Bertrand Russell once said that ‘science is what you know, philosophy is what you don’t know’, and when it comes to philosophy – I don’t know nearly enough. The vastness and occasional intangibility of the subject can make it feel inaccessible for novices. Like trying to find the end of a piece of sellotape, it can be frustrating to know where to start. In situations like this, there is only one thing you can do – ask the experts. Luckily for me, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing some of the world’s finest philosophical minds. In a bid to answer my own question – ‘what are the best philosophy books for beginners?’ – I turned to this wonderful panel of people. Spanning lots of different areas of philosophy, if anyone can guide us on the best philosophy books for beginners – it is these brilliant people. So, before we begin our search for the best philosophy books for beginners, let’s meet our amazing panel…
Massimo Pigliucci earned a doctorate in genetics from the University of Ferrara, Italy, and then a PhD in biology from the University of Connecticut, and finally a PhD in philosophy of science from the University of Tennessee. Massimo Pigliucci was formerly a professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University. In 1997, he received the Theodosius Dobzhansky Prize and is also a regular contributor to Skeptical Inquirer.
Susan Haack is a Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, Cooper Senior Scholar in Arts and Sciences, Professor of Philosophy, and Professor of Law at the University of Miami. She has won awards from the American Philosophical Association and from UM, for excellence in teaching; the Provost’s Award for excellence in research, and the Faculty Senate Distinguished Scholar Award; as well as the Forkosch Award for excellence in writing.
Adrian Moore is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, whose main philosophical areas of focus include Kant, Wittgenstein, history of philosophy, metaphysics, philosophy of mathematics and philosophy of logic. Adrian Moore is also a prolific writer. His first book, The Infinite, was considered an ‘authoritative overview of a topic of considerable philosophical importance’.
Lewis Gordon is an American philosopher who works in the areas of Africana philosophy, philosophy of human and life sciences, phenomenology, philosophy of existence, social and political theory, postcolonial thought, theories of race and racism, and more. He has written particularly extensively on race and racism, postcolonial phenomenology, Africana and black existentialism, and on the works of W. E. B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon.
Skye Cleary is a philosopher and author who also teaches at Columbia University, Barnard College and the City College of New York. Skye Cleary published her book, Existentialism and Romantic Love in 2015, and is also the Managing Editor of the American Philosophical Association’s blog, an advisory board member of Strategy of Mind, and a certified fellow with the American Philosophical Practitioners Association.
At the University of Natal, David Papineau studied mathematics and statistics for four years. In 1968, David returned to England to study philosophy at Cambridge and then completing a PhD on conceptual change and scientific rationality. David Papineau was the President of the British Society for Philosophy of Science for 1993-5, President of the Mind Association for 2009-10, and President of the Aristotelian Society for 2013-14.
You’ve met the expert panel, now – let’s discover the best philosophy books for beginners.
Alfred Whitehead famously said that all Western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. That’s more than a slight exaggeration, and yet I seriously doubt anyone can appreciate philosophy without reading Socrates’ most famous student. These five dialogues are splendid examples of Plato’s prose and philosophical acumen. The Euthyphro presents an argument, still valid today, that morality cannot possibly derive from gods, regardless of whether the latter exist or not. The Apology features Socrates’ own defence at the trial where he was accused of impiety and corruption of the Athenian youth, and at which he was condemned to death. The Crito is a dialogue in which Socrates explores the concept of justice and proposes an early version of social contract theory. The Meno is a splendid example of the Socratic method, focused on an exploration of the idea of virtue, though we also get the famous definition of knowledge as justified true belief. Finally, the Phaedo presents us with the last moments of Socrates’ life, where the philosopher talks about the soul and the afterlife. The collection is simply an astounding example of good writing and good philosophy.
Many of the existential philosophers were cool and exciting and iconoclastic. Sarah Bakewell shows this well, along with the allure, dangers, and legacies of their philosophies. The book is a weaving together of the lives and ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hannah Arendt, Frantz Fanon, Iris Murdoch, and about 68 other characters – ultimately providing a sprightly introduction to a broad range of intellectual giants of the 20th Century.
Penrose is a throwback to the age of authors who respected their readers enough to explain things properly. When he mentions complex numbers, say, or quantum mechanics, or Turing machines, he doesn’t just wave his pen at their mysteries but stops to go through the details, using equations where necessary, along with pictures, metaphors and the clear language of understanding. As a result, he lays bare why both mind and matter are so perplexing. Some of his eventual positive suggestions, which have quantum gravity enabling human minds to transcend Gödel’s theorem, are pretty wacky, to be honest. But his real achievement is to convey how deeply mysterious nature is.
