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“Ask a Priest: Any Advice on Studying Philosophy?”
Q: I am a freshman in college interested in studying philosophy. Do you have any recommendations in choosing classes or studying it in general? I know that some famous philosophers are in direct opposition to Catholicism, and I do not want to endanger my faith. – N.P.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: It’s good that you are already on guard against works that could undercut your faith.
I will only offer general advice, since I don’t know the professors you would have.
If you are starting out in philosophy, it’s good to avoid exposing yourself immediately to philosophers who promote an atheistic or materialistic way of thinking. Some students unfortunately dive right into Nietzsche as their introduction to philosophy.
An alternative would be to pursue a two-track system.
First, start at the beginning. Study the ancient philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle. The early great philosophers focused on bedrock questions, such as the nature of being; epistemology; logic, etc.
Second, if possible, you might want to start looking at the most important Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure, and St. Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae is one of the world’s greatest intellectual masterworks. It is also highly pedagogical — you can learn to think more clearly just by reading it. The Thomistic Institute offers a free online course on Aquinas.
Another hint: Philosophical writings can be a bit overwhelming at first, so it might be good to supplement your reading with more-accessible material.
Also handy is Ten Philosophical Mistakes, by Mortimer Alder.
Only after you get well-grounded in the ancients and in the thought of St. Thomas would it be advisable to tackle the modern philosophers.
Some of the moderns’ insights are valuable, but some are deeply flawed. You want to have a solid background in good philosophy before you read the dicey stuff. Forewarned is forearmed.
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