The best philosophy books

63 authors have picked their favorite books about philosophy and why they recommend each book.

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Who am I?

Sam Kean is the New York Times bestselling author of five books, including The Bastard Brigade, The Dueling Neurosurgeons, and The Disappearing Spoon. He edited The Best American Nature and Science Writing in 2018, and his stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, and Slate. His work has been featured on NPR’s “Radiolab,” “Science Friday,” “All Things Considered,” and “Fresh Air,” and his podcast, The Disappearing Spoon, debuted at #1 on the iTunes charts for science podcasts.


I wrote...

The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science

By Sam Kean,

Book cover of The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science

What is my book about?

From New York Times bestselling author Sam Kean comes the gripping, untold history of science's darkest secrets. Science is a force for good in the world—at least usually. But sometimes, when obsession gets the better of scientists, they twist a noble pursuit into something sinister. Under this spell, knowledge isn’t everything, it’s the only thing—no matter the cost. Bestselling author Sam Kean tells the true story of what happens when unfettered ambition pushes otherwise rational men and women to cross the line in the name of science, trampling ethical boundaries and often committing crimes in the process.

How to Live

By Sarah Bakewell,

Book cover of How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

Nietzsche said; “Only those with very large lungs have the right to write long sentences.” Montaigne was of the same opinion. He pre-dated Nietzsche in couching his philosophy simply and clearly in short, sharp aphorisms. Like Nietzsche’s aphorisms, they are often very funny.


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?

The Oxford Companion to the Mind

By Richard L. Gregory,

Book cover of The Oxford Companion to the Mind

This is the one to get if you are shipwrecked on a desert island – or forced into another lockdown. Or, for that matter, if you need a doorstop that happens to contain fascinating essays on aspects of brain and mind from Abacus to Wittgenstein. Dip into it for a guaranteed good read or use it as a superior Google when you want to know things like why mirrors only reverse one way or the origin of the phrase “mad as a hatter”. It won’t disappoint.


Who am I?

I was hooked on brain science from the moment in the 1980s when I saw the first blurry images that revealed the physical markers of thought. I set out to find out all I could about this astonishing new area of discovery, but there was practically nothing to be found – neuroscience as we know it barely existed. I pounced on every new finding that emerged and eventually wrote what was one of the first books, Mapping the Mind, that made brain science accessible to non-scientists. There are hundreds of them now, and these are some of the best.


I wrote...

Consciousness

By Rita Carter,

Book cover of Consciousness

What is my book about?

Is consciousness merely an illusion, a by-product of our brain's workings, or is it, as the latest physics may suggest, the basis for all reality? Your perception of the world around you, your consciousness, should be the one thing you could talk about with absolute confidence. But nothing about consciousness is clear-cut and understanding it is perhaps the hardest problem facing modern science.

Who are we?

Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein have been thinking deep thoughts and writing jokes for decades, and now they are here to help us understand philosophy through jokes, and jokes through philosophy. They like philosophy and they like jokes, not necessarily in that order. Best of all, they like combining them. 


I wrote...

Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between

By Thomas Cathcart and Danny Klein,

Book cover of Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between

What is my book about?

A hilarious take on the philosophy, theology and psychology of mortality and immortality. That is, death. The authors pry open the coffin lid on this one, looking at the Big D, its prequel, Life, and its sequel, the Hereafter. Philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre have been wrestling with the meaning of death for as long as they have been wrestling with the meaning of life. Fortunately, humourists have been keeping pace with the major thinkers by creating gags about dying. Death's funny that way - it gets everybody's attention.

Language, Truth and Logic

By Alfred Jules Ayer,

Book cover of Language, Truth and Logic

This is a widely-scorned book whose ideas are no longer in philosophical fashion. But it was the work that first hooked me into philosophy, and I recommend it for its sheer verve and confidence. Freddie Ayer visited Vienna in the 1930s and when he returned to the UK he introduced the ideas of the Vienna Circle into the Anglo-American world. The book argued that propositions that were not testable – for example some assertions about God, or about ethics or aesthetics – were meaningless because they were not verifiable. Amazing claims!


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 John Eidinow, David Edmonds,

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.

