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Ask HN: Best Philosophical Books?
80 points by dbz on July 10, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 144 comments
Hello HN!

I was wondering, what are the best books which have been eye-opening or incredibly interesting about philosophy that you all have read?

Two examples of books: Common Sense (I'm reading it for school) & On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (I've been wanting to read this)

Hi, I'm an ABD philosopher.

The deepest and most interesting philosophical books are generally difficult and best accompanied by some form of instruction. This is true regardless of how clearly (e.g. Plato) or esoterically (e.g. Kant) written they are. There are some good secondary sources that can help but it's far preferable to be able to talk to an expert in a one-on-one or smallish setting. It would take a long time to explain why this is the case, so I'll just leave it as an assertion here.

Okay, that being said, I wouldn't want to dissuade anyone from reading philosophy on their own. Here are some recommendations for books and articles that can be (more) fruitfully read on one's own. Anything marked with a + is a secondary source. Ideally I'd be giving you excerpts from each of these in a reader for a course. I'm going to skip some people like Aristotle who should be approached in carefully selected excerpts or with a guide, and also some more obvious things that almost everyone with a college education has read, like Descartes' Meditations or Plato's Republic.

On Fate, Alexander of Aphrodisias

+ Problems from Locke, Mackie

Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza

+ The Courtier and the Heretic, Stewart (on Spinoza and Leibniz)

Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume

Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant

Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, Kant

On Liberty, Mill

"Modern Moral Philosophy", Anscombe

"What is Capitalism?", Rand

The Bounds of Sense, Strawson

+ "Rawls on Justice", Nagel

"The Naturalists Return", Kitcher

Sources of Normativity, Korsgaard

This crowd in particular might be interested in some of Frege's work as well, e.g. "What is a Function?" and "Sense and Reference."

The above books are great, but unless you are really into philosophy I don't think you'd gain much from reading primary sources. (With the exception of Hume, he's brief and brilliant.) I think someone casually interested in philosophy would be better off reading articles from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (plato.stanford.edu); and if a subject is particularly interesting then they can always go read some related primary sources.

If you do start reading primary sources, particularly the early modern philosophers, I recommend visiting www.earlymoderntexts.com. Jonathan Bennett has done a great job "translating" the works of Hume, Kant, Locke, Berkley, etc. from old-English (or German, French...) into modern-English so that their philosophical arguments can be understood without being obfuscated by language quirks.

I respectfully disagree. In many cases, reading secondary sources is pointless without also reading the originals. (It's a bit like reading a review of a meal, rather than eating any of it.)

That said, the quality of secondary works varies a lot. Some things, like Mackie's Problems from Locke, are now primary sources in their own right, albeit in a secondary way.

But you can't really pick up most primary sources and actually get anything out of them without understanding the historical/philosophical context they were written in. If you can find someone with little to no philosophical background who can pick up A Critique of Pure Reason or the Tractatus and actually get anything out of it then you've probably found Kant or Wittgenstein reborn.

That's why the parent commenter said you need a guide/instructor to properly understand what is going on in these books, and I agree with that. But for people without such a luxury, secondary sources and articles are a good method for gaining some rudimentary understanding of the philosophical topics.

I don't disagree with some of your larger point. Most people will get the fullest benefit out of a classroom setting, with an engaging and well-read class leader and an engaged and thoughtful group of students to argue with.

However, I still believe that a determined outsider can get real benefit out of philosophy on his or her own. (Not the fullest benefit, but significant benefit.) I completely agree with you about cultural/historical/philosophical background, which is why in my answer I made a point of recommending not just titles but specific editions for classical works. Maybe we could call this the best of both worlds: good primary sources, filled out with enriching secondary material, all in one edition? (It does tend to make those editions more costly than some, and also heavier.)

Yes, this is why I gave a long caveat, and tried to picked only the most accessible primary sources. If there's some work in particular in the list that you think is inappropriate, I could try to defend it.

I think that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is very mixed. Often (not always) the articles spend a lot of time making distinctions among many views, without adequately explaining any of them at an introductory level, and at the expense of any sort of broad view of the issues. So like most philosophy reading it's most useful if you're already in a philosophy course or something like that.

This has always puzzled me. Why does it seem that the vast majority of philosophers love to stray away from plain, clear, specific definitions and step-by-step, verifiable logic? Why is it that people can't be more like Hume or Feynman? Maybe they think that complex ideas can only be explained in a nebulous, vague manner? Every time I read an overgeneralization such as "subject <A> is <x>", especially when the author does not seem to be a scholar in the subject, I cringe. (I'm talking about the obvious need for "guide books". In some cases it's helpful to know the background and such, but many of these books are almost a paragraph by paragraph analysis.)

Actually, a lot of contemporary philosophy -- at least as it is practiced in the English-speaking world -- strives for exactly the "plain, clear, specific definitions" and "verifiable logic" you're looking for. I think the overgeneralizations and nebulous explanations you refer to are more typical of "Continental" philosophy and related disciplines like "critical theory."

The former style of philosophy does produce work that is clearer and easier to read, but it has its own limitations: in the worst cases, philosophers get so hung up on being clear that they shy away from discussing the difficult problems that bring people to philosophy in the first place, and instead spend their careers arguing over minutiae or practicing pseudo-science. Clear definitions aren't going to provide you with the final word on how to treat others, how to organize society, what really exists, or how we know about it.

Then again, the latter style of philosophy doesn't necessarily do much better on addressing these "big questions." Sometimes it is better at keeping these questions in view, but (as you point out) it is often extremely esoteric.

The best philosophers, I think, understand that clear definitions are a starting place, a model that needs to be developed. They see that model as a tool for addressing the thorny, complicated, and tangled questions that philosophers are asked to answer, not as a truth that must be defended in its own right. The goal is to find real philosophical truths. Where a rigorous, methodical approach helps us attain that goal, it should be welcomed; but where that approach becomes a hindrance, it should be left behind.

No Hegel?

I don't know if it counts as a serious philosophy book, but I really enjoyed Godel, Escher, Bach. Math, computers, consciousness, etc.

