The best Wittgenstein books

Many authors have picked their favorite books about Ludwig Wittgenstein and why they recommend each book.

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The Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime

By Michael T. Fournier,

Book cover of The Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime

From Martin’s expansive look at things, let’s move onto a more granular approach – Fournier’s Double Nickels. Fournier focuses on just one band and an album (albeit a double record album and one of the best to come out of punk in the 1980s). The Minutemen played a fast, discordant music that sounded like jazz as much as hardcore thrash music. Fournier’s examination turns up something few people consider, that punk wasn’t all about blistering music but rather sophisticated in its nature. Fournier documents how the bassist in the band, Mike Watt, had extended conversations with one of the most important artists associated with 1980s punk – Raymond Pettibon (who as of now has made his way into accomplished art museums and galleries). They talked about everything from Ludwig Wittgenstein to James Joyce. Band members supposedly got into heated debates about history and would stop at public libraries while…

Who am I?

I was a participant in the D.C. punk scene during the 1980s and helped start an organization known as Positive Force. I remember hearing about the group “Parents of Punkers,” the head of which compared punk to a violent cult. They would go on television and scare watchers about what their kids might be doing. I remember at the time that this missed the realities of my own experiences and made me want to protest this moral panic. But I knew this required some distance from the “punk rock world” I had inhabited. I kept thinking about writing this book and the timing was right.


I wrote...

We're Not Here to Entertain: Punk Rock, Ronald Reagan, and the Real Culture War of 1980s America

By Kevin Mattson,

Book cover of We're Not Here to Entertain: Punk Rock, Ronald Reagan, and the Real Culture War of 1980s America

What is my book about?

Many remember the 1980s as the era of Ronald Reagan, a conservative decade populated by preppies and yuppies dancing to a soundtrack of electronic synth-pop music. In some ways, it was the "MTV generation." However, the decade also produced some of the most creative works of punk culture, from the music of bands like the Minutemen and the Dead Kennedys to avant-garde visual arts, literature, poetry, and film.

In We're Not Here to Entertain, Kevin Mattson documents what Kurt Cobain once called a "punk rock world" --the all-encompassing hardcore-indie culture that incubated his own talent. Mattson shows just how widespread the movement became--ranging across the nation, from D.C. through Ohio and Minnesota to LA--and how democratic it was due to its commitment to Do-It-Yourself (DIY) tactics.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

By Ray Monk,

Book cover of Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

Wittgenstein is the key philosopher of how what we do and what we think combine to give us a view of the world and a set of things we take for granted – our ‘form of life’.  It is almost impossibly hard to read his book, Philosophical Investigations and, in any case, philosophers disagree about what it means.  But Monk entertainingly and interestingly explains his ideas through his biography: he makes Wittgenstein’s later philosophy readily comprehensible. 


Who am I?

The big question that was the basis of my career was ‘When someone says “hello” to you, how do you know you should say “hello” back?’ Ever since I heard that question as a young student, I have been trying to understand the answer. The question has taken me through philosophy, sociology, and the most exciting, detailed studies of scientific research. What more could one want in terms of an interesting life?  I hope that if you read Gravity’s Kiss, you’ll see that it is answering a philosophical question as well as a scientific question.


I wrote...

Gravity's Kiss: The Detection of Gravitational Waves

By Harry Collins,

Book cover of Gravity's Kiss: The Detection of Gravitational Waves

What is my book about?

This is a real-time account over the half-year it took to confirm the discovery of the first gravitational wave. It is the climax of my 45-year immersion in the field and follows my 3 previous books on the development of the field and its controversies. But I study the detailed workings of science as exemplars of the way we make our reality.

So, these studies of this remarkable process of discovery, with all its larger-than-life characters, heartbreaks, and events that are stranger than fiction, are set in the context of my Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice and The Golem: What You Should Know About Science, which cover a series of cases. My recommendations refer to this wider, more philosophical, perspective, from which it grew.

Philosophical Investigations

By Ludwig Wittgenstein,

Book cover of Philosophical Investigations

Surely the greatest work of philosophy of the 20th Century. It delves into a wide range of philosophical issues, including the relationship between language and the world. OK, it’s tough to understand without also reading some accompanying secondary literature – but it is endlessly beguiling. It’s one of the few works of philosophy that repays being re-read. I took a Wittgenstein paper at university - and have called myself a Wittgensteinian ever since.


Who am I?

David Edmonds is a philosopher, podcaster, and curry fanatic. A distinguished research fellow at Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, he is the author of many books including Wittgenstein’s Poker (with John Eidinow), The Murder of Professor Schlick, Would You Kill The Fat Man?, and Undercover Robot (with Bertie Fraser). If you eat at his local restaurant, The Curry Paradise, he recommends you order the Edmonds Biriani.


