The most recommended existential philosophy books

Who picked these books? Meet our 14 experts.

14 authors created a book list connected to existential philosophy, and here are their favorite existential philosophy books.
Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

What type of existential philosophy book?


Book cover of Being and Nothingness

Mark Rowlands Author Of Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death, and Happiness

From my list on humans and other animals.

Why am I passionate about this?

The most important formative experiences of my life were contained in the years I spent living and traveling with Brenin, a wolfdog. I can safely say that just about every worthwhile idea I have had – I am a professor of philosophy and ideas are supposed to be my thing – stemmed from those years. I have written many books since Brenin died, all of them, in one way or another, concerned with the question of what it is to be human. I am convinced that we can only understand this if we begin with the idea that we are animals and work from there.

Mark's book list on humans and other animals

Mark Rowlands Why did Mark love this book?

Sartre was not a good philosopher in the classical sense. He wasn’t great at constructing arguments. But what he was unquestionably great at was intuitions. He had them, and they were usually spot on, and as a result he was right about most things. In this large book, we find a sustained development of a single brilliant, intuition: anything you are aware of is not you. You are the awareness rather than anything you are aware of. You are nothingness. One implication of this helped me get through the second half of my first marathon. Experiential unpleasantness is a motive to stop, but not part of me, and it is up to me how I interpret it. My motives can never compel me. I am in this sense free.

By Jean-Paul Sartre,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Sartre explains the theory of existential psychoanalysis in this treatise on human reality

Book cover of Becoming Beauvoir: A Life

Sandrine Bergès Author Of Liberty in Their Names: The Women Philosophers of the French Revolution

From my list on by or about women philosophers you should know.

Why am I passionate about this?

At school I fell in love philosophy. But at university, as I grew older, I started to feel out of place: all the authors we read were men. I loved Plato, but there was something missing. It didn’t occur to me until I was in my thirties to look for women in the history of philosophy! I read Wollstonecraft first, then Olympe de Gouges, and the other women I wrote about in my book, and now I’m looking at women philosophers from the tenth to the nineteenth century. There is a wealth of work by women philosophers out there. Reading their works has made philosophy come alive for me, all over again. 

Sandrine's book list on by or about women philosophers you should know

Sandrine Bergès Why did Sandrine love this book?

I’ve read a lot of biographies of Simone de Beauvoir.

But this is the one that best brought out her importance as a philosopher, the many ways in which her thought differed from Sartre’s and the ways in which this has been obscured by a posterity that just wants to see her as his sidekick.

One thing that this book did for me that others on Beauvoir didn’t was to reconcile me with the unpleasant aspects of her life and relationships – she was human, she was flawed, but so were her male peers! 

By Kate Kirkpatrick,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Becoming Beauvoir as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"One is not born a woman, but becomes one", Simone de Beauvoir A symbol of liberated womanhood, Simone de Beauvoir's unconventional relationships inspired and scandalised her generation. A philosopher, writer, and feminist icon, she won prestigious literary prizes and transformed the way we think about gender with The Second Sex. But despite her successes, she wondered if she had sold herself short. Her liaison with Jean-Paul Sartre has been billed as one of the most legendary love affairs of the twentieth century. But for Beauvoir it came at a cost: for decades she was dismissed as an unoriginal thinker who…

Book cover of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

James Tyler Ball Author Of Matita: The Tragic Tale of a Writer's Pencil

From my list on the outrageous but still have serious meaning.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been fascinated by absurdist comedy and ideas for as long as I can remember. At sixteen, I wrote my first book, Mr A, which followed a man who would turn into a superhero after taking LSD and his talking dog. As an adult, I continue to revel in these types of stories. I brought this passion to my chart-topping debut non-fiction book, where I interviewed several people who believe McDonald’s has interdimensional properties. Now, I hold no bars in fiction writing, having authored a ‘genius of a book’ that follows a talking pencil.

James' book list on the outrageous but still have serious meaning

James Tyler Ball Why did James love this book?

When I first watched the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead film starring Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, I was enamoured by the rhythm and dialogue. Reading the play, however, is even more brilliant. It’s fast-paced, confusing, and hilarious. In fact, it played a huge hand in inspiring my latest book. I would never have grasped the English language so tightly had it not been for this book. 

By Tom Stoppard,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Acclaimed as a modern dramatic masterpiece, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is the fabulously inventive tale of Hamlet as told from the worm’s-eve view of the bewildered Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters in Shakespeare’s play. In Tom Stoppard’s best-known work, this Shakespearean Laurel and Hardy finally get a chance to take the lead role, but do so in a world where echoes of Waiting for Godot resound, where reality and illusion intermix, and where fate leads our two heroes to a tragic but inevitable end.

Tom Stoppard was catapulted into the front ranks of modem playwrights overnight when Rosencrantz…

Book cover of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Matthew Hutson Author Of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane

From my list on consciousness and how our brain works.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a freelance science reporter and Contributing Writer at The New Yorker, with degrees in cognitive neuroscience and science writing. Growing up, I wanted to understand the fundamental nature of the universe—who doesn’t?!—and grew interested in physics, before realizing our only contact with outside reality (if it exists) is through consciousness. Today I cover psychology and artificial intelligence, among other topics. Can machines be conscious? I don’t know. Why does consciousness exist at all? I don’t know that either. But if there’s anything at all that’s magic in the universe, it’s consciousness.