A list of the best philosophy books for beginners might be expected to include contemporary texts that are designed precisely as introductions to the subject. And indeed there are plenty of excellent texts of that kind. But I have included two classics on my list. This is because I believe that, when a great philosophical text is as accessible as each of these is, then there is really no better way of gaining an idea of what philosophy is than to plunge straight into it. This is not the paradox that it appears to be. In philosophy there is no shallow end or deep end – and no starting point or end point. The first of the classics on my list is Plato’s dialogue, Meno. Plato pretty much invented the subject, over two thousand years ago. Yet this dialogue is as fresh and as readable as it ever was. The guiding issue in it is whether virtue can be taught. But it ranges much more widely than that. It touches on some of the most basic questions about human beings and their place in the world. It is lively, engaging, and extraordinarily deep – a superb introduction to the subject.
I have my students read The Treatise of Zera Yacob. This 17th-century Ethiopian philosopher brings together a globality of ideas and the students easily make their own connections to the philosophical problems raised by other philosophers from St. Augustine through Descartes and onward.
When I teach Introduction to Philosophy I use, not one of those maddeningly bitty anthologies with which publishers bombard us, but Plato’s Republic—for its breadth, and for the way it integrates so many areas: social and political philosophy, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of education, philosophy of art, the status of women, and so on. But of course, Plato’s political vision is chilling; so I like to combine the Republic with a much more recent book, Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (1993)—which spells out how Plato’s rationalist epistemology underpins his totalitarian political philosophy, and offers in its place a fallibilist epistemology and an articulate defense of freedom of thought and expression. This way, students are introduced both to a key text in the history of western philosophy and to the relevance of philosophical ideas to their own lives.
The main way to dip your toes into philosophy is by reading about philosophers historically, and for that, I recommend A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton. However, another fantastic way to dive into it is through philosophical fiction, and for this, I highly recommend Camus’ beautifully written The Stranger. The novel deals with absurdity, mortality, and the recognition that “There is not love of life without despair about life,” set under the dazzling Algerian sun.
I don’t like to use textbooks or “beginners” books, though I’m not against those that offer a vision of philosophy and thus stand as texts in their own right. I thus teach with primary sources, and I’ve observed over the years that great philosophers who are also the same quality writers made extraordinary attempts to explain philosophy or at least their vision of it to people across the ages. I teach a beginners course called “Problems of Philosophy” in which I do the following. I begin the first class with this paragraph:
[The seeker of wisdom/the philosopher is the one] whose heart is informed about these things which would be otherwise ignored, the one who is clear-sighted when he is deep into a problem, the one who is moderate in his actions, who penetrates ancient writings, whose advice is [sought] to unravel complications, who is really wise, who instructed his own heart, who stays awake at night as he looks for the right paths, who surpasses what he accomplished yesterday, who is wiser than a sage, who brought himself to wisdom, who asks for advice and sees to it that he is asked advice. (Inscription of Antef, 12th Dynasty, KMT/Ancient Egypt, 1991–1782 BCE)
I place this short paragraph right in the syllabus. What is beautiful about it is that it offers much for reflection, and I don’t need to explain to students that philosophy didn’t begin in ancient Athens in 500 BCE because they see here a piece of writing from more than 1,000 years earlier in Km.t/Egypt. We then move to Plato’s Symposium, which dovetails on reflections raised here. Sometimes I go to Plato’s Republic, which does the same. The students see that acknowledging African philosophy needn’t require eliminating Hellenic thought.
I’m not sure I would still uphold many of the substantial views defended in Dawkins’ classic. But it’s certainly the first book I would recommend to someone who wants to understand the logic and power of natural selection. It is no accident that more than a million copies have been sold. Dawkins grabs his readers and doesn’t let them go. In the 40 years since the book was first published, we have come to understand natural selection much better. But Dawkins remains unsurpassed at showing us what questions it raises.
The next classic on my list is Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. Much of what I have said about Plato’s Meno applies to this book too. It is not as old as the Meno, of course, but even so it is four hundred years old, and arguably the first great text of modern philosophy. (“Modern”, in this context, does not mean “contemporary”: it stands in contrast with “ancient” and “medieval”.) It is therefore as remarkable in the case of Descartes’ Meditations as it was in the case of Plato’s Meno that we are able to say, as indeed we are, that it is as fresh and as readable as it ever was. Descartes’ aim in the Meditations is to provide a secure foundation for science – but, just like Plato in the Meno, he ends up addressing a much wider set of issues than that, all of them of enduring philosophical concern. The Meditations is another superb introduction to the subject. (It was also incidentally my own introduction to the subject.)
