The best books for starting out in philosophy

Peter S. Fosl Author Of The Philosopher's Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods
By Peter S. Fosl

Who am I?

I’m a philosopher who’s taught mostly undergraduates for over thirty years at small liberal arts colleges in the US, and I’ve held research fellowships at the University of Edinburgh and Williams College. I’ve co-authored three “toolkit” books – The Philosopher’s Toolkit, The Ethics Toolkit, and The Critical Thinking Toolkit. My more scholarly work, however, has focused on skepticism, for example in Hume’s Scepticism. I also like to write about pop culture, especially for collections like my Big Lebowski and Philosophy. Fundamentally, though, I’m just a lover of dialectic and an explorer in the world of ideas. Nothing, for me, is more enjoyable.

I wrote...

Book cover of The Philosopher's Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods

What is my book about?

Most books about philosophy focus on famous figures and movements, such as Plato, Hume, existentialism, rationalism, etc. Their central purpose is to convey the basic ideas developed by those philosophers and those streams of thought. The public philosopher Julian Baggini and I, however, thought it might be a good idea to write a book organized instead around what philosophers actually do when they philosophize. We asked ourselves, “How do philosophers of all kinds generate and justify ideas? How is philosophy like and unlike the sciences? How does it compare to literary criticism, fiction, and poetry? What’s its relationship to religious practice? How can more advanced philosophers refine their thinking?” It was a kind of a hit and now appears in over seven languages.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Socrates in Love: Philosophy for a Die-Hard Romantic

Why did I love this book?

This book really captures what it’s like to do philosophy in an informed but informal way. Philosophy as Socrates practiced it, and as it often is at its best, is a dialogue among several interlocutors. Different people share their different views on a topic, compare them, scrutinize and criticize them, and hopefully improve them. Phillips started a movement of Socratic cafés where people got together to do just that. The topics recorded here analyze love in its various forms (erotic, familial, friendly, hospitable, spiritual, and philosophical). Love is, in fact, basic to philosophy, which, as the word philosophia implies, is the love of wisdom. Read this in conjunction with Plato’s dialogues about Socrates’ trial and death: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo.

By Christopher Phillips,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Christopher Phillips goes to the heart of philosophy and Socratic discourse to discover what we're all looking for: the kind of love that makes life worthwhile. That is, love not defined only as eros, or erotic love, but in all its classical varieties. Love of neighbor, love of country, love of God, love of life, and love of wisdom-each is clarified and invigorated in Phillips's Socratic dialogues with people from all walks of life and from all over the world.

The Myth of Sisyphus

By Albert Camus,

Book cover of The Myth of Sisyphus

Why did I love this book?

This was the first book from the very first philosophy class I took in college (at Bucknell University in 1981), and it had me from its very first sentence: “There is only one truly important philosophical question, and that is suicide.” You know, the big stuff: Is life worth living? What gives it meaning? How ought we to engage the world and others, especially in the face of the apparently meaningless universe in which we’ve been thrown. Existentialist Camus served in the French resistance against the Nazis in World War II and would win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957. In these pages, the remarkable man and the remarkable life he lived shows. 

By Albert Camus,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Myth of Sisyphus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NOBEL PRIZE WINNER • An internationally acclaimed author delivers one of the most influential works of the twentieth century, showing a way out of despair and reaffirming the value of existence.

Influenced by works such as Don Juan and the novels of Kafka, these essays begin with a meditation on suicide—the question of living or not living in a universe devoid of order or meaning. With lyric eloquence, Albert Camus brilliantly presents a crucial exposition of existentialist thought.

Book cover of The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World's Greatest Philosophers

Why did I love this book?

This is the book that really got me into philosophy. My girlfriend gave it to me when I was a teenager. I opened it up began reading, and I never really stopped. Durant’s book gives what I now understand to be a rather conventional account of the origins and history of Western philosophy, but it does it very well. It enthusiastically and eloquently leads readers into the central conceptual concerns, principles, and problems of the central figures of the Western traditions. It’s intellectually substantial, and it doesn’t require advanced degrees. A joy to read, and in a word, for me, life-changing.

By Will Durant,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A brilliant and concise account of the lives and ideas of the great philosophers, from Plato to Dewey.

Few write for the non-specialist as well as Will Durant, and this book is a splendid example of his eminently readable scholarship. Durant's insight and wit never cease to dazzle; The Story of Philosophy is a key book for anyone who wishes to survey the history and development of philosophical ideas in the Western world.

Book cover of The Story of Philosophy

Why did I love this book?

Magee’s splendid introductory book is my go-to recommendation for those who wish to enter the world of philosophical ideas. Yes, it’s old-school in the sense that it can be annoyingly androcentric and Eurocentric. A supplement like Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting’s remarkable Philosopher Queens or Julian Baggini’s volume below should be read in tandem. Having said that, however, no one else pulls together the history of western philosophy with terse, informative, and fascinating accounts of important figures and schools as well as Magee. Plus, Magee’s text luxuriates amidst the lush, generous, and illuminating visuals that make Dorling Kindersley volumes so voluptuous. 

By Bryan Magee,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Explore 2,500 years of Western philosophy, from the ancient Greeks to modern thinkers, with this ultimate guide's stunning and simple approach to some of history's biggest ideas.

This essential guide to philosophy includes thoughts on our modern society, exploring science and democracy, and posing the question: where do we go from here?

Easy-to-understand text is accompanied by works of art and artifacts from history, as the big ideas and important thinkers are introduced through time. Famous quotes are highlighted, and the sidebars discuss other ideas or key works to include extra context around the theories and people.

Celebrate the world's…

Book cover of How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy

Why did I love this book?

Is philosophy a strictly western phenomenon, a stream of thinking that originated roughly in early sixth-century BCE Greece and flowed through forward the Roman Empire, Islamic culture, and into western modernity? Does it do a kind of violence to force the intellectual achievements of other traditions into a western philosophia-shaped box? Or is it more accurate to say that philosophy has flowered all over the world – in India, China, Africa, Australia, the Americas, and elsewhere? This book makes a compelling case for the latter. It helped introduce me to arguably philosophical traditions of thought all over the world in a way that’s clear, provocative, and engaging. Baggini’s as great a communicator as he is a philosopher.

By Julian Baggini,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked How the World Thinks as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'There to fill the Sapiens-size hole in your life' Observer

In this groundbreaking global overview of philosophy, Julian Baggini travels the world to provide a wide-ranging map of human thought.

One of the great unexplained wonders of human history is that written philosophy flowered entirely separately in China, India and Ancient Greece at more or less the same time. These early philosophies have had a profound impact on the development of distinctive cultures in different parts of the world. What we call 'philosophy' in the West is not even half the story.

Julian Baggini sets out to…

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