Matthew's book list on consciousness and how our brain works

Matthew Hutson Why did Matthew love this book?

Christoph Koch, a physicist-turned-neuroscientist, is a colorful character. I’ve spoken with him and heard him speak many times, and he never fails to entertain. Here he explains the neuroscience and philosophy of consciousness, arguing that someday it will all be explained (which I don’t personally believe), while giving a personal take on why the topic interests him and how he got to where he is. For a long time, the C-word was to be avoided in science, but his mentor Francis Crick (co-discoverer of DNA’s structure) helped bring it into the mainstream.

By Christof Koch,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A fascinating exploration of the human brain that combines “the leading edge of consciousness science with surprisingly personal and philosophical reflection . . . shedding light on how scientists really think”—this is “science writing at its best” (Times Higher Education).
In which a scientist searches for an empirical explanation for phenomenal experience, spurred by his instinctual belief that life is meaningful.
What links conscious experience of pain, joy, color, and smell to bioelectrical activity in the brain? How can anything physical give rise to nonphysical, subjective, conscious states? Christof Koch has devoted much of his career to bridging the seemingly…

Book cover of Existentialism Is a Humanism

Lee Braver Author Of Heidegger: Thinking of Being

From my list on everything you want to know on existentialism.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a professor of philosophy because when I got to college, philosophy sounded like what Gandalf would study—the closest thing we have to the study of magic. It turns out, I wasn’t far from the mark. Philosophy shows you entire dimensions to the world that you never noticed because they exist at weird angles, and you have to change your way of thinking to see them. Entering them and seeing the world from those perspectives transforms everything. A great work of philosophy is like having the lights turn on in an annex of your mind you didn’t know was there, like an out-of-mind experience—or perhaps, an in-your-mind-for-the-first-time experience.

Lee's book list on everything you want to know on existentialism

Lee Braver Why did Lee love this book?

This short talk has become one of the defining texts of existentialism. We have no essence, no purpose, no reason to be, and this both frees us and dooms us: we are doomed to be free. The heavy responsibility for creating meaning is placed firmly on our shoulders. Most people find the burden too heavy to bear and seek relief through what Sartre calls “bad faith,” which he spends much time detailing. You will recognize yourself somewhere in there. Sartre tells us there’s nothing we can do about this, but we can do nothing—we can embrace this nothingness and create a meaning for ourselves. 

By Jean-Paul Sartre, Carol Macomber (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Existentialism Is a Humanism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It was to correct common misconceptions about his thought that Jean-Paul Sartre, the most dominent European intellectual of the post-World War II decades, accepted an invitation to speak on October 29, 1945, at the Club Maintenant in Paris. The unstated objective of his lecture ("Existentialism Is a Humanism") was to expound his philosophy as a form of "existentialism," a term much bandied about at the time. Sartre asserted that existentialism was essentially a doctrine for philosophers, though, ironically, he was about to make it accessible to a general audience. The published text of his lecture quickly became one of the…

Book cover of The Jargon of Authenticity

Richard Wolin Author Of Heidegger in Ruins: Between Philosophy and Ideology

From my list on intellectuals and fascism.

Why am I passionate about this?

As a graduate student during the late 1970s, my mentor, Martin Jay, generously introduced me to two members of the Frankfurt School: Herbert Marcuse and Leo Lowenthal. These memorable personal encounters inspired me to write a dissertation on Walter Benjamin, who was closely allied with the Frankfurt School. The completed dissertation, Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption, became the first book on Benjamin in English and is still in print. The Frankfurt School thinkers published a series of pioneering socio-psychological treatises on political authoritarianism: The Authoritarian Personality, Prophets of Deceit, and One-Dimensional Man. These studies continue to provide an indispensable conceptual framework for understanding the contemporary reemergence of fascist political forms.

Richard's book list on intellectuals and fascism

Richard Wolin Why did Richard love this book?

To this day, Adorno’s pathbreaking Heidegger-critique, The Jargon of Authenticity, remains one of the most insightful and lucid exposés of fascist ideology ever written.

To begin with, Adorno wrote as an insider: as a scholar who had witnessed the implantation and criminality of German fascism firsthand. In Jargon, he used the Heideggerian's notion of “authenticity” as the point of departure for a brilliant semantic and rhetorical unmasking of the way that fascist linguistic habitudes suffuse the discourse of everyday life. After reading Adorno’s critique, it is impossible read Heidegger naïvely: that is, without careful attention to the ideological distortions of his Denkhabitus.

As Adorno deftly shows, Heidegger’s idiolect of “authentic” being-in-the-world masks a deep-seated longing for German geopolitical supremacy.

