The best books on western philosophy: what it is and how to do it

The Books I Picked & Why

Plato: Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo

By John M. Cooper, G.M.A. Grube, Plato

Book cover of Plato: Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo

Why this book?

These dialogues introduce the ideas that gave birth to western philosophy and its contributions to civilization. Providing the foundations of rational thought and theoretical knowledge in multiple domains, Greek philosophers, especially Socrates and Plato, imbued the search for truth with the urgency of both a personal, and a communal, quest for meaning. Just as the advances of Greek mathematics required concepts that are precisely defined or rigorously governed by axioms, so, the dialogues teach, advances in our knowledge of the world, and of ourselves, require well-regulated concepts like truth, knowledge, justice, virtue, and happiness. In these dialogues, we see the birth of philosophy's two great projects--providing concepts needed to advance theoretical knowledge in every domain and charting the path to wisdom in leading a good and meaningful life.

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A Treatise of Human Nature

By David Hume

Book cover of A Treatise of Human Nature

Why this book?

Hume aimed at an empirical science of the mind with laws of associationist psychology analogous to Newton's physical laws. (Book I Part 3.) Realizing that we use reason and observation to calculate means to our ends, he believed our ends come from the passions, including moral sentiments arising from human nature. (Book III).  Moral rules arising from them are shaped by systems of social cooperation evolving by trial and error into mutually beneficial practices. The resulting rules are biological, sociological, and psychological facts that are normative because we can't renounce the values grounding them without violating who we are. In short, the man who gave us "One can't derive ought from is" also gave us the key to constructing a naturalistic morality based on facts about us.

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The Problems of Philosophy

By Bertrand Russell

Book cover of The Problems of Philosophy

Why this book?

In this book, one of the great philosophers of the first half of the 20th century sketches his take on two central philosophical tasks -- explaining what kinds of things exist in reality, and how they are related, and delineating what we can know and how we know it.  In so doing, Russell illustrates the new method of logical and linguistic analysis he used in The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (1918), to lay the foundations of an epistemological and metaphysical system rivaling the great systems of the past. A key transitional figure linking the history of the subject to contemporary concerns, he raised logic and language to central subjects of philosophical study in their own right, without losing sight of their relevance for more traditional philosophical quests.

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Naming and Necessity

By Saul A Kripke

Book cover of Naming and Necessity

Why this book?

This book, given as three lectures in 1970 by a 28-year-old wunderkind, made its author one of the greatest philosophers of our era.  Just as Russell transformed the philosophy of his day by demonstrating the significance of an advanced system logic he helped to found, so Kripke transformed the philosophy descending from Russell by inventing an expressively richer version logic, and illustrating its significance. This book, more than any other,  provided the starting point for contemporary metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind. It is, nevertheless, remarkably accessible.  Delivered in a delightfully informal style, it presents ideas capable of far-reaching technical elaboration in their simplest and most comprehensible form, revealing their intuitive essence. If you want to understand philosophy today, you need to read this book.

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Mortal Questions

By Thomas Nagel

Book cover of Mortal Questions

Why this book?

This book presents ethics as both a theoretical and personal enterprise. Because it aims not only at what we should believe, but also at what we should want and how we should act, it starts not with pre-reflective ideas about the world, which we hope to make more accurate, but with pre-reflective ideas about what we want and how we want to live, which we hope to improve. Among the most gripping in contemporary philosophy, Nagel's essays -- on death, meaning in life, equality, the power of sex, limitations on our understanding of other beings, and morally evaluating people vs. morally evaluating their actions -- are informed by a unique cconception of objectivity, subjectivity, and of how the two must be combined if we are to progress.

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