I'm currently reading Reasons and Persons. Thought experiments and discussion about how personal identity works under, eg, transporter copies.

I think many readers will be surprised at how accessible "Gödel, Escher, Bach" actually is. I'm not an expert at anything: I have no work experience and maybe two serious computer science courses under my belt, but GEB really satisfies an intellectual curiosity I've had for years. I'm 550 pages in (out of about 750 pages) and with the exception of the two chapters discussing the anatomy of the human brain (a subject I'm just not that interested in), I've torn through this book—I only started reading about three months ago, which means I've been reading GEB much faster than any other book I've ever opened. I highly recommend "Gödel, Escher, Bach" even to those who have seen other people recommend it yet have been reluctant to try it out.

> (out of about 750 pages)

Come on, it's 777 pages for a reason! :)

When I realized the page count (purposefully) included the index I was quite tickled. So many gems, little and large...

Plus one to this, it really is quite readable, I think it's overly characterized as very dense and difficult.

Godel, Escher, Bach won a Pulitzer Prize; I think that counts as serious. :)

it may be serious, but it is not 'philosophy' as the topic is generally understood. (not to discount it as a worthwhile read.)

Actually, at its core it is philosophical and mathematical logic. So yes, it is philosophy.

I bought GEB when I was 13, mostly because I liked the Escher paintings. I was hooked after reading the first Achilles/Turtle episode, though, and even though many concepts went over my head at the time. I still haven't read it cover to cover, though, but I still have a hard time not agreeing with this particular recommendation.

+1 Reasons and Persons. The Personal Identity section in that in particular is wonderful! It's a really good book because it kind of stands alone -- you don't need to be very well-versed in philosophy to get the arguments if you read carefully.

It's taken me 6 months to get through part 1. GEB is a tough read.

I would not recommend any compilations of philosophy. The great thing about philosophy is reading the rationales and the results, not only the results.

"Ricard+Revel - The Monk and the Philosopher" http://www.amazon.com/Monk-Philosopher-Father-Discuss-Meanin...

"Socrates(/Plato) - The Allegory of the Cave" http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/allegory.html

"Plato(/Socrates/others) - Symposium" http://www.amazon.com/Symposium-Plato/dp/0872200760

"Bertrand Russell - The Conquest of Happiness" http://www.amazon.com/Conquest-Happiness-Bertrand-Russell/dp...

I absolutely agree that The Monk and the Philosopher is one of the best book. A frank discussion between a father and son who both have PhD. Every interesting book.

Actually Jean-Francois Revel did not have a PhD (he explains why in his autobiography "Le voleur dans la maison vide").

I really enjoyed Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. It's not quite a philosophy book but I found his take on the concept of 'quality' very useful. To me it's a story of how a westerner discovers eastern philosophy, which is great to read coming from a western perspective.

I never leave a book unfinished, if I start a book I feel like have to finish the book (I finished Dan Brown's book with disgust, imagine that), but I just couldn't finish this book. I have absolutely no idea why people like this book and I have got recommendations from quite a few people.

I had the opposite reaction. I almost never finish books, this book is the first one bigger than a 100 pages that i finished front to cover. I'm currently re-reading it.

Here are a few reasons why i liked it:

-It was the first book on philosophy i actually read. The closest book on philosophy i ever had contact with before was a high school textbook and it was more than horrible.

-I read it with a deliberate reason, i was interested specifically in why some people are bad with tech, actually not just bad but horrible with it. Where does this gap come from?

-I read it at a point in my life when i was trying to figure out a lot of stuff, and one of them was how to not be an arrogant asshole, i found that it was way too easy to be one towards people who i perceived as less intelligent than me. I approached this book searching for ways to enhance my reasons to be arrogant, but left it with a sort of humility and understanding towards others that i didn't know i was capable of.

-Because of my obsessiveness and extreme rationalism, it was easy for me to connect with the character of Phaedrus.

-It was a novel, not a philosophy book, it was light to read, and at the same time intellectually stimulating.

Maybe you should ask yourself why is it that you don't like it? I'm curious for the reasons, it certainly has its flaws, and i still have difficulty with some of the ideas after the second re-read, but i never found it not entertaining.

For the first ~25 page or so the book is nothing but this guy who goes to biking with his friends and son.

Maybe my expectation was too high, maybe I was hoping to be blown away by some deep philosophical understanding. Or maybe its the writing style, I felt like I was reading someone's diary, reading his mundane everyday thoughts.

Absolutely nothing. Just a guy riding his bike for ~25 pages.

I stopped reading where he was yelling at his kid for some stupid reason during camping. Maybe after that he talks about something interesting.

I will probably give it another shot, most likely not anytime soon.

> I will probably give it another shot, most likely not anytime soon.

If you stopped reading it after 25 pages, you never gave it a shot in the first place. It's 464 pages long, for Pete's sake!

Reading a non-fiction book is an investment of time and energy. 25 pages in to the book and the author didn't even begin to address the point of the book, which was a big turn-off for me, I have never read a book that just talks about random stuff for the first 25 pages or so. I thought it was a very weird way to start off a book.

I am sure its a decent book, or there wouldn't be so many fans out there, so I will give it another try.

> Reading a non-fiction book is an investment of time and energy.

No doubt.

> 25 pages in to the book and the author didn't even begin to address the point of the book

It's biographical philosophy. 25 pages of setting the stage for the author's philosophical epiphany in the midst of a pivotal motorcycle trip in his life is addressing the point of the book.

I think perhaps you weren't expecting it to be a biographical book. Perhaps when you give it another go, you should take a quick look at the afterword (regarding the author's son) to get a better grasp of the author's perspective.

Zen is an overrated book. Having said that, to say that "I have absolutely no idea why people like this book" when you haven't read it (and 25 pages does not count) sounds completely absurd. I do recommend you actually try reading it, even if for no other reason then to find out what everyone else is on about.

I wouldn't call Zen overrated, at least insofar as it's a relatively easy read which makes some good points.

Those points, IMO, are not the author's main philosophical contention, but his presentation of philosophical introspection intertwined with everyday life. Would that more Americans realized they could contemplate metaphysics even while going about their everyday lives.

