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

The Books I Picked & Why

Socrates in Love: Philosophy for a Die-Hard Romantic

By Christopher Phillips

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

Why 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.


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The Myth of Sisyphus

By Albert Camus

Book cover of The Myth of Sisyphus

Why 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. 


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

By Will Durant

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

Why 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.


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The Story of Philosophy

By Bryan Magee

Book cover of The Story of Philosophy

Why 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. 


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How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy

By Julian Baggini

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

Why 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.


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