The best rationality books

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

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The Constitution of Knowledge

By Jonathan Rauch,

Book cover of The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

If humans are the rational animal, why does the world seem to be losing its mind? Why the fake news, the conspiracy theories, the post-truth rhetoric? Rauch explains that truth is a precious commodity, which none of us is smart enough to discover on our own. We depend on institutions and norms – like science, with empirical testing, and journalism, with editing and fact-checking, and democracy, with checks and balances, and academia, with peer review and freedom of inquiry – to make us collectively smarter than any of us is individually. This infrastructure of truth is constantly being corroded – today, by social media and authoritarian populism – and must be cherished and fortified.

Who am I?

I’m a Harvard professor of psychology and a cognitive scientist who’s interested in all aspects of language, mind, and human nature. I grew up in Montreal, but have lived most of my adult life in the Boston area, bouncing back and forth between Harvard and MIT except for stints in California as a professor at Stanford and sabbatical visitor in Santa Barbara and now, Berkeley. I alternate between books on language (how it works, what it reveals about human nature, what makes for clear and stylish writing) and books on the human mind and human condition (how the mind works, why violence has declined, how progress can take place).


I wrote...

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

By Steven Pinker,

Book cover of Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

What is my book about?

How can a species that developed vaccines for Covid-19 in less than a year produce so much fake news, medical quackery, and conspiracy theorizing?

I reject the cliché that humans are just cavemen out of time, saddled with biases, fallacies, and illusions. Instead, we think in ways that are sensible in the low-tech contexts in which we spend most of our lives, but fail to take advantage of the powerful tools of reasoning our best thinkers have discovered over the millennia: logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation, and causation, and optimal ways to update beliefs and commit to choices individually and with others. These tools are not a standard part of our educational curricula and have never been presented clearly and entertainingly in a single book—at least until I had a go at it in this book.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality - Chapters 1-17

By Eliezer Yudkowsky,

Book cover of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality - Chapters 1-17

Better than the original, I daresay. This fan-fic explores an alternate world where Harry Potter, a household name amongst people of my generation, is not his classic self but rather a young genius who applies science to his wizarding powers whenever possible.

What I especially appreciate about this novel is how thoughtfully its plot was developed—while perhaps a stretch for me to call it explicitly cerebral, it certainly borders on the genre. This world’s Harry faces his challenges in such a methodical way (sometimes overly so!) that I was actively making guesses or getting surprised on an almost chapterly basis.


Who am I?

With nearly a thousand novels under my belt (or time-worn Kindle, more accurately), I was itching to make my own mark in the world of literature as I entered my teenage years. Having all but one of the books I read be, puzzlingly, written by those definitively into their adulthood only strengthened that desire. Over 850 pages of my own story, drawing from all that I’d read and heard, finally satisfied it three years later — and placed me in a position to share with other readers my age, one teen to another, those tales that most influenced and inspired me.


I wrote...

The Trilogic Worlds: The Fictional War

By Simon Ilincev,

Book cover of The Trilogic Worlds: The Fictional War

What is my book about?

Upon receiving a mysterious letter, run-of-the-mill Emmanuel is thrust into a complicated battle encompassing all three worlds of Earth, Destroyia, and Fantasia. The latter two are fairy-tale worlds, filled with the classic fictional characters whose lives Emmanuel has loved to escape into. However, they come with a twist—despite the beauty fairy tales suggest, its villains, Destroyians, had the upper hand, dominating all in their once-united land of Destasia, and even going so far as to enslave their kind-hearted counterparts.

After decades of oppression, the Fantasians' only option was to flee to a whole new world. But united under one fearsome leader of suspicious origins, the Destroyians are once more coming for them, despite their powerful magical barrier… and don’t plan on stopping there.

Rationality for Mortals

By Gerd Gigerenzer,

Book cover of Rationality for Mortals: How People Cope with Uncertainty

Gigerenzer is in some ways the un-Tversky-and-Kahneman, emphasizing the ways in which humans are more rational than they seem, and the ways that difficult problems can be made intuitive. This lively collection explains the surprisingly deep and perplexing question of what “probability” even means, and presents many puzzles form everyday reckoning of risk, including: What does the weathercaster mean when she says “There’s a 30 percent chance of rain”?

Who am I?