The first book I’ve ever read on the philosophy of science, which hooked me onto the field and which was incredibly illuminating for me even as a practicing scientist. Chalmers spans all the major schools of thought, from inductionism to falsificationism, from Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shifts to Feyerabend’s methodological anarchism, up to more recent debates, such as the realism vs anti-realism one, or the idea that science behaves (or, at least, should behave) as a Bayesian algorithm. For every school of thought, Chalmers makes a convincing case to his readers, only to demolish it in the next chapter, in true Socratic fashion. You will not get a final answer by the end of the book, but you will surely have learned a lot about the nature of science.
A book I often find myself recommending of late, both to students and to correspondents, is John Locke’s Conduct of the Understanding (published posthumously in 1706). If I had to choose between this slim volume and the avalanche of books on “critical thinking” published over the last decades, Locke would win hands down—for his shrewdness about human cognitive weaknesses and limitations, and his insistence that reasoning well requires, not just the avoidance of fallacies, but the right motives, the right attitudes, the right openness of mind. As he writes, “[s]ome Men of Study and Thought, that reason right, and are Lovers of Truth, do make no great advances in their Discoveries of it” because:
… they converse but with one sort of Men, they read but one sort of Books, they will not come in the hearing but of one sort of Notions … . They have a pretty Traffick with known Correspondents in some little Creek, within that they confine themselves, but will not venture out onto the great Ocean of Knowledge, to survey the Riches that Nature hath stored other parts with, no less genuine, no less solid, no less useful, than what has fallen to their lot in the admired Plenty and Sufficiency of their own little Spot … .
Looking at recent philosophical literature would convey the impression that the field is a collection of sub-specialities, cliques, and cartels; Locke’s little book has the great merit of revealing that, and why, this recent fragmentation is an intellectual disaster.
Ironically, the third book on my list, which was written as an introduction to the subject, or at any rate to one branch of the subject, is probably the least accessible of the three. Portions of it always appear on my first-year undergraduate reading lists, and my students often confess to me that they find it hard work. But I cannot resist including it here. It is a compendium of many of Williams’ main ideas, developed in his later work. But it also serves as a beautifully concise and elegant introduction to ethics in general. It is hard work. But that is part of the reason why I think it is a good book for beginners. Philosophy is hard work. In reading and assimilating a book like this, one is brought to a keen appreciation of what the rewards of that hard work can be.
I’ll skip over others and simply state that Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy prepare students well to go in so many directions. There are many philosophers from across the globe we could add, but Russell’s prose is so concise and well formulated that the students leave with a sense also of what excellent philosophical writing is.
The concept of justice has been debated ever since the dawn of philosophy, for instance in Plato’s Crito, and likely ever since human beings have been able to articulate their ideas so that they could debate them. Sandel’s book is an excellent introduction to different philosophical frameworks for thinking about justice, from utilitarianism to Kantian deontology, to Aristotelian virtue ethics (my favourite). Contemporary opposing conceptions of justice, such as John Rawls’ notion of justice as fairness, and the libertarian take on self-ownership, are clearly presented and their pros and cons discussed. The nice thing about Sandel’s writing is not just that it is clear and accessible, but that he keeps going back to specific questions that actually matter to people, from how to treat hired help to affirmative action. It’s about ethics as lived by real human beings, not as abstractly discussed in the halls of the academy.
Simone de Beauvoir is most famous for The Mandarins, which won the very prestigious Prix Goncourt French literature award, and The Second Sex, her groundbreaking analysis of women’s situation. However, one of her best and less appreciated works is her first novel, She Came to Stay. It’s roughly based on Beauvoir’s life, and specifically a ménage-a-trois, but it isn’t quite as raunchy as it sounds – despite the naked woman on the cover of some of the English editions. It presents some of the major ideas that Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about in Being and Nothingness much more lucidly than he did. While that’s not difficult to do, She Came to Stay toys with existential themes – complex webs of relations we weave, the gaze of the other, and power games – in a way that’s much more fun and exciting than Sartre’s tome.
The essays in this collection were all written in the early days of cognitive science. Ever the maverick, Dennett exposes the weak spots as quickly as he introduces the programme. Probing the differences between people and machines, he makes us puzzle about imagery, learning, consciousness and free will. And to finish, you get the wonderful science fiction fable ‘Where Am I?”, perhaps the only philosophy article ever to be made into a film.”