By "overrated" I don't mean that it's bad. It's overrated in the same way that The Mythical Man Month is the most overrated software engineering book, or Sgt. Pepper is the most overrated album. Those are important works, but they don't live up to the level of hype around them. In fact, I don't think anything could.

I agree with your point, though. (But not sure why it only applies to Americans? ;)

I can only speak authoritatively about Americans, because I've only lived in America. Residents of other countries may be different :)

It only picks up around the middle of the book.

I couldn't get through Pirsig either. Unlike you, though, I have no compunction about not finishing a book; it's not my job to be interested in it.

Re Dan Brown: since you feel that way, I recommend the hilarious review of it that Irish comedian Andrew Maxwell did for the BBC. Make sure to watch to the end!


"The Virtue of Selfishness" "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal" "Philosophy: Who Needs It" "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology"

All by Ayn Rand. Whether you end up agreeing with her or not, she will definitely will make you think.

Good ones. Just make sure these aren't the only ones you study or you'll end up being a worse amateur philosopher than you were before.

I'm currently pursuing Rand's philosophy. Her nonfictions are very valuable because they comprise the philosophy itself. But Peikoff's books and lectures about Objectivism are also extremely valuable.

He had to overcome a lot of bad thinking habits to gain a genuine understanding of Objectivism and he is in a good position to help others get past those roadblocks.

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand is useful to help you integrate Rand's philosophy into a mental hierarchy, and his courses Understanding Objectivism and Objectivism Through Induction are useful to help you prove Objectivism to yourself, so you can see how Rand's philosophy really is connected to reality and pertains to your life.

  Some from the canon:
Plato: Defence of Socrates, Euthyphro, Crito (translated by David Gallop)

The Modes of Scepticism by Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes (a beautiful collection of texts from Pyrrhonian scepticism and analysis of their arguments; the best way I know to meet ancient scepticism)

Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy (The Cambridge University Press edition is very good; it's probably worth buying their Selected Philosophical Writings for a good basic Descartes text)

David Hume: An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding and An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals (I recommend the Oxford Philosophical Texts editions)

Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations (terribly, terribly difficult, but very rewarding)

  A few contemporary things:
Gilbert Ryle: The Concept of Mind

Willard Van Orman Quine: From a Logical Point of View

J. L. Mackie: Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong

Thomas Nagel: Mortal Questions (short essays, well-written, very accessible)

Bernard Williams: Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy

Michael Smith: The Moral Problem

  Specialist, technical, odd:
The Frege Reader by Michael Beaney (for modern logic and the beginnings of contemporary philosophy in the analytic style)

J. L. Mackie: The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation

William Kingdon Clifford: The Ethics of Belief (he argues, oddly but powerfully, that it's immoral to believe things on insufficient evidence or irrationally - an offense to morality, not just reason)

This is a great list. +1 on the Philosophical Investigations.

As an introductory book, I would recommend Russell's Problems of Philosophy.

I think the quality of advice you're getting on this thread is very mixed.

Some of the books mentioned are absolutely great-- like "Being and Time", or Husserl's "Logical Investigations"-- but incredibly difficult to read unprepared. If you were ready to be reading them, you wouldn't be asking the question here.

The two books you mention in the question (Common Sense and "On the Fourfold Root") are both quite readable, as are a few of the primary texts mentioned in the responses ("Existentialism is a Humanism", "Thus Spoke Zarathustra") but in general, I'd have to suggest you stay away from primary texts at first.

In other words, begin by reading works about philosophy, rather than works of philosophy.

A single-volume work on the history of philosophy will give you the broad scope (for example, Durant, or Russell, or "Sophie's World" if you prefer fiction), but will tend to turn the philosophers discussed into caricatures of themselves.

You mention that you are in school; I'd suggest you take a philosophy course or two, if you are interested in the field. Having an experienced guide will definitely help.

This is also my experience with reading philosophy; just like significant works in any other fields, you can't approach many important books of philosophy head-on. You have to first get an understanding of the bckground, which also allows you to understand the fundamental dichotomies, and why different philosophers treat different questions as the primary ones. In this respect, the best history of philosophy I know of is Skirbekk's "A History of Western Thought: From Ancient Greece to the Twentieth Century", a highly recommended read.

Problem with reading secondary material is it'll be colored by the worldview of said author, and generally people will stick philosophers in easy categories without trying to actually understand them. For example, often you'll read modern synopses of Plato saying he thought the physical world is bad, even though he says no such thing.

Technically, HE himself, as in Plato, first person, never says 'the physical world is bad'. However, if you study his work, you will find that this notion is indeed carried out in the words and actions of his protagonist, Socrates.

For example, and maybe the best example: Socrates, laying on his back as the numbness and cold from the hemlock worked its way from his legs upward after willingly drinking it, removed the cloth that had been laid across his face and said "Oh... don't forget to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius for me...". This phrase, which was also used by Steinbeck in "The Moon is Down" in a similar context, is taken to mean "please go an make an offering to the God of Ailments & Cures, as I have been cured of the curses of the physical world by death, and am going to a much better place..."

Also, Plato's take wasn't that the physical world was "bad" so much as it was composed of imperfect instances of the "Forms"; Reality as mere shadows and projections of purer, more abstract concepts.

I take slight issue, however, with you denigrating "secondary materials" with a broad stroke. There are some really very good, objective analyses of Plato (Vlastos, et. al.) that actually provide a great deal of insight from time to time by explaining some of the idioms and pre-conceived notions of the time and culture that are necessarily understood to be placed in the proper context to understand the dialogue.

For my 2¢, I say to the OP: Wittgenstein. The "Brown" and "Blue" books. Very interesting, modern philosophy that deals with semantic meaning and the binding of semantics to syntax and lexicon. Very intriguing stuff. Oh, and the guy was a kindergarden teacher, so you KNOW he had balls of steel. ;)

Btw, the interpretation of Socrates and the sacrifice to Asclepius is highly controversial. The interpretation you give is a popular one, but note that it was first offered by Nietzsche. That doesn't mean it's wrong, but it's not a given. To my mind, "death as a cure for life" is more a product of Nietzsche's romanticism than Socrates' views, but I admit that the whole thing is very controversial.

