind, epistemology, etc) and read all the great works in that topic. Here are some introductory textbooks to each branch of philosophy. They’d be a great starting point.
- Start a Philosophy Blog or YouTube Channel: Use what you’ve learned to write about your own ideas and analyze current events through a philosophical lens. Or, perhaps use your knowledge to teach others about philosophy.
- Form or Join a Reading Group: Studying philosophy is best when you’re doing it with other people, having lively debates, and discussing your favorite parts of certain books.
- Get a Degree in Philosophy: If you’re truly addicted to philosophy and want to make a career out of it, consider going into academia and getting a degree in philosophy. There you’ll have access to other students who share your interests and also great teachers to aid you in your journey.
- Study Another Subject: Perhaps you want to take on another discipline entirely. For example, someone might pair political science with philosophy. Or maybe you’re curious about doing a roadmap for history.
It’s important to think of self-directed study as never-ending. Complete knowledge of any academic subject, especially philosophy, is impossible.
There’s always more to discover. So keep pursuing knowledge. And nothing serves as a better motivator to keep on trucking than your curiosity, so follow it as it leads you to purpose and satisfaction.
Study Philosophy With a University-Style Curriculum
You could also make your studies even more systematic and advanced by self-studying this free DIY 12-course curriculum based on Yale’s PHIL major requirements:
The Benefits of Self-Learning Philosophy
While getting to spend time with some of history’s greatest minds is often reason enough to teach yourself philosophy, here are some other benefits of pursuing self-education in philosophy:
- Sharpen Your Mental Faculties: Reading hard texts and learning how to think like a philosopher improves your critical thinking, logical reasoning, and reading skills.
- Win More Debates: Reading and analyzing great thinkers’ arguments makes you better at constructing your own, making you a master of persuasion.
- Earn More Money in Your Career: When you can more articulately express your arguments and ideas you are better able to secure jobs, funding, support, and other opportunities.
- Get Accepted into Programs at Top Universities: Philosophy students tend to score highly on standardized tests like the LSAT or GRE.
- Prepare for Law School: The logic and analysis skills, not to mention a sense of justice, that you pick up are perfectly applicable to a career in law.
- Become a Better Writer: Exposure to top-notch thinking and writing will in turn make you more effective with the pen.
- Expand Your Vocabulary: Philosophers and lecturers love using big words. By reading them and looking them up, you’ll improve your mastery of language.
- Live a Better Life: Philosophers have tackled some of the biggest issues you’ll face — the death of a loved one, religion, friendship, and what to do with one’s life.
Lastly, the pursuit of philosophical study is fulfilling in its own right. It’s mostly intellectually stimulating, sometimes mind-boggling, and often eye-opening. Like after a tough hike, you’ll also feel good about yourself for doing something challenging.
Can You Teach Yourself Philosophy?
Before I started studying philosophy on my own, I spent too much time philosophizing about whether if it was even possible. I, rightfully so, didn’t want to put my time towards something that wouldn’t reap benefits. But all that doubt was doing was holding me back.
It is possible to teach yourself philosophy without schooling so long as you have a strong interest in the subject and the drive to regularly study it. By reading philosophy books, taking online courses, and using other online resources you can give yourself an impressive education in philosophy.
My hope is that this philosophy self-education roadmap at the very least serves as an effective motivator for you by removing your doubt and allowing you to focus on a process. At the very most I hope it takes you from beginner to a true intellectual heavyweight in philosophy.
In many ways, being a self-learner in philosophy is actually an advantage. To learn why, check out my article on 15 benefits of being an autodidact.
Bottom Line: Self-Learning Philosophy
Philosophy, like any intellectual discipline, can be self-taught. With dedication and consistency, and by following a systematic approach for your studies, you can give yourself an education in philosophy that resembles one a college student in philosophy might have, albeit at a much lower price.
But the low price of a self-education in philosophy in no way hints at its value. By studying philosophy you learn to think more deeply and effectively, a skill that bleeds over into every aspect of your life.
You also get to enjoy confronting and learning about the great ideas of the Western Tradition. And through exposure to great texts and practice, you become a better reader and writer.
Lastly, you’ll likely come away a better and more effective person in the world, for at its core philosophy is about how to live a good life and how to handle life’s most common problems, the ones that have been plaguing thinkers since the dawn of civilization.