Books for the Philosophy Newbie
A Daily Nous reader asks:
What books would you recommend to someone who’s new to philosophy? What would be your Philosophy 101 book recommendations?
I would imagine that many readers will take these two questions as requiring different answers. The books one might use in a class, when there is an instructor to help guide the students through them, may be different than those that might be best for the philosophical novice to explore on his or her own. Both kinds of suggestions are welcome.
I really think Wittgenstein’s Poker by Edmonds and Eidinow is a great book for people just starting out in philosophy. While some of the ideas the philosophers in the book are discussing go beyond what is discussed in an introductory course (Which I think makes it more fun), the book itself is primarily biographical and historical and takes place in a setting and time period that most people have some knowledge of. What they don’t understand philosophically can be discussed with the person or instructor who gave them the book, but the drama that takes place around the content is high enough to make the reading experience enjoyable for those who are unfamiliar with the work of Wittgenstein, Popper, and Russell.Report
*Sophie’s World* is a good read and gives a high level introduction to the history of philosophy.Report
I don’t particularly care for J. L. Austin, but I must admit, his Sense and Sensibilia was one of my early introductions to analytic philosophy when I was originally solely interested in continental philosophy. I think it may make for a nice read for anyone serious in pursuing philosophy. It’s self-contained enough that one doesn’t need to have read Ayer or anyone else to follow along. It’s a relatively short and accessible read, nothing particularly heavy with technical vocabulary or anything else. But it’s got a lot of short, cute, cleanly made arguments that could show someone interested in philosophy the sort of thinking that’s involved in the practice.Report
I usually start my introduction classes with Plato’s Apology. The Grube/Cooper translation is highly readable, and it’s available cheaply with two other very introductory dialogues through the Hackett edition. http://www.hackettpublishing.com/the-trial-and-death-of-socrates
While those dialogues are very rich, and I hope my students benefit from the context and explanations I provide, there is enough there to be accessible for someone beginning self-study of philosophy.Report
Dennett’s Tools for Thinking, Blackburn’s Think, Ney’s Metaphysics: An IntroductionReport
Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy.
Susan Wolf’s Meaning in Life and Why It Matters.
Descartes’s Meditations (at least Meditation 1 and 2).
Thomas Nagel’s What Does It All Mean?
Here’s a recommendation for a certain kind of person. When I was in high school, I thought I wouldn’t be interested in philosophy because it would be all reading Plato and stuff. (Sorry, Plato. Teenage me thought you were weird and boring.) Someone (maybe a parent?) gave me Robert Martin’s There Are Two Errors in the the Title of This Book. That worked to give me a sense (which I can now say wasn’t totally mistaken) of some things philosophers do, without reading weird old things. So I took an intro class (not expecting to do more philosophy than that) & now I’ve got degrees and stuff.
So this is maybe a recommendation for a book for folks who think they’re more math/science-y than humanities-y (and hey, maybe others too), who don’t necessarily take naturally to reading The Classics, who might have more of a weakness for puzzles than the profound. Accessible, fun, & not not-philosophy.Report
“The Art of Living” by Alexander Nehamas
“Reclaiming the Canon” by Herman Sinaiko
“Philosophy between the Lines” by Arthur Melzer
“Genres in Dialogue”-a book about Plato’s dialogues by Stanford prof Andrea Nightingale
“Plato and Nietzsche: Their Philosophical Art” by Mark AndersonReport
The following books were quite helpful (and non-threatening) when I began to take an interest in Philosophy:
The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy – Michael F. Patton
Crimes Against Logic – Jaimie Whyte
Philosophy Basics: A Jargon-Free Guide for Beginners – Doug Erlandson
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction – Thomas Flynn (Dr Flynn was gracious enough to sign my copy, as well as treat me to both lunch and a very nice discussion while we walked around the campus of Emory University. I think all Philosophy departments can benefit from his example – but this is another topic for discussion.)
