Why create a reading list of the best philosophy books for beginners? Well, 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 what they’d recommend as philosophy books for beginners. Luckily for me, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing some of the world’s finest philosophical minds.
* 2021 Update *
In the spring of 2021, due to the success of this reading list, I reached out to the original contributors and asked if they would want to add another book or two to the list if they had the chance. Most agreed that they’d love the opportunity. What’s even more exciting, is that I have reached out to some brand new philosophy experts and asked them to contribute their own nominations. The result is an expanded list of philosophy books for beginners. I hope you enjoy this republished, second edition if you will – thank you!
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.
Mary Margaret McCabe:
Thinking about truth and knowledge and value, as philosophy does, is very surprising, all the time. Any route into philosophy needs to capture that surprise, at the same time as slowing us down, getting us to think and rethink every step – because this kind of thinking should be slow, as well as surprising. Beginning in philosophy just is doing it, for the first time. So my first suggestion is difficult and needs to be taken slowly, but it starts out with the surprise:
Mark Sainsbury’s wonderful Paradoxes. It is beautifully written, and the paradoxes really bite, and when you work your way through the book you discover the real complexities that are provoked by these particular surprises. It starts with Zeno of Elea and his paradoxes of motion and works its way through puzzles about heaps (and vagueness) rationality (and decision-making) to the Liar paradox and the debates about truth the Liar provoked. It is a book you can start and come back to, over and over again.
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.
I’ve always thought that the best way into philosophy is to read some accessible first-rate philosophy. Genuinely accessible, genuinely first-rate philosophy is hard to find, but Thomas Nagel’s Mortal Questions is always the first example that comes to my mind. The first thing to grab one’s attention is the list of topics covered: death, the meaning of life, sexual perversion, war and massacre and brain bisection, among others.
Which person with even an ounce of philosophical curiosity could fail to be interested in such matters? Nagel’s writing combines simplicity and elegance with depth. As well as being a model of philosophical writing, this is also a collection of massively influential papers. For what it’s worth, most of the papers in this volume are highly cited, but from a beginner’s perspective that matters much less than their combination of brilliance and accessibility.
Nagel has a way of capturing the reader’s attention and not letting go until very the last sentence. For example, the essay on ‘The Absurd’ begins with the observation that ‘Most people feel on occasion that life is absurd, and some feel it vividly and continually’. Who can resist reading on? I’ve always liked Nagel’s conclusion: if nothing really matters, then it doesn’t matter that nothing matters and ‘we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair’.
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.
Eddy Keming Chen:
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.
Mary Margaret McCabe:
My second suggestion is, of course, some Plato. If the best philosophy books give you not only surprises but reasons to come back to the same book over and over again, this is characteristic of the Platonic dialogues par excellence. He writes with rich complexity, and demands from his reader thought, interpretation and rethinking across a lifetime. This list already has some Plato on it; but I would like to propose a Platonic dialogue which is mostly ignored, the Euthydemus.
It is not obviously a vehicle for whatever someone might think ‘Platonism’ is (that is a relief, perhaps) but it is full of puzzles and arguments that may seem simply fallacious, but turn out to offer some significant challenges both in questions about knowledge and truth, but also to figuring out how best to live (for example, how could we argue against someone who denies that there is any such thing as falsehood? And why would we even bother?).
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.
The Philosopher Queens: The lives and Legacies of Philosophy’s Unsung Women by Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting
Philosopher Queens is a collection of twenty-one concise essays introducing a diverse range of important women philosophers whom most people don’t know about but really should. Women philosophers have long been overlooked in the philosophical canon and this excellent collection is a gateway book to many marginalized and underappreciated thinkers such as Diotima, Ban Zhao, Harriet Taylor Mill, Mary Wollstonecraft, Angela Davis, and Azizah Y. al-Hibri. The essays are written in an accessible style with beautiful illustrations.
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.
I have to say Plato’s Republic. It has everything—ethics, political philosophy, metaphysics, philosophy of art, moral psychology, and philosophy of education—so it is a great text to use as an introduction to our discipline. This text would always be my recommendation, but my students have seemed especially hungry for, and attentive to, questions of justice, city, and soul in the past year.
This little book, first published in 1637, revolutionised philosophy. It was written in the aftermath of Galileo’s condemnation by the Church, which forced Descartes to suppress the publication of Le Monde, his treatise of physics, and to change his point of view regarding the relations between physics and metaphysics (aka first philosophy).
Descartes suggests that the new post-Aristotelian science, with the new categories of matter in motion, requires a new method which should not start from the senses but from the mind; but for this method to deliver the required certain knowledge, it should start from certain truths, from clear and distinct ideas. The famous cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) was taken to be the foundation of all knowledge of us qua minds and of the world, via God.
Far from being a heavy philosophical treatise, Discourse is a beautifully written autobiographical pamphlet, in which Descartes takes his readers by the hand, and without patronising them, he leads them through the rough paths he followed in searching for truth.
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 no 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. Consequently, I 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. The first class begins 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.
Eddy Keming Chen:
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 one of the best philosophy books 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 recommend Augustine’s Confessions. Because it is an autobiography, my students find it less intimidating than some of the other texts we read. Moreover, because it is an autobiography, it offers a good model for how to take big questions personally.