I’m a Harvard professor of psychology and a cognitive scientist who’s interested in all aspects of language, mind, and human nature. I grew up in Montreal, but have lived most of my adult life in the Boston area, bouncing back and forth between Harvard and MIT except for stints in California as a professor at Stanford and sabbatical visitor in Santa Barbara and now, Berkeley. I alternate between books on language (how it works, what it reveals about human nature, what makes for clear and stylish writing) and books on the human mind and human condition (how the mind works, why violence has declined, how progress can take place).


I wrote...

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

By Steven Pinker,

Book cover of Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

What is my book about?

How can a species that developed vaccines for Covid-19 in less than a year produce so much fake news, medical quackery, and conspiracy theorizing?

I reject the cliché that humans are just cavemen out of time, saddled with biases, fallacies, and illusions. Instead, we think in ways that are sensible in the low-tech contexts in which we spend most of our lives, but fail to take advantage of the powerful tools of reasoning our best thinkers have discovered over the millennia: logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation, and causation, and optimal ways to update beliefs and commit to choices individually and with others. These tools are not a standard part of our educational curricula and have never been presented clearly and entertainingly in a single book—at least until I had a go at it in this book.

Rational Choice in an Uncertain World

By Reid Hastie, Robyn M. Dawes,

Book cover of Rational Choice in an Uncertain World: The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making

This is technically a textbook, and isn’t marketed as a book you bring to the beach. But sometimes it’s more satisfying to have the big ideas on a topic patiently explained to you in an orderly fashion than to try to pick them up from stories and arguments. This paperback, coauthored by one of my graduate school teachers (Hastie), explains the famous discoveries by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman on biases in human reasoning, which Kahneman presented in his bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow (too obvious for me to include on my list). It also explains lesser-known but still fascinating discoveries, and has helpful appendices for those of us who forget some of the basics of probability theory.

Who am I?

I’m a Harvard professor of psychology and a cognitive scientist who’s interested in all aspects of language, mind, and human nature. I grew up in Montreal, but have lived most of my adult life in the Boston area, bouncing back and forth between Harvard and MIT except for stints in California as a professor at Stanford and sabbatical visitor in Santa Barbara and now, Berkeley. I alternate between books on language (how it works, what it reveals about human nature, what makes for clear and stylish writing) and books on the human mind and human condition (how the mind works, why violence has declined, how progress can take place).


I wrote...

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

By Steven Pinker,

Book cover of Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

What is my book about?

How can a species that developed vaccines for Covid-19 in less than a year produce so much fake news, medical quackery, and conspiracy theorizing?

I reject the cliché that humans are just cavemen out of time, saddled with biases, fallacies, and illusions. Instead, we think in ways that are sensible in the low-tech contexts in which we spend most of our lives, but fail to take advantage of the powerful tools of reasoning our best thinkers have discovered over the millennia: logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation, and causation, and optimal ways to update beliefs and commit to choices individually and with others. These tools are not a standard part of our educational curricula and have never been presented clearly and entertainingly in a single book—at least until I had a go at it in this book.

A Treatise of Human Nature

By David Hume,

Book cover of A Treatise of Human Nature

When I wrote Rationality, I mentioned Hume 32 times. He didn’t think of everything, but he explained an astonishing range of topics related to rationality, including causation versus correlation, is versus ought, and individual versus collective self-interest. His follow-up, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, explained why we shouldn’t believe in miracles. He explored all of these topics with clarity and wit, putting modern academic writing to shame.

Who am I?

I’m a Harvard professor of psychology and a cognitive scientist who’s interested in all aspects of language, mind, and human nature. I grew up in Montreal, but have lived most of my adult life in the Boston area, bouncing back and forth between Harvard and MIT except for stints in California as a professor at Stanford and sabbatical visitor in Santa Barbara and now, Berkeley. I alternate between books on language (how it works, what it reveals about human nature, what makes for clear and stylish writing) and books on the human mind and human condition (how the mind works, why violence has declined, how progress can take place).


I wrote...

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

By Steven Pinker,

Book cover of Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

What is my book about?

How can a species that developed vaccines for Covid-19 in less than a year produce so much fake news, medical quackery, and conspiracy theorizing?