Philosophy as a Way of Life

By Pierre Hadot,

Book cover of Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault

I simply had to include one of philosopher Pierre Hadot’s wise and weighty books on Stoic philosophy. The subject matter of this book is centered on Stoic thought, but draws on, compares, and contrasts Stoic ideas with other foundational ideas in ancient and more modern philosophy. The key theme, as the title suggests, is that philosophy’s highest calling is as a way to transform and improve the way one actually lives one’s life. While including chapters on Aurelius, and on Socrates, (a highly respected pre-Stoic inspiration to the Stoics), another main emphasis is on how Stoic practices serve as “spiritual exercises,” and how we can come to learn them, use them, and grow from them too as a means to make philosophy our own way of life. Not a particularly easy read, but a read well worth the effort – and repeated rereads as the years roll by.


Who am I?

Kevin Vost earned his doctorate in clinical psychology at Adler University with internship and dissertation work at the Southern Illinois University’s Alzheimer Center. He first came to know and love the Stoics in the 1980s through his studies in cognitive psychotherapy. He has taught psychology and gerontology at the University of Illinois at Springfield and Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of twenty books on psychology, philosophy, physical fitness, and theology, with three more books in press, including Memorize the Stoics! The Ancient Art of Memory Meets the Timeless Art of Living.


I wrote...

The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living

By Kevin Vost,

Book cover of The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living

What is my book about?

Regardless of their sometimes ambiguous concepts of God, the Roman Stoic philosophers did acknowledge Him, but on the basis of reason alone, because they had not met Christ. Nonetheless, they did deduce from God's existence our need to live lives of virtue, honor, tranquility, and self-control--and they developed effective techniques to help us achieve this. Musonius Rufus the teacher, Epictetus the slave, Seneca the adviser to emperors, and Marcus Aurelius, the emperor himself, produced a practical technology we can use to integrate Christian ethics into our own daily practice. As Kevin Vost so wonderfully illustrates in his new book, The Porch and the Cross, the Stoics can help us learn--and remember--what is up to us, and what is up to God alone.

Memory, History, Forgetting

By Paul Ricoeur,

Book cover of Memory, History, Forgetting

A landmark philosophical tome, which argues for the ‘imbrication of forgetting in memory’. The disentangling of the complex relationships between history, memory and forgetting raises ethical questions about abuses of memory and interrogates the connection between forgetting and forgiving.


Who am I?

Guy Beiner specializes in the history of social remembering in the late modern era. An interest in Irish folklore and oral traditions as historical sources led him to explore folk memory, which in turn aroused an interest in forgetting. He examines the many ways in which communities recall their past, as well as how they struggle with the urge to supress troublesome memories of discomfiting episodes.


I wrote...

Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster

By Guy Beiner,

Book cover of Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster

What is my book about?

Forgetful Remembrance examines the paradoxes of what actually happens when communities persistently endeavour to forget inconvenient events. The question of how a society attempts to obscure problematic historical episodes is addressed through a detailed case study grounded in the north-eastern counties of the Irish province of Ulster, where loyalist and unionist Protestants--and in particular Presbyterians--repeatedly tried to repress over two centuries discomfiting recollections of participation, alongside Catholics, in a republican rebellion in 1798.

Eating Animals

By Jonathan Safran Foer,

Book cover of Eating Animals

What is the meaning of life? We could take the question further by disposing of our blinkers and asking, what is the meaning of the other lives that may not look like ours? These lives consist of the millions of animals who die in the factory farms built to conceal their suffering and turn them into fungible objects, not lives. Safran’s book is an eye-opening exposition of how we have enslaved animals for food that we don’t even need in the 21st century—damaging ourselves and the environment in the process. One meaning of life: the value of letting other lives have meaning too.


Who am I?

As a professor of Classics at the University of Chicago, I’m conditioned to inquire into the meaning of life! But also, I was raised in many different countries and cultures—the UK, Iran, Fiji, Indonesia, Switzerland, the US, plus recent stints studying in China—so I’ve sampled a stewpot of worldviews. The result is that I have a passion for this topic. But I am no truth-telling guru myself (except that I know that dogs are GOOD). I can only speak about the meaning of life for me and hope it will make sense to others. These books have helped me construct that meaning.


