Philosophy Books for Non-Philosophers: Your Recommendations


The father of a student who is about to embark on his PhD in philosophy needs some assistance. But he’s probably not the only one.

The student describes the problem: “My loving father seems to have come to the realization that he’ll be stuck listening to me yammer on about philosophy for the long haul.”

Rather than ask for earplugs, or for Advil, or for his son to reconsider, “today he asked me if I could recommend some introductory philosophy texts that would both give him the lay of the land and be enjoyable to read.” What a dad!

Let’s help him out. Readers, what books about philosophy would you recommend to the smart, curious but uninitiated reader?

In thinking about this, it would be useful to give extra weight to the reading experience. There are different ways to hook and keep a reader’s attention. Whether it’s a brief and broad introductory text such as Thomas Nagel’s What Does It All Mean?or a narrower and more in-depth look at one area of philosophy such as Lisa Tessman’s When Doing the Right Thing is Impossible, or an examination of something that’s fascinating even apart from the philosophical questions it raises, such as Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, recommended titles should make for an engaging read.

David Kracov, “Book of Life”

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Louis
Louis
2 years ago

Sider and Conee’s “Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics” is wonderfulReport

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Louis
2 years ago

Idk. It really depends on the father’s proclivities. I was a mad dog naturalist in undergrad, and that text was for me the epitome of dumb. (I can appreciate it better now, but…)Report

Steve
Steve
Reply to  sahpa
2 years ago

It’s chapter on dualism/mind-body problem is quite bad, but other than that, I think it’s a solid book.Report

Sid
Sid
2 years ago

I highly recommend Iddo Landau’s recent Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World.
It tackles questions that everyone wrestles with: Is life meaningful? How can I lead a meaningful life?
It tackles these questions with analytical rigor, gives definite and clear answers, and is written in an engaging and accessible style.
Report

Ian Olasov
2 years ago

For books, I would recommend Nagel’s Mortal Questions, Dennett’s Intuition Pumps, Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy, and anthologies like the Norton Introduction or Gendler, Siegel, and Cahn. But I would also recommend podcasts like Hi Phi Nation, History of Philosophy without Any Gaps, New Books in Philosophy, or Elucidations, or video series like Wi Phi.Report

Eric
Eric
2 years ago

Sandel’s book on Justice is a good one for novices.Report

Fadhili Deche
Fadhili Deche
2 years ago

A very interesting though slightly left field suggestion I would like to offer is Jostein Gaarder’s novel “Sophie’s World”. It’s probably as handy an introduction to the whole history of philosophical thought as one may be likely to get. What makes this novel such an instructive guide is its emphasis on the factors which influenced the development of some of philosophy’s most important ideas and the relationships between opposing schools of thought. It’s effectiveness is in the way it presents philosophy as an ongoing dynamic dialogue about life’s biggest questions within which the reader is an active interlocutor. And the story line isn’t half bad either.Report

Vipul Vivek
Vipul Vivek
2 years ago

Questions of King MilindaReport

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
2 years ago

Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia: witty, enjoyable (not just to philosophers), and deceptively profound.Report

Michaela
Michaela
Reply to  Tom Hurka
2 years ago

Second this–it’s also great for teaching. I think it’s a model philosophy book. Report

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
Reply to  Tom Hurka
2 years ago

Let me endorse that but add that it’s a book professional philosophers should study too (carefully). Not at all like your standard journal article.Report

Acastos
Acastos
Reply to  Tom Hurka
2 years ago

Thanks for the recommendation. Can you supplement it with a book that is witty, enjoyable (not just to philosophers), and deceptively simple? I suspect I’d be more inclined to endorse that.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  Acastos
2 years ago

If simple is meant to be the opposite of profound, then a deceptively simple book is one that seems profound but isn’t. There are thousands of those books.Report

Acastos
Acastos
Reply to  Tom Hurka
2 years ago

You’d really be happy with the following?

“Thomas Hurka’s The Best Things in Life (Oxford 2011) is a deceptively profound book”?

