Why am I here? How can I live a good life? What does it mean to have a mind and be a person? Since the days of antiquity, philosophers have puzzled over fundamental questions like these that sit at the very heart of our lived experience and interactions with the world. Solving these problems is not merely about increasing our knowledge of the world, to fill up academic textbooks and sit on library shelves, but to impart wisdom to aid us as we navigate through life's uncertainties and its profoundest mysteries.
November marks the anniversary of UNESCO's commitment to celebrate World Philosophy Day, an occasion to consider the impact of philosophy and big ideas around the world and across cultures. What's more, it's an opportunity to reflect on the intellectual challenges that are confronting humanity today, whether that be environmental damage, rising political tensions and a renewed nationalist fervour, or calculated attempts to undermine respect in truth.
In 2017, we spoke to a number of leading philosophers to ask them why philosophy matters and what it has meant to them in their personal and professional lives (which you can read here, alongside a poem by Kwame Anthony Appiah). This year, we have tried to do something special, asking experts across the discipline to put together a list of their recommended philosophy books that everyone should read.
By no means exhaustive, and with some notable exceptions that did not make it in our experts' final selections (we're looking at you Heidegger and Kierkegaard), we hope this list will offer something to both those new to philosophy and seasoned readers of the subject. It urges to be read and enjoyed in the spirit it was intended: a colourfully-curated guide through the history of ideas by philosophers who want to share their passion with the world.
"By reading the Upaniṣads and the Gītā, one gets a feel for the metaphysical and moral outlook that permeates the classical orthodox tradition in India. Abhinavagupta introduces the centrality of aesthetics to Indian philosophical reflection, and the centrality of dance drama (natya) to Indian aesthetics. The Questions of King Milinda is an important early Buddhist text on metaphysics, with great stuff on the self and personal identity. Nāgārjuna founds the Madhyamaka tradition (the dominant interpretation of Buddhist philosophy in Tibetan Buddhism), and Dignāga the Buddhist epistemological tradition. That edition has all of the Indian and Tibetan commentaries, which adds a nice dimension to reading a terse verse text. Śāntideva presents the Mahāyāna ethical tradition (which thinks that enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime).
And if you’re interested in more than this, KC Bhattacharyya’s Subject as Freedom and AC Mukerji’s The Problem of the Self are nice examples of early 20th century Indian philosophy, bringing tradition and modernity into dialogue."
- The Upaniṣads (the old Radhakrishnan translation is still a good one) (between 8th and 1st century BCE for both early and late Upanisads)
- Bhagavad-Gītā (Stoller-Miller translation) (5th to 3rd century BCE)
- Abhinavgupta’s commentary on Bhārata (KC Pandey translation) (10th century BCE)
- The Questions of King Milinda, Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (either my translation or Siderits and Katsura) (2nd to 3rd century BCE)
- Dignāga. Investigation of the Percept, with commentaries (Duckworth et al.) (5th century)
- Śāntideva’s Bodhicāryāvatāra, trans. Wallace and Wallace or Crosby and Skilton (8th century AD)
Jay Garfield is Doris Silbert Professor of Philosophy at Smith College. His books include What Can’t Be Said: Paradox and Contradiction in East Asian Philosophy.
For Chinese philosophy, I would recommend three books. First, Confucius's Analects (or Lunyu), a collection of Confucius's sayings and his conversations, mostly with his students. Even though not systematically written, this collection presents Confucius's view of ethics, the good life, and human flourishing. It covers issues such as cultivating personal virtues, fostering family life, and creating social harmony.
Second, the Daodejing (or Laozi), a short text attributed to the ancient Chinese Daoist philosopher Laozi. In about 5000 Chinese characters and 81 chapters, the Daodejing describes and prescribes the ideal individual life and good society. According to its teachings, a good life is to be achieved by following the flow in the world and staying close to nature, not to fight unnecessary uphill battles and be content with what one is and has.
Third, the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, is a canon for Chinese Chan (Zen) Buddhism. It records the teachings of Huineng, a seminal figure in Chinese Buddhist history revered as the Sixth Patriarch and as one of the two great figures in the founding of Zen Buddhism. This text depicts Huineng's successful emergence as well as his teaching that the mind is fundamentally pure by nature and meditation as a means to attain enlightenment.
