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A few years ago, I was asked by a friend what news sources they should follow to understand the Syrian Civil War. I replied they shouldn’t follow any news at all. My recommendation instead was a six month break from Syrian news, supplemented by leisurely reading through six books on Syrian politics, economics, and culture. I pointed out they could read them on their phone just as conveniently as they could read tweets or articles. My friend was taken aback but followed the advice.

Critiques of news media are much more in vogue now than they were in 2015. People bemoan the poor factual accuracy or manifest political bias of today’s media, whether that means established newspapers like The New York Times or social networks like Facebook. But there is a more fundamental problem with news: it can provide information, but isn’t structured to educate you into someone who could understand this cherry-picked information. Formal education often fails to provide this vital foundation.

After six months, my friend thanked me. They said they now barely follow any news on Syria, but when they do it has gone from perplexing to understandable. The fragments of information no longer landed only as emotional bursts of excitement or anxiety, but rather helped contribute to a solid picture of the region. They asked me a more difficult question: what books should they read to understand not just Syria, but global society as a whole?

Books are incomplete instruments for instruction. They don’t respond to the reader and cannot directly answer questions, and they require a strange and systematic process of study that goes beyond mere reading. In physics education, for example, one will pair up the mastery of theories with tests of solving mathematical puzzles as well as a course of practical experiments that tie those to one’s senses. For the study of society, there would have to be analogues.

Further, true autodidacticism is a rare gift. To maintain motivation over a few months, learning has to be its own reward. This reward of learning must somehow be tied to understanding the world as it is, rather than pursuing theories for the sake of entertainment.

Much has happened throughout human history, and much is happening right now. Too much to ever fully catch up on. The focus should rather be on equipping someone with the theory and skills needed so they will process, absorb, and retain the information they encounter throughout their intellectual lives. This merits a methodological approach tailored to individual investigation and practical application.

The order in which one reads also matters. Important parts of certain books are unlocked by the understanding gained from another. This is obvious for disciplines like theoretical physics, but the same goes for a serious study of society.

While I have made it my core area of research, I can’t claim to fully understand society. All I could do was try to think of the most efficient way to acquire a measure of competency in the areas I pursued.

So with those caveats, I gave him a list of the sequence of books I recommend reading:

  1. How to Read a Book — Mortimer Adler

This book convinced me that while skimming was perhaps useful for mining information, it would never be a viable path to rigor. Adler advocates a disciplined and deep reading of challenging books. The book lays out a systematic method that, if followed, notably increases the skill of reading comprehension to the level of most graduate programs, improving one’s ability to learn from books. You can then afford to read more slowly because you gain more information from each reading. This is a necessity for the systematic study of society. Examples of books you’ll want to read in such an intellectual pursuit are primary sources for case studies, books laying out political theory, economics, as well as the other books on this list. He wrote this book in the 1950s as his attempt at an antidote to shortening attention spans. Unfortunately, in the age of social media, we need his remedy much more than he could have possibly imagined.

2. The Republic — Plato

A design for the creation of a new ideal society, the ultimate aim of sociological investigation. Plato’s work is a nice example of both the strengths and the limits of a theory-driven approach. The book not only lays out the major research tasks needed to engineer such a society, but lays out a plan to construct it.

He introduces a decent theory of psychology, allowing for some basic predictions of how people will respond to changes in their social and material circumstances. The model of learning introduced is among the best I’ve found.

The quality of his models is sufficient to be worth knowing and occasionally using. His variant of the theory of cycles of social transformation, of how city states change between regimes of status- and emotion-driven regulation and their related political constitutions, remains predictive. The theories of psychology, education, and society are tied together into a theory-driven design for an elite.

The practicality of this book as a manual for such efforts is underrated. As an example, it illustrates how to dialogue under adversarial circumstances. This is useful for both for your own ability to manage information, and your ability to successfully interpret texts produced under such circumstances.

3. History of the Peloponnesian War — Thucydides

The ultimate primary source. Thucydides fought as a general during the Peloponnesian war and was ultimately exiled from Athens due to political machination. After the end of the war, he spent his energies and wealth to follow up on the connections, both friend and foe, he had built. He thought the role of a historian was to chronicle and competently navigate the era in which he lived to preserve its lessons for the future. Because Thucydides was a practitioner, and one who played a critical role in the events described, his account should be taken seriously.

A clear enough demonstration of excellent analysis, such that one can productively use his approach as a prototype. He successfully combines information sources such as interviews, texts, and personal experience of war and politics. This is then paired with the skilful application of theoretical constructs to analyze a concrete circumstance.

4. Politics — Aristotle

Classical sources credit Aristotle with 170 “constitutions”, that is, research papers describing the political structure and society of various Greek city-states. Many of these constitutions were likely written or drafted by his students. Of this extensive empirical research done in preparation for the Politics, the only constitution preserved is that of Athens. This marriage of empirical data and philosophy proves hard to beat.

