The best philosopher books

5 authors have picked their favorite books about philosophers and why they recommend each book.

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A Little History of Philosophy

By Nigel Warburton,

Book cover of A Little History of Philosophy

Nietzsche said; “Today’s philosophers enjoy the divine principle of incomprehensibility.” This clearly written book takes the opposite tack. If you’re terrified of philosophy, this is the book for you. A great book to get the kids interested in the subject.


Who am I?

I am fascinated by humanity’s search for meaning. That is what I am exploring as I read philosophy and as I write my biographies of extraordinary individuals. Sue Prideaux has written award-winning books on Edvard Munch and his painting The Scream, the playwright August Strindberg, and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. She acted as consultant to Sotheby’s when they sold The Scream for a record-breaking $120 million.


I wrote...

I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Nietzsche

By Sue Prideaux,

Book cover of I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Nietzsche

What is my book about?

Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most enigmatic figures in philosophy, and his concepts—the Übermensch, the will to power, slave morality—have fundamentally reshaped our understanding of the human condition. But what do most people really know of Nietzsche—beyond the mustache, the scowl, and the lingering association with nihilism and fascism? Where do we place a thinker who was equally beloved by Albert Camus, Ayn Rand, Martin Buber, and Adolf Hitler?

A History of Western Philosophy

By Bertrand Russell,

Book cover of A History of Western Philosophy

Whatever those deep questions are that you have, somebody’s already thought about them, and this masterwork of a book will show you that you’re not alone. In fact, you’re thinking and feeling the same way women and men did a couple thousand years ago – and some very wise individuals have thought through what you’re thinking through. This book will change your life and your mind. You have to be patient, but it’s worth it. Read three pages (no more) a day, every day. Plan on sticking with this for more than a year, then do so. Use a highlighter for a bookmark. It changed me. It’ll change you, too.

Who am I?

I’m interested in everything – which is a problem, because there’s not time for everything. So how do you find the best of the world and your own place in it? Understanding your motivations is a good place to start, hence The Molecule of More. The rest comes from exploring as much as you can, and that begins with understanding the scope of what’s out there: ideas, attitudes, and cultures. The greatest joy in my life comes from the jaw-dropping realization that the world is so full of potential and wonder. These books are a guide to some of the best of it, and some of the breadth of it.


I wrote...

The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity—and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race

By Daniel Z. Lieberman, Michael E. Long,

Book cover of The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity—and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race

What is my book about?

The brain chemical dopamine ensured the survival of early man by setting our focus on getting things we don’t have, which were most often the requirements for staying alive. The modern world is a different place, but dopamine still drives us toward “more.” It is now what makes an ambitious professional sacrifice everything in pursuit of success, or a satisfied spouse risk it all for the thrill of someone new. It is why we seek and succeed; it is also why we gamble and squander. Our book explains the process and points toward a solution.

Spinoza

By Steven Nadler,

Book cover of Spinoza: A Life

Over the past decade or so, I’ve probably read six or seven biographies of Spinoza, some considerably more helpful than others. Nadler’s study is a striking success of scholarship and biography. Spinoza’s story of being this deft thinker but also being excommunicated in Holland (and we still don’t exactly know why) can make for a great story, but that was not the case before Nadler’s book appeared. I was fortunate to be able to tell the author how I felt about his book in person.


Who am I?

I’m a historian of China and Japan whose work has hewed close to the cultural interactions between Chinese and Japanese over recent centuries. I’m now working on the history of the Esperanto movement in China and Japan from the first years of the twentieth century through the early 1930s. The topic brings together my interests in Sino-Japanese historical relations, linguistic scholarship, and Jewish history (the creator of Esperanto was a Polish-Jewish eye doctor). Over the last couple of decades, I have become increasingly interested in Jewish history. I think by now I know what counts as good history, but I’m still an amateur in Jewish history. Nonetheless, these books all struck me as extraordinary.


I wrote...

Maiden Voyage: The Senzaimaru and the Creation of Modern Sino-Japanese Relations

By Joshua A. Fogel,

Book cover of Maiden Voyage: The Senzaimaru and the Creation of Modern Sino-Japanese Relations

What is my book about?

After centuries of virtual isolation, during which time international sea travel was forbidden outside of Japan’s immediate fishing shores, Japanese shogunal authorities in 1862 made the unprecedented decision to launch an official delegation to China by sea. Concerned by the fast-changing global environment, they had witnessed the ever-increasing number of incursions into Asia by European powers―not the least of which was Commodore Perry’s arrival in Japan in 1853–54 and the forced opening of a handful of Japanese ports at the end of the decade. 

This was the first official meeting of Chinese and Japanese in several centuries. Although the Chinese authorities agreed to few of the Japanese requests for trade relations and a consulate, nine years later China and Japan would sign the first bilateral treaty of amity in their history, a completely equal treaty. East Asia―and the diplomatic and trade relations between the region’s two major players in the modern era―would never be the same.