Having read it, I would myself say:

“Thomas Hurka’s The Best Things in Life is a deceptively simple book. Unlike the thousands of books that are appear to be profound but are in reality quite shockingly simple, this only appears to be simple but is in reality a profound meditation on the most important concerns of human life. I highly recommend it to non-philosophers who etc…”Report

Recent grad
Recent grad
2 years ago

Teaching Plato in Palestine, by Carlos Fraenkel.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
2 years ago

I’ll second Olasov’s suggestion of “Mortal Questions.” It’s always been one of the first books I’ve recommended to my own friends, family, and (back in the day) a few ex-girlfriends to get an idea of what philosophy is and why it matters. Another good one that no one has said anything about is Neiman’s “Evil in Modern Thought.” It’s a very good and very manageable history of modern philosophy, but what makes it special is that it’s excellent at conveying to why philosophy matters to people who aren’t already interested in philosophy. Report

Danny Weltman
2 years ago

The Pig that Wants to be Eaten is a nice introductory book, albeit more in terms of introducing people to what’s interesting about philosophy than filling them up with knowledge about particular philosophers and history and so on.

I would also encourage the student to learn how to talk about philosophy (and about themselves) in ways that are accessible to someone who hasn’t boned up on the subject via reading multiple books. I think philosophers who can carry on a conversation with the philosophically illiterate (whether that conversation is about philosophy or about anything else) tend to be much happier and much better conversation partners than philosophers without this ability. The student’s dad might actually be good practice for this. Rather than getting pop to read a bunch of stuff before deigning to discuss topics with him, try to figure out ways to have the conversation that work on the uninformed interlocutor.Report

Unbeknownst
Unbeknownst
2 years ago

Peter van Inwagen’s “Metaphysics.” Van Inwagen is a fantastic writer, and one of the sharpest philosophers around.Report

Jonathan Head
Jonathan Head
2 years ago

Perhaps a slightly dull suggestion, but I don’t think you can do much better than read a classic – Descartes’ Meditations. Then read a secondary text (I would go for Hatfield’s excellent guidebook) to get more of a sense of the richness of the text and the subtle argumentation involved. I really can’t think of a better way into thinking philosophically.Report

Clayton
2 years ago

I quite liked the recommendation of Descartes’, Meditations. It’s not clear to me that the intro texts that we give to students will engage non-philosophers, so I might go with something narrow but interesting and/or important. Three things come to mind. Stanley’s, How Propaganda Works or Manne’s Down Girl would show how philosophers approach contemporary issues. Darwall’s, Death provides a nice discussion of a cluster issues having to do with death and life’s value, a great read for someone interested in some issues of perennial concern.Report

Crimlaw
Crimlaw
Reply to  Clayton
2 years ago

Darwall? Do you mean Kagan?Report

Clayton
Reply to  Crimlaw
2 years ago

Who knows what I meant? I was tired. (But, yeah, should have said Kagan.)Report

S
S
2 years ago

I will second Conee and Sider’s Riddles of Existence, I personally like it and I think my ex-boyfriend (mathematician) really enjoyed that one too, on my recommendation! For the politically inclined, Mill’s On Liberty might make a nice introduction and he’ll also get to read a classic text.Report

Daniel Pereira
Daniel Pereira
2 years ago

Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? Is a wonderful read for an engaged and intelligent novice.Report

Chuck Sullivan
Chuck Sullivan
2 years ago

I like “Problems from Philosophy” by James Rachels and Stuart Rachels. I’d recommend finding a used copy since the new ones are kind of expensive.Report

Heron
Heron
2 years ago

Might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Ted Sider’s Logic for Philosophers is a really fun and easy read. It would definitely give a layman a good taste of classical logic as well as modal logic and nonclassical logics without bogging them down with the heavy machinery (e.g., stuff like first-order metalogic, bisimulations, etc.)Report

Hawk
Hawk
Reply to  Heron
2 years ago

Sider’s book (Logic for Philosophy, btw, not for Philosophers) may be fun, but it’s not meant for people with no background in logic.

