How to read philosophy books: 4 things to know
1) Philosophy is the root of almost all sciences
In the early days of history, almost all human knowledge could fit into a single academic discipline, and that was philosophy.
As we accumulated more and more knowledge, thinkers started to specialize in particular areas, since they couldn’t accumulate all existing knowledge.
At some point, these disciplines gathered critical mass, then completely separated from philosophy once the scientific revolution took hold.
As far late as the 17th century, the term “natural philosopher” was used to describe what we today might call a scientist.
As a fun fact, the books that contain Isaac Newton’s demonstration of gravity, planetary motion and classical mechanics in physics is titled Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.
This is mostly why philosophy isn’t as popular today as it was in the time of the Ancient Greeks: almost all of philosophy’s central questions are now answered by other sciences and academic disciplines.
2) Why philosophy can be hard to read
Philosophy books are often difficult to understand because philosophers write for other philosophers, and not ordinary people.
Because of this, they often sacrifice readability, in favor of precise language and solid logical arguments so their ideas cannot be proven false or misinterpreted.
Unfortunately, this often discourages new readers of philosophy. Especially when they jump on an important, but difficult philosopher such as Kant.
3) Learn the philosophical concepts first
To understand how a car engine works, you first need to know what the subcomponents do: valves, spark plugs, pistons, crankshafts etc.
Just like an engine, philosophy is built around many ideas, concepts and theories. A lot of times, complex theories are condensed into single words that are then used to explain other ideas. Such as: determinism, emergence, form, compatibilism, becoming.
That’s why the hardest part about reading philosophy is learning the most popular theories and concepts philosophers use. After this initial challenge, things start to click and fall into place.
4) Translations can make or break a philosophy book
Some translations are so much more readable than others, 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 Gregory Hays’ translation of the same passage:
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 find a readable translation, that doesn’t sacrifice on accuracy. Your enjoyment and learning opportunity might hang in the balance.
The best philosophy books for beginners
What does it all mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by Thomas Nagel
What you’ll get out of this book: In this work, Thomas Nagel presents 9 of the biggest problems in philosophy, and how these are relevant to our lives as humans.
To give you an idea of what to expect, here’s the table of contents of this very short book:
- How Do We Know Anything?
- Other minds.
- The Mind-Body Problem.
- The Meaning of Words.
- Free Will.
- Right and Wrong.
- The Meaning of Life.
Pretty heavy subjects. Fortunately, the book is short, concise and to the point. It’s written for everyday people, who’ve never studied philosophy in any way. People who just want to get familiar with some of the most important topics of philosophical discussion.
If you want the most bang for your buck, this is the book to go to. It’s so short you can read it one evening.
Despite this, it explores all the major problems in philosophy without using complex explanations.
Length: 112 pages
Difficulty Level: Easy.
Recommended edition: What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy
A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russel
This mammoth work by Bertrand Russel covers the most important philosophical theories in the Western world, starting from the Greek Ancients up until early 20th Century philosophers.
Each chapter is centered around a certain theory or philosophy. Russel outlines the theories in general terms, while explaining the main ideas, criticisms, arguments for and against etc.
What you’ll get out of this book: If all you want is a general overview of philosophy, with just the main ideas and nothing else, then this is the book for you.
You don’t need to read it in chronological order (although it’s recommended). You can just find a certain philosopher you’re interested in, dive in and that’s it.
On the other hand, if you want to learn philosophy in a more in-depth fashion, this is an excellent starting point. It gives you a bird’s eye view of all the subjects, so you can then do more in-depth learning on the topics you find more interesting.
What others have said:
“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: A History of Western Philosophy
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
This is probably the quintessential philosophy book for people who are complete beginners, and just want to learn the broad strokes of philosophy, as quickly as possible and in a fun way.
What you’ll get out of this book: Sophie’s World is written as a philosophical novel, where a young girl, Sophie, becomes an apprentice to an aging philosopher.
Over the course of the story, Sophie learns the most important philosophical concepts, starting from the Pre-Socratics (the first Ancient Greek philosophers), all the way to the mid-twentieth century thinkers such as Jean Paul Sartre.
The book also explores the most important currents of thought and how they shaped the world, such as: Renaissance, Romanticism, Existentialism, Darwinism, Communism and more.
Difficulty level: Low, easy to understand.
Length: 518 pages. 17 hours for audiobook.
Recommended Translation: Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy (FSG Classics)
Best philosophy books for self-improvement
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
The basic tenets of Stoicism say that everyone has a part to play in the grand scheme of Nature and Universal Reason.