- Confucius, Analects
- The Daodejing: A short book on Daoist philosophy
- Huineng, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch
Chenyang Li is a professor of philosophy in the School of Humanities, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is author of The Confucian Philosophy of Harmony.
"The best way to introduce yourself to ancient Greek philosophy is by reading some key works of Plato and Aristotle. The dialogues collected in Last Days of Socrates, explore questions arising from Socrates's trial and execution, questions such as 'do we survive death?' and 'why should we obey the law?'. Plato's Republic asks about the nature of justice and about which kind of political constitution best promotes human happiness. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics asks how we should live our lives: for instance, what place is there in a good life for pleasure or for politically engaged activity or for intellectual thinking? After reading Plato and Aristotle, I would recommend turning to Epictetus's Discourses. Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher and a former slave, who lived in the 1st-2nd centuries AD. His discourses discuss the nature of freedom and provide advice on how to live a happy life."
- Plato, Last Days of Socrates (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo) (Penguin Classics) (399 BCE)
- Plato, Republic (380 BCE)
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (350 BCE)
- Epictetus, Discourses (108 CE)
Ursula Coope is professor of ancient philosophy at University of Oxford, Keble College. Her books include Time for Aristotle.
"Lucretius' didactic poem is a literary masterpiece, which includes such riveting passages as an ode to Venus and a description of the plague in Athens. It is also the best account we have of Epicureanism, and its basis in atomism. Lucretius is perhaps unsurpassed in diagnosing the challenges of the human condition, governed by the fear of death and the gods, and by idle pursuits. Cicero's work provides an overview of a number of positions about the goal of human life defined as the good--i.e. what counts as good, and what should human beings care about and why? Seneca, Musonius Rufus and Marcus Aurelius are famous Stoics of the Roman imperial era, and they are, each in their own way, good reads, even for short sections at a time. Seneca's Letters addressed to a certain Lucilius are intended to show how one can make moral progress; Musonius Rufus presents the most positive views of the equality between men and women, and marriage known to us from Antiquity, and in Marcus Aurelius we can witness a Roman emperor encouraging himself."
- Lucretius On the Nature of Things (50 BCE)
- Cicero On Ends (1st century BCE)
- Seneca Letters (c. 65 CE)
- Musonius Rufus Discourses (1st century CE)
- Marcus Aurelius Meditations (161-180 CE)
Gretchen Reydams-Schils is Professor in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her books include The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection
"For newbies to Japanese philosophy, Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook offers great selections from fourteen centuries of thinkers, fields, and schools. Then you can dive into Zen Master Dōgen’s Shobo Genzo - Japan’s most provocative pre-modern philosophical text. Nishida Kitarō, Japan’s most prominent modern philosopher, blends Western ideas and Asian sensitivities to explore the experiential basis of thought and value. Watsuji Tetsurō makes an argument that ethical systems are grounded in philosophical anthropologies. And out of contemporary authors, Yuasa Yasuo wrote an original philosophy drawing on Asian and Western traditions of philosophy, medicine, psychology, and performance to suggest a new understanding of the mind-body relation."
- Heisig, James W., Thomas P. Kasulis, and John C. Maraldo, eds. Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook (2011)
- Dōgen, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dōgen’s Shobo Genzo, Kazuaki Tanahashi, ed. (1233–1253)
- Nishida Kitarō, An Inquiry into the Good, trans. by Masao Abe and Christopher Ives. (1911)
- Watsuji Tetsurō, Watsuji Tetsurō’s “Rinrigaku”: Ethics in Japan, trans. Yamamoto Seikaku and Robert E. Carter. (1937–1949)
- Yuasa Yasuo (1925–2005). The Body: Toward an Eastern Mind-body Theory, trans. Shigenori Nagatomo and Thomas P. Kasulis. (1977)
Thomas Kasulis is Professor Emeritus and University Distinguished Scholar at Ohio State University. His books include Shinto: The Way Home.