The Confessions is packed with big ideas—God, humanity, sin, vice, providence, reason, revelation, and faith—and it is the sort of book one can grow into. I see more every time I read it.
Mary Margaret McCabe:
My third suggestion, following the ethical theme, is an old favourite: J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams’ Utilitarianism, for and against. This is cast as a debate between the two views; but it has some rich thinking in it, especially in the Williams section – Williams’ Morality is a terrific book but sometimes just too hard to come to first, and this makes his approach to thinking about ethical questions more tractable.
This excellent book is an introduction to Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy and life. Beauvoir was frustrated with abstract and detached philosophy and instead wanted to explore how philosophy could be lived. In Beauvoir’s words: “there is no divorce between philosophy and life. Every living step is a philosophical choice.” Becoming Beauvoir shows how Beauvoir’s philosophical choices influenced her life, and vice versa, by looking at the challenges she faced and the contradictions and controversies she lived.
This biography was published in 2019 and although there are other biographies already out there, this one is particularly readable and enlightening and draws on some newly published material such as Beauvoir’s student diaries and love letters.
Together with its sequel, Metazoa, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds combines a painless introduction to the philosophy of mind with tales of scuba-diving encounters with a menagerie of undersea creatures. Other Minds is focused on the strange mentality of octopuses, who have more neurons than the average dog but are descended from molluscs like clams and snails.
Godfrey-Smith says that confronting an octopus is tantamount to meeting an alien mind, and he uses their strange psychology to cast light on the nature of intelligence. His follow-up volume, Metazoa (the biological term for the whole animal kingdom) broadens the canvas and aims to understand the place of consciousness itself in nature. Godfrey-Smith’s writing is as effortless as the motion of the underwater creatures he meets, but his arguments engage directly with the most central issues in the contemporary philosophy of mind.
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 are 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.”
Now I would add George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four and his article “Politics in the English Language.” The novel, of course, has both historical resonances, illustrating the dangers of Plato’s totalitarian political vision, and contemporary relevance in a fractured political world.
The article raises key issues about the politicization of language, also highly relevant today.
I decided that it would be good to include a history of philosophy on my list. But I struggled to decide which. So I have opted to cheat for this fourth selection and just say: any history of philosophy. There are plenty to choose from. Each has virtues and attendant vices. Some are much more readable than others, but also much more vulnerable to the accusation of dumbing down.
Some are much more even-handed than others, but also much less driven by a strong narrative. And there are two defects from which nearly all of them suffer: an exclusive focus on western thought; and a failure to engage with the most recent trends in philosophy. Even so, any history of philosophy that you come across in a bookshop or on some website is liable to be instructive and is liable to whet your appetite to go back to the original texts.
Having said all of that, I am conscious that you will probably want to know what my own favourite is. It is Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy. That combines a very high degree of accessibility with an astonishingly high degree of reliability. Nevertheless, there is one overwhelming reason why I couldn’t possibly have just settled on that as my fourth choice of a book suitable for a beginner: namely, its sheer scale.
It is in nine volumes, and it runs to some five thousand pages! True, it might still serve as an excellent encyclopaedic resource for a novice who wants to find out more about this or that specific thinker or about this or that specific epoch, but even then only a novice who already has some idea what it is they want to find out more about.
Meet our expert panel…
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, 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. He 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. He 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 C. Cleary is a philosopher who teaches at Columbia University, Barnard College, and the City College of New York. Her books include Existentialism and Romantic Love and the co-edited collection How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy. Skye 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.
Mary Margaret McCabe works on ancient philosophy, on ethics and on the philosophy of medicine. She is Professor of Philosophy Emerita at King’s College London, a Fellow of the British Academy, President of the British Philosophical Association (2008-12) and President of the Mind Association (2016-17); in 2022 she will be Honorary President of the Classical Association. MM is the Chair of Trustees of the charity Philosophy in Prison, which provides philosophical discussion for prisoners in the UK.
Eddy Keming Chen
Quassim Cassam is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick, UK. He is the author of 6 books, including Vices of the Mind: From the Intellectual to the Political. His main research interests are epistemology, the philosophy of extremism and terrorism, conspiracy theories, the self and self-knowledge, and the philosophy of general practice. Before coming to Warwick, Quassim was Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge, Professor of Philosophy at UCL, and Reader in Philosophy at Oxford.
Sabrina Little is a Philosophy Professor. In 2020, Sabrina completed a PhD in Philosophy at Baylor University. Before Baylor, Sabrina studied Philosophy of Religion at Yale Divinity School and Philosophy and Psychology at The College of William & Mary. Her main areas of interest are virtue ethics, moral psychology, and ancient philosophy. Currently, Sabrina is writing about the nature of moral habituation and exploring emotional precursors to moral virtues.
Stathis Psillos is a Greek philosopher of science. He is a Professor of Philosophy of Science and Metaphysics at the University of Athens, Greece and a member of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy—Engaging Science of the University of Western Ontario. In 2013–15, Stathis Psillos held the Rotman Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Science at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. Arguably, he is best known for his work in scientific realism and the metaphysics of science.
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This article on philosophy books for beginners was expanded upon, re-edited and re-published on Sunday 14th of March 2021.
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