As such, Stoics seek to find emotional clarity and inner strength in their life, so they can fulfill the role Nature gave them.
In order to find emotional clarity, Stoics must learn to control and dominate their emotions.
This emotional control applies both to “good” emotions (such as love) and “bad” emotions (hate). This is because emotions in general cloud our judgement and prevent us from seeing the correct path Nature wants us to walk on.
What you’ll get out of this book: Marcus Aurelius was one of Rome’s best emperors, renowned for his wisdom in ruling and measured judgement.
He wrote “Meditations” as a personal guide to help him make the wisest decisions during his time as Roman Emperor.
Not everyone will resonate with Meditations or stoicism. Stoic philosophy requires you to accept you have little free will, and that your life is mostly predetermined.
If you are comfortable with this hypothesis however, Meditations that can help you build an inner quiet and strength through acceptance of what Nature has prepared for you, whether that is good or bad.
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: Meditations: A New Translation
Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
Ethics is the philosophical discipline that discusses which actions are right, and which are wrong.
“Nicomachean Ethics” is the first major work in the field, and arguably one of the most important.
What you’ll get out of this book: The primary purpose of Nicomachean Ethics is learning to achieve eudaimonia, a Greek term with deep meaning that can be roughly translated as happiness.
To achieve happiness, a person must first reach a state of inner balance and personal harmony. This inner harmony can be achieved by cultivating important character virtues, and by investing in one’s education, reasoning and thinking.
Aristotle then explains how to build a good and virtuous character. First, by learning which actions are virtuous and which aren’t. Then, by focusing on the creation of good habits that allow a good character to form.
A common theme in Nicomachean Ethics, is learning to separate between virtues and vices. According to Aristotle, if you view character traits as a line, vices are on either extremes of that line, while a virtue is in the middle. Thus, a virtuous person is someone who always chooses moderation, and shies away from extreme behaviors.
Difficulty level: low to medium, some paragraphs may require multiple readings.
Length: 390 pages / 8-9 hours for the audiobook
Recommended Edition: Nicomachean Ethics
The Art of Strategy by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff
Game Theory is a new field of research that is highly relevant to economics, psychology, politics, mathematics, biology, statistics and a lot more.
In short, game theory explores how individuals make choices that can lead to profit or loss, when the result of their choice depends on the actions of another person.
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, but outlaw B stays silent, then outlaw A goes free, and outlaw B receives a 3 year sentence.
If both outlaws testify against each other, then they both receive 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 you’ll get out of this book: Learning the basics of game theory can help you better navigate delicate situations in life, such as negotiations or business dealings.
It gives you a strategic, birds-eye overview of complex situations, where one person’s actions has consequences on another.
It will help you figure out the motivations people have, how far they are willing to go achieve them, and how you can make a profit from them.
What others have said:
“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: The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life
Best philosophy books of all time, that are easy(ish) to read
Five Dialogues of Plato
“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” by Alfred North Whitehead
What you’ll get out of this book: Plato wrote his philosophy in dialogue form, where multiple characters debate various ideas and try to come to a conclusion.
This book contains 5 of the most important Platonic dialogues. Story-wise, most are centered around the imminent execution of Socrates for “corrupting the youth” of Athens.
Apology of Socrates: Contains Socrate’s legal defense during his trial. Has numerous logical battles between Socrates and his accusers over matters such as:
- law of the gods against laws of humans.
- why a man who knows nothing is the wisest of all and many other themes.
Euthyphro: In this dialogue, Socrates debates the concepts of piety and justice.
The argument branches out in multiple directions, but one particular theme is how the idea of “pleasing the gods” can be used to justify immoral actions.
Crito was a friend of Socrates, and attempted to help the great philosopher escape his trial.
This dialogue discusses the meaning of justice at length, since Socrates believes that committing an injustice (fleeing his trial) will condemn him forever in the eyes of Athens and its people by disrespecting its Laws.
Phaedo: From his death bed, Socrates argues about the immortality of the soul, that a person’s body is not theirs, but a property of the gods.
As such, death brings a purification and elevates the soul to where the gods live.
Another possibility is the existence of a cycle, where death becomes life and vice versa, just as to awaken requires sleep, to heat up requires something to be cold and so on.
Meno and Socrates debate the meaning of virtue, and whether it is common to all humans.
Whether some categories of people have certain virtues, but not other categories.