"You might be surprised to discover how easy it is to read up on philosophy from the Islamic world. Certainly many texts remain inaccessible (unedited and/or untranslated) but there are plenty of good English translations that convey the richness of this tradition. A good start would be Ibn Tufayl's "Hayy ibn Yaqzan," the Robinson-Crusoe story of a self-taught philosopher growing up on an island wiht no other humans. Also from medieval Islamic Spain, Averroes' "Decisive Treatise" is an essential discussion of the relationship between Islam and philosophy, which argues that Islam not only allows but actually commands the pursuit of philosophy for those who are able. And to see how it all started check out "On First Philosophy" by al-Kindi, "philosopher of the Arabs" and the first thinker to engage with Greek philosophical texts after they were translated into Arabic."
- Ibn Ṭufayl, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, trans. L.E. Goodman. (12th century CE)
- Averroes, On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, trans. G.F. Hourani. (12th century CE)
- The Philosophical Works of al-Kindī, trans. P. Adamson and P.E. Pormann. (9th century CE)
Peter Adamson is professor of ancient and medieval philosophy at King's College London. He is also the host of the History of Philosophy podcast.
"Augustine's work ideally sets up the stage for medieval philosophy: it is firmly rooted in the ancient, especially neoplatonic, philosophical tradition, and points the way to medieval philosophy and rational theology, dealing with the fundamental issues of faith and reason, free will and divine providence, and human history as a part of God's providential plan for His creation. It is a large work, but well worth the effort.
Aquinas' little précis of Aristotelian metaphysics (with an Avicennean flavor) is the unsurpassed guide to the subject. Tolle, lege!
Finally, Buridan's monumental work is the best introduction to late-medieval Ockhamist nominalism, indeed, in many ways better than Ockham’s work itself. You may want to read my intro to my translation of the whole work."
- Augustine, The City of God (426)
- Aquinas, On Being and Essence (13th century)
- Buridan, Summulae de Dialectica (14th century)
Gyula Klima is professor of philosophy at Fordham University. His books include Medieval Philosophy: An Introduction.
"In India, the analytical movement was already flourishing, in Sanskrit, by the 13th century. A long tradition of analysis of the meaning of complex linguistic constructions had made important headway in solving puzzles about the meaning of empty terms, the distinction between surface grammar and deep logical form, and the logical priority of sentence meaning against word meaning. Gaṅgeśa is the founding figure of the new movement, called Navya-Nyāya or “the new reason”, and his analytical techniques were most brilliantly reinvented by Raghunātha in the 16th century. These new methods of conceptual analysis were applied in a great variety of areas of philosophy, including epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics and legal philosophy."
- Gaṅgeśa, Tattvacintāmaṇi (The Gemstone of Truth) (1325)
- Raghunātha, Padārthatattvanirūpaṇa (Inquiry into the Nature of Things) (1510)
- Gadādhara, Śaktivāda (Treatise on Meaning) (1650)
Jonardon Ganeri is Professor of Philosophy at NYU Abu Dhabi. His books include The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India 1450–1700
"The key figures of the 18th-century Enlightenment often looked back to the 17th-century for their philosophical inspiration. Descartes and Locke were seen as heroic pioneers in the struggle to advance knowledge and exploit these advances for humane purposes. Spinoza was not lauded so openly as these two: his reputation was scarred, thanks to propaganda campaigns against him by conservatives and religious establishments. But some of his views were at the heart of later Enlightenment thinking. Rousseau is sometimes billed as an enemy of the Enlightenment, because of his scepticism about social and scientific progress; yet his insistence on the natural goodness of man aligns him with the Enlightenment’s hope for the future."
- Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)
- Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1677)
- Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)
- Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690)
- Hume, Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748)
- Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws (1748)
- Rousseau, Émile, or On Education (1762)
Anthony Gottlieb is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and the author most recently of “The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy.”
"Does human agency coexist with natural mechanism? Can the state’s demands accommodate family and individuality? When historical change is so constant, does anything matter? German Idealist responses draw upon Kantianism, Spinozism and kabbalah. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason argues that only a non-naturalistic philosophy of human freedom can explain science’s success. Spinoza’s Ethics reconceives the infinite as immanent, dynamic ground of mind and nature. Hayyim ben Joseph Vital’s Tree of Life reimagines history as precarious development of the infinite, within each individual, towards an eventually reciprocal recognition. For German Idealist developments of these themes, read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Schelling’s Stuttgart Seminars."
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781)
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807)
- F. W. J Schelling, Stuttgart Seminars (1810)
Paul Franks is professor of philosophy at Yale University. His books include All or Nothing: Systematicity, Transcendental Arguments, and Skepticism in German Idealism.
