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A Few (Really) Good Books

books2.jpgLast week's Frontiers in the Environment presentation by John Sheehan, "Sustainable Development: What Would Aristotle Do?", generated plenty of interest, including requests for more information on topics covered. If you were intrigued by the talk, you might like to check out Sheehan's annotated list of recommended follow-up readings:

Adler, Mortimer J. 1978. Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy. Macmillan Publishing, New York.
A remarkable attempt to capture the essence of Aristotle's writing. Originally, Adler intended it to be called "A Children's Aristotle"! But this is no children's book. Aristotle's thinking may be based on common sense, but it is - as Adler points out - uncommon thinking.

Adler, Mortimer J. Six Great Ideas. Simon & Schuster, New York.
The book was used as the basis as a series of seminars on each of the six ideas of truth, goodness, beauty, liberty, equality and justice. Filmed for PBS by Bill Moyers on location at the Aspen Institute in Colorado (of which Adler was a founding member), this program was inspirational for me.

Hutchins, Robert M. 1952. The Great Conversation. Volume 1, The Great Books of the Western World. Encyclopaedia Britanica, Chicago.
A brilliant essay on the urgent need and value of a liberal arts education. I contend that a liberal arts education is the key to our learning to live sustainably. This should be required reading for all educators and every citizen who cares about the sustainable development of our global society.

Sandel, Michael. 2009. Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.
Based on Sandel's hugely popular Harvard undergraduate class on justice, this book is a great modern overview of important philosophical thought on justice and ethics.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice (revised edition), 1999 (original 1971). Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.
Seen as a seminal modern work in philosophical thought about justice, this book really builds on core concepts present throughout much of the history of philosophy, most notably Rousseau. Rawls seems to take much pride in showing how his rigorous theoretical construction of a social contract approach to justice can lead to a universal set of principles that align well with the categorical imperatives of Immanuel Kant. I find his argument overwrought. While the key insights of fairness make sense, he goes too far in establishing its implications for moral priorities and for the organization of society.

Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as Freedom. Random House, Inc., New York.
Sen is a Nobel laureate in economics who also (rightly) prides himself in being steeped in philosophical as much as economic thinking. Sen talks of development as the means to freedom, which he defines as having unfettered access to the tools and goods needed to fulfill one's capacity.  Some have described Sen as an Aristotelian - a connection I think is appropriate. His focus on individual capability rings true in the context of Aristotle's view of the centrality of individual virtue (excellence in our capacity as human beings). Sen and Aristotle both believe that the central role of society is to promote the individual's virtue. The big difference between these two? Sen insists that the moral measure of an action is strictly based on its actual outcome.  Aristotle says the virtue of an action resides not in its outcome but in the virtue (and intent) of the person doing the action.

Sen, Amartya, 2009. The Idea of Justice. The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.
This book offers a much more sweeping view of Sen's ideas about development. It builds off of Rawl's book on justice, really using Rawls as a foil for Sen's own theory of justice. Sen delivers a strong criticism of Rawls, despite the gushing praise he heaps on his colleague and friend. For Sen, Rawls' biggest mistake was the priority he gave to universal moral principles as the guide for institutional design, at the expense of considering the real impacts of our actions on an individual's ability to develop his or her talents and passions to their fullest.

Aristotle (Sachs, Joe, translator), 2002. The Nichomachean Ethics. Focus Publishing, Newburyport, Mass.
Aristotle's Ethics stands as one of the greatest works of moral philosophy in Western literature. This translation by Joe Sachs is brilliant. It wipes away centuries of vagaries in the translations that have occurred as this work found its way from the original ancient Greek to Latin and now to modern times. Sach's introductory essay and his glossary of terms alone make this work worth reading. Warning: It is not always easy going, even with Sach's invaluable guidance.

Wilson, E.O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. 1998. Alfred A Knopf, New York.
An interesting essay on the merging of knowledge across the disciplines of the sciences and humanities. Though I don't buy Wilson's notion that biology represents the field of study that will glue all knowledge together, his recognition of the need for consilience (an arcane term dating back to the Enlightenment period that means exactly what you would think) among fields is vital. By far the most interesting chapter is the one on sustainable development, which is the poster child for the need for consilience.

Image courtesy of FutUndBeidl via Creative Commons



Nice post. I will read some of the books you suggest here. Right now, I am finishing the bio of Steve Jobs wich is about 750 pages 'short'.

I think it's a great book, it gives me alot of inspiration. Next week, I am going to the library and will check out Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice (revised edition).

Again, nice post. I enyoded it. Keep up the good work!


Thanks for the kind words. Rawls's book is a great place to start in any understanding of justice. Maybe after you finish Rawls, you can try out Amartya Sen's Idea of Justice, which will offer thoughtful counterpoints to Rawls. These two books make for a great start to an endless conversation. Of course, I can't resist saying that this conversation will eventually lead you back to Aristotle!

Check out your local library for these books. The University Libraries has a copy of each of them.

Books are our life line and connection to the Great Conversation. And libraries are the only place to ensure that these books remain available to everyone.

Some of the books on my list are hard to find, and would disappear were it not for libraries. Indeed, you are unlikely to find Hutchins's The Great Conversation anywhere else.


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This page contains a single entry by Mary Hoff published on September 28, 2012 5:18 PM.

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