It begins, “Since you are reading this book, you probably know some logic already.” It then explains that the imagined reader can *already* translate English sentences into the symbolic notation for propositional and predicate logic. It is not a beginner’s book.Report

Daniel
Daniel
Reply to  Heron
2 years ago

It’s also, just to be clear, not fun.Report

W Day
W Day
2 years ago

I book I would recommend over even Nagel’s Mortal Questions for a smart uninitiated reader interested in matters of meaning and existence would be Todd May’s A Significant Life.Report

docfe
docfe
2 years ago

Being a retired geezer, I recommend Bertrand Russell’s, The Problems of Philosophy and his history of western philosophy.. Of course, original sources are important, so three: Plato’s Republic, Mill’s On Liberty, and Descartes’ Meditations.

I do suspect that other non-original sources would be most useful and history of phil surveys might fill the bill. Apart from Russell above, selected sections of Copleston, and other surveys. But these are history of philosophy. Good introductions to the issues are another genre of intro texts.

Here is one I found very good: Velasquez, Philosophy: A Text with Readings;
Report

N.M.
N.M.
2 years ago

The Introducing graphic guides I think are a wonderful entry to a variety of thinkers and ideas. May be unconventional, but I think they are a great start for someone who truly wants a starting point and brief overview of what they’re getting in to. Report

Matt
2 years ago

It’s shortcomings as scholarship are probably obvious to everyone here, but for educated people who are not going to be philosophers, I think that Russell’s History of Western Philosophy is still a good sources. It’s written in a very easy style, it’s opinionated (and so less dull), and covers a lot of topics. I’d personally like it more if it had better coverage of moral and political philosophy, but even without that, it can still be a quite nice introduction to philosophy for someone who just wants a taste of the subject. Report

Aaron
Aaron
2 years ago

Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political AuthorityReport

Kenneth Lee Armstrong
Kenneth Lee Armstrong
2 years ago
Marcus
Marcus
2 years ago

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has a few books – both novels and non-fiction – that tackle philosophical problems in various ways.
I think one that is good for introducing someone to philosophy is “Plato at the Googleplex”. Great introduction to the western philosophical method and major problems, as well as Plato’s thought of course. And it’s quite humorous, particularly the alternating chapters that are written as dialogues.Report

Amy
Amy
2 years ago

Susan Wolf, Meaning in Life and Why it Matters
Susan Brison, Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self
Kate Manne, Down GirlReport

mahmud
mahmud
2 years ago

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar. Super book . at least you will enjoy the jokes if you dont like the philosophy behind themReport

Alejandro
Alejandro
2 years ago
David Wallace
David Wallace
2 years ago

William Poundstone, Labyrinths of Reason.

And I second the recommendation of Dennett’s Intuition Pumps.Report

Ted Shear
2 years ago

L.A. Paul’s “Transformative Experience” manages to both be a good piece of philosophy and remain accessible and interesting to non-academics. Report

Simon Nagler
Simon Nagler
2 years ago

I have given the comic „Logicomix – an Epic Search for Truth“ to my non-philosopher parents. Admittedly, this is quite focused on Logic and Foundations of Mathematics, but also covers the main developments in eary analytic philosophy. And it’s a beautiful graphic novel! Report

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
2 years ago

Let me add Sartre’s Nausea and A.J.Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic because both are attractively written, stimulating, and opinionated. Russell’s Autobiography is also illuminating.Report

Adam
Adam
2 years ago

I suggest Frankfurt’s book on bullshit.Report

docfe
docfe
Reply to  Adam
2 years ago

I also recommend his, On Truth.Report

Javier
Javier
2 years ago

For accessible books that are mostly focused on ethics/existential issues, I’d recommend:

David Benatar, The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions
–Accessible, but focuses on big existential questions that most ordinary people also think about from time to time. Maybe a little dark for some.

Iddo Landau, Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World
–A very wise and insightful book on the meaning of life and finding purpose. More uplifting than Benatar, although that’s not saying much.

