What follows is a collection of some of the best books out there for people who want to learn philosophy, and what major thinkers, philosophers and scientists think  about these books.

They’re not structured in any particular order, and most are pretty much “pick up and play”, meaning you can read them even if you don’t know much philosophy.

Before you start, you should know that philosophy has some particularities that occasionally make it a tedious and time consuming process.

If you want quick and useful tips that will make the process a lot easier, then keep reading this short intro.

If on the other hand you just want to see the books, press this LINK to navigate straight to the recommendations section.

How to read philosophy more easily

1) Philosophers write for other philosophers, not regular people.

While philosophers do care about spreading their ideas as far and wide as possible, their primary concern is to make sure those ideas are as true and accurate as possible.

They are able to write down ideas in easy to read, accessible writing. However, this comes at the risk of having their work be misinterpreted or twisted by other philosophers during the philosophical debate.

To prevent this, philosophers end up using complex formulations, terms and words that describe highly specific and particular notions that lay people simply aren’t exposed to.

So don’t beat yourself up if you struggle to comprehend a book.

2) Translations matter, a lot

For a good reading experience, who translates a book is almost as important as who writes it.

In fact, some translations are so much more readable than others, that you’ll wonder if they are even the same book.

Compare this passage from George Long’s translation of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius:

“From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich. From my great-grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally.”

With this one from Gregory Hays’ translation of the same work:

“MY MOTHER Her reverence for the divine, her generosity, her inability not only to do wrong but even to conceive of doing it. And the simple way she lived-not in the least like the rich.     4.           MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER To avoid the public schools, to hire good private teachers, and to accept the resulting costs as money well spent.”

A huge difference, right?

Once you’ve decided on a particular book, make sure you also find out which translation is the best and easiest to read. Your enjoyment and learning opportunity might hang in the balance.

3) The main branches of philosophy

Philosophy is a very wide field, with many theories that cover different subjects.

Because of this, it’s structured into 5 branches. Here’s a

very rough explanation of what each of these is about, alongside the central question of each branch.

Epistemology

Translated into English, it means “theory of knowledge”, and seeks to find out the best ways to discover new information, prove or disprove existing one.

Central question: “Is this true? How can you be certain?”

Metaphysics

Translated from Greek, it means “outside of nature”, which is a fitting name because it covers subjects that are outside the physical realm which we inhabit.

Important question: “Is this the true world, or is the Matrix? If this is the Matrix, what is the Matrix like?”

Logic

Logic is the discipline that finds proper ways of reasoning, of finding paradoxes, fallacies, correct and incorrect ways of deduction and induction.

Central question: “Is this a correct conclusion?”

Aestethics

Aesthetics is the philosophical branch that seeks to understand art, it’s meaning and what makes it appealing. It is also concerned with beauty and good taste in general.

Central question: “Is this beautiful? Why or why not?”

Ethics

Ethics is the philosophical branch that seeks to differentiate between good and bad actions, and find the proper values that can guide individuals and society.

Ethics and Aesthetics are usually paired together in a wider philosophical branch called Axiology.

Central question: “Is this the right thing to do?”

The best philosophy books, according to other philosophers and great individuals

1) Sophie’s World  by Jostein Gaarder

A philosophy book written in the form of a story, where an aging philosopher teaches a young girl all he knows.

Sophie’s World is a great first choice for philosophy initiates, because it presents all the main historically important ideas of philosophy in a story format that is engaging, easy to read and relatively short at “XXX number of pages”.

What others have said:

  • The Norwegians Author Union considered this book as one of the very best works of Norwegian literature.
  • The book was translated into more than 50 languages, and sold well over 40 million copies.

Difficulty level: Low, easy to understand.

Length: 518 pages. 17 hours for audiobook.

Recommended Translation: Sophie’s World by Paulette Moller

 

2) A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russel

This mammoth work of Bertrand Russel covers is a meticulous and thorough overview of Western philosophy and its historical evolution.

It is readable even for people with no philosophical training since that’s pretty its target audience, although some passages will be harder to read than others.