Aristotle’s observations on Greek society should round out what was learned following Thucydides’ exhaustive account and help complete a basic understanding of a period of history one can then reason about. Further, an alternative frame of analysis of Greek politics allows for comparison with Thucydides’ often cynical explanations.

Aristotle critiques a number of Plato’s ideas, which should improve your understanding of the Republic, help you learn how to identify potential sociological reasoning flaws, and illustrate how to refute a sociological theory.

He demonstrates how to translate the analysis of social roles and professions into a generalized analysis of a society. Sociologists and economists have divorced the two, but they are inseparable when done well. This forms the basis of class analysis as used by later thinkers like Smith, Marx, and Veblen.

It is rare for a social scientist to examine social technology as lucidly. For example, the Aristotelian account of hierarchy and why it arises is superb. The conceptually clean distinctions between the different forms of interpersonal coordination can greatly augment one’s ability to navigate and study such patterns.

Finally, as an example of a good scientist and philosopher, he can be used to help understand scientists and philosophers in general.

5. On War — Carl von Clausewitz

Clausewitz was a Prussian staff officer in the wars against Napoleon and later became an influential military theorist. Good military theory is rarely spread publicly, but Clausewitz’s wife was a prominent noblewoman who published his magnum opus after his death.

His work provides a demonstration of excellent theoretical sociological methodology, especially as regards the proper use of case studies, how to tell the general from the particular, and how to tell the fundamental from the subordinate.

Clausewitz’s model of how armies function provides a foundation for understanding the methodology and conclusions of Great Founder Theory as applied to the military.

This book shows how an essentially philosophical approach can be brought far enough to be practically useful.

6. Great Founder Theory — Samo Burja

A work in progress, but a decent introduction. This explains my current sociological paradigm.

7. The Evolution of Civilizations — Carroll Quigley

This book provides a good macro theory of civilization. Much of the pre-historical speculation can be skipped, but the overviews of historical civilizations provide an example of first-rate institutional analysis.

Quigley’s career demonstrates an excellent piece of sociological methodology around gathering information to test your theory: he builds a theory that emphasizes the importance of elites, and subsequently goes and talks to members of the elite to test and apply the theory. Note, however, that he is not a practitioner, so his usefulness as an exemplar who tests and acts on their theory is somewhat limited.

8. Persecution and the Art of Writing — Leo Strauss

Thinkers can provoke social or legal penalties in all societies. An important way to avoid attack that can derail a career, intellectual project, or a life is to learn to write between the lines. Leo Strauss’ work helps you learn improved text interpretation procedures by teaching you to read between the lines, representing a good upgrade on what you learned from Adler. It is a very good practice to attempt a ‘Straussian’ reading of a text even when there is no hidden message, since it entices to a higher level of information processing.

At this point, you can continue on your journey or recurse to reread Quigley, Plato, and Thucydides. Quigley writes obliquely and at a distance regarding Anglo-American elites. Thucydides is a political exile from Athens. While Thucydides is significantly freed from constraints and retribution, he will continue to have notable conflicts of interest and messaging agendas. Plato writes trickily for pedagogical purposes, intentionally setting challenges and puzzles for the reader, hoping the reader uses his text as an obstacle course to grow stronger.

Someone who makes it through this list, if they approach the texts with the rigor advised by Adler, will have the foundational understanding necessary for interpreting social events. They will be better equipped to do so than the vast majority of people.

The most important thing to be gained from these texts is a set of methodological tools, a way of thinking about and interpreting social events, that one can then use to generate one’s own insights about society. These authors try to bridge the gaps between the practitioner, the theorist, and the empiricist. This is something a great sociologist must do. One of the most tragic flaws a historian can have is a myopic interest in events, rather than societies. The most tragic flaw of a social scientist is the ignorance of history that trivially rebuts the most beautiful statistically-derived or philosophically-derived theory of society.

Secondarily, these authors provide superb examples of what good sociology looks like, which can then be used to construct one’s model of real expertise in this domain. This is critical for evaluating the host of supposed experts who claim to have an understanding of society that gives authority to their interpretations of events. Separating the wheat from the chaff is necessary for navigating the contemporary discourse without being misled.

Many others have since asked me for such lists, so I’ve kept it around and shared it whenever my friends or acquaintances have asked for book recommendations. Now you have it. Will you take a break from the news to read and think?

Read more from Samo Burja here.


11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:59 AM
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I agree with most of the recommendations. Some advice for getting into Plato, for the untrained reader:

The Bloom translation of Republic is the classic. Any older English translation is suspect, for reasons explained in the introduction. Happy to share a copy with anyone who needs one.

On the whole, I think someone who feels they have a good learning curve reading Plato sensitively would do better reading more Plato than Strauss, though they should trust their own intuitions here and not mine.

Nothing wrong with starting cold with Republic, but Holbo and Waring's Reason and Persuasion seems like an unusual combo of accessible and careful to respect the integrity of the signal.