An Autobiography

By R.G. Collingwood,

Book cover of An Autobiography

In a biography of a person whose occupation was to think, the most exciting part is how their thought evolved. Robin G. Collingwood is a prominent philosopher and a historian of Roman Britain. His autobiography is precious because it is an earnest reflection on how his perception of history and the approaches to its study developed over his lifetime - a door open into the mind of a philosopher of history.

Who am I?

Doing historical research and thinking about history is an essential part of my personality. During my life, many things changed: the language I speak most of the time, the country where I live, people closest to me, my views, tastes, and habits. Ancient history and its research remain my vocation, job, and place of safety from early youth till nowadays. I am grateful to all people, long dead and living, whose insights on the study of the human past have taught me not only how to do research, but first and foremost how to live.


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Divine Mania: Alteration of Consciousness in Ancient Greece

By Yulia Ustinova,

Book cover of Divine Mania: Alteration of Consciousness in Ancient Greece

What is my book about?

Ancient Greek mania presents a fascinating array of diverse conditions. Any deviation from ordinary state of consciousness, voluntary or involuntary, intense or mild, could be labelled mania. Diverse altered states of consciousness were commonly known: initiates underwent alteration of consciousness during mystery rites; sacred officials and inquirers experienced them in oracular centres; possession by various deities was recognized; finally, some sages and philosophers practiced manipulation of consciousness.

Greece was unique in its attitude to these phenomena. From the perspective of individual and public freedom, the importance of mania in the Greek society reflects its openness and acceptance of the human proclivity to experience alterations of consciousness, which were interpreted as god-sent. These mental states were treated with cautious respect; they could be harnessed to a certain extent, but never suppressed or pushed to the cultural and social periphery, in contrast to the majority of other complex societies, ancient and modern.

The Story of Philosophy

By Will Durant,

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

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.


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...

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

By Peter S. Fosl, Julian Baggini,

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.

Isaiah Berlin

By Michael Ignatieff,

Book cover of Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Ignatieff’s intensely readable authorised biography of Berlin is based on a decade of recorded conversations with his subject about all aspects of his life, as well as on a study of the massive archive of letters and other papers that Berlin left at his death. As a result it has many of the characteristics of the autobiography that Berlin never wrote, but one filtered through Ignatieff’s shrewd critical intelligence, deployed in the service of the liberal humanist outlook that he shares with his subject.


Who am I?

I had the supreme good fortune to know Berlin (1909–97) for nearly twenty-five years, and to work with him as his principal editor for most of that time; I continued this work after his death and it still occupies me now. He was one of the great human beings of the twentieth century, an essayist and letter-writer of genius, and a bewitching bridge between academia and the general civilised life of the mind. His ideas are fertile and illuminating to this day, and the immediately recognisable voice of his prose is the best possible intellectual company.


I wrote...

In Search of Isaiah Berlin: A Literary Adventure

By Henry Hardy,

Book cover of In Search of Isaiah Berlin: A Literary Adventure

What is my book about?

Isaiah Berlin was one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century – a man who set ideas on fire. His defence of liberty and plurality was passionate and persuasive and inspired a generation. His ideas – especially his reasoned rejection of excessive certainty and political despotism – have become even more prescient and vital today.

But who was the man behind such influential views? In Search of Isaiah Berlin tells the compelling story of a decades-long collaboration between Berlin and his editor, Henry Hardy, who made it his vocation to bring Berlin's huge body of work into print. Hardy discovered that Berlin had written far more than people thought, much of it unpublished. As he describes his struggles with Berlin, who was almost on principle unwilling to have his work published, an intimate and revealing picture of the self-deprecating philosopher emerges. This is a unique portrait of a man who gave us a new way of thinking about the human predicament, and whose work had for most of his life remained largely out of view.

Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

By Andrew S. Curran,

Book cover of Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

In this lively, elegant biography, Andrew Curran retraces the intellectual itinerary of a major eighteenth-century philosopher, Denis Diderot. Very few people ever lived and wrote with as much confidence in the power of posterity to recognize their greatness and the importance of their intellectual contribution after their death. Diderot, indeed, had to hide a significant proportion of his writings because they were just too controversial and ahead of their time. He believed that nothing was more inspirational than to work for the admiration of those who have yet to be born. Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely is a marvelous introduction to the Enlightenment through the portrait of one of its major thinkers, and a great way to understand why people write books for those they will never meet.


Who am I?