By Theodor Adorno,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Theodor Adorno was no stranger to controversy. In The Jargon of Authenticity he gives full expression to his hostility to the language employed by certain existentialist thinkers such as Martin Heidegger. With his customary alertness to the uses and abuses of language, he calls into question the jargon, or 'aura', as his colleague Walter Benjamin described it, which clouded existentialists' thought. He argued that its use undermined the very message for meaning and liberation that it sought to make authentic. Moreover, such language - claiming to address the issue of freedom - signally failed to reveal the lack of freedom…

Book cover of What Is Existentialism?

Zachary Austin Behlok Author Of Manipulating Nature: An Existential Essay Regarding Humanity's Impact on the World Around Us

From my list on finding meaning within your life.

Why am I passionate about this?

For as long as I can remember, it has been of the utmost importance to find meaning in life, both for myself and for everyone else sharing this planet. I have spent much of my time over the course of the past few years pushing for a continued level of discourse in the field of philosophy. I have studied at and attended various educational institutions including Eastern Florida State College, The Florida Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and The University of Cambridge – the studies at such range between philosophy, psychology, behavior analysis, and engineering. I hope that my work will be of some assistance in pushing humanity towards positive progress.

Zachary Austin's book list on finding meaning within your life

Zachary Austin Behlok Why did Zachary Austin love this book?

This book is more or less a collection of excerpts from some of Simone de Beauvoir’s best works. In this text, her foundations in the field of existentialism are laid forth for the reader to read and interpret very easily. These excerpts provide the reader with an analysis on the field in a more fictional way, as opposed to much of the other works relating to such, yet maintain the same, if not a higher, level of emphasis on the positive influences it can bring about in any given individual’s life.

By Simone de Beauvoir,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked What Is Existentialism? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'It is possible for man to snatch the world from the darkness of absurdity'

How should we think and act in the world? These writings on the human condition by one of the twentieth century's great philosophers explore the absurdity of our notions of good and evil, and show instead how we make our own destiny simply by being.

One of twenty new books in the bestselling Penguin Great Ideas series. This new selection showcases a diverse list of thinkers who have helped shape our world today, from anarchists to stoics, feminists to prophets, satirists to Zen Buddhists.

Book cover of The Myth of Sisyphus

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

From my list on starting out in philosophy.

Why am I passionate about this?

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.

Peter's book list on starting out in philosophy

Peter S. Fosl Why did Peter 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 At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others

Guy McPherson Author Of Killing the Natives: A Retrospective Analysis

From Guy's 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Professor Teacher Adventurer Traveler Researcher

Guy's 3 favorite reads in 2023

Guy McPherson Why did Guy love this book?

At the Existentialist Café introduced me to Sarah Bakewell. The text represents an overview of the philosophical work conducted by Jean-Paul Sartre and his polyamorous partner, Simone de Beauvoir, along with many other philosophers.

The writings of Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and many others are critically evaluated by Bakewell in this capacious romp through the world of modern philosophy. If you seek an overview of philosophical writing with implications for your own life, this is the book for you.

By Sarah Bakewell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked At the Existentialist Cafe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Named one of the Ten Best Books of 2016 by the New York Times, a spirited account of a major intellectual movement of the twentieth century and the revolutionary thinkers who came to shape it, by the best-selling author of How to Live and Humanly Possible Sarah Bakewell.

Paris, 1933: three contemporaries meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse. They are the young Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and longtime friend Raymond Aron, a fellow philosopher who raves to them about a new conceptual framework from Berlin called Phenomenology. "You see," he says, "if you…

Book cover of Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life

Will Kitchen Author Of Film, Negation and Freedom: Capitalism and Romantic Critique

From my list on philosophy books about knowledge, culture, and freedom.

Why am I passionate about this?

My background is in academic film analysis, although this has opened doors to many subjects: literature, music, philosophy, political economy… My students are always encouraged to think beyond their "home" discipline when they come to university. I believe that if you study a subject deep enough, it will lead to all the others. So far, my research has led me from classical music through Hollywood biopics and Romanic philosophy to some of the most fundamental questions about the construction and social organisation of creative labour in the modern world. I find that the most enjoyable books explain the world to us whilst reflecting upon what that act of explanation means. 

Will's book list on philosophy books about knowledge, culture, and freedom

Will Kitchen Why did Will love this book?

As a writer, Adorno learned much from music–both what it says and what it fails to say. Each page is packed with enough ideas to inspire a dozen discussions.

For me, philosophy makes the most sense in this "continental" (as opposed to "analytic") style. The fragmentary, anti-systemic approach developed from the Early German Romantics, extending through Friedrich Nietzsche down to the poststructuralists.

Although falling short of the grandeur of his magnum opus, Negative Dialectics, Adorno’s most accessible book maintains a keen critical edge alongside an appealing balance between clarity and richness––reason and imagination. 

By Theodor Adorno, Edmund FN Jephcott (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Written between 1944 and 1947, Minima Moralia is a collection of rich, lucid aphorisms and essays about life in modern capitalist society. Adorno casts his penetrating eye across society in mid-century America and finds a life deformed by capitalism. This is Adorno's theoretical and literary masterpiece and a classic of twentieth-century thought.