"I choose these books because feminists need to know our traditions and teach them to new generations. Women’s voices must never again be erased from history. Wollstonecraft mobilizes the energy of the French Revolution to voice the rights of women. In luminous prose, Woolf shows why we should honor women’s writing throughout history, and why we must include women in all our writing and thinking. And Beauvoir is the feminist philosopher who first understood that under patriarchy “woman” is cast as the Other. All later feminist thought builds on her insights."
- Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)
- Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)
Toril Moi is James B. Duke Professor of Literature and Romance Studies and Professor of English, Philosophy and Theatre Studies at Duke University.
"African philosophy is far too various, far too self-critical to be reduced to a single canon. An argument can be made, nonetheless, that some of its most generative texts constitute a counter-canon of sorts, a fugitive archive for the dispossessed, a future conservatory for utopian dreams. The books assembled below are all very different, but they all speak to how African thought realizes radical encounters between epistemology and politics, metaphysics and aesthetics, ethics and logic. In so doing, they summon the world to a global dialogue on ecological, political, ethical, and aesthetic transformation."
- The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, translated by R. B. Parkinson. (1850 BCE)
- Aboubakar Fofana, The Manden Charter, translated into French by Jean-Louis Sagot. (1236)
- Zera Yacob, The Treatise of Zera Yacob (1667)
- Ahmad Baba al-Timbukti, Mi'raj al Su'ud: Ahmad Baba's Replies on Slavery (1615)
- Henry Odera Oruka, Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy (1990)
Omedi Ochieng is assistant professor of communication at Denison University. His books include Groundwork for the Practice of the Good Life: Politics and Ethics at the Intersection of North Atlantic and African Philosophy.
"The phenomenological movement was founded in Germany in the early years of the 20th century around the philosopher Edmund Husserl. Subsequent generations of phenomenologists included figures such as Heidegger, Sartre and Derrida, whose works, for good or ill, have gained wide prominence. These important founding texts of the movement, however, have been influential primarily amongst philosophers. Husserl’s Logical Investigations, published in two volumes in 1901/2, established a new way of thinking about language, meaning, and evidence, and was the first to pose a clear distinction between formal logic and formal ontology. Reinach then applied Husserl’s ideas to the phenomena of law, thereby inventing the ontology of social acts, later reborn as speech act theory, while Ingarden applied them to the ontology of art, initiating a Polish school of realist phenomenology that would influence the thinking of the Polish Pope."
- Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations (1900-1901)
- Adolf Reinach, The A priori Foundations of the Civil Law (1913)
- Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art (1931)
Barry Smith is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Julian Park Chair at University of Buffalo.
"Three of the most important books on existentialism include Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Sarah Bakewell wrote that The Second Sex is “the most transformative existentialist work of all.” Her analysis of ‘what is a woman?’, as well as women’s history and lived experience, remains vitally relevant for understanding our human situation. Although Camus rejected the ‘existential’ label, The Myth of Sisyphus is important because it shows a way to confront the absurdity of existence – the existential abyss – without escaping or accepting it. And Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is one of the most significant existential accounts of the human condition."
- Simone de Beauvoir The Second Sex (1949)
- Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)
- Jean-Paul Sartre Being and Nothingness (1943)
Skye C. Cleary is the Associate Director of the Center for New Narratives in Philosophy at Columbia University. She teaches courses at Columbia and Barnard College, and her books include Existentialism and Romantic Love.
"One of the foundational texts of modern philosophy of science. Karl Popper is arguably still today one of the most misunderstood philosophers (especially by scientists), and while a number of his ideas have been criticized, modified or rejected, he remains a pivotal thinker and obligatory starting point. The Logic of Scientific Discovery introduces Popper’s famous notion of falsifiability, according to which scientific progress is made not by proving theories to be correct (which is impossible), but by discarding (i.e., falsifying) incorrect theories. Popper was attempting to bypass Hume’s famous problem of induction, which posits that no amount of evidence can ever provide certain knowledge. Thomas Kuhn was the great rival of Popper, arguing that philosophers of science should not just put forth prescriptions to scientists on how to do their job, based on first principles, but rather study how scientists actually do what they do.
