The Ignorant Dogmatist
Prezi: No-one Plays Alone

Top Ten Incredible Philosophy Books No-one Recommends (3): The Top Five

Following last week’s background to the Top Ten, and Numbers 10 through 6, here are the final five books in the countdown of obscurity.


5. Max Stirner The Ego and its Own (1844)

16,200-18,300 hits
Nominated by J. Moesgaard

Stirner The Ego and His OwnThe last of the nominated books to clear 10,000 hits, Moesgaard remarks that it is “largely unknown but a fantastic rejection of ideology in favour of radical personal freedom.” The introduction to the first English language edition of the book in 1907 goes further than this, and remarks that “the memory of Max Stirner had been virtually extinct for an entire generation.” Stirner, however, warrants an entry in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (if not the IEP), which stresses the tremendous influence of this text upon Karl Marx’s thought. Sometimes viewed as a precursor to Nietzsche, the lasting impact of this particular book seems to have been upon contemporary anarchist thought, which has adopted it as a key text in part because of Stirner’s suggestion that the rise of egoism would ultimately result in the collapse of the State. This particular prediction seems to be in error, but Stirner’s text still has much to offer those who would side with him in considering the State apparatus an illegitimate institution.


4. Alasdair MacIntyre Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990)

6,710-8,510 hits
Nominated by Chris Bateman

MacIntyre Three Rival VersionsThis is the book that inspired this whole whimsical endeavour, and it’s the youngest title in the countdown at a mere 26 years old. MacIntyre is one of those folks that people like to say is ‘arguably the greatest living philosopher’, although this perspective is largely espoused from inside the Catholic church that Scottish-born MacIntyre defected to in the early 1980s. The book of his that is unanimously recommended is After Virtue, which is unfortunate as Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry is a deeper, wider, and less polemic title. Not only the single best commentary on Nietzsche and Foucault’s work, it’s also a flawless exposition of how their philosophy utterly undermined the foundations of the Victorian encyclopaedia – not to mention a text with profound implications for epistemology and the contemporary university. Skip the five chapters explaining the history of Christian philosophy in the 13th and 14th century if you cannot bear such things and it’s still an incredible response to the genealogical and encyclopaedic perspectives of knowledge. Include them, and you have a book that profoundly reconfigures contemporary preconceptions about just about everything.


3. José Ortega y Gasset What is Philosophy? (1929)

2,630-5,170 hits
Nominated by Judith Stout

Ortega What is PhilosophyOrtega is far from an unknown figure in Spanish philosophy, and the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has an article on his life and work. However, his prolific writings make it hard for any single work to stand out from the crowd. This title was adapted from his lectures and suggests that philosophy is “the radical study of the whole universe”, while aligning his work closely to that of Heidegger. Indeed, Ortega remarks that “to live is to find oneself in the world”, adding: “Heidegger, in a very recent work of genius, has made us take notice of all the enormous significance of these words.” In Ortega’s perspective, the sciences provide a detailed analysis of aspects of things, but their specialist methodologies preclude them from dealing with universals. Philosophy, on the other hand, is also a specialist, but at the other extreme; thus Ortega paradoxically declares that “the philosopher is also a specialist, a specialist in universes.” Unafraid of metaphysics, Ortega provides in What is Philosophy? a passionate and unflinching defence of the work of philosophers.


2. John Gall Systemantics (1975)

3,490-3,840 hits
Nominated by Bart Stewart

Gall.SystemanticsAlthough not a philosopher by either training or attribution, John Gall’s text (originally entitled General Systemantics) has profound implications for anyone pondering the functioning of all systems great and small. The short book focuses upon the way that systems fail, and contains with it what has come to be termed ‘Gall’s Law’: “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked… A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work.” The book is structured around 32 axioms, somewhat mimicking the form of more heavyweight philosophy tomes, but remains readable throughout. If this is outside of the typical considerations of academic philosophy, it remains an illuminating (and amusing!) meditation on the failures that inevitably result from applying grandiose theories at too gargantuan a scale.


1. Gerd Buchdahl Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science (1969)

2,050-3,280 results
Nominated by Michael Pereira

Buchdahl Metaphysics and the Philosophy of ScienceHere, at the bottom of our Marianas Trench of philosophical obscurity lies Gerd Buchdahl, the first lecturer in history and philosophy of science at Cambridge. In this vast tome, subtitled The classical origins: Descartes to Kant, Buchdahl dismantles any suggestion that philosophy is without practical implication, and shows the intimate interconnectivity between the empirical sciences and the work of the Enlightenment philosophers. Michael Power, one of Buchdahl’s students, writes in a retrospective on the book that its “unremarkable title belies its dazzling mixture of analytical and historical insight.” Here is a text that, Powers attests, renders the often inscrutable topic of metaphysics as “a project with heart and excitement”. Buchdahl, who died in 2001, remained resolute that the sciences benefited from their exchanges with philosophy, writing in 1962 that “a critical approach to the history of science will do well to avail itself of the results of philosophical scholarship”. He left as his legacy the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, which remains the leading publication in that particular field.