What others have said:

“These [ Bertrand Russell and John Dewey ]were two of the major, if not the two major thinkers, of the twentieth century…” by Noam Chomsky

“Bertrand Russell … is one of the great philosophers of his time… a remarkably clear thinker and writer… a great example of how English should be written and just a great voice to have in your head.” By Sam Harris

Difficulty level: Low to medium. Some passages require multiple readings to fully understand.

Length: 895 pages / 38 hours for the audiobook

Recommended Edition:

 

3) Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was the Roman Empire’s “stoic philosopher king”, and one of the best emperors the Romans ever had.

He wrote Meditations as a private, personal guide to help him find his moral bearings, and make the wisest decision for the good of the Empire.

Because of the author’s unusual position, and the clarity of his writing, “Meditations” is the go-to book for anybody looking to understand Stoic philosophy.

What others have said:

“The absolute ruler may be a Nero, but he is sometimes Titus or Marcus Aurelius; the people is often Nero, and never Marcus Aurelius.” By Antoine de Rivarol

Difficulty level: Low, but it varies greatly with the translation.

Length: 112 pages / around 6 hours for audiobooks

Recommended Edition: Gregory Hays’ translation of Meditations is considered among the easiest and most enjoyable ones. It’s such a good read that it briefly became a best seller.

4) Cyropaedia by Xenophon

Cyrus the Great was one of the most influential and transformative leaders of the Ancient world. Starting from a small kingdom in modern day Iran, he very quickly expanded and conquered his neighbors, and in doing so, he laid the foundations of countless future empires.

But Cyrus stands out not because of his conquering, but of how he administered said territories, through tolerance, respecting autonomy, creating an efficient administrative system and more.

Cyropaedia by Xenophon is a fictional biography of Cyrus, that explores the formative years of Cyrus, and what exactly made him such a great ruler.

What others have said:

“Alexander the Great would not have become great if there had been no Xenophon”. By Eunapius

Length: 198 pages

Difficulty: Low, but it varies depending on translation.

Recommended Edition:

5) Meditations on First Philosophy  by Rene Descartes

Descartes is among philosophy’s greatest rationalists.

Rationalists believed that reality functions through certain truths and principles that one can learn through logic and thought alone.

Meditations is one of the most important books in all of philosophy. It contains the famous dictum I think, therefore I am and covers the following topics:

  1. A compelling argument for the existence of God.
  2. A logical, thorough argument for the existence of the soul, and its separation from the body.
  3. Centers science on a new intellectual foundation.
  4. Prove that science and religion are not incompatible , but work on the same philosophical blueprint.

What others have said:

“[…]it will take a long time for it [Cartesian mind-body dualism] to be replaced by a really different attitude toward the problem of reality.” by Werner Heisenberg

“Descartes is rightly regarded as the father of modern philosophy primarily and generally because he helped the faculty of reason to stand on its own feet by teaching men to use their brains in place whereof the Bible, on the one hand, and Aristotle, on the other, had previously served.”  – by Arthur Schopenhauer

Difficulty level: Medium to high. Descartes’s arguments and conclusions are complex and multilayered, and will often require slow or multiple readings.

Length: 214 pages / around 4 hours for audiobooks.

Recommended version:

6) An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding  by David Hume

This is the shortened, more accessible version of A Treatise of Human Nature, and rigorously applies the scientific method to conclude that:

  1. The human soul is not immortal.
  2. Denies the reality of space.
  3. Why humans are driven by raw passions and appetites.
  4. How humans create their identities.
  5. Explores the link between cause and effect.

Very heavy stuff. But this book was a huge influence on Immanuel Kant, another philosophical titan that furthered human thought.

Even Einstein credited Hume as being a major inspiration in helping him discover the theory of relativity.

What others have said:

Immanuel Kant, one of the modern era’s game changing philosopher, said that this work woke him up from his “dogmatic slumbers”.

“How far [Mach’s writings] influenced my own work is, to be honest, not clear to me. In so far as I can be aware, the immediate influence of David Hume on me was greater.” by Albert Einstein

Length: 151 pages / 6 hours for the audiobook

Difficulty Level: High

Recommended Edition:

7) The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins was primarily written to further the field of biology. It did more than that: it revolutionised biology.

