The Best Philosophy Books to Read

Best philosophy books reviewed

 

This is a, very partial, list of books about philosophy that you might enjoy reading. Every book found here comes from my personal library and is reviewed based on a (yes, full!) reading. So if you read these reviews, you may be able to avoid some duds, and, with a bit of luck, find some good philosophy books to read. If you are interested in buying a book, please click the link to Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk below the review - they are likely to offer the best available price.

Think
Simon Blackburn

If you want a general introduction to philosophy, from ethics to epistemology to logic, this is a very enjoyable introductory philosophy book to read. Every major aspect you'll be interested in (and few that you might not be interested in!) is covered, all very well, with the exception of the chapter on ethics. This ignores the questions most people are interested in: what is right and wrong, and why. (Simon Blackburn has written another book on ethics which fills some of these gaps, which is reviewed next.) With that small exception, this is an altogether excellent introduction. It will be affordable for the most modest of pockets, and will then fit right in!

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Being Good
Simon Blackburn

The companion book to 'Think', also published as 'Ethics: A Very Short Introduction', is even slimmer than it's predecessor. However, it does a good job of covering the major traditional ethical theories, such as utilitarianism and Kantian ethics. Commendably it covers the practical application of ethics to issues like abortion. The treatment is a bit superficial, but with such a short book this is to be expected. I was very pleased that in the third and final part of the book Simon Blackburn tackles an issue which is all too often ignored: just why should we be good, anyway? The answers he gives do not really dig deep enough into the issues, unfortunately, but they may be persuasive in many cases. All in all, I recommend this book, but you should be aware that it is only "a very short introduction."

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How Free Are You?
Ted Honderich

This book may seem like a brief, popular treatment of determinism, but it is actually a presentation for the general public of Honderich's very thorough and modern treatment of the problem. Free will and causality are very clearly and precisely defined, and modern neuroscience is presented. Honderich favours a new solution to the age-old problem of whether determinism being true would mean we lack free will - he argues that both compatibilism and incompatibilism are incorrect, and that some of what we traditionally call free will is lost, but some maintained. He finishes by suggesting that we should take a positive attitude of affirmation towards the aspects of free will that are maintained.

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101 Philosophy Problems
Martin Cohen

As the cover and name both suggest, this is a light and enjoyable book, with 101 brief dilemmas. However, it all leads into some intriguing philosophy which is far from elementary. Each problem gets a philosophical discussion at the end of the book, and though by their nature not fully in-depth, these can be quite valuable.

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The Simpsons and Philosophy
Edited by William Irwin, Mark T. Conrad and Aeon J. Skoble

It may seem funny, and, indeed, it is, but there is some decent, though not groundbreaking, philosophy here. Essays like 'Homer and Aristotle', 'Lisa and American Anti-intellectualism' and 'Thus Spake Bart' use the Simpson family as an interesting base to explore ethics, and the first manages to put forward some ideas which would might make even Homer exclaim: "Mmmm... fascinating!" Unfortunately, there is some appalling postmodernist and relativist garbage in places, as in 'The Simpsons, Hyper-Irony, and the Meaning of Life.' And some essays are neither enlightening nor entertaining. But as a Simpsons fan and philosophy fan, I'm glad this book was published, as it's a (mostly) enjoyable read.

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Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters
Ted Cohen

Great jokes, shame about the philosophy! Well, that's not entirely fair. This book presents a reasonable philosophy of jokes, but there's not a whole lot to say on this subject, and, anyway, it seems to miss the point somehow. Fortunately, the focus here is as much on the jokes, and some great ones are included, particularly a number of ingenious Jewish jokes which most people haven't heard.

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A New Dictionary of Christian Ethics
Edited by John Macquarie and James Childress

This comprehensive volume has entries, some a page or more in length, on aspects of ethics both specifically Christian and more general in nature. The general standard of these is excellent, thoughtful and scholarly. Major names in the field are bought in; for example, the philosopher R.M. Hare wrote the entry on utilitarianism. All in all, a valuable volume, worth putting on any religion or ethics bookshelf.

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The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance
Anthony Gottlieb

The first volume of former Economist science editor Anthony Gottlieb's history of philosophy, this takes on a mammoth subject and covers it well, all told. Gottlieb studied Philosophy at Cambridge University, UK (like me!) and offers not just a readable narrative history with a sense of the flow of interrelated ideas, but also a sound exposition of different philosopher's ideas. He is particularly good on the early philosophers, about whose ideas most people know very little. As the title indicates, Gottlieb goes right the way through the middle ages and scholasticism, ending with Descartes and the birth of modern Philosophy.

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The Problems of Philosophy
Bertrand Russell

'The Problems of Philosophy' is deservedly Russell's most famous popular work, and an excellent book of reasonable length. The problems in question all have to do with what we can know and how we should think of the universe. This means that they ignore such questions as those of ethics, but this was not Russell's main field - the areas covered suffice to give a fascinating overview of his philosophy.

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Mysticism and Logic
Bertrand Russell

Another of Russell's popular works, this covers topics (such as determinism) broader than its title would suggest. But the focus is very much on the place of a scientific attitude in philosophy, as opposed to the groundless, flighty metaphysics so common in 'continental philosophy.' This is a generally good book, with sound ideas, but Russell occasionally has flights of purple prose himself, which are full of sound and fury, but seem to signify next to nothing. This is particularly evident in 'A Free Man's Worship', an essay which nevertheless tackles the interesting question of what our attitude should be to philosophy and the uncertainty and undermining of traditional beliefs it brings.

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An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
David Hume

Hume wrote this book in an attempt to introduce his philosophy to the educated public of Europe, and as such it is a relatively accessible classic of philosophy. It covers most of Hume's original ideas in fields outside ethics, including statements of his famous problem of induction and 'Hume's Fork', the embodiment of his empiricist philosophy and skepticism about vague metaphysical claims. Hume is deservedly considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time, and this is the best introduction to his general ideas.

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