A History of Western Philosophy – Bertrand Russell
Social and Political Philosophy: Readings From Plato to Gandhi – John SomervilleReport
I second Nagel’s What Does It All Mean? I’m using it for the first time in my Intro to Phil class and the students seem to like it. It’s HIGHLY accessible. After reading it, one will have a good sense of the topics that philosophers are interested in. It’s also very short. It covers 8-9 big topics in ~100 pp.Report
Instead of general introductions, sometimes serious but accessible works on a single topic arguing for a specific position can get people interested in philosophy. For myself, stumbling upon Dennett’s “Elbow Room” was my introduction to philosophy, and I think it held my interest more than if I had just read a general introduction like those by Warburton or Nagel (perfectly fine books, but sometimes a deeper investigation of one topic is more interesting to the neophyte).Report
“Metaphysics” Peter van Inwagen
“On the Philosophy of Mind” Barbara Montero
are both good introductions to their fields. If one is looking for a good intro to epistemology and to philosophy of religion (kill two birds with one stone), they can see
“Knowledge and Christian Belief” Alvin PlantingaReport
Jennifer Nagel’s Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction, is a great first book in epistemology. I haven’t read many of the other VSIs carefully, but there are several impressive writers in that series, so there could be some good gateway books there on particular topics the reader is interested in.Report
Just to follow up on Roger’s suggestion (I had a similar experience in high school) for the more logically minded. For me, it was Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher Bach as well as Raymond Smuyllan’s books – esp. What is the Name of this Book? and The Lady or the Tiger? that made me realize how interesting and fun logic could be (and that logic was at least in part a topic in philosophy. (Logicomix is another fun book that hasn’t been mentioned in this thread yet). Smullyan’s more recent book, Forever Undecided: a puzzle Guide to Godel, is also lots of fun for those who enjoy logic puzzles with a purpose (understanding Godel). There are also Smullyan’s more philosophical collections such as the Tao is Silent and 5000 B.C. and other essays.
Along the same lines, but more historical, is Roy Sorensen’s book, A Brief History of the Paradox. It’s accessible to beginners.Report
A Cartesian Introduction to Philosophy, by Fred Feldman; and Confrontations with the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death, by Fred Feldman.Report
As an intro history of philosophy textbook The Great Conversation by Norman Melchert is fantastic. It’s very thorough and highly readable.Report
I second or third or whatever Nagel’s What Does It All Mean? I’ve used it as a supplementary text in my free-will 101 course for over two decades. Students really warm to its straightforward but sometimes edgy discussions. And BTW its layout deliberately produces 101 pages–a great inside joke.Report
I strongly recommend Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy to newbies. It’s accessible, laced with Russell’s jaunty wit, and helps connect the dots by placing various philosophers in their historical context. It’s not comprehensive, but if someone gets through it, they’ll likely have developed an appetite for more.
Alan Chalmers’ What is This Thing Called Science is also a lively introduction to the philosophy of science, so should appeal to those with a penchant for science who might find other branches of philosophy unappealing or alienating.Report
A Dialogue and Personal Identity and Immortality by John Perry.
A Dialogue on Good, Evil, and the Existence of God by John Perry.Report
I just got in the mail The Problems of Contemporary Philosophy: A Critical Guide for the Unaffiliated, by Paul Livingston and Andrew Cutrofello. It looks very interesting and has a refreshing non-sectarian angle.Report
The book that grabbed me, when I’d finished the political science degree and felt like we didn’t get to the big questions, was Albert Camus’ Myth Of Sisyphus And Other Essays. There is nothing quite like reading that opening sentence, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” I was hooked. I can’t be alone in finding this gripping, right? Then I TA-ed for a couple instructors at Wisconsin who chose to include, on their 101 syllabi, Epictetus’s Handbook. Another grippy choice! My own intro teacher used Sartre’s short stories, including The Wall; pairing that with Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, then wrapping up with Mary Midgley’s Wickedness takes one on a really interesting journey through questions of free will and choice, right and wrong, intentionality, phenomenology, great stuff!Report
Having taught Intro for 35 years I have used so many books it is amazing. The change has been from original sources to textbooks that summarize and paraphrase, so it’s hard to list specific current intro texts in answering this question. So, that being my disclaimer, the following original sources are ones I think crucial and not beyond the first semester student (I hope): Mill, On Liberty and Utilitarianism; Plato’s Republic; Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics; Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy; Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion; Descartes’ Meditations; Kant’s Prolegomena. There are others, but I’d start here. I do agree that Sophie’s World is a nice start, as well. Hope this helps. These books cover both questions, I think — but there are so many others to add to the important 101 apart from what is suitable to Intro.Report
Oops, said Sophie’s Choice in first comment, meant Sophie’s World, of course!Report
But in all seriousness, Irrational Man by William Barrett. Great overview of existential philosophy that touches base with all the tradition.Report
Yes, good one!! Too bad we can’t include every good text in one course. So many, so little time!!Report
Walter Kaufmann’s Book, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. First philosophy book I ever read. Although it is solely based on Nietzsche’s work, he covered enough to have me hooked 30 years later on various philosophical works.Report
‘The Philosophy Gym’ by Stephen Law is a great, non-technical, not-very-text-y, appetite-whetting introduction to the kinds of questions philosophers are concerned with, and the way they approach them.Report