The best books on the human search for meaning

John Cottingham Author Of In Search of the Soul: A Philosophical Essay
By John Cottingham

Who am I?

I have spent my career writing and teaching philosophy, working on early-modern philosophers, especially that most controversial and enigmatic figure, René Descartes. In recent years my main interest has been in the philosophy of religion, focusing on grand traditional questions about the meaning of life, and on the spiritual dimension of religious thought and practice. I have argued for a ‘humane’ turn in philosophy, meaning that philosophical inquiry should not confine itself to abstract intellectual argument alone, but should draw on a full range of resources, including literary, poetic, imaginative, and emotional modes of awareness, as we struggle to come to terms with the mystery of human existence. 

I wrote...

In Search of the Soul: A Philosophical Essay

By John Cottingham,

Book cover of In Search of the Soul: A Philosophical Essay

What is my book about?

What is the soul? Does the concept still have a place in our modern scientifically oriented world? I argue that the concept of the soul is one that has a claim to be central to our thinking about what it is to be human. We are all engaged in the task of trying to understand the experiencing subject, the core self that makes us what we are. In searching for the soul, we aim to realize our true selves and find meaning in our lives. Exploring the soul in its many dimensions, historical, moral, psychological, and spiritual, In Search of the Soul aims to show how strongly the concept of soul still resonates today when human beings speak about what matters most deeply to them.

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The books I picked & why

God, Value, and Nature

By Fiona Ellis,

Book cover of God, Value, and Nature

Why did I love this book?

Many people think that modern science shows the cosmos to be an impersonal process, devoid of meaning and value. In this intricate and ground-breaking study, Fiona Ellis puts forward an ‘expansive naturalism’ that challenges contemporary atheist orthodoxy, and it led me to rethink the supposed opposition between the ‘natural’ and the divine.

By Fiona Ellis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked God, Value, and Nature as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Many philosophers believe that God has been put to rest. Naturalism is the default position, and the naturalist can explain what needs to be explained without recourse to God. This book agrees that we should be naturalists, but it rejects the more prevalent scientific naturalism in favour of an 'expansive' naturalism inspired by David Wiggins and John McDowell. It is argued that expansive naturalism can accommodate the idea of God, and that the expansive naturalist
has unwittingly paved the way towards a form of naturalism which poses a genuine challenge to the atheist. It follows that the traditional naturalism versus…

Book cover of Emotional Experience and Religious Understanding: Integrating Perception, Conception and Feeling

Why did I love this book?

Perceiving some fact about the world seems at first to be quite distinct from the way we feel about it, but Mark Wynn’s careful arguments show how, in our grasp of reality, emotion and perception are intimately intertwined. I found his conclusions shed a vivid light on the complex nature of religious belief and religious experience. 

By Mark Wynn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Emotional Experience and Religious Understanding as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this book Mark Wynn argues that the landscape of philosophical theology looks rather different from the perspective of a re-conceived theory of emotion. In matters of religion, we do not need to opt for objective content over emotional form or vice versa. On the contrary, these strategies are mistaken at root, since form and content are not properly separable here - because 'inwardness' may contribute to 'thought-content', or because (to use the vocabulary of the book) emotional feelings can themselves constitute thoughts; or because, to put the point a further way, in religious contexts, perception and conception are often…

Book cover of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Why did I love this book?

Combining detailed scientific expertise with dazzling literary erudition, Iain McGilchrist offers a fascinating account of the dangers of abstract, analytic, ‘left-brain’ thinking when it is detached from the intuitive, imaginative, and holistic modes of awareness that make us truly human. I found his arguments deeply relevant to how we should think about religious ways of approaching the world.

By Iain McGilchrist,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Master and His Emissary as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A pioneering exploration of the differences between the brain's right and left hemispheres and their effects on society, history, and culture-"one of the few contemporary works deserving classic status" (Nicholas Shakespeare, The Times, London)

"Persuasively argues that our society is suffering from the consequences of an over-dominant left hemisphere losing touch with its natural regulative 'master' the right. Brilliant and disturbing."-Salley Vickers, a Guardian Best Book of the Year

"I know of no better exposition of the current state of functional brain neuroscience."-W. F. Bynum, TLS

Why is the brain divided? The difference between right and left hemispheres has been…

Book cover of Spinoza's Religion: A New Reading of the Ethics

Why did I love this book?

Next to Descartes, Spinoza is perhaps the greatest philosopher of the early modern period. He is often regarded as a precursor of today’s secularist outlook, while others see him as a kind of pantheist. In this fluent and original new study, Clare Carlisle brought home to me the religious dimension in Spinoza’s thought, and she offers a brilliant account of why he is still relevant today, when religious ways of thinking are increasingly under attack.

By Clare Carlisle,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Spinoza's Religion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A bold reevaluation of Spinoza that reveals his powerful, inclusive vision of religion for the modern age

Spinoza is widely regarded as either a God-forsaking atheist or a God-intoxicated pantheist, but Clare Carlisle says that he was neither. In Spinoza's Religion, she sets out a bold interpretation of Spinoza through a lucid new reading of his masterpiece, the Ethics. Putting the question of religion centre-stage but refusing to convert Spinozism to Christianity, Carlisle reveals that "being in God" unites Spinoza's metaphysics and ethics. Spinoza's Religion unfolds a powerful, inclusive philosophical vision for the modern age-one that is grounded in a…

Love: A History

By Simon May,

Book cover of Love: A History

Why did I love this book?

This astonishingly rich and beautifully written survey shows how deeply love is involved in what has always been one of my main philosophical preoccupations – the human search for meaning. Simon May reveals love as the ‘harbinger of the sacred,’ while at the same time warning of how often it bears the burden of unrealistic and misconceived expectations.

By Simon May,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An illuminating exploration of how love has been shaped, idolized, and misconstrued by the West over three millennia, and how we might differently conceive it

Love-unconditional, selfless, unchanging, sincere, and totally accepting-is worshipped today as the West's only universal religion. To challenge it is one of our few remaining taboos. In this pathbreaking and superbly written book, philosopher Simon May does just that, dissecting our resilient ruling ideas of love and showing how they are the product of a long and powerful cultural heritage.

Tracing over 2,500 years of human thought and history, May shows how our ideal of love…

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