The best books on rationalism

1 authors have picked their favorite books about rationalism and why they recommend each book.

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Reasons and Persons

By Derek Parfit,

Book cover of Reasons and Persons

Arguably the greatest work of moral philosophy of the 20th Century.  It’s rich with vivid thought experiments – including Parfit’s famous tele-transporter, which can make an exact copy of us and transport us to another planet. Is this copy of me the same person as me? The book makes us question some of our deepest assumptions - such as what it means to say that David Edmonds today is identical to David Edmonds yesterday or tomorrow. Parfit was my first supervisor, and I’m now writing his biography.

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.

Against Method

By Paul Feyerabend,

Book cover of Against Method: Outline of an Anarchist Theory of Knowledge

Read it to jolt you out of thinking that there is a Scientific Method like the one you heard about in high school chemistry. Feyerabend was trained as a physicist, and knew how scientists actually argue, as he shows here in a startling analysis of Galileo’s Dialogue.

Who am I?

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey is Distinguished Professor Emerita of Economics and of History, and Professor Emerita of English and of Communication, adjunct in classics and philosophy, at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Trained at Harvard in the 1960s as an economist, she has written twenty-four books and some four hundred academic and popular articles on economic history, rhetoric, philosophy, statistical theory, economic theory, feminism, queer studies, liberalism, ethics, and law.

I wrote...

The Rhetoric of Economics

By Deirdre N. McCloskey,

Book cover of The Rhetoric of Economics

What is my book about?

Economists are poets / But don’t know it.  Economic modeling uses metaphors, not as mere ornaments or elucidations but as the very meat of the science (just as in physics or history). In her famous book, McCloskey illustrates the point with trenchant wit.  Her point is to not attack economics, but to show how it actually works its persuasions—for which she chooses great economists whose scientific work she admires. 

The Conquest of Happiness

By Bertrand Russell,

Book cover of The Conquest of Happiness

This is a self-help book with serious depth and substance. Although some of it is dated, the timeless reflections that Russell draws from the humanist tradition of which he was a part contain wisdom that can transform your life. He is strongest on the ingredients of happiness and the last chapter, on the happy person, is still a go-to for me to remind myself of what matters most. 

Who am I?

I’m Chief Executive of Humanists UK and President of Humanists International, organisations acting as representative bodies for non-religious people both in the UK and around the world. I grew up in Nuneaton, home to 19th-century humanist and novelist George Eliot, and spent my childhood reading books about Greek myths and modern imaginary worlds. I now alternate between novels and academic Classics books. I've written a number of books including Secularism: A Very Short Introduction, The Little Book of Humanism, and The Little Book of Humanist Weddings – the last two with Professor Alice Roberts. Humanism is about life, not humanism, so I’ve gone for books that encapsulate the humanist outlook on life.

I wrote...

The Little Book of Humanism: Universal Lessons on Finding Purpose, Meaning and Joy

By Andrew Copson, Alice Roberts,

Book cover of The Little Book of Humanism: Universal Lessons on Finding Purpose, Meaning and Joy

What is my book about?

The Little Book of Humanism shares over two thousand years of humanist wisdom through an uplifting collection of illustrations, stories, quotes, and meditations on how to live an ethical and fulfilling life, grounded in reason and humanity.

With universal insights and beautiful original illustrations, The Little Book of Humanism is a perfect introduction to and a timeless anthology of humanist thought from some of history and today's greatest thinkers, from ancient philosophers like Epicurus and Mencius, through to contemporary humanist sources of inspiration such as Frozen and The Good Place actor Kristen Bell and the novelists Zadie Smith and Margaret Atwood.