If you're curious, the first page of the following article lists 21 interpretations of that bit from The Phaedo. (Naturally, the author then goes on to offer her own view of the matter. She is an academic, after all.)


I agree, and I tried to raise that point (regarding one-volume histories turning philosophers into caricatures.)

The problem is: you have to start somewhere. And with most philosophers, the primary texts aren't going to make any sense at all if you don't have the context build up already. Secondary sources are a necessary evil at that beginning stage.

I'd recommend starting off with easier primary sources. Per that lesswrong post about coming up with solutions too early and how that constrains thinking, the same critique applies here.

But, cultural background is useful, I would place that in a different category than the secondary summaries of philosophers' work.

I agree, Being and Time is an impossible read - Betrand Russell is a good start

-Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations by Ludvig Wittgenstein

-The Open Society and its Enemies by Karl Popper

-On Liberty John Stuart Mill

-Recursive Functions of Symbolic Expressions and their Computation by Machine by John McCarthy

While it is eye-opening I could hardly recommend the Tractatus unless you get it with a commentary. How about The Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Wittgenstein and the Tractatus by Michael Morris?

Good call with Karl Popper. On Liberty is archaic somewhat. To recommend just that book by John McCarthy is too narrow, and besides logic and the theory of computation are not a part of philosophy per se. Logic is a tool of philosophers. The theory of computation could possibly be folded into philosophy of mind but I've never seen it done so, there is a strong argument that it should be.

Bertrand Russell: A history of western philosophy.

I haven't read it all but what I've read was both informative and witty. Note that Russell, kind of similar to The Economist, is "opinionated". Must be that British style...

I read it cover to cover and loved it. But Russel, although a humanist, is firmly an occidental man. He rushes through Oriental philosophy like it's a bad neighborhood (he really didn't hide his distaste for mysticism and metaphysics at all.)

A better read might be Will Durant's "The Story of Philosophy". And Durant's masterpiece, The Story of Civilization is unparalleled in its scope and lucidity, though not philosophy. I have such a huge attachment to the Durants, they kept me company on many a long night. I read about seven or eight of their dozen volumes.

Well, it is a history of western philosophy. Also, I wouldn't say that Russell has a distaste for mysticism; my read of many of his writings on religion (A Free Man's Worship, Mysticism and Logic, etc.) would be that he genuinely sees the value of mysticism and transcendental experience – though I'm going on memory from reading about a decade ago.

Durant's writing is great too, but The Story of Philsophy doesn't have the depth of The History of Western Philosophy, and, I actually enjoy Russell's snark along the way.

The book might be strictly Western in its coverage, but my opinion on his approach to Oriental thought is extrapolated, and is the sum of everything I have read of the man. I say this as someone who first discovered Russell as a logician.

Regarding his mysticism, Whitehead must have passed some of it on, but in the History, he is nothing but a rational materialist. You see this in his treatment of Plato and Platonism vis-a-vis, say, Aristotle.

Where others saw Plato's Ideal as a pure goal or experience, obtained only through sheer effort or total transformation, as evidenced by the various religious groups who synthesized platonic ideals with mystical beliefs. Russell saw something a bit more proscriptive, imo. Allegory is open to interpretation, and I think Russell approached Plato as a fellow Cambridge gentleman, and not, say, a troubled mind searching for answers in a world with much less science, and is forced to defer more to the unknown, the perfect place with all the answers .. where we could go, if only we were perfect ourselves. Plato's obsession with the Ideal, order, wisdom the perfect society, etc. is a cry for help; he is desperately seeking full understanding of his world and is unable to. Only if he could change himself and his society would the world change to something more tangible!

Russell missed that part and projects his own image on Plato; the fully informed intellectual royal whose words are heeded by society. He thought Plato enjoyed a similar luxury, and his calls for perfection, specially in the Republic, were made out of snobbery.

This is my personal take on it, and I am excited to take a second stab at the History.

I second that recommendation. You won't get a lot of philosophy out of it, but you'll get thousands of pointers of where to look for the interesting stuff, put it context.

I don't think it's the best place to get started. I've read it cover to cover and it's great background for further reading in philosophy, but it's a dry start. Russell's Unpopular Essays is a good deal more fun to read.

Other things I'd recommend for wading into the waters of philosophy would be Utopia by Sir Thomas More, or Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes.

While I like the book (and Russel in general) it really is a history rather than a philosophical book.

But someone like OP would benefit from a broad introduction to the corpus of thought out there. They can then choose which lines to follow.

Given that philosophy as practiced in academia is as much about creating arguments as about the ideas themselves, I suggest "The Philosopher's Toolkit" as a useful reference.

For what I'll call "hard philosophy" I put my votes for books by Hilary Putnam and John Dewey. As a rationalist seeking a solid basis for ethics in the physical world, I've found both authors quite instructive. Perhaps "Objectivity" by Nicholas Rescher belongs here as well.

There's a whole other class of what I call "idea books" and I've seen a few of them listed in the comments, too. Given the reading examples you mentioned, I'm assuming you're looking more at "hard philosophy" so I'll skip the other kind of suggestions unless you ask for them.

What are your Dewey recommendations?

I've read both "Experience and Nature" and "How We Think" and can recommend both. "How We Think" was published first and is shorter - would make for a good introduction to Dewey. "Experience and Nature" is longer and has more weight but is also more work to read. I haven't read more than excerpts from his other works so I can't add much. Otherwise, I intend to read "The Public and its Problems" which is supposed to be a good work on democracy.

Check out Charles S. Peirce, American father of pragmaticism (not pragmatism). Two essays, 'The Fixation of Belief' and 'How to Make Our Ideas Clear' are particularly inspiring. Google 'peirce how to make our ideas clear', it's number one.

The ones I've read and find good:

- Existentialism is a Humanism - Jean Paul Sartre : Very easy to read and is a very good introduction to existentialism.

- Thus Spoke Zarathustra - Nietzsche

- Siddhartha - Herman Hesse

As I read the comments, I am surprised how little existentialism there is listed. Maybe not the best place to start, but I think it is the life changing stuff.

