Having grown tired of reading secondary material in my study of philosophy, I have decided to read primary texts in a chronological, rather than thematic, order. I have started with Plato and have read most of the works I can find online or at my library. Before I move on to Aristotle, I would like your advice. Do you think a chronological approach is a good idea for someone untrained in philosophy? Do you think I should read every work by a given philosopher, or are there 'key' works that serve as their primary contribution to the field? If the latter, are there any lists that you are aware of that state what those key works are?
I agree with Allen Stairs that reading topically is important, but I think it is equally important to remember that philosophy is a conversation that has been ongoing for something like 4500 years. To join in on the conversation, it can be very useful to see it historically , to see how it began and how it evolved, and thereby to gain an understanding of why it is where it is today. One can combine these approaches: Read chronologically within a topic. Or read contemporary philosophy alongside its history. To compare philosophy with physics, as Stairs does, misleadingly suggests that the history is irrelevant. (That's not to say that philosophy doesn't "make progress"; on that topic, see my essay: Rapaport, William J. (1982), "Unsolvable Problems and Philosophical Progress" , American Philosophical Quarterly 19: 289-298.)