Reasons as Defaults

By John F. Horty,

Book cover of Reasons as Defaults

In this book, Horty uses tools that were originally developed in the fields of artificial intelligence and non-monotonic logic in order to develop an explanatory theory of how reasons compete with one another. The main thing that has led contemporary moral philosophers to be so interested in reasons is that they seem to be able to compete. For example, if on the one hand, you promised your friend to keep a secret, that is a reason that counts against telling anyone else, but if the secret is that they are having an affair with the spouse of another of your friends, that is a reason that counts in favor of telling, and to figure out what you should do, it seems like we have to weigh these reasons together to see which one is more important. But very few ethicists have gotten very far in thinking about the distinctive challenges…

Who am I?

Mark Schroeder is the author of six books and nearly one hundred articles in philosophy, many of them concerned with the role of reasons in metaethics and moral explanations. Three of his articles have been honored by the Philosophers’ Annual as among the ten best philosophy articles published in their year, and one received the APA article prize as the best paper published in all of philosophy in 2008 or 2009. His former Ph.D. students now teach philosophy on five continents.

I wrote...

Reasons First

By Mark Schroeder,

Book cover of Reasons First

What is my book about?

In the last five decades, ethical theory has been preoccupied by a turn to reasons. The vocabulary of reasons has become a common currency not only in ethics, but in epistemology, action theory, and many related areas. It is now common, for example, to see central theses such as evidentialism in epistemology and egalitarianism in political philosophy formulated in terms of reasons. And some have even claimed that the vocabulary of reasons is so useful precisely because reasons have analytical and explanatory priority over other normative concepts-that reasons in that sense come first.

The Order of Things

By Michel Foucault,

Book cover of The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences

Foucault’s groundbreaking work from the 1960s looks at how systems of order and classification came into being during the age of rationalism with Descartes, culminating in the 18th-century Enlightenment’s project of subjecting every field of knowledge to its own self-enclosed order. It remains of the great works of theoretical synthesis, patiently dissecting the structures of knowledge, of order and priority, that western learning continues to take for granted. At half a century’s distance, Foucault is the one French thinker whose legacy remains intact for his lucidity, polemical edge, and refusal of esoteric linguistic games.

Who am I?

My work has always been interested in the ways in which systems can be disrupted and subverted by taking radical fresh approaches to them, even where the prevailing view is that overturning them can only lead to the dreaded chaos.

I wrote...

An Excursion Through Chaos: Disorder Under the Heavens

By Stuart Walton,

Book cover of An Excursion Through Chaos: Disorder Under the Heavens

What is my book about?

A study of chaos, disorder, mayhem and confusion in history, philosophy, religion, and the arts, asking whether order is always preferable to everything being in a mess.

The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre

By David P. Jordan,

Book cover of The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre

Jordan’s is probably the most elegantly written of the five studies and stands out for providing a particularly generous allocation of space to Robespierre’s voice, telling the story of his life as much as possible through his own words. At the same time, Jordan’s intellectual biography is quietly attentive to providing a sense of the complex political environment in which any French revolutionary statesman had to act.

Who am I?

France has always been my special inspiration in life and I am lucky to have made a career writing about its history. Many of my books are framed in a long-term perspective. Paris: Biography of a City (2004)  and The Cambridge Illustrated History of France (1994), for example, take the story back to the earliest times and comes up to the present. Wanting a complete change and a new challenge, I shifted focus dramatically in my current book: the history of a city in a single day – the dramatic day in the French Revolution when the Parisians overthrew Maximilien Robespierre.

I wrote...

The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris

By Colin Jones,

Book cover of The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris

What is my book about?

More than any other political figure from the French revolutionary era, Maximilien Robespierre divides historians: some see him as an embodiment of totalitarian evil, others the shining champion of the popular cause and of individual freedoms. In my recently-published The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris (Oxford University Press), I tried a novel approach by exploring how this enigmatic figure behaved over the 24 hours of the political crisis that led to his overthrow and death by guillotine.

As he saw his plans for the Revolution rejected point-blank not only by fellow politicians but also by the ordinary people of Paris whose welfare he had always championed, his fall took on the features of Greek tragedy. 

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