Also by Hesse: Narcissus & Goldmund

Actually, most books by Hesse have a philosophical element.

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathon Haidt is great. It intertwines philosophy and psychology while providing a lot of insight on how a life is well lived.


A couple by Stanley Cavell:

Must We Mean What We Say? (1969) The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (1979) New York: Oxford University Press.

I would also second Russell's A Brief History of Western Philosophy. It's biased and weirdly shallow in some places, but written by a philosopher, so not a toothless compilation.

Obscure but made an impression on me: Ways of Worldmaking by Nelson Goodman.

If you can get through it: John Rawls's A Theory of Justice...an important book with a few very important ideas.

Stuff by Amartya Sen.

On philosophy of science, the historical narratives do the job I think, like The Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler (a great read once you get through the Greeks). You could read Thomas Kuhn, Feyerabend's autobiography "Killing Time" which is great, and if you're really serious read Peter Galison's stuff.

Finally, again, more history that pure philosophy but I really liked Wittgenstein's Vienna by Toulmin.

Most of the "eye-opening or incredibly interesting" philosophical material that I've read has been in individual articles rather than books. That said, here are a few favourites from various areas. It's a bit heavily weighted towards recent material; Kant and Plato ought to be on there, but I can't stand Kant as a writer, even if his ideas are profound, and Plato's style has always irritated me for some reason I can't quite put my finger on. I could probably keep tying titles all day, so I'll stop with those that first popped into my head.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory

Gottlob Frege, Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

J.S. Mill, On Liberty

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

Stewart Shapiro, Philosophy of Mathematics: Structure and Ontology

"Siddhartha", "Steppenwolf" - by Herman Hesse.

"Atlas Shrugged" - by Ayn Rand.

"Mrityunjay" - by Sivaji savant (originally in marathi/hindi language.. based on the character of Karna from Mahabharata.Not very sure how good the english translation is though.The title means - he who has conquered Death.)

It depends if you want to be knowledgeable "about" philosophy and knowledge or if you want to apply it to you life.

* K.Popper (in both cases;): _Open society and its ennemies_ http://www.archive.org/stream/opensocietyandit033120mbp#page...

for "Ars Vitae" (applicable to one's life)

* Plato: _Gorgias_

* Marc Aurélius: _Meditations_

* Friedrich Nietzsche: _Beyond good & evil_

I agree with others on Hume, Russell, Husserl. Another great thinker while he does not pretend to be a philosopher is Dan Sperber, I think of 2 books

* Dan Sperber (with Deirdre Wilson) _Relevance. Communication and Cognition_ (Blackwell, 1986)

* Sperber, Dan (1996) Explaining culture: _A naturalistic approach._ (Oxford: Blackwell)

Finally philosophical literature: * Doistoievski: _The Brothers Karamazov_ (question of God is asked)

Almost anything by Alan Watts. Tao: The Watercourse Way is good. He also has a bunch of lectures recorded in audio and available on bittorrent.

Some of the best philosophy books I've found for free online:

Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica. Even though you may not agree with his conclusions, it is still a remarkable piece of work. http://www.ccel.org/a/aquinas/summa/FP.html

David Stove does a good job debunking Hume's problem of induction, which underlies what I consider wrong in most modern philosophy http://web.maths.unsw.edu.au/~jim/davidstove.html

Liberty or Equality outlines the potential for tyranny inherent in democracy http://blog.mises.org/6326/liberty-or-equality/

Sophie's World is by far the best introduction to philosophy that you can read. It's presented in a narrative and the lessons are in conversation form. The plot is really good-- it goes very meta at the end.

If you're interested in phenomenology and/or existentialism and works that are somewhat readable (this is subjective of course), I'd suggest:

1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty - The Phenomenology of Perception

2. Simone de Beauvoir - Ethics of Ambiguity

3. Friedrich Nietzsche - Will to Power

I'd highly recommend NOT reading Being and Time by Heidegger - you'll want to stab your eyes out ten times.

Outside of pure philosophical texts and more emphasis on fictional works related to philosophy, I'd suggest indirect material that encourage ideas of subjective perception and point-of-view. Examples are works by Franz Kafka, Ryu Murakami and William S. Burroughs.

Obviously anyone's recommendations are going to tell you as much about that person's philosophical preferences as about the actual books. We might be able to do better if you told us more about your own interests and prejudices. Anyway, here are a few recommendations:

Ethics and (technical questions about) personal identity: "Reasons and persons", by Derek Parfit. Quite heavy going, but Parfit's an outstandingly clear thinker and there are some very good ideas here.

Applied ethics: "Living high and letting die", by Peter Unger. Argues for the counterintuitive conclusion that basically all of us in the affluent West have an obligation to do (not just somewhat more but) vastly more for the least well-off.

Philosophy of religion (from a definitely atheist perspective): "The miracle of theism", by John Mackie. Quite dense, but well written, clear and mostly fair. Much much more seriously intellectually than any of the recent "New Atheist" books.

Philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics, decision theory, philosophy of physics, many other things: "Good and Real", by Gary Drescher. "A breathtakingly original assault on all the Big Issues!", says Daniel Dennett, and he's right.

Recommended on just about any topic: the "Oxford Readings in Philosophy" series of anthologies. Each volume consists of a lengthy introduction followed by somewhere on the order of 10 important articles from the primary literature. Generally very approachable and well selected.

There seem to be two questions here. First: 'what are some eye-opening reads'? Second: 'what are some good philosophy books?'

The fact is, "eye-opening reads" really depends on the eye, and without much context, it's very difficult to give recommendations.

So I'll name two books that were 'eye-opening' for me AND are good philosophy and another that is just 'good philosophy.'

J. S. Mill's On Liberty. Read it. It's short. It's poignant. Don't not read this book.

Beyond Good and Evil by Nietzsche is required reading. if you like it, check out the viking collection of works by him and read his wikipedia page. You'll get a sense of what else you'd like to read from these two sources.