I would replace The Republic with a good Micro textbook for anyone who hasn't read one. A solid grasp of the mental framework that underlies Intro Micro is useful for anyone trying to parse society: not as the only framework, but an introduction to the fact that there are competing and incompatible mental frameworks. Following that, I would replace your book with an IR textbook, which must cover different and competing theories. They will be shallow introductions to complex thoughts, but they will give the reader the critical chance to test and compare the competing and incompatible theories against each other, and realize that no one theory has a convenient answer for all problems. The discussions of constructivism and responses to the neo-neo "debate" will help you recontextualize and better understand the micro textbook. Reading these books (If you have no idea what to go for, I'd recommend Cowen and Tabarrok for Micro and Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches by Jackson and Sorenson for IR) will give you a broad overview of many theories, including modern ones informed by modern data.

Might be worthwhile to note that this strongly tilts towards the inside view and a suggestion for a strong counterpoint (statistical analysis of major trends that potentially gave rise to various viewpoints here).

Agreed. Implicitly the intended audience is already familiar with many of those.

Overbuilding an outside view and under-building an inside view is one of the key generators of akrasia, and renders knowledge inert rather than allowing book knowledge to be mixed in with lived life experience.

I'd guess it's a classic bias-variance tradeoff. Rolling novel causal models is high variance while outside view considerations can be biased in ways you are blind to but can be good enough for coarse analysis when you just need to get the sign right.

[Epistemic status: this comment is much less clear in elucidating the inputs rather than outputs of my thinking than I would have preferred, but I share it written roughly rather than not at all.]

On priors, it would be incredibly surprising to me if the best introduction to learning how to think about society did not include any of the progress we've made in fields like microeconomics and statistics (which only reached maturity in the last 100 years or so), or even simply empiricism and quantitative thinking (which only reached maturity in the last 500 years or so).

I believe there has been an absolutely outstanding amount of genuine conceptual and distillation progress in understanding society since Ancient Greece.

Another part of my experience feeding into this prior is that my undergrad was in philosophy at Oxford, and some professors really liked deeply studying ancient originals and criticising translations. In my experience this mostly didn't correlate with a productive or healthy epistemic culture.

On priors, it would be incredibly surprising to me if the best introduction to learning how to think about society did not include any of the progress we’ve made in fields like microeconomics and statistics (which only reached maturity in the last 100 years or so), or even simply empiricism and quantitative thinking (which only reached maturity in the last 500 years or so).

I think that while there’s truth in what you say, nevertheless you are (by implication) lumping together things which do not, in any classification system of ideas (rather than a historical or sociological classification of how those ideas arose, developed, and are used today), really belong together.

For example, I have long believed that the gap in understanding of the world between someone who can (and habitually does) think in terms of distributions, and someone who does not, is vast. I am not a historian of mathematics, so I am unsure when frequency distributions or probability distributions were first described, but what little I can find on the matter suggests that this is a historically semi-recent idea. So in that sense, I agree with you: any introduction to learning how to think about society that doesn’t include the concept of distributions, could not be taken seriously as a candidate for the title of “best” such material. (Correlation—and measures thereof, such as Pearson’s r—is a similarly important idea.)

Yet if you pick up a textbook on statistics, how much of the material therein will consist simply of getting across these two ideas? And how much will be devoted to statistical techniques of a sort for which the marginal benefit of knowing that specific concept, or specific mathematical technique, is vastly lower than the marginal benefit of greatly improving one’s understanding of historical and social/economic/political patterns? (For example, what would be more valuable, toward understanding the world: knowing how and why wars are fought, or familiarity with Student’s t-test?)

And a similar point can be made for microeconomics…

Instead of Clausewitz's On War, you might read Bruce Bueno de Mesquita The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics.

As far as understanding concept behind modern statistics Keith E. Stanovich's How to Think Straight About Psychology. It also discusses other important ideas such as operationalization.

Interesting list. How would you compare reading the best modern summaries and analyses of the older texts, versus reading them in the original?

Quigley’s career demonstrates an excellent piece of sociological methodology... He builds a theory that emphasizes the importance of elites, and subsequently goes and talks to members of the elite to test and apply the theory.

I'm not sure if this is meant to be ironic, but that methodology seems like an excellent way to introduce confirmation bias. I guess it's excellent compared to not going and talking to anyone at all?

What were the books on Syria you recommended to your friend?

I certainly agree with the view on news (and wish some journalists and editors would take up the challenge of improving their industry). Without a better context, informed by the local aspects around any news story, it's really difficult to come away with an informed understanding and view.

I am struck by one aspect of the latter idea, for understanding global society. It seems very western centered and so possibly could lead to unintentional biases.

I do realize that the alternative is a bit challenging, we can read important books from other cultural heritages but I suspect most will be limited as I am to those translated into English. That itself will introduce a slant that could be "western" biased as well.

Overall good advice and thanks for posting.