I reject the cliché that humans are just cavemen out of time, saddled with biases, fallacies, and illusions. Instead, we think in ways that are sensible in the low-tech contexts in which we spend most of our lives, but fail to take advantage of the powerful tools of reasoning our best thinkers have discovered over the millennia: logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation, and causation, and optimal ways to update beliefs and commit to choices individually and with others. These tools are not a standard part of our educational curricula and have never been presented clearly and entertainingly in a single book—at least until I had a go at it in this book.

The Great Crash 1929

By John Kenneth Galbraith,

Book cover of The Great Crash 1929

A classic by the late great liberal economist, this book tells the American story of the greed, naivety and duplicity that laid the foundation for the implosion of Wall Street in 1929. It provides salutary reading for all investors. As Galbraith makes clear, bubbles always burst but few investors including professionals can summon the independence of mind to step aside before it’s too late. The author brings a sardonic rationality to this account of what was an avoidable disaster.


Who am I?

Selwyn Parker is an award-winning journalist, author, speaker and pianist. In journalism he focuses on transformational contemporary issues like the new era in energy, the upheaval in banking, the revolution in transportation and the fast-moving world of investment. However most of his dozen books – novels and non-fiction -- are rooted in landmark historical events whose effects still register today.


I wrote...

The Great Crash: How the Stock Market Crash of 1929 Plunged the World into Depression

By Selwyn Parker,

Book cover of The Great Crash: How the Stock Market Crash of 1929 Plunged the World into Depression

What is my book about?

The Great Crash explains how the implosion of Wall Street in 1929 triggered a series of catastrophic events that ran around the world and led to poverty and misery for millions, launched Roosevelt’s New Deal, helped bring the Nazis to power, set the scene for another world war, and ultimately ushered in a new global order.

The Bias That Divides Us

By Keith E. Stanovich,

Book cover of The Bias That Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking

Stanovich is a cognitive psychologist who showed that rationality is related, but not identical, to intelligence. In this timely book he shows that smart people, and everyone else, are victims of a powerful bias to show that our own tribe is virtuous and wise and knowledgeable and the other tribe is evil and stupid and ignorant. Needless to say it explains a lot about our current moment.

Who am I?

I’m a Harvard professor of psychology and a cognitive scientist who’s interested in all aspects of language, mind, and human nature. I grew up in Montreal, but have lived most of my adult life in the Boston area, bouncing back and forth between Harvard and MIT except for stints in California as a professor at Stanford and sabbatical visitor in Santa Barbara and now, Berkeley. I alternate between books on language (how it works, what it reveals about human nature, what makes for clear and stylish writing) and books on the human mind and human condition (how the mind works, why violence has declined, how progress can take place).


I wrote...

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

By Steven Pinker,

Book cover of Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

What is my book about?

How can a species that developed vaccines for Covid-19 in less than a year produce so much fake news, medical quackery, and conspiracy theorizing?

I reject the cliché that humans are just cavemen out of time, saddled with biases, fallacies, and illusions. Instead, we think in ways that are sensible in the low-tech contexts in which we spend most of our lives, but fail to take advantage of the powerful tools of reasoning our best thinkers have discovered over the millennia: logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation, and causation, and optimal ways to update beliefs and commit to choices individually and with others. These tools are not a standard part of our educational curricula and have never been presented clearly and entertainingly in a single book—at least until I had a go at it in this book.

The Robot's Rebellion

By Keith E. Stanovich,

Book cover of The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin

Stanovich takes his title from the very last sentence in Richard Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene, “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” In his book, Stanovich shows how human beings are able to rebel against those selfish replicators – our genes. It involves exercising, in Kahneman’s terminology, our ‘system two’ and exercising tenacity and self-discipline in bringing to bear logic and rationality in our decisions. This book is not an easy read, but it is a fascinating account of why human thinking is different and of what such differences might in principle enable us to do. 


Who am I?

I taught philosophy (in particular critical reasoning!) for the colleges of Oxford University between 1987 and 2021. But, aged 15, I was thrown out of school (for truancy and disruption). Between the ages of 18 and 23 I travelled the world, hitch-hiking through Asia, living in Australasia, then travelling back through Africa. By the time I got home, starved of intellectual stimulation, I started an Open University Course and discovered logic. It was the hardest thing I had ever done. But also the most enjoyable. I loved getting to grips with difficult distinctions and concepts and having to use them precisely. Getting the answers right felt like an achievement. Getting them wrong, a challenge. I’ve loved logic ever since!


I wrote...