The groundwork for a metaphysics of morals by Kant is a great introduction to his way of thinking/reasoning and deals with an important matter--the possibility of a moral system. This book is a good introduction to a way of philosophizing very different from the others--Kant aims to be deeply systematic and specific. While not eye-opening, 'sexy philosophy' or quite 'enjoyable,' GMM is a relatively short read and a worthwhile thought-journey.

You make a good point. I took 5 different philosophy classes in college because I was interested, but never was really that satisfied. For me, the authors that were really eye-opening were Ayn Rand and Thoreau, though I feel many here would scoff at them.

> While not eye-opening, 'sexy philosophy' or quite 'enjoyable,' GMM is a relatively short read and a worthwhile thought-journey.

For the majority of extremely utilitarian American readers, GMM will most definitely be eye-opening.

Right. Sorry for the conflation of editorial and description in that sentence.

I wholeheartedly recommend "Action Philosophers". http://www.eviltwincomics.com/ap.html

Especially the Ain Rand section, which made it clear to me that you need to know how a person grew up to understand how they formed their philosophy.

Yes, it's a comic, but that makes it all the more accessible. Fantastic for philosophy beginners.

Sophie's World is a fun novel and a map of the historical development of philosophy.


The first book on philosophy that both blew my hair back and made me realize philosophy is alot more than just academic was You Can Trust the Communists (to be Communists).


My best friend in college was a Russian Jew whose family immigrated to US during the Cold War, and he kept that book on his coffee table.

It's the Yin to Howard Zinn's Yang - A People's History of the United States - which even though it's not philosophy is worth reading too.


not to sound like an ass, but if you want to seriously deal with philosophy, don't waste your time with sophies world. or 'zen and the art of...' for that matter.

Why not? Do you consider it misleading, or just too simplistic? If the former, fair enough (though I'd love to hear details; I quite enjoyed Sophie). If the latter: I'm a big fan of light overviews. You can always go deeper into the areas you find interesting, whereas it's easy to get lost if you dive straight into the in-depth stuff.

Granted it doesn't delve deep and is just a broad overview couched in a fun story, but do you know of better books that gives a chronological history of the development of philosophy?

Some things I find useful to understand how they developed, in what chronological order, philosophy especially. Much of philosophy is a response to preceding ideas, and it helps to understand it all if you start at the beginning and work your way forward to present day, rather than read disjointed segments of it out of context from how it developed.

I'm sure there's something better than Sophie's World for that, I just don't know what it is.

Sophie's world. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophies_World

It's a great book that takes you on a whirlwind tour of the most famous philosophers and their thoughts. What's more, it's woven into a suspense novel, so it keeps you reading!

Read it some years ago, definitively a good book to get some background in the history of philosophy.

I would suggest "Man and His Symbols", which is an introduction to Jungian psychology. Jung took a unique view on the psyche, which I believe is helpful in forming an objective opinion about humankind 'in itself', a necessary vantage point if you desire anything "eye-opening".

My list:

- Pirkei Avot, it's a section of the Mishnah (a part of the Talmud), it summarizes the jewish moral thought (well, not for the Karaites Jews, they did not believe in the Talmud), I was born in a Orthodox Jewish family so it was important on my beliefs, even though I am an Atheist now.

- Organon, it's a compilation of Aristotle's logic works, they are the basis for the logical thought of the Western civilization, I think it's easier to read the originals than compendiums.

- Philosophical Investigations, the second book of Wittgenstein, it's dense, and obscure to some extent, but it's really eye-opener, some ideas that influenced the last century are introduced there.

- Proofs and Refutations, a posthumous work by Imre Lakatos, it defied much of my established view on how Mathematics works.

- Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a powerful book, it's dense and you can only drag many conclusions from it when you read other works from Nietzsche, which lead to my next book.

- On the Genealogy of Morality, this is for me the most important of the 5 books that I have read from Nietzsche, in the first essay of the book the concept of master morality and slave morality is introduced, some people think that Nietzsche favors the first, I disagree, for me he describes and criticizes both.

- Truth and Method, the classic of Gadamer, some people call it a "postmodern" work, this only serves to show how "modern" some of the "postmodern" were, the book basically addresses how our current beliefs and customs, which he calls traditions, plays an important part in our hermeneutics and how we always are biased to interpret something.

- Epistemic Justification, this book of William Alston is a good refinement if you already know some epistemology, although I disagree with the "justified true belief" definition of knowledge, that is the main theme of the book and its essays, it introduced some questions about the nature and limitations of knowledge.

- Inquiry into the Human Mind, by Thomas Reid is a good read and also a staunch defense of the common sense.

Asking for "Best Philosophical Books" is pretty much like asking for an opinion, everyone will have a very different view. That being said, here's my view!

John Stuart Mill - "Utilitarianism" (Kant be damned.)

Thomas Nagel - "Moral Luck"

David Lewis - "On the Plurality of Worlds"

Plato - "The Republic"

Aristotle - "The Metaphysics"

Surprised no one has mentioned Paul Graham's How to do Philosophy. We are after all hanging out in his living room. http://www.paulgraham.com/philosophy.html

Since it looks like skeptical philosophy is covered pretty well, here are some books from religious philosophy that you'd probably do well to read:

The Tao te Ching

The Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas

An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent by John Henry Newman

Either/Or by Kierkegaard

I took a course in philosophy during my Cognitive Science studies, and our course book (http://www.amazon.com/Philosophy-Mind-Anthology-John-Heil/dp...) was really useful, since they had an original text and a couple of criticisms of that text, sometimes followed by a retort on that criticism. That was really good to get a grasp of the subject, even though I agree with others here that having an excellent teacher did a lot more to get the subject than any book would have.

"History of Sexuality: Volume I" -Michel Foucault

"Discipline and Punish" -Michel Foucault

"Philosophy in the Flesh" -George Lakoff

"Metaphors We Live By" -George Lakoff

"Civilization and its Discontents" -Sigmund Freud

These books allowed me to look at reality in a completely different manner.

