The best books about philosophy and human life

Why am I passionate about this?

Russell Goodman is a Regents Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of New Mexico. Russell loved the remark by the philosopher Wittgenstein that "James was a good philosopher because he was a real human being". This list is inspired by that statement. Russell picked books that he loves and admires and would happily read again, and which explore in their various ways what it is to be a human being.


I wrote...

Wittgenstein and William James

By Russell B. Goodman,

Book cover of Wittgenstein and William James

What is my book about?

This book explores Wittgenstein's long engagement with the work of the pragmatist William James. In contrast to previous discussions, Russell Goodman argues that James exerted a distinctive and pervasive positive influence on Wittgenstein's thought. He shows that both share commitments to anti-foundationalism, to the description of the concrete details of human experience, and to the priority of practice over intellect. Considering in detail what Wittgenstein learned from his reading of William James, Goodman provides considerable evidence for Wittgenstein's claim that he is saying "something that sounds like pragmatism."

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Russell B. Goodman Why did I love this book?

I encountered the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in a course on ancient Greek philosophy when I was an undergraduate at Penn, and from time to time found it helpful for my inner tranquility to follow his advice. That advice is not always easy to heed, hence the importance of the “spiritual exercises” detailed in this brilliant study by a French scholar who conceives of philosophy as “a way of life.” I love many things about Marcus, among them the way he counsels himself when he gets up in the morning to expect, in his duties as an emperor, to encounter foul-smelling, avaricious, ungrateful, and ambitious people, but also to understand that they are as much human beings as he is, and that they cannot “implicate [him] in what is degrading” unless he allows them to do so.

By Pierre Hadot, Michael Chase (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Inner Citadel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are treasured today--as they have been over the centuries--as an inexhaustible source of wisdom. And as one of the three most important expressions of Stoicism, this is an essential text for everyone interested in ancient religion and philosophy. Yet the clarity and ease of the work's style are deceptive. Pierre Hadot, eminent historian of ancient thought, uncovers new levels of meaning and expands our understanding of its underlying philosophy.

Written by the Roman emperor for his own private guidance and self-admonition, the Meditations set forth principles for living a good and just life. Hadot probes…


Book cover of The Transcendentalists

Russell B. Goodman Why did I love this book?

When I began writing about Emerson – not a usual task for a philosopher -- and was trying to figure out who the American Transcendentalists were, Barbara Packer’s brilliantly written study of the movement came to my assistance. She covers it all, from the background in European Biblical criticism and the idea that the sacred books of the world’s religious traditions are forms of poetry, to the Annus Mirabilus of 1836 when Emerson published Nature; to figures like Margaret Fuller, whose electrifying Conversations sparked a homegrown American feminism, Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May), and, of course, Emerson’s young friend, Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden and Resistance to Civil Government.

By Barbara L. Packer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Transcendentalists as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Barbara L. Packer's long essay ""The Transcendentalists"" is widely acknowledged by scholars of nineteenth-century American literary history as the best-written, most comprehensive treatment to date of Transcendentalism. Previously existing only as part of a volume in the magisterial ""Cambridge History of American Literature"", it will now be available for the first time in a stand-alone edition. Packer presents Transcendentalism as a living movement, evolving out of such origins as New England Unitarianism and finding early inspiration in European Romanticism. Transcendentalism changed religious beliefs, philosophical ideas, literary styles, and political allegiances. In addition, it was a social movement whose members collaborated…


Book cover of A Stroll With William James

Russell B. Goodman Why did I love this book?

In my college days, it seemed that everyone was carrying around a copy of Barzun’s book on Darwin, Marx, and Wagner, and I remember devouring his two-volume book on Berlioz and the Romantic Century, just for fun. When I began to seriously study William James, I was amazed to see that Barzun had written about him too. A Stroll with William James has one of my favorite titles, signifying a certain American informality and inherent movement that is characteristic of both James the man and his philosophy of pragmatism.

Barzun’s engagingly written book contains chapters on James’s life, his relation to his brother Henry James the novelist, and on William’s masterwork, The Principles of Psychology, with its great chapter on “the stream of thought.” Barzun also considers the brilliant “study in human nature” that James calls The Varieties of Religious Experience, with its chapters on conversion, mysticism, and “the divided self.” Varieties was the book of James’s that Wittgenstein read as a young man, and which, he wrote to his mentor Bertrand Russell, did him “a lot of good.”