Peter Singer, Practical Ethics
–A fairly accessible but also very deep introduction to practical ethics. My favorite Singer book.

Michael Sandel, Justice
–Super fun and easy to read, although it’s starting to get a bit dated and it can be superficial at times.
Report

Luke Ford
Luke Ford
2 years ago

“The Mushroom at the End of the World” by Ana Tsing is a really good book to get people who read a lot of fiction to branch out into theoretical works because the author is telling a story rather than just writing down he findings. Also and biographical works like “The Duty of Genius” by Ray Monk or “Wittgenstein’s Poker” by David Edmonds and John Eidinow because they are about philosophy and give you some background to tackle the primary works of whoever is being profiled. Report

Jeremy
Jeremy
2 years ago

As a laymen with absolutely no formal training in philosophy, these books helped get me started: Peter Smith’s *Introduction to Formal Logic*, Andrew Fisher’s *Metaethics: An Introduction*, Mark Timmon’s *Moral Theory: An Introduction*, Alyssa Ney’s *Metaphysics: An Introduction*, Jaegwon Kim‘s *Philosophy of Mind*.

With gratitude, I want to single out the achievement of Colin McGinn’s *Philosophy of Language: The Classics Explained* as a great example of clear philosophical writing about difficult material.Report

Walter Horn
2 years ago

There’s a great kids’ book by Annie Lindbergh called “Three Lives to Live” that’s a great introduction to issues surrounding personal identity.

A lot easier than Parfit, but almost as much fun.Report

F
F
2 years ago

J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals is a pretty cool [novel/meditation/musing/literary exercise] having to do with animal rights. I don’t think it gets all of the philosophical positions right (though it’s obviously not an academic document anyway), but it very much gets the brain-juices flowing.Report

docfe
docfe
2 years ago

Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy, Jostein Gaarder. Readable, accurate and a story line that is not just reading philosophy that adds to the lure of finishing the book.Report

Ian James Kidd
Ian James Kidd
2 years ago

An excellent and cross-culturally diverse introduction to the history of philosophy – Western, Indian, Chinese, African, Japanese – is David E. Cooper, “World Philosophies: An Historical Introduction” (1996/2003). Report

Adrian B.
Adrian B.
2 years ago

I recommend Galen Strawson’s new collection – Things that Bother Me: Death, Freedom, The Self, etc.

Accessible, big topics and beautifully written. All essays were written for the wider public. Report

Andrew Burrell
Andrew Burrell
2 years ago

Broadbent, Philosophy for Graduate Students: Metaphysics and Epistemology. Lucid, sparkling, short (176 pages). Narrowly focused on Western philosophy, the analytic tradition, LEMM, the recent past, companionship with the sciences rather than the humanities. Within those limitations, excellent in demonstrating the need for philosophy, and in providing a short entry path into the recent literature.Report

Linley
Linley
2 years ago

Passion of The Western Mind – Richard TarnassReport

Farah
Farah
2 years ago

Julian Marias: “History of Philosophy” Really simple, comprehensive, concise. Report

Dan Flory
Dan Flory
2 years ago

The Routledge “Thinking in Action” has offered some pretty accessible works over the years. I’ve used a number of them in undergraduate courses and had good success with them. They are mostly narrowly focused, but depending on what one wants a non-philosopher to know about, they are generally clear and well-written. The ones that stand out in the series to me in a very impressionistic sense are:
Adam Morton, On Evil (2004)
Noel Carroll, On Criticism (2008)
Harry Brighouse, On Education (2006)
Stephen Mulhall, On Film (3rd ed., 2016)
Clare Carlisle, On Habit (2014)
Charles Guignon, On Being Authentic (2004)
Peter Goldie, On Personality (2004)
Karen Stohr, On Manners (2011)
Richard Norman, On Humanism (2nd ed., 2012)
Dominique Janicaud, On the Human Condition (2005)
Chantal Mouffe, On the Political (2005)
The Dummett and Dreyfus texts (On Immigration and Refugees and On the Internet) I remember as being good as well.Report