Hirshman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

Camus, the myth of Sisyphus

Borges, the Aleph

Chomsky, on Language

Cicero, On Invention

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Wiener, Cybernetics

James, Pragmatism

Tzara, Dada manifesto

re: Cybernetics, a better start is probably Wiener's The Human Use Of Human Beings: Cybernetics And Society

The Coming Community, Giorgio Agamben: A series of reflections on medieval philosophy and language that culminates in a notion of community that isn't grounded in any kind of commonality. It's a brilliant work that still serves as the terra firma for understanding the rest of Agamben's more popular works such as Homo Sacer and Means without Ends. This is one of the most influential and brilliantly conceived books I've ever read.

_The Tao is Silent_, by Raymond Smullyan, comes to mind.

I like this book also. Every well written by a Western logician.

Naming and Necessity, by Saul A. Kripke

It's a series of Kripke's lectures from 1970 if I'm not mistaken, republished, but without significant changes/corrections. Note Kripke's age of 29 at that point. In them, he develops his theory of direct reference in a highly interesting and controversial way. He didn't leave the philosophers of that time indifferent, and neither will you. Enjoy.

If you enjoy debating philosophy (especially value based/govt philosophy), Liberalism and the Limits of Justice by Michael Sandel builds up and absolutely destroys around 10 of the most common premises for these types of debates. A hundred other issues are dealt with along the way and this will change the way you think about this type of philosophy.

since reading "buddhism without beliefs", i've kind of lost interest in these things. which is, indeed, a recommendation.

I couldn't agree more about the frivolity of these debates, but judging from what he listed I figured govt/value debates might be somewhat frequent (especially since he is reading Common Sense for school).

On the other hand, not taking part in the debates can be bad for you also. The debating process allows you to expose your ideas to the light of free discussion and allows you to exchange error for truth (JSM). Even if you aren't debating people with a clue on the topic, the debate and your subsequent internal dialog will be beneficial.

My favorites from college are: early dialogues of Plato (the most Socratic / least Platonic -- The Apology is a good start), Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (on how deeply the very ideas about how we perceive things affect our understanding), and Aristotle's Nico. Ethics (the importance of habits, moderation, and the idea of the good).

Irrational Man is a good introduction to existentialism and he has a very readable overview of philosophy from the Greeks until now.

This is will largely be ignored on this tread, but The Bible is a source of philosophical thought for millions of people. You can get a clear picture of the central theme by reading the book of John.

surprised nobody mentioned "The Story of Philosophy" by Will Durant, which not only talks about philosophy, but the lives of the philosophers and the historical backgrounds. philosophy is gradually becoming more literature-like, which is hard to appreciate without the context. ps. it is also a 1930s best sellers.

Quantum Mechanics and Experience, by David Z. Albert, is the most interesting book I read as a philosophy major.

Philosophy is not always wisdom. Of reading many books there is no end. But if it's wisdom, you can read it in an hour and spend a life-time understanding and applying it. Read Solomon's Proverbs (http://bit.ly/aJpmva) and Ecclesiastes.

Some great recommendations here! All I can add is the quote "All of Science is footnotes to Plato" -- no matter how far we come, the ancient Greeks still have relevance. So I'd get a good introductory good to at least the top 3: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. (I could list a few more)

> "All of Science is footnotes to Plato"

Science? Wasn't Whitehead talking about Western philosophy?

A sidenote, but I like Bernard Williams' version of this idea even better than the original. It's the first sentence of his survey article "The Legacy of Greek Philosophy":

The legacy of Greece to Western Philosophy is Western Philosophy.

Isn't philosophy the mother of science?

Yes, but you still dicked up the quote. Footnotes and mothers are not synonymous, much to the relief of both.

For the anal-retentive among you. It would be footnotes and children are not synonymous. Not footnotes and mothers. Philosophy generates science. Western philosophy is a footnote. Your transitives are mixed up.

You can generalize and say "philosophy and science are derived from Greek works, which are still relevant" and help this guy out, or we can play word games. I could give a shit what the actual quote was. My goal wasn't to impress the guy with my knowledge of quotes, it was to offer a recommendation.

Sorry, I really didn't need to be so rude. That said, I think getting quotes right is important if you're going to use them. Otherwise you're contributing to sum total of misinformation in the world.

Read "Simulacrum and Simulation" by Jean Baudrillard, then question everything that technology provides.

Logical Investigations, Vols 1 & 2, by Edmund Husserl. Truly a great philosopher.

I highly recommend "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" by Quine. It's just a short little essay, but it's quite accessible (as far as these things go) and was highly influential (and is really fun to read too).

I don't know if you would strictly call this a philosophy book, but one that is particularly relevant to engineers is Discussion of the Method by Billy Vaughn Koen.

+ Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility James P. Carse + Thus Spoke Zarathrusta Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

It really depends on what you're looking for, but Philosophy is a field where one philosopher's work is built on top of the other's going all the way back to the ancient Greek's. Its important (I think anyways) to read the raw texts before you read philosophical commentary so that you have a chance to form your own opinions. That being said, here's some recommendations of mine that cover a breadth of philosophical subjects and time periods. Its always good to see someone else want to learn more philsophy, especially if its of their own volition.

Plato. Strangely enough, Plato is probably one of the best introductions to philosophy, not only because he was one of the first whose writings survive to modern time, but also because its relatively simple to read and understand. Some of my personal favorite are 'The Apology', 'The Symposium', and 'The Phaedrus', and of course 'The Republic'. The weird thing with Plato is you'll never know how much of his writings are his thinking as opposed to Socrates teaching. I still reread Plato because the stories (most of his writing is in narrative form) are so damn entertaining.

Aristotle. This is a natural progression from reading Plato. The 'Nichomachean Ethics' is a cornerstone of ancient philosophy and is a relative simple read.

John Locke/Gottfried Leibniz. I'll admit, I struggled through 'An Essay of Human Understanding' but this title and Leibniz's rebuttal 'New Essays on Human Understanding' illustrate a historically important philosophical debate between empiricists and rationalists. Since you're reading 'Common Sense' you might also want to give Locke's 'Second Treatise on Civil Government' a gander.

Immaneul Kant. Since you're reading Schopenhauer you should read Kant as he was heavily influenced by him. You'll hear him referenced a lot if you continue to read philosophy so you should familiarize yourself with his thinking, especially on his thoughts in epistemology.

