The best philosophy books that challenge how you think about history

Who am I?

There are so many different ways of thinking and writing about history. I first noticed this while studying at university, when I saw just how different economic history looked from other kinds of history. I later learned that all kinds of historical writing are forms of literature, only they are rarely recognized as such. I am now a university professor and this is my area of expertise: the overlap between the philosophy of history and economics. The books on this list are great examples of unusual or ‘weird’ works on history that challenge some of our deepest assumptions about what history is and how best to think or write about it.


I wrote...

History in Financial Times

By Amin Samman,

Book cover of History in Financial Times

What is my book about?

The idea that time and history move forward is a cornerstone of critical economic perspectives. But what happens to the present when the past catches up with it? History in Financial Times pursues this question in connection with contemporary financial capitalism, exploring the strange power of the past within financial journalism, policymaking, and popular culture. From comparisons with the Great Depression to the enduring appeal of fictional characters like Gordon Gekko, the book shows how the past continually circulates through and shapes the present, such that historical change emerges through a shifting panorama of historical associations, names, and dates.

The books I picked & why

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Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History

By Karl Löwith,

Book cover of Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History

Why this book?

Most people think that history and religion are two completely opposed registers, much like science and religion. Lowith upends that idea in this book, which shows how all modern historical thinking and writing is theological. Besides this, another great thing about the book is the way it is organised. Instead of running forward, in chronological order, from the Bible through to Hegel, Marx, and Burckhardt, it begins with these thinkers and works its way backward. It’s a really simple but effective way of getting his point across.

Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History

By Karl Löwith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Meaning in History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Modern man sees with one eye of faith and one eye of reason. Consequently, his view of history is confused. For centuries, the history of the Western world has been viewed from the Christian or classical standpoint-from a deep faith in the Kingdom of God or a belief in recurrent and eternal life-cycles. The modern mind, however, is neither Christian nor pagan-and its interpretations of history are Christian in derivation and anti-Christian in result. To develop this theory, Karl Loewith-beginning with the more accessible philosophies of history in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries and working back to the Bible-analyzes the…


A Short History of Decay

By E. M. Cioran, Richard Howard (translator),

Book cover of A Short History of Decay

Why this book?

This book is the most relentlessly pessimistic book I have ever read. It will help you overcome optimism. The volume is comprised mostly of short aphorisms, each with their own title, and I’d say the titles alone are worth the price of entry. But more to the point, there is a fantastic essay in the middle called "Faces of Decadence," which tells the story of history as a story of decay and decline. It’s a familiar refrain, but I think the version that appears here is among the best. Certainly the most stylish.

A Short History of Decay

By E. M. Cioran, Richard Howard (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Short History of Decay as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

E. M. Cioran confronts the place of today's world in the context of human history-focusing on such major issues of the twentieth century as human progress, fanaticism, and science-in this nihilistic and witty collection of aphoristic essays concerning the nature of civilization in mid-twentieth-century Europe. Touching upon Man's need to worship, the feebleness of God, the downfall of the Ancient Greeks and the melancholy baseness of all existence, Cioran's pieces are pessimistic in the extreme, but also display a beautiful certainty that renders them delicate, vivid, and memorable. Illuminating and brutally honest, A Short History of Decay dissects Man's decadence…


Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History

By Norman O. Brown,

Book cover of Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History

Why this book?

This is another absolutely delirious book. One part detailed study of Freud’s most divisive concept, the death drive, and one part messianic call-to-love in the style of Nietzsche, I was very skeptical to begin with. But as I persisted, I began to see the charm and power of Brown’s project. He is someone who really wants to make history by talking about it in such grand terms. He wasn’t the first to try this, but there is perhaps a case to be made that he was the last.

Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History

By Norman O. Brown,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Life Against Death as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A shocking and extreme interpretation of the father of psychoanalysis.


The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction

By Frank Kermode,

Book cover of The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction

Why this book?

Kermode is a literary critic and this book is a study of apocalyptic narrative throughout the ages. But as Lowith shows, all Western historical thought is apocalyptic. Kermode takes this point further by looking not just at the Bible, but also Roman philosophy, modern English poetry, and more. It might sound like a bit of a detour, only it doesn’t feel that way when he brings it all to a head in an early diagnosis of the postmodern condition. Because we now know the power of stories, he argues, they can only continue to do their work by ‘defying our sense of reality.' Talk about the ultimate cliffhanger!

The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction

By Frank Kermode,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Frank Kermode is one of our most distinguished and beloved critics of English literature. Here, he contributes a new epilogue to his collection of classic lectures on the relationship of fiction to age-old concepts of apocalyptic chaos and crisis. Prompted by the approach of the millennium, he revisits the book which brings his highly concentrated insights to bear on some of the most unyielding philosophical and aesthetic enigmas. Examining the works of writers from
Plato to William Burroughs, Kermode shows how they have persistently imposed their "fictions" upon the face of eternity and how these have reflected the apocalyptic spirit.…


The Illusion of the End

By Jean Baudrillard,

Book cover of The Illusion of the End

Why this book?

Baudrillard is by now famous for declaring the end or disappearance of pretty much everything. That includes ‘history,’ and it is in this book where he speaks most directly about this. But unlike others, he doesn’t say that we’ve reached the end of history. Instead, he suggests that we’ve banished the end by going beyond it. It is a terrifying thought, really, because it means we can only dream of the end, and that beneath this illusion is something endless, artificial, and inhuman.

The Illusion of the End

By Jean Baudrillard,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The year 2000, the end of the millennium: is this anything other than a mirage, the illusion of an end, like so many other imaginary endpoints which have littered the path of history?
In this remarkable book Jean Baurdrillard-France's leading theorist of postmodernity-argues that the notion of the end is part of the fantasy of a linear history. Today we are not approaching the end of history but moving into reverse, into a process of systematic obliteration. We are wiping out the entire twentieth century, effacing all signs of the cold War one by one, perhaps even the signs of…


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