Feyerabend is the notorious “bad boy” of philosophy of science, arguing that there is no such thing as the scientific method. Scientists, according to him, are very pragmatic fellows, and just use whatever approach works, only to discard it when it’s no longer useful. Wilfully and stubbornly controversial, he nonetheless paved the way for modern critiques of fundamental aspects of science."
- Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934)
- Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962 (importantly modified edition in 1970)
- Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (1975)
Massimo Pigliucci is K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at City University of New York. His books include Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk.
"On consciousness and philosophy of mind in general I would recommend William James’s 1400-page long The Principles of Psychology (1890)—very long, but you can skip around in it—or the 480 pp. abridgement Psychology (1892). An incredibly subtle, fluent, sensible work Then I think Aristotle’s On the Mind—De anima. These are available online. Finally, perhaps, the Routledge Handbook of Panpsychism, which is due out next year. These three books together might get you closest to something like the truth about consciousness and its place in nature."
- William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890)
- Aristotle, On the Mind—De anima (c. 350 BC)
- The Routledge Handbook of Panpsychism (2018)
Galen Strawson is Chair in Philosophy at University of Texas, Austin. His books include The Subject of Experience.
'The analytical movement that started at the beginning of the twentieth century modeled itself on the successes of mathematicians in giving accurate definitions of complex functions and properties of mathematical objects, or the successes of chemists in breaking into the constituents and the structures of complex molecules. Its aim was to reveal in a similar way the logical complexity of complex concepts. Confidence that this could be achieved was bolstered by the great advances in formal logic, associated with Frege in Germany and Russell in England. Russell’s essay “On Denoting” published in the journal Mind in 1905 was a beacon of the movement. although the formal programme reached its zenith in the work of Rudolf Carnap, but the scientific model, and the emphasis on logic and meaning has continued to the present century. '
- Gottlob Frege, The Foundations of Arithmetic (1884)
- Bertrand Russell, Logic and Knowledge (1956)
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)
Simon Blackburn is a professor of philosophy at the New College of the Humanities. His books include Truth.
"Arendt, Fanon, and Benjamin are significant post-colonial thinkers because they question the Eurocentric notion of “making progress” as a cumulative teleology of modern achievement. They align themselves with historical peoples whose experiences of marginalization and statelessness raise important questions about the ethics of citizenship and the promise of democracy. All three of them emphasize the importance of narrative as a form of self-reflection that plays an essential role in the creation of psychic and social agency. For each of them, the question of difference or alterity begins in the very depth of the making of human consciousness, and the hospitality to strangers and foreigners is a necessary awareness of what it means for the human subject to find herself at home in the world."
- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)
- Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth (1952)
- Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (left incomplete at his death in 1940, published posthumously in 1982)
Homi. K. Bhabha is Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard. His books include The Location of Culture.
"I think one good way to get a sense of postmodernism, would be first to read Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality. These three essays give the critique, central to his thought, of the conception of morality that dominated 18th-to early-20th century thought. Next, read Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, which offers a detailed genealogy (in a Nietzschean sense) criticizing what we regard as our modern, "morally enlightened" treatment of criminals. This gives the best and most accessible example of Foucault’s histories aimed at the critique of contemporary institutions and practices. Finally take a stab at Jacques Derrida's short (but very difficult) book on Nietzsche, Spurs. Unlike the two previous texts, this a playful—some might say self-indulgent and obscurantist—approach to Nietzsche, but one that represents a major style of postmodern thought."
- Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (1887)
- Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (1975)
- Jacques Derrida, Spurs (1978)
Gary Gutting is Notre Dame Endowed Chair in Philosophy Emeritus. His books include Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960.
Liberal egalitarianism (or egalitarian liberalism) asks what a just society would look like. Individual freedom is crucial but everybody's freedom matters equally. Market relationships, private property, and the inequalities they produce, should not be treated as natural or beyond critical assessment. Rawls' Justice as Fairness: A Restatement is the accessible version of his agenda-setting theory. Dworkin's Justice for Hedgehogs is huge and systematic ('the hedgehog knows one big thing' - read the last part for the political stuff. Cohen's If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? asks hard questions about the relation between political principles and personal choices.
- John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001)
- Gerald Cohen, If You're An Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? (2000)
- Ronald Dworkin, Justice for Hedgehogs (2011)
Adam Swift is professor of political theory at University College London. His books include Political Philosophy: A Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians.
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