How one can learn virtue, whether from teaching or from life experience.
Keep in mind that that there are many more ideas are covered, but they’ve been overlooked to keep these summaries short and readable.
Difficulty level: Varies from dialogue to dialogue.
Length: Medium, some arguments will likely require a more multiple readings.
Recommended Edition: Plato: Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo (Hackett Classics)
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.
Despite how many topics it covers, the book is surprisingly easy to understand even by beginners.
It’s written in a lively dialogue form, where the ideas are proposed, countered or dismissed by multiple characters.
What you’ll get out of this book: How does an ideal city look like? If you give a man an invisible ring, what would he do? Is a just and fair person happier than an unjust one? Is the world we live in real, or is it just a shadow or imitation of the true world? Is democracy the worst of all forms of government?
A great amount of questions, raised in just one work, and we’re still trying to answer them more than 2000 years later.
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: The Republic
Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes
The complete name of this work is probably the most ambitious and confident title in the whole of philosophy:
Meditations on First Philosophy in which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated.
Lofty indeed, but not without merit. It’s arguments and ideas forced many Western philosophers to write either in support or against it.
In here you’ll find the famous phrase “I think, therefore I am”.
What you’ll get out of this book: Probably the most enduring legacy of Meditations is how Descartes frames the Mind-Body problem.
To put in extremely few and simple words, the Mind-Body problem tries to answer why you are self-aware, conscious and rational.
There are many, many theories on this subject, so here are two of these theories that are popular, but in direct conflict with each other:
- Physicalism: Your brain creates conscious thought using internal biological processes.
- Dualism: Your consciousness (or mind) is separated from your body and brain, but somehow interacts with it.
Descartes was in the dualist camp of philosophy, and through elegant and simple arguments, created a solid intellectual foundation as to why the mind and the body are separate entities.
Besides the Mind-Body problem, Meditations on first philosophy also touches on other important topics:
- A compelling argument for the existence of God.
- Centers science on a new intellectual foundation.
- Proof 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: Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy
Best modern philosophy books
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstader
What you’ll get out of this book: Why is a human brain intelligent and self-aware, while a puddle of water is not? After all, at an atomic level the two are similar in composition.
This book explores how meaningless elements, (such as carbon, hydrogen etc.) form systems, and how these systems can then become self-aware through a process of self-reference.
If you’re already scratching your head at the “self-reference” phrase, don’t worry, that’s normal. Here’s an example as to why this process of self-reference can lead you to weird places:
If God is all-powerful, can he create a stone that is so heavy, not even he can lift it?
Using these self-reference systems, Hofstader then coins the term “strange loop”, where a process can start at Stage A, go through to Stage B, then C, then D, then E, only to suddenly arrive right back at Stage A and repeat itself over and over again.
Through diagrams, explained mathematical theorems, puns, wordplays and puzzles, Hofstader explains how intelligence and self-awareness takes shape within the repeating stages of strange loops.
Difficulty level: Weird, but fun is how you can describe the difficulty level of this book.
Hofstader puts in an enormous amount of effort to explain complex ideas which are required to understand later chapters and concepts. However, the downside is that you can lose track of the bigger picture and forget what this book is all about.
Length: ~750 pages
Recommended Edition: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche is one of philosophy’s most polarizing figures.
His ideas urge a clean break from the past morals, in order to create an entirely new hierarchy of values. Nietzsche’s opponents have accused him of wanting to break the moral anchors of society, and unleash chaos. On the other hand, his believers have endorsed and incorporated his ideas into revolutionary ideologies such as anarchism or fascism.
What you’ll get out of this book: The central element in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is the Overman, or Ubermensch in original german.
The Overman represents a new moral goal for mankind, where it seeks to completely break away from past values, in order to embrace a new set of beliefs focused around progress and advancement for the human species.
This sounds reasonable on paper, except when you realize that “progress” can mean very different things depending on who you ask.
In order to completely sever the connection to the past, Nietzsche argues that “God is dead”. In the old system, God was the central source of moral values. By killing God, you kill all of the values attached to him. This then creates a moral void that has to be filled by the values of the Overman.
Becoming an Overman is a long, difficult and painful process. But the pain is necessary in order to give meaning to the eventual success. To climb a mountain, sometimes you will have to descend a valley first.
Most people are not capable of reaching the status of Overman, so they create all sorts of justifications as to why their current life is good enough, and requires no evolution.
And finally, to fully become an Overman, you must not only completely embrace the pain and suffering of life, but also enjoy it.