However, along the way it managed to shake up our understanding of who we are at a biological level, and by implication what is the true nature of human beings, and why our biology is a stronger motivator of our behaviour than we would assume.

Coincidentally, it’s an extremely controversial book, and controversial books are the most fun to read.

What others have said:

“The Selfish Gene delighted me from beginning to end, instructing and correcting me on dozens or hundreds of important points and confirming my inchoate sense that evolution by natural selection was the key to solving most of the philosophical problems I was interested in. This was mind candy of the highest quality.” By Daniel Dennett

Difficulty level: Low

Length: 544 pages / around 16 hours for the audiobook

Recommended version:

8) Plato’s Dialogues

It’s difficult to describe Plato’s importance to philosophy in just a few sentences. His work and writings were vast, both in scope and in quantity.

Plato has the merit of opening the doors to almost all philosophical subjects. He came up with the central questions and concepts of philosophy, and burdened the subsequent generations of philosophers to either refine his ideas, disprove them, or find something better.

If you viewed philosophy as a chain, then Plato would be one of the first and most important links, to which all other subsequent links connect.

What others have said:

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”  by Alfred North Whitehead

Difficulty level: Varies from dialogue to dialogue.

Length: Medium to high, will likely require multiple slow readings.

Recommended Edition:

9) The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

This book has the dubious honor of making the name Machiavelli a synonym of scheming evil.

There is still an ongoing debate as to whether The Prince is a work of satire, an expression of cynicism, or just a practical, if brutal, guide on how to govern a polity.

But what is certain, is that The Prince has been a revolutionary work for political science, and by implication, how the lives of the common people are affected by the decisions of their rulers.

A reading of this book offers one an inside look and explanation of the dirty tactics leaders use to entrench their domination. At the same time, if you ever intend to be an undemocratic despot, this is an excellent guidebook.

What others have said:

“ Modern political science owes a great deal to Machiavelli’s shocking claim that ordinary notions of moral behavior for individuals may not be suitable as rules of conduct for states.” by Albert O. Hirschman

“We are much beholden to Machiavelli and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do.” by Francis Bacon

Difficulty level: Low

Length: 80 pages / audiobook around 3 hours

Recommended Edition: Harvey Mansfield has a great translation, each containing a footnote to Machiavelli’s numerous references.

10) The Art of Strategy by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff

Game Theory is a new field in mathematics that explores how individuals make choices when these can influence each other.

The quintessential example of this is the Prisoner’s Dilemma: two outlaws are caught by the police, and interrogated separately so they can’t speak to each other. If both outlaws remain silent and do not cooperate with the police, they both receive a 1 year sentence. If outlaw A testifies against outlaw B, who stays silent, then outlaw A goes free, and outlaw B receives a 3 year sentence. If both outlaws testify against each other, then each of them receives a 2 year sentence.

How one should navigate these situations is the main object of game theory.

While it doesn’t qualify as a strictly philosophical field, game theory helps sharpen one’s mind, and make better decisions when they have imperfect information.

What others have said:

“Unlike most of the ranks of management advice books which pad put bookshop business sections, here is one which is fun, rigurous and extremely useful all at the same time.” by Diane Couple

“Real-life illustrations of game theory concepts and decision-making scenarios are plentiful as well as entertaining in their execution. I was happy, however, to be spared the over-complicated mathematics that I expected.” by John Burns

Difficulty level: Low

Length: 512 pages / 17 hours for audiobook

Recommended Edition:

11) Essays by Michel de Montaigne

This is a rather unusual work of philosophy. Montaigne wrote it during a long period of isolation where he meditated about many aspects of human life and philosophy in general.

He put these meditations into written form, and offers readers unique perspectives on a huge range of topics, some trivial, some truly profound.