I wrote...

Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers

By David Edmonds, John Eidinow,

Book cover of Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers

What is my book about?

On October 25, 1946, in a crowded room in Cambridge, England, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper came face to face for the first and only time. The meeting did not go well. Their loud and aggressive confrontation became the stuff of instant legend. But precisely what happened in those ten minutes remains the subject of intense disagreement. Almost immediately rumors spread around the world that the two great philosophers had come to blows, armed with red hot pokers. What really went on in that room? And what does the violence of this brief exchange tell us about these two men, modern philosophy, post-war culture, and the difference between global problems and logic puzzles?

As the authors unravel these events, your students will be introduced to the major branches of 20th-century philosophy, the tumult of fin-de-si cle Vienna--the birthplace of Popper and Wittgenstein, the events that led to the Nazi takeover of Austria, and Cambridge University, with its eccentric set of philosophy dons, including Bertrand Russell, who acted as an umpire at the infamous meeting.

Essays on the Aristotelian Tradition

By Sir Anthony Kenny,

Book cover of Essays on the Aristotelian Tradition

Readers seriously interested in the continuing influence of Aristotle on Western and global thinking will find the short book of Sir Anthony Kenney’s essays both useful and enjoyable. The author, a well-known authority on the history of Western philosophy, Thomas Aquinas, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, writes with panache on a wide variety of topics relevant to Aristotelian thought and modern intellectual and social life.      


Who am I?

I’m a professor of conflict resolution at George Mason University and have been working for years trying to understand the causes of and methods of resolving religious conflicts. I studied the Middle Ages thinking that I’d find a story about Catholic fundamentalists persecuting innovative thinkers like Copernicus and Galileo. Instead, I found a story about religious leaders such as Pope Innocent III, Peter Abelard, and Thomas Aquinas borrowing ideas from the Greeks, Muslims, and Jews, revolutionizing Catholic thought, and opening the door to modern ideas about the power of reason and the need for compassion. What a trip!            


I wrote...

Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages

By Richard E. Rubenstein,

Book cover of Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages

What is my book about?

Conventional history tells us that the Middle Ages were a time of backwardness and superstition. Schoolchildren are still taught that modern science wasn’t born until late in the Renaissance, when innovators like Copernicus and Galileo challenged the ancient view of the cosmos embraced by the Roman Catholic Church. But wait! The Church actually sponsored a revolution in theology, ethics, and science beginning in the 1100s, when Aristotle’s lost works were discovered in Arab Spain, translated into Latin, and taught in Europe’s new universities.

Remarkably, the Church allowed its own worldview to be transformed by these challenging discoveries, laying the foundations for modern Western consciousness.  This book shows that religion does not have to be “fundamentalist” or anti-science. In important ways, we are all Aristotle’s children.          

Robert Oppenheimer

By Ray Monk,

Book cover of Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center

The brilliant and enigmatic Robert Oppenheimer was the man who led the effort to create the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during World War II.  I value this biography because author Ray Monk does full justice to his subject’s science—the science that put Oppenheimer’s  Berkeley research group at the center of American theoretical physics in the 1930s. Best of all, Monk’s elegant writing makes even familiar episodes come alive. I felt I was watching a car crash in slow motion as I read how Oppenheimer’s complex personality and political naivete led him to underestimate his political enemies and wind up stripped of his security clearance and his influence as a government advisor.  


Who am I?

I am a physics professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Ten years ago, I switched my research focus from solid-state physics to the history of that subject. This was fertile ground because professional historians of science had almost completely ignored solid-state physics. I began my new career by writing two journal articles about the physicist Walter Kohn and his discovery of what became the most accurate method known to calculate the properties of solids. This experience led me to broaden my perspective and ultimately produce a biography of the theoretical physicist Philip Anderson. My next book will be a historical-sociological study of self-identity and disciplinary boundaries within the community of physicists.  


I wrote...

A Mind Over Matter: Philip Anderson and the Physics of the Very Many

By Andrew Zangwill,

Book cover of A Mind Over Matter: Philip Anderson and the Physics of the Very Many

What is my book about?

Philip Anderson was arguably the most accomplished and influential physicist of the second half of the twentieth century. His name is not well known to non-scientists because he studied the physics of solids rather than the physics of quarks or quasars. My biography of this Nobel Prize-winner describes his theoretical work using words and diagrams, but only one equation. It also discusses the two things most responsible for his stature and lasting influence: his paramount role in creating the discipline of condensed matter physics and his lifelong battle with scientific reductionists about what constitutes "fundamentality” in science. A Mind Over Matter will appeal to anyone who has taken a few college physics courses and wonders if there is more to physics than string theory and dark matter.  

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