The best books about philosophy and human life

Russell B. Goodman Author Of Wittgenstein and William James
By Russell B. Goodman

The Books I Picked & Why

The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

By Pierre Hadot, Michael Chase

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

Why 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.

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The Transcendentalists

By Barbara L. Packer

Book cover of The Transcendentalists

Why 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.

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A Stroll With William James

By Jacques Barzun

Book cover of A Stroll With William James

Why 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.”

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Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

By Ray Monk

Book cover of Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

Why 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.”

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Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage

By Stanley Cavell

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

Why 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.

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