The best western philosophy books

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

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The Hardest Path

By Matt Jardine,

Book cover of The Hardest Path: A Journey Outside to Answer the Questions Within

Matt offers deeply personal insights into Buddhism, Eastern and Western philosophy, and life, inspired by his pilgrimage around the 88 temples of Shikoku, Japan.

The Hardest Path is a small book that punches well above its weight. It’s not really a travel guide for this famous pilgrimage but rather a series of insights derived from the author’s arduous journey. Matt is a talented writer and a well-read scholar and he delivers snippets of wisdom and astute observation at every turn.


Who am I?

Goran Powell is an award-winning martial arts writer who holds a 5th Dan in Goju Ryu Karate. His love affair with the martial arts began as a boy with Judo and he took up full-contact Karate in 1984. In 2002, he completed the grueling 30 Man Fight and documented his experience in his first book, Waking Dragons, before going on to write a string of acclaimed fiction and non-fiction titles. In 2015, he joined the Dogen Sangha Zen group in London and his latest book, Karate on a Cushion, examines the intriguing connection between Zen and martial arts. Goran won Writer of the Year at the prestigious British Martial Arts Awards In 2017.


I wrote...

Karate on a Cushion: A journey into Zen

By Goran Powell,

Book cover of Karate on a Cushion: A journey into Zen

What is my book about?

After thirty years of full-contact karate, it was time for Goran to sit down for a well-earned rest. And discover what sitting on a cushion and staring at a wall could reveal about the martial arts. And life. His journey led to a new dojo, a new sensei, and a Zen master who traced his origins all the way back to the first patriarch of Zen and martial arts, Bodhidharma. 

Soon he was studying beautiful writings that made no sense. And finding sitting on a cushion wasn’t nearly as relaxing as he’d hoped. But slowly, he was getting to grips with an ancient practice of body and mind that was less spiritual, and more real than anything he could have imagined.

On Garbage

By John Scanlan,

Book cover of On Garbage

Sh*t happens (bad relationships, business failures, burnt toast). That’s OK, says Scanlan, because making garbage is an essential part of any activity. In fact, you can’t get anywhere, or achieve any kind of personal or intellectual growth, without some detritus. To me, this explains why humans make so much trash of the kind that I’ve spent my life digging up in archaeological sites. And it makes me feel quite OK about spending a day writing stuff that might go straight into the shredder tomorrow…


Who am I?

I’m an archaeologist, which means that I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many places to dig and survey ancient remains. What I’ve realized in handling those dusty old objects is that all over the world, in both past and present, people are defined by their stuff: what they made, used, broke, and threw away. Most compelling are the things that people cherished despite being worn or flawed, just like we have objects in our house that are broken or old but that we keep anyway.


I wrote...

Cities: The First 6,000 Years

By Monica L. Smith,

Book cover of Cities: The First 6,000 Years

What is my book about?

Cities are such a strange concept that they had to be invented: in the deep past, everyone lived in villages. Yet cities provide so many things that a village cannot: diversity, entertainment, higher education, economic opportunities, and a sense of excitement accompanied by ever-increasing quantities of stuff. How did cities get started? What characteristics do modern cities share with ancient ones, both positive and negative? And what is it like to actually dig a city as an archaeologist, going down to the very bottom of the earliest urban centers to find out what made them so attractive to ancient inhabitants? 


Words and Rules

By Steven Pinker,

Book cover of Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language

I’ve always loved observing children as they learn to speak. But I never understood what a triumph that is until I read Stephen Pinker’s book. He explores a huge range of topics, including what we can learn from the mistakes children make, how languages develop, brain imaging, major ideas in philosophy, computer speech simulation, Noam Chomsky’s ideas about linguistics, and genetic research. And he does all that by focusing on regular and irregular verbs. Sounds dull? Think again. It’s a fascinating book.


Who am I?

I’ve been writing children’s books all my adult life. That means trying to find ways to communicate exactly what I’m imagining. I love words and stories. As a teenager, I wrote down my favourite words and carried them around with me. When I had children, I was fascinated by how fast they learned to make themselves understood, with and without words. The words we choose are important – but they’re only one way to communicate. What about pictures? Body language? Online media? Pheromones? The signals animals and plants give out? The more I learn about communication, the more fascinating it becomes.