By Jacques Barzun,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Stroll With William James as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Analyzes the philosophical and psychological theories of William James and examines their contributions to the present state of Western civilization


Book cover of Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

Russell B. Goodman Why did I love this book?

Who was Ludwig Wittgenstein? And what did he say or do that might be of interest to anyone who is not a professional philosopher? This clear-minded, prize-winning biography presents Wittgenstein’s work and life as a moral calling, tracing his path from a wealthy family in Vienna to Cambridge, where he astounded Bertrand Russell with his grasp and critique of his book on logic, Principia Mathematica. Wittgenstein carried the manuscript of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in his rucksack during world war I, where he experienced “the terrors of war” serving as a corporal in the Austrian army. After he published his book in 1921, he abandoned philosophy and returned to Vienna, believing that he had solved all the philosophical problems that could be solved, while maintaining a proper silence about those that could not. (“What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence.”) Then at the end of the twenties, he began to think that his early approach was fundamentally mistaken, and he spent his last decades in England and Ireland, writing Philosophical Investigations, where he presents a picture of language as grounded in the human “form of life.”

By Ray Monk,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Ludwig Wittgenstein as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Great philosophical biographies can be counted on one hand. Monk's life of Wittgenstein is such a one." The Christian Science Monitor.


Book cover of Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage

Russell B. Goodman Why did I love this book?

Cavell writes like no one else, and it took me some time before I could catch on, initially through his writing about Wittgenstein. I first heard his name years earlier, from a fellow American studying with me at Oxford. We were both attending what proved to be an intolerably boring and disheartening course on aesthetics. Having a cup of tea after abandoning the course, my new friend told me that his teacher at Harvard, Stanley Cavell, offered a brighter, more hopeful and imaginative version of what might be called aesthetics than the one we were presented with. He was right, and this wonderful book on American film classics is an example. One of the most accessible of Cavell’s books, it includes readings of It Happened One Night (1934), His Girl Friday (1940), and The Philadelphia Story (1940), in which issues of identity, acknowledgment, and the woman’s voice come to the fore.

By Stanley Cavell,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Pursuits of Happiness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During the '30s and '40s, Hollywood produced a genre of madcap comedies that emphasized reuniting the central couple after divorce or separation. Their female protagonists were strong, independent, and sophisticated. Here, Stanley Cavell names this new genre of American film-"the comedy of remarriage"-and examines seven classic movies for their cinematic techniques and for such varied themes as feminism, liberty, and interdependence.

Included are Adam's Rib, The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night, The Lady Eve, and The Philadelphia Story.


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Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

Book cover of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

John Kenneth White Author Of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Reading was a childhood passion of mine. My mother was a librarian and got me interested in reading early in life. When John F. Kennedy was running for president and after his assassination, I became intensely interested in politics. In addition to reading history and political biographies, I consumed newspapers and television news. It is this background that I have drawn upon over the decades that has added value to my research.

John's book list on who we are, how we’ve changed, and what gives us hope

What is my book about?

It didn’t begin with Donald Trump. When the Republican Party lost five straight presidential elections during the 1930s and 1940s, three things happened: (1) Republicans came to believe that presidential elections are rigged; (2) Conspiracy theories arose and were believed; and (3) The presidency was elevated to cult-like status.

Long before Trump, each of these phenomena grew in importance. The John Birch Society and McCarthyism became powerful forces; Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first “personal president” to rise above the party; and the development of what Harry Truman called “the big lie,” where outrageous falsehoods came to be believed. Trump…

Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

What is this book about?

It didn't begin with Donald Trump. The unraveling of the Grand Old Party has been decades in the making. Since the time of FDR, the Republican Party has been home to conspiracy thinking, including a belief that lost elections were rigged. And when Republicans later won the White House, the party elevated their presidents to heroic status-a predisposition that eventually posed a threat to democracy. Building on his esteemed 2016 book, What Happened to the Republican Party?, John Kenneth White proposes to explain why this happened-not just the election of Trump but the authoritarian shift in the party as a…


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Interested in philosophy, Marcus Aurelius, and presidential biography?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about philosophy, Marcus Aurelius, and presidential biography.

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