Critical Reasoning: A Romp through the Foothills of Logic for the Complete Beginner

By Marianne Talbot,

Book cover of Critical Reasoning: A Romp through the Foothills of Logic for the Complete Beginner

What is my book about?

Have you ever wished you could argue more convincingly? Or have you wished you could detect more easily the problems in the arguments of others? Then this is the book for you. It’ll teach you how to recognize arguments, how to analyse and classify arguments, and how to evaluate arguments – how to say which arguments are good and which are bad. You will also, after a close reading of the book, be confident in saying why these arguments are good and bad. Those who’d like to will also be able to dip their toes into formalizing arguments. 

The Body in the Mind

By Mark Johnson,

Book cover of The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason

When I was a musician encountering theory in cognitive science for the first time, this book really moved me. I was searching for conceptual lenses on cognition in instrumental practice and this book is aimed at grounding the study of cognition in the body. I can still see myself sitting at a huge ugly desk under a tiny window thoroughly absorbed in this thrilling page-turner in the philosophy of mind. The book moved me so profoundly that I cried when I approached the last page, and gently closed the back cover. It is a precious book. It changed my world. 


Who am I?

As an interdisciplinary scholar with professional musical training, I surveyed the literature in cognitive science for conceptual frameworks that would shed light on tacit processes in musical activity. I was tired of research that treats the musician either as a “lab rat” not quite capable of fully understanding what they do or as a “channel” for the mysterious and divine. I view musicians as human beings who engage in meaningful activity with instruments and with each other. Musicians are knowledgeable, skilled, and deeply creative. The authors on this list turn a scientific lens on human activity that further defines how we make ourselves through meaningful work and interactions.


I wrote...

Grounding the Analysis of Cognitive Processes in Music Performance: Distributed Cognition in Musical Activity

By Linda T. Kaastra,

Book cover of Grounding the Analysis of Cognitive Processes in Music Performance: Distributed Cognition in Musical Activity

What is my book about?

This book presents four case studies of expert thinking in instrumental music performance. It draws uniquely on dominant paradigms from the fields of cognitive science, ethnography, anthropology, psychology, and psycholinguistics to develop an ecologically valid framework for the analysis of cognitive processes in musical activity. By presenting a close analysis of activities, including instrumental performance on the bassoon, lessons on the guitar, and a group rehearsal, Kaastra provides new insights into the person/instrument system, the musician’s use of informational resources, and the organization of perceptual experience during a musical performance. Engaging in musical activity is shown to be a highly dynamic and collaborative process invoking tacit knowledge and coordination as musicians identify targets of focal awareness for themselves, their colleagues, and their students.

The Horned Man

By James Lasdun,

Book cover of The Horned Man

Such a peculiar book. The Horned Man is not for those who want answers or resolutions. By the time the final page is turned you'll find yourself with more questions than you had at any other point in the book. It takes the Unreliable Narrator device to the extreme, to the point where you don’t really believe anything from the get-go, a unique way to tell a story, but it works here. This book is dark, smart, uncomfortable, and it is unlike anything you'll ever read. Lasdun’s prose is also exceptional, and I’ve often found myself getting lost in his paragraphs, enjoying how I can stop and really take the time to re-read how the author has crafted his story, and lead you exactly where he wanted to.


Who am I?

When I start a new book, my aim is to write something completely different from what I’ve written before. It’s challenging, but also important to keep things fresh. To me, a blank slate before each story is thrilling. To start with nothing, and end with something wholly original. This Never Happened, my third book, began with a feeling we’ve all had before: the feeling of not belonging. I asked myself, “What if I really didn't belong here, but was meant for somewhere else entirely?” From there, I created a character who grows increasingly unsure of his own identity and reality, themes that are also present in my selection of books below.


I wrote...

This Never Happened

By Ryan Tim Morris,

Book cover of This Never Happened

What is my book about?

Around Coney Island, Cepik Small is known as “Epic” but his life could not be less so. And no matter how hard he tries, he can’t shake the feeling that he was born in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The cocktail of drugs he takes daily doesn’t help and the face-blindness from which he suffers only adds to his feeling of isolation.

Just as he begins seeing a new and unorthodox therapist, Epic also meets the bold and blithe Abigail Ayr. And when a novel found on the subway begins to strangely mirror events in his own life, the mysteries of Epic Small’s dreams quickly and uncontrollably begin to unravel.

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