Bertrand Russell. People have already recommended him and he's one of the most popular philosopher's of modern times, mostly because he's so easy to read and was somewhat of a cultural icon during his time. I have a particular fondness for his work because when I had doubts about my faith, "Why I Am not A Christian" helped me find words to communicate my break with Catholocism. His "History of Western Philosophy" is considered a cornerstone history of philosophy book (although it is somewhat dated now). His writings are usually rather short and concise.

Jacques Derrida/Gilles Deleuze. Now we're getting into some wacky shit. To be fair, I shouldn't even be commenting on it because I have no idea what these guys are talking about half the time. These are the philosophers that people read and pretend to understand because they want to sound smart. You know the stereotypical "philosophy" students that you see in movies. Maybe you'll find something of substance in their work although many philsopher's believe these guys are/were hacks and purposefully obfuscate their writing to hide the fact that there's no substance in it.

One of the best ways to read philosophy is to start with a philosopher who truly changed the game with their work (such as Kant) and work your way out reading the work of his supporters as well as the work of those that disagree with him. This way you'll get a worldy view on 'important' philosophical issues while starting to formulate your own opinions on th ematter.

A Brief History of Everything - Ken Wilber

I think Wilber's inclusion of physics would resonate with HNers.

Downvoted a recommendation of a philosophy book? WTF

The Stranger - Albert Camus

"The Bible", "Notes From Underground" (Dostoevsky)

The bible is a horrible suggestion for a philosophy book. Isn't this a work that prescribes genocide, builds myth, promote the irrational?

(Your reply brings to mind another book I should have mentioned - The Order of Things (Les Mots et Les Choses) by Michel Foucault.)

If philosophy is the drive to understand the human condition, I don't think any philosopher can or should ignore the Bible. Athens, Rome and Jerusalem are where the Western mind was born it has been said. And there is nothing to stop you approaching the Bible as it were hermeneutically, ie. in the same way you might treat the Greek Myths. I find it fascinating myself - from the "ex nihilo" of Genesis, through the "de profundis" of the Psalms, to Job's "Why?!", not to mention the Christian New Testament - and I think it will be read (by philosophers) long after many books in "The Philosophy Section" have been forgotten.

But the bible itself isn't a good philosophy book. Meta-bible discussions, including those by Christian scholars, might form a good corpus of philosophy, however.

> But the bible itself isn't a good philosophy book

Well I just interpret "philosophy" more broadly. Before we can act, and indeed before we can think, we must somehow plant our feet - we can't stand "nowhere" in a sense. And philosophy is just the search for a good place to stand, a "will to locate oneself" perhaps. And if we habitually stand in the same place, we're religious! We can no more be beyond (super) philosophy than we can be beyond (super) religion than we can be beyond (super) man. In this sense, the authors of the books of the bible are philosophers like the rest of us. If it's dissimilar in style to Plato, Aristotle and so on, there you go. So when you say it isn't a good philosophy book, to my mind you're just saying you don't like the philosophy it evinces, which of course is your prerogative.

While the Bible as a whole isn't a philosophy book, it does contain a few. Books like the Proverbs of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, the Book of Job, etc. are what we could call "practical philosophy."

Beyond Good and Evil - Nietzsche

Ashtavakra Gita - Ashtavakra

The Prophet - Gibran

being and time - Martin Heidegger

Anything by Hunter S Thompson.

It is with joy that I answer your question. And if I may be allowed to answer it philosophically. The books you find incredibly interesting may be the books the validate your worldview. There are many of these. The book you find eye-opening may be the books that open the door into the world of philosophy proper for you. There are not many of these because you only need to go through that door once I feel.

Also, I would observe that besides Ayn Rand (who for many is not a philosopher) not a single female philosopher has been mentioned here which I find is a damning indictment on the state of affairs of the world of ideas. To remedy that I would recommend to you read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft or anything by De Beauvoir (and do ignore her contemporary Sartre for he was nothing but a windbag).

I am delighted that you singled out Thomas Paine (who again is not a philosopher as such; must be something in the air in the States) and Arthur Schopenhauer. They are both tremendous stylists. I've said this many times before - I don't care how great a philosopher's ideas are, if they can't write well I don't want to know. Thus we have people here recommending Kripke or Frege or heck knows who like that who bludgeon you to death with their tedious logic. Avoid them I say.

Finally I would like to be clichéd and recommend anything by Nietzsche except for Thus Spake Zarathustra even though he himself considered it his best work and I would especially recommend Ecce Homo by him because it is a summation of his previous works by his own hand. Nietzsche was the supreme stylist and ruthlessly honest and fearless. Also I'd recommend A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues by a contemporary philosopher André Comte-Sponville. This is a remarkable book on virtue theory that takes in Aristotle, Spinoza, Nietzsche and Woody Allen among others and is divided up by virtue which is extremely novel. It is fantastically written. Anything by Cioran as well such as The Trouble with Being Born. I'm trying not to typecast myself here! :)

And finally finally Sophie's World and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance while nice cute books are not true philosophy books. This is also why I wouldn't recommend Camus' The Outsider though someone did mention The Myth of Sisyphus. Borges falls into this category. Sophie's world is really a kid's book as well and one that I would perhaps recommend to children though I'd recommend Borges or Camus or Kafka first.







Wow, I was fiddling with the idea of posting exactly that question (with Philosophy in the title) but was hesitant as to is this the right community (btw where can I find one?)

I haven't read many books about philosophy but my main interest is Philosophy of mind and I just love the lectures here[1].


>but was hesitant as to is this the right community (btw where can I find one?)

Try reddit.com/r/books

Some HN-ers don't like reddit probably because their impression starts and ends with the reddit default front page. But the gems are the smaller sub-reddits with some very high quality communities. My personal favorite /r/askscience

I didn't mean about books, I meant about philosophy.

Seems like there is a subreddit for every bloody think.

Simulacra and Simulation - Jean Baudrillard

Dialectic of Enlightenment - Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno

The Sublime Object of Ideology - Slavoj Zizek

Sources of the Self - Charles Taylor

_Faith of a Heretic_ - Walter Kaufmann

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