I grew up in Bordeaux, a city that became prominent during the eighteenth century. My hometown inspired my love of eighteenth-century French studies, which led me to the Sorbonne, then to Yale University where I earned a PhD. Today, I am an Associate Professor at The Ohio State University. I am the author of eight novels and monographs published in France and the US, including American Pandemonium, Posthumous America, and Sentinel Island. My work explores numerous genres to question a number of recurring themes: exile and the representation of otherness; nostalgia and the experience of bereavement; the social impact of new technologies; America’s history and its troubled present.


I wrote...

The Paradoxes of Posterity

By Benjamin Hoffmann, Alan J. Singerman (translator),

Book cover of The Paradoxes of Posterity

What is my book about?

Why do people write? It has everything to do with being remembered by posterity. The Paradoxes of Posterity argue that the impetus for literary creation comes from a desire to transcend the mortality of the human condition through a work addressed to future generations. Refusing to turn their hope towards the spiritual immortality promised by religious systems, authors seek a symbolic form of perpetuity granted to the intellectual side of their person in the memory of those not yet born while they write. 

Benjamin Hoffmann illuminates the paradoxes inherent in the search for symbolic immortality: paradoxes of belief, identity, and mediation. Theoretically sophisticated and convincingly argued, this book contends that there is only one truly serious literary problem: the transmission of texts to posterity. 

My Years with Ayn Rand

By Nathaniel Branden,

Book cover of My Years with Ayn Rand

Nathaniel Branden’s account of his relationship with Rand is honest and deeply emotional. For a psychologist who writes mainly on the theme of self-esteem, this book is a bit of a departure from his usual works, but for any fan of Rand and her volatile relationship with a man nearly half her age, it is well worth the read.


Who am I?

In my freshman year at the University of Missouri-Columbia I started out as a journalism major. I joined Sigma Kappa where I met my “sister” Anne who worked at KBIA. I worked with her the rest of that year. Back home in Ellenville, NY, I convinced the station manager to hire me. I was the very first female radio announcer and engineer to work at the station. When my best friend was killed in a tragic accident, I needed to heal my loss by using the only method I knew would help; writing. Combining my experiences and passion for radio I wrote Red Wine for Breakfast to honor her memory.


I wrote...

Red Wine for Breakfast

By Raven West,

Book cover of Red Wine for Breakfast

What is my book about?

KKTM radio star Jenny Reed is a 34-year-old independent woman who plays macho Monopoly by her own rules; winner takes all. Her career was all she needed. Success was all she wanted until Johnny King became her on-air partner and challenged her to play his own game. The day she beat him was also the day she lost her best friend in an apparent suicide ... or was it murder?

In a business drowning in testosterone, Red Wine for Breakfast is the story of strong, determined New Yorker who has to shake off the laid back attitude of L.A. to overcome the challenges of an industry that threatens to turn her off and a man who only wants to turn her on.

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.

The Hemlock Cup

By Bettany Hughes,

Book cover of The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life

I have collaborated with Bettany over many years—in her scholarly documentary filmmaking, including programmes on Socrates of Athens (469-399). Socrates never wrote or published in written form a word of his philosophy, yet through his immediate and succeeding disciples (above all Plato and Aristotle) has been hugely influential. But was he a democrat, as his fellow Athenians understood that term? In 399 a jury of 501 of his peers, chosen randomly by lot, delivered their resoundingnegativeverdict, and condemned him to death by hemlock poison for being undemocratically irreligious and for teaching his pupils undemocratic values. Plato violently disagreed, and the debate over Socrates has continued ever since. Since it can be made to appear that he was convicted by an illiberal jury on grounds of his use of (democratic) freedom of speech, his condemnation has often been used as a stick to beat the ‘tyranny of…


Who am I?

My Democracy book was the summation of my views to that date (2018) on the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as a political system, in both its ancient and its modern forms. I’d been an activist and advocate of democracy since my undergraduate days (at Oxford, in the late 1960s – interesting times!). As I was writing the book the world of democracy suddenly took unexpected, and to me undesirable turns, not least in the United States and my own U.K. An entire issue of an English-language Italian political-philosophy journal was devoted to the book in 2019, and in 2021 a Companion to the reception of Athenian democracy in subsequent epochs was dedicated to me.


I wrote...

Democracy: A Life

By Paul Cartledge,

Book cover of Democracy: A Life

What is my book about?

Democracy today, globally, is in crisis—both in the liberal democratic West and in the vast tracts of the globe where authoritarianism or dictatorship are the preferred modes. All democracies today are representative, not direct, and inclusive. The word democracy and the original forms of democracy were invented in Ancient Greece, together with the fundamental concepts of freedom to participate and freedom of political speech. But ancient democracies were direct and exclusive. What if anything can we learn from an accessible study of the ways ancient Greeks did democratic politics? What has immediately prompted me to choose this book and theme is, of course, the near-murder of Salman Rushdie, a victim of the frighteningly illiberal current that dominates especially in non- or anti-democratic cultures today.

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