I wrote...

After Tomorrow

By Gillian Cross,

Book cover of After Tomorrow

What is my book about?

Could I manage as well as they do? That’s the question that made me write After Tomorrow. I’d been learning about refugees in Chad, and how they cope with living in camps. Suddenly I thought, Suppose it was me? And then (because I’m a storyteller) Suppose it was a boy called Matt, who’s good at mending bikes…?

What if the pound collapsed and money stopped working? What if people started fighting over food? Would Matt and his family escape through the Channel Tunnel? What would happen when they arrived in France as refugees? I researched hard, to make sure the story was as realistic as possible. And the more I learned, the more scarily plausible it seemed…

The Dream of Reason

By Anthony Gottlieb,

Book cover of The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance

While critical thinking is not synonymous with philosophy, philosophical principles like logic and epistemology play a huge role in thinking systematically and productively. If you’re interested in how these new and revolutionary ways of thinking were born, I highly recommend this 2003 tour of the history of early Western philosophy, from Ancient Greece through the Medieval Age, by former Executive Editor of the Economist Anthony Gottlieb. If that book leaves you hungry for more, Gottlieb’s second title the series, The Dream of Enlightenment, continues the story of Western philosophy through the start of the modern era.  


Who am I?

I’m a Boston-based educational researcher and consultant specializing in critical-thinking education and technology-enabled learning.  My 2013 Degree of Freedom One-Year-BA project on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which involved taking 32 online college classes in just twelve months, was featured in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications.  That work led to my first book for MIT Press, and an Inaugural fellowship at HarvardX, the organization at Harvard responsible for MOOC development.  I am also the author of two books on critical thinking and work with educators on how to improve critical-thinking education for students at all grade levels.


I wrote...

Critical Thinking

By Jonathan Haber,

Book cover of Critical Thinking

What is my book about?

Critical thinking is regularly cited as an essential twenty-first century skill, the key to success in school and work. Given our propensity to believe fake news, draw incorrect conclusions, and make decisions based on emotion rather than reason, it might even be said that critical thinking is vital to the survival of a democratic society. In this volume in the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series, I explain how the concept of critical thinking emerged, how it has been defined, and how critical thinking skills can be taught and assessed. This book offers a guide for teachers, students, and aspiring critical thinkers everywhere, including advice for educational leaders and policy makers on how to make the teaching and learning of critical thinking an educational priority and practical reality.

The Story of Philosophy

By Bryan Magee,

Book cover of The Story of Philosophy

Magee’s splendid introductory book is my go-to recommendation for those who wish to enter the world of philosophical ideas. Yes, it’s old-school in the sense that it can be annoyingly androcentric and Eurocentric. A supplement like Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting’s remarkable Philosopher Queens or Julian Baggini’s volume below should be read in tandem. Having said that, however, no one else pulls together the history of western philosophy with terse, informative, and fascinating accounts of important figures and schools as well as Magee. Plus, Magee’s text luxuriates amidst the lush, generous, and illuminating visuals that make Dorling Kindersley volumes so voluptuous. 


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.

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.

Mortal Questions

By Thomas Nagel,

Book cover of Mortal Questions

This book presents ethics as both a theoretical and personal enterprise. Because it aims not only at what we should believe, but also at what we should want and how we should act, it starts not with pre-reflective ideas about the world, which we hope to make more accurate, but with pre-reflective ideas about what we want and how we want to live, which we hope to improve. Among the most gripping in contemporary philosophy, Nagel's essays -- on death, meaning in life, equality, the power of sex, limitations on our understanding of other beings, and morally evaluating people vs. morally evaluating their actions -- are informed by a unique cconception of objectivity, subjectivity, and of how the two must be combined if we are to progress.


Who am I?