I wrote...

The Aeneid

By Virgil, Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer (translator),

Book cover of The Aeneid

What is my book about?

A fresh and faithful translation of Vergil's Aeneid restores the epic's spare language and fast pace and sheds new light on one of the cornerstone narratives of Western culture. "The best version of the Aeneid in modern English: concise, readable and beautiful, but also as accurate and faithful to Vergil's Latin as possible." --James J. O'Hara, George L. Paddison Professor of Latin, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The Matter of History

By Timothy J. Lecain,

Book cover of The Matter of History

I am recommending this volume because it shocked me with its ability to nestle humans into the world as an integral part of the natural world, not separate from it, not rulers over it, but clever animals that need the Earth more than the Earth needs us. It helps me to undercut the manufactured power of the divinely ordained rulers from ancient Egypt.


Who am I?

I'm a specialist of ancient Egyptian social history, who against the better judgment of (practically all) her colleagues uses the ancient past to make the present understandable. If we don’t fetishize the ancient Egyptians as separate and magical, they have something to teach us, whispering to us from the past through papyri, temples, and archaeological sites. After all, Egyptian history is 3000 years plus in its time span, an astounding data set of a people using same approximate language, government system, religion, and culture. Some of us look hungrily to replicate that kind of lasting and divine power. I am obsessed with power—how it works, why we are helpless to it, and who gets exploited by it. The ancient Egyptian kings effectively packaged their power not only as necessary, but as moral and good, ancient marketing that continues to work on our minds.


I wrote...

When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

By Kara Cooney,

Book cover of When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

What is my book about?

Female rulers are a rare phenomenon--but thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt, women reigned supreme. Regularly, repeatedly, and with impunity, queens like Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, and Cleopatra controlled the totalitarian state as power-brokers and rulers. But throughout human history, women in positions of power were more often used as political pawns in male-dominated societies. Why did ancient Egypt provide women this kind of access to the highest political office? What was it about these women that allowed them to transcend patriarchal obstacles? What did Egypt gain from its liberal reliance on female leadership, and could today's world learn from its example?

In this captivating narrative, celebrated Egyptologist Kara Cooney delivers a fascinating tale of female power, exploring the reasons why it has seldom been allowed through the ages--and why we should care.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

By Paulo Freire,

Book cover of Pedagogy of the Oppressed

With this study, the legendary Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, delivered a manifesto for a critical pedagogy that continues to undergird the mission statement of many university departments all over the world, and in particular in the Global South, from the Humanities to the Social Sciences. The book tells the story of the eternal struggle between the ruling classes and the underprivileged castes in society, and their resistance against the oppressive power of that system. I read this book at SOAS University of London. It has informed my understanding of civil resistance as a form of democratic empowerment which is so crucial to keep any form of authoritarianism at bay.


Who am I?

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is a world-renowned scholar and author. A double graduate of Cambridge University, he received his Professorship in Global Thought at SOAS as one of the youngest academics in his field. Since then he has been elected to several honorary positions all over the world, some of them with the royal seal and including at Harvard University and Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences in Kunming, China.


I wrote...

What is Iran?

By Arshin Adib-Moghaddam,

Book cover of What is Iran?

What is my book about?

What is Iran is the first book of its kind, as it comes with a playlist to read by. Likened to the “School of Love”, that Adib-Moghaddam adopted from Persian poetry, the book sheds fresh light on everything there is to know about Iran, the region that it is embedded in and the global politics affecting it. Adib-Moghaddam uses musical pieces as a way to offer a holistic understanding of the full spectrum of Iranian affairs. As a result, even the general reader is invited to traverse a wide array of topics in an interactive format which merges approaches from the social sciences with philosophy, poetry, and art.

These topics include a variety of themes, issues, and personalities: from Trump, Khomeini, the Shah, Saddam Hussein, and Qasem Soleimani, to Israel, Syria, Latin America, China, and the Gulf monarchies. Ultimately, this book demonstrates in clear and accessible prose the impact of Iranian politics on a global scale, and offers solutions to the various crises enveloping the country in the region and beyond.

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