Montaigne wrote a total of 107 essays, of varying length. For the time starved reader, here are the most popular and recommended ones:

“On Solitude”

“On Cannibals”

“To Philosophize is to Learn to Die”

“On the Education of Children”

“Of Heraclitus and Democritus”

“On the Power of the Imagination”

“On Books”

“How the Mind tangles itself up”

“Why We Weep and Laugh at the Same thing”

“Of Pendantry”

What others have said:

“His book was different from all others which were at that date in the world. It diverted the ancient currents of thought into new channels. It told its readers, with unexampled frankness, what its writer’s opinion was about men and things, and threw what must have been a strange kind of new light on many matters but darkly understood.” by William Carew Hazlitt

Difficulty level: Low, engaging and accessible even to beginners.

Length: 1344 pages / 50 hours for audiobook

Recommended Edition:

12) The Social Contract By Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau lived in a time when the absolutist monarchies of Europe had reached their zenith.  The ruler had nearly unlimited power, without any significant restriction, counterweight or checks and balances that could control him.

Critical of this state of affairs, he developed a comprehensive political system that would at once provide a legitimate way for the people to express power and set rules, while at the same protecting their freedoms.

The form of government Rousseau put forward was that of a democracy. While this may seem like a no-brainer today, democracy had a very reputation during his time, since most people simply considered it a dictatorship of the many, of the poor.

But Rousseau’s brilliance was that he reimagined the fundamentals of democracy, in a way that makes it viable, functional, moral and most of all, seductive, even dangerously seductive in the eyes of a dictator, tyrant or absolutist monarh.

What others have said:

“The operation of burning it was perhaps as odious as that of writing it. […] To burn a book of argument is to say: ‘We do not have enough wit to reply to it.'” by Voltaire (not a fan of democracy, preferred an enlightened absolutist monarch)

I doubt whether any recent advocate of participatory democracy has made a case one-tenth as powerful as Rousseau made his.” by Robert A. Dahl

Difficulty level:  Low to medium, can be technical at times.

Length: 192 pages / 6 hours for audiobook

Recommended Edition:

13) Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle

Aristotle was a student of Plato’s, and a polymath who knew almost everything there was to know in his time.

He applied great intellectual rigor to his works, and this is evident in his writings on ethics.

In Nicomachean Ethics he explores what are the greatest virtues and vices, and how one can become virtuous by use of the Golden Mean.

Overall, a thorough and enjoyable read for anyone looking for a work on morals and ethics.

What others have said:

”However, if we seek the most elaborate and least ambiguous answer to this truly vital question [what is virtue?], we shall turn to Aristotle’s Ethics. There we read among other things that there is a virtue of the first order called magnanimity—the habit of claiming high honors for oneself with the understanding that one is worthy of them. We also read there that sense of shame is not a virtue: sense of shame is becoming for the young who, due to their immaturity, cannot help making mistakes, but not for mature and well-bred men who simply always do the right and proper thing. Wonderful as all this is-we have received a very different message from a very different quarter.” by Leo Strauss

Difficulty level: low

Length: 390 pages / 8-9 hours for the audiobook

Recommended Edition:

14) The Republic by Plato

This is Plato’s most important work, and it is vast in scope, leaving no philosophical stone unturned. In fact, most of the subjects this book explores are still being debated now, more than two thousand years later.

Taking this into account, you’d think it would be difficult and technical. Fortunately however, it’s a relatively easy work to unders, even for people who have never read a philosophical book before.

It’s written in a lively dialogue form, where the ideas are proposed, countered or dismissed by multiple characters.

If you don’t know what you want to learn about philosophy, then read this book.

Because it tackles so many subjects all at once, you can use it to find what interests you more about philosophy, and read more about that.

What others have said:

“ Practically everyone wants reason to rule, and no one thinks a man like Socrates should be ruled by inferiors or have to adjust what he thinks to them. What the Republic actually teaches is that none of this is possible and that our situation requires both much compromise and much intransigence, great risks and few hopes. The important thing is not speaking one’s own mind, but finding a way to have one’s own mind.” by Allan Bloom

“Almost all accounts of the history of political thinking begin with Plato. This is a paradox, because Plato’s political thought is antipolitical. Readers of his Republic see that in the polis of Plato’s imagination, there is no politics, and are puzzled” by Alan Ryan

Difficulty level: Low to Medium, but depends on the translation. Some passages require more than a few readings to fully grasp the subtleties.