This is because Nietzsche’s philosophy contains an important concept called “the eternal recurrence” which states that practically everything that’s ever happened will repeat itself over and over again infinitely. Thus, if life is pain and suffering, and your life will repeat itself infinitely, then you might as well learn to enjoy the pain since there’s not much else you can do.
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 to very high. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is a complex work, filled with metaphors and allegories that aren’t intuitive or easy to grasp. At all times, consider keeping a reading companion to help explain the more convoluted passages.
Length: 352 pages
Recommended Edition: Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One (Penguin Classics)
The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a trickster king that, among other things, managed to chain and imprison Thanatos, God of Death, thus temporarily stopping all living beings from dying.
After freeing Thanatos, the other Greek gods decided to punish Sisyphus by forcing him to roll a giant boulder up a hill, push it down the other side and repeat this process for all eternity.
Starting from this Greek tale, Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus, which explores the meaning of life, or better said, why life 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.
What you’ll get out of this book: One of the great paradoxes of life is that we do things now, in the present, in order to make life for our future selves more meaningful.
We repeat this process on a daily basis, thousands of times, until one day when simply die. What’s the point of all this, if we’re going to die anyway?
Science doesn’t seem to help, since everything we have learned so far doesn’t explain the purpose of life, it just breaks things down into greater detail.
Thus, as far as we know, life seems to be absurd. So why do we bother trying to live instead of just committing suicide?
Camus’ answer to this question can be summed up in the three words: revolt, passion and freedom. Each of these is then built upon in his essay.
Difficulty level: Technical, will likely require multiple, slow readings.
Length: 212 pages / around 7 hours for the audiobook
Recommended Edition: The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
Philosophy books that explain the workings of the world
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins was primarily written to further the field of biology. The book did more than that: it revolutionized biology.
It shook up our understanding of who we are at a biological level and what is the true nature of human beings. As it turns out, our biology is a stronger motivator of behavior than we would assume.
Coincidentally, it’s an extremely controversial book, and controversial books are the most fun to read.
What you’ll get out of this book: A biology book in a philosophy reading list probably stands out, and you might be easily tempted to skip it.
However, both philosophy and biology seek to do same thing: explain the world we live in, and how it works. Reading the “The Selfish Gene” is one of the closest you’ll ever get to see the ghost in the machine, where the machine is the natural world and humans in particular.
By the end of it, you’ll understand why living things do what they do, even when their behavior doesn’t make sense at an individual level.
You’ll also learn how human culture can be genetically transmitted across countless generations. This is a process that relies not on teachers, but on memes, a word that Dawkins invented.
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: Very easy to read, with elegant examples and specialized wording that is clearly explained.
Length: 544 pages / around 16 hours for the audiobook
Recommended version: The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary Edition (Oxford Landmark Science)
The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
Is this book satire or a serious treatise in human government? There is no consensus, but it is for sure a work of huge importance.
What you’ll get out of this book: Up until Machiavelli, most people considered good leaders mostly needed to be honorable and virtuous, and that these two traits would help them make wise decisions.
Machiavelli turned this on its head, by claiming leaders were responsible for the prosperity and stability of their state. And sometimes, these objectives can only be achieved through immoral methods.
For Machiavelli, being loved by your subjects is a good thing. However, being feared and respected can be just as good, if not better.
Overall, if you think you’ll ever find yourself in a position of authority, with discretionary powers, this is an excellent guide book to have with you at all times (just don’t go off killing or imprisoning people).
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.
The Big Picture by Sean Carroll
Sean Carroll wrote this book as a theoretical physicist, but from a philosophical perspective. It is an ambitious work that gives a philosophical understanding to the Universe.
What you’ll get from this book: This book explains the major discplines and forces of physics, how they came to be and how these interact with each other. More importantly, it seeks to understand the “why” of it all, the purpose of the Universe and where it is heading.
When it comes to physics, reality is much stranger than fiction. For instance, the laws of classical physics that govern big objects (from pebbles to planets to stars) break down at the quantum level (atoms, neutrinos, photons etc).
At the smallest physical dimensions, particles start to behave in ways humans cannot yet understand: a particle that is both a wave and a particle, a superposition where the particle can be in many places at once and other curious phenomena.
Sean Carroll goes through the interplay of all of these, and in doing so brings it closer to an everyday understanding of the world around us.
Difficulty level: Low
Length: 480 pages / audiobook around 3 hours
Recommended Edition: The Big Picture