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, I was educated at Stanford and MIT. I taught for four years at Yale and 24 years at Princeton before moving to USC, where I am Chair of the Philosophy Department. I specialize in the Philosophy of Language, History of Philosophy, and the Philosophy of Law. I have published many articles, authored fifteen books, co-authored two, and co-edited two. I am fascinated by philosophy's enduring role in our individual and collective lives, impressed by its ability to periodically reinvent itself, and challenged to bring what it has to offer to more students and to the broader culture.


I wrote...

The World Philosophy Made: From Plato to the Digital Age

By Scott Soames,

Book cover of The World Philosophy Made: From Plato to the Digital Age

What is my book about?

Western Philosophy, as it has been done for more than two millennia, is the partner of all advancing disciplines. My book is about the contributions philosophy has made, and continues to make, to our civilization. Our natural science, mathematics and technology, our social science, political institutions, and economic life, our culture, religion, morality, and our understanding of ourselves have been shaped by philosophy.

Philosophy never advances against a background or rank ignorance. It flourishes when enough is known about some domain to make great progress conceivable, despite being temporarily stymied because new methods are needed. Philosophers help by giving us new concepts, reinterpreting old truths, and reconceptualizing questions to expand their solution spaces.  Sometimes they do this when sciences are born, sometimes they do it as sciences mature.  As human knowledge advances there is more, not less, for philosophy to do. Our knowledge of the universe and ourselves grows like an expanding sphere of light emanating from a single point. As light travels in all directions away from its source, the volume of the sphere, representing our secure knowledge, grows exponentially.  But so does the surface area of the sphere, representing the border, where knowledge blurs into doubt bringing back methodological uncertainty. Philosophy monitors the border, ready to help plot our next move.

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.

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 Metaphysics

By Aristotle,

Book cover of The Metaphysics

Aristotle’s Metaphysics marks the beginning of attempts to articulate the philosophy of metaphysics as a science. Retrospectively applying Kant’s division of metaphysics as transcendental philosophy to Aristotle’s writings: Aristotle’s Metaphysics is an in-depth examination of cosmological and theological metaphysics.

I personally enjoy Aristotle’s Metaphysics because it is mysterious. It is difficult to read, and the fact that it was written with an entirely different alphabet is exciting. Aristotle’s Metaphysics is his attempt to systematically blend his particular preference for empiricism with metaphysical insights learned from Plato’s philosophy.

The history of Aristotle’s Metaphysics – in terms of, for example, its title and organization – is fascinating in itself; however, what always stood out for me was recognizing Aristotle’s own excitement. Book 5 of his Metaphysics is often thought of as a kind of metaphysical dictionary, and shortly after this summary of vocabulary terms, it is as if Aristotle grabs hold of…


Who am I?

I am a classically and formally trained philosopher. I have a Doctorate in Philosophy from Duquesne University (2011). I've been interested in philosophy for as long as I can remember; however, I began formally studying philosophy when I first discovered the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. I began teaching philosophy at the university level in 2004. I've taught over 100 university-level courses, including graduate-level courses in both philosophy and psychology. I'm presently finishing my tenth philosophy book, along with over 50 professional peer-reviewed articles in philosophy. These days my attention is devoted to sharing philosophy on the internet through The Philosophemes YouTube Channel, @Philosophemes on Instagram, and the Basic Philosophical Questions Podcast


I wrote...

The Philosophy of Being in the Analytic, Continental, and Thomistic Traditions: Divergence and Dialogue

By Frank Scalambrino, Joseph P. Li Vecchi, David K. Kovacs

Book cover of The Philosophy of Being in the Analytic, Continental, and Thomistic Traditions: Divergence and Dialogue

What is my book about?

The Philosophy of Being provides a discussion of the philosophy of being according to three major traditions in Western philosophy, the Analytic, the Continental, and the Thomistic. The origin of each of these traditions is associated with a seminal figure, Gottlob Frege, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Aquinas, respectively. The questions addressed in this book are constitutional for the philosophy of being, considering the meaning of being, the relationship between thinking and being, and the methods for using thought to access being.

It honors diversity and pluralism, as it highlights how the three traditions may be clearly and distinctly differentiated regarding the philosophy of being. It also honors a sense of solidarity and ecumenism, as it demonstrates how the methods and focal points of these traditions continue to shape the development of Western philosophy. 

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