Length: 395 pages / around 12 hours for the audio book version

Recommended Edition:

15) The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a cursed man, punished by the gods to push a boulder up a hill, watch it roll down, then push it up again and so on for eternity.

Starting from this myth, Camus goes on to explore the meaning of life, or better said why it doesn’t seem to have any meaning.

It’s opening words are “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide”, so it doesn’t really start off on a cheery note.

And yet, it is a wonderful exploration the human condition, and why ultimately life is worth living.

Difficulty level: Technical, will likely require multiple, slow readings.

Length: 212 pages / around 7 hours for the audiobook

Recommended Edition:

16) Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche was (and still is) one of philosophy’s most polarising figures. His ideas have achieved a rare feat, in that they can be integrated into many ideological systems and justify their actions.

As a case in point, both anarchists and fascists, two ideologies at polar opposites of each other, appropriated some of his ideas.

His contemporaries accused him of undermining society’s moral anchors, with ideas such as “God is dead”, master-slave morality, the Übermensch and many others.

Nietzsche blew open a tight and rigid moral lid on society, and created space for new currents of thought.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra is among his most important works, and contains many of his central ideas.

What others have said:

While a long quote, this captures the thoughts of many thinkers regarding Nietzsche:

“It is obvious that in his day-dreams he is a warrior, not a professor; all of the men he admires were military. His opinion of women, like every man’s, is an objectification of his own emotion towards them, which is obviously one of fear. “Forget not thy whip”– but nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks. […] [H]e is so full of fear and hatred that spontaneous love of mankind seems to him impossible. He has never conceived of the man who, with all the fearlessness and stubborn pride of the superman, nevertheless does not inflict pain because he has no wish to do so. Does any one suppose that Lincoln acted as he did from fear of hell? Yet to Nietzsche, Lincoln is abject, Napoleon magnificent. […] I dislike Nietzsche because he likes the contemplation of pain, because he erects conceit into duty, because the men whom he most admires are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing men to die. But I think the ultimate argument against his philosophy, as against any unpleasant but internally self-conscious ethic, lies not in an appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions. Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world. His followers have had their innings, but we may hope that it is coming rapidly to an end.” By Bertrand Russell

Difficulty level: high, and it contains many subtle meanings that are not immediately obvious at the first reading, or even the second or third.

Length:  352 pages

Recommended Edition:

What philosophers and other great minds read

Sam Hariss’ (neuroscientist, philosopher) reading list

Sam Harris is a well known public intelectual, with works primarily focused around ethics, free will, morality, spirituality and science.

His own works are well worth the read, but in an interview with Tim Ferris, he made a list of what he thinks are some excellent philosophy books that can expand the mind.

Courtesy of Brain Pickings.

Noam Chomsky Reading List

Noam Chomsky is a pioneer of linguistics, a founder of cognitive science and an analytic philosopher.

His own works are groundbreaking in many respects, and have furthered our understanding of the human mind and how we shape languages, and become shapped by them.

Chomsky List has compiled a thorough list of all his major influences, including philosophical works:

Alan Watts’ recommended philosophy works

Alan Watts was a British philosopher who explained Eastern philosophy to a Western audience.

His works popularised Budhism and other Eastern schools of thought, and added a new spiritual dimension a Westerner could dive into.

Here’s a reading list compiled by Alan Watts

Karl Marx and his philosophical influences

Karl Marx was the economist and philosopher, who came up with Communism.

To build such a philosophically complete and extensive structure, he relied on the past work of numerous other philosophers, which shaped him and his ideas.

So here’s an (incomplete) list of Karl Marx’ influences:

Conclusion

Philosophy is a vast subject, but a rewarding one to master, even if just a part of it. Besides opening up new perspectives on how the world works, it more importantly teaches us how to think, and how to interpret reality itself. That in itself is it’s greatest gift.

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