More nonsense soon!


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I am a little bit touched that my selection reached the top. I wonder if there's a difference between obscurity and 'books no-one recommends' (I'll get to that in a moment).

I really like the MacIntyre and Stirner selections. I have been party to the Catholic MacIntyre crowd who think that he is the successor to Aristotle/Aquinas. I think there is something worthwhile in connecting the cultural issues of our time to these age old philosophical issues, otherwise what relevance does philosophy have?

I ought to go into the importance of G. Buchdahl's text. For me (being self-indulgent), the connection between history of science and metaphysics and epistemology is a very obvious connection after reading this text and a notion that is very important to me. Philosophy must not be separate from the discourses which they are supposed to be about. There is a page in the Buchdahl text consisting of a diagram linking systematic philosophical issues to contemporary science (of that time) that is so horrifying that I still think to myself: I have reached my limit in philosophy and I cannot go any further.

What does it mean for no-one to recommend a philosophy text? I suspect that there is a bit of an hegemony in philosophy (and this extends to philosophy teaching and philosophy disseminating) where certain voices and certain ideas are amplified and repeated more so than others, to the hindrance of other voices who should be heard more. For every dozen quotes from Marx and Wittgenstein, there is a Georg Simmel (author of philosophy of money) being ignored.

I have been thinking a bit more about philosophy books that no-one recommends that should be recommended. One would be ' A Survey of Symbolic Logic' by CI Lewis (later editions preferably!), which introduces the foundations of non-classical logics. This should be read by people who want to look at the connection between philosophy and computer science. The connection between computer science and philosophy through the ideas surrounding 'ontology' may shape the future of computing and our conceptualisation of the world in coming centuries. FOr now, this idea remains supremely obscure.

Another book I thought other people would recommend that should be recommended is 'Love's knowledge'. Love's knowledge is a series of vignette pieces/essays by Martha Nussbaum concerning the role of the emotions and the insight of literature on our emotions. In this work, Nussbaum implicitly challenges the maleness of philosophy and the kinds of focuses men have when philosophising. The ideas within Love's knowledge revolve around thoughts that I continually revisit through my life.

All in all I thought these recent posts are very interesting. A couple of these texts I might have to visit in the near future (and in the case of Buchdahl, revisit, if I ever find a copy in print!).

All the best

Hi Michael,
Congratulations on 'winning' this spurious competition, and many thanks for your detailed commentary here! The hegemony in philosophy applies in many respects to any academic discipline; there are always some voices that rise about the others, and while those will always be ones that deserve to be heard, it does not follow that the ones that remain obscured were not worth hearing.

I don't think it's self-indulgent for you to share your personal connection with the book you nominated; it's mandated. It would have been impolite to not comment in this way! And I really want to see this diagram you refer to now... even if the book is out-of-print, it will be indexed in at least one library. A library loan may be your surest way of sourcing it now.

I thoroughly enjoyed this idle pursuit, and many thanks to you and everyone else for taking part. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm at a conference and shouldn't be hiding in my robots.

With great love and respect,


I was surprised but not displeased that Systemantics made the cut. While it rightly wouldn't be considered a seminal work of philosophy, and its individual pieces certainly come across as practical suggestions for system-builders, taken as a whole it starts to look like a coherent and penetrating philosophy of the limits of human understanding.

Systems created by humans (both physical and organizational) fail, Gall's book shows, not because we make correctible mistakes, but because failure is inherent in complex systems. Everything that exists in this reality is flawed, and that is vastly more true for anything made by humans.

That's the real takeaway from Gall's book, and I think it's arguably a philosophical point. It's a simple but deep observation about reality that demands we consider carefully how best to engage with it both as individual creators and and members of emergent social systems. I could easily see Systemantics as a companion to the "tragic view" of human nature, and a component of a Straussian understanding of the dangers of power. That's a pretty powerful punch for a little book that's ostensibly just a collection of system-design koans, but it's why I thought Gall's book was worthy of a mention in a list of little-remembered works of meaningful philosophy.

Very nice to see it get another moment in the sunlight. :)

Hey Bart,
While your nomination was certainly not part of the discourse of academic philosophy, I felt it was a mistake to treat 'philosophy' as only marking this discourse. After all, 'Eastern philosophy' was never part of this discourse either, but it is certainly philosophy! The attempts to fence off what is or isn't philosophy aren't enormously helpful - far more useful to recognise that philosophy can be found in all manner of places, including novels, movies, and, yes, a work on system-building.

Many thanks for nominating it! And congratulations for coming second place in the spurious competition.


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