Here’s a question I get asked alot:
can you recommend some good philosophy books to get me started?
I’ve thought about this a fair bit as well. To be sure, part of the answer depends on the reader and what they’re trying to learn.
What kind of questions pique your interest, what kind of discussions address you personally? Depending on how you answer, you may want to start somewhere different.
Are you interested in the nature of knowledge and justification? Maybe it would be helpful to begin with modern discussions on knowledge as justified, true belief and their challenges.
Or perhaps you’re more concerned with ethics and how to live a good life? Maybe you would be better served than reading Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals” than anything on this list.
But everyone needs to start somewhere, and maybe, like me, you’re not sure what you like in philosophy because, well, you haven’t looked yet! Whether you’re new to the field entirely, have heard smattering and quote but have never broken in, or are a fully inducted member of the philosogeek club (my sincerest apologies), these are the five works I think you’ll never go wrong in reading.
Another provisional word before looking at the works themselves…
there isn’t really a wrong place to start reading in philosophy.
What I said above was secretly a tautology: You’ll never go wrong with these because there is no wrong way to go. Too many times I’ve been addressed by students, friends, and colleagues who worry they’ll miss an important point in Kant because they skipped their Hume, or in Plato because they never engaged with the Presocratics.
Reading philosophical texts isn’t a test!
Put all those worries aside. It’s not a test (unless you’re in class, I suppose!), and unless you can never change your mind once made up, your understanding of the texts will evolve as you read and reread them. In fact, by their density, for most philosophical works rereading is a prerequisite.
Secondary literature, works that attempt to summarize or interpret the original text, is nothing to fear as well. If you think you would be better suited reading a secondary source before you enter the weeds, go right ahead. I would, however, recommend that at some point you do read the primary source.
I think Hegel is as abstruse as everyone else, but no secondary account matches the experience of traveling the Phenomonology of Mind with him.
For bonus points, reading the philosopher who interests you in their original language can open new meaning and uncover crucial but often hidden subtleties. It is by no means a requirement that you know ancient Greek to read Plato, of course, or even to understand him, but the texts have a different texture in other languages, so I do recommend it for the experience alone.
Finally, it’s true that a great number of philosophers are left off of this list. And not only philosophers belonging to the western cannon, but also philosophers from Africa, Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. There are certainly strong cases for a number of additions to this list.
Number one for me would be Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of The Rights of Women”. But I tried to include those philosophers that cover the basic questions addressed by philosophy, and then pruned until I had five. So without further ado, here is my list of…
The 5 Best Philosophy Books for Beginners
1. Plato’s Apology
The Apology is Plato’s account of Socrates’ defense speech. Despite its name, Socrates does anything but apologize. During this engaging and emotionally charged exchange between Socrates and his accusers, he demonstrates the Socratic method in a courtroom session, which I think serves as a beautiful introduction to the Socratic dialectic. He also recounts why he took it upon himself to become the Athenian gadfly and the world’s first troll, and why, even if killed for it, he would never give up questioning those who claim to possess knowledge.
Overall, this is the work I would call my first pick for philosophical engagement. The Apology combines Plato’s dramatic style with discussions of both the rudiments and purpose of philosophy to great effect.
2. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
The Nicomachean Ethics is perhaps my favorite ethical treatise. Not only does Aristotle inquire into virtue in his concise and clear style, he also clarifies the primary human aim, happiness or flourishing, and its relationship to subordinate aims and to the virtues. Aristotle’s famous passages on friendship as well as his distinction between moral and intellectual virtues are key players here as well.
Reading and appreciating Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics doesn’t require you accept all of his arguments or that you accept virtue ethics. But this work broadly addresses the questions, confusions, and controversies that attend ethics to this day, and I recommend it for anyone looking for a good introduction into the systematic study of ethics.
3. Descartes’ Meditations
It was difficult for me to imagine any introductory list that does not contain the Meditations. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this work in the western cannon and its continuing influence.
This is the piece that brought us the famous phrase “cogito ergo sum”, though it never actually appears in the work itself in that form. And indeed, Descartes’ cogito has plagued western philosophy ever since.
Questions about the validity of dualism, the existence of innate knowledge, and the relationship between the mind and the body can all be found within, and Descartes is (at least in large part) do blame for the heated discussions that continue to this day over these issues. Definitely a must read for anyone just discovering philosophical inquiry, and when you do I challenge you to follow in Descartes’ footsteps and attempt the systematic doubt.
4. Frege’s On Sense and Reference
Gottlob Frege’s On Sense and Reference is more logically dense in some ways than the previous works on this list, but it is no poorer in content or less engaging. Here Frege makes one of the most shattering distinctions of the late 19th and early 20th century: The distinction between sense and reference.
Sense is possessed by names and refers to their intelligibility. Reference is the object a name means or indicates.
This distinction opened a number of paradoxes in philosophy and was debated by Wittgenstein, Russell, Ayer, and engaged with in some form or another by most analytic philosophers to this day.
If you want somewhere to begin reading modern Anglo-American philosophical texts, On Sense and Reference is the place to start.
5. Michael Rea’s Metaphysics the Basics
Metaphysics the Basics is a contemporary overview of some of the most widely issues in metaphysics. I first came across it in undergrad and fell in love with its succinct style and clear demarcation between accounts.
Rea covers philosophical questions concerning bring, time, change and identity, substance, freedom, and worlds, all from the metaphysical perspective and employing both the latest science and the most perspicuous insights.
Unlike the previous works on this list, Rea’s book is more of a guide or a reference, something to open when considering the arguments for and against a certain position, and this readily accessible style is why I love this book for beginners and veterans alike.
And that’s my list for the top five books I would recommend to those newly interested in philosophy.
The best thing that can happen for someone just breaking into the field is that they find a work that captures and holds their interest.
Philosophy does not yield quick answers. It can be argued that philosophy does not seek to answer anything at all. And for that reason the student of philosophy, I think, is best suited by understanding the shape of the field, the kinds of questions we ask, the importance of distinctions, and the curiosity to abandon everything they thought they knew.
All of these are helped when they find a writer with whom they share concerns, interests, and more often than you might think, a sense of humor.
I hope that somewhere in this list, or outside of this list, or anywhere else, you can find that philosopher for you.