As someone who likes to keep a strong foot in the realm of social justice and the contemporary philosophy, even though I would not count myself an expert in any of those fields, I thought it would be cool to come up with a list of my favorite and best philosophy books for beginners.
Because let’s face it, we’re all beginners here.
So I assembled a list of 13 (the philosopher in me really wants to comment on the meaning I instinctively ascribe to that number), and I hope you enjoy. If you want to see everything in a convenient list, then here you go, otherwise keep reading for my explanation on each one.
If you’re looking for a great introduction to philosophy, that isn’t bogged down with so much talking and talking, then this is the book for you.
I found Paul’s style to be very direct and to the point. I never had any trouble understanding what he was talking about, and I thought all his bullet points and clear chronological order of philosophers really helped to put everything into perspective.
It’s a great introduction, as the name suggests, and so I would definitely consider starting here. That said, if you’re more of a visual learner, let’s move onto the next item…
I’ve mentioned the “Book” series by DK before, and I can’t not mention it here. People, I think, often view DK as being more for kids, but they have advanced a lot in recent years to be more of a visual learning experience for people of all ages.
Yes, there’s still a lot of books that they produce for kids, but there are a lot of books or adults as well.
The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas, Simply Explained is a good example of something that works for all ages, honestly. It breaks down the concepts into bite-sized chunks, and provides us with lists, timelines, illustrations, tables, and a lot more to help us break down how it all works.
I love this book series in general, so I would definitely read this particular book if you’re interested in learning more about western philosophy.
Whenever I’m starting to learn a new thing, I usually like to learn the history of that thing. It helps me to wrap my mind around a subject and quantify it before digging deeper.
That’s what you get with A Little History of Philosophy. It was published by Yale University Press as part of the Little Histories series.
What I love about this book is that it presents everything in a very clear chronological order, which is nice for me to get my head around it.
It also goes into some detail on some of the non-traditional thinkers that influenced the field, unlike the Platos, Aristotles and Socrates of the world.
In fact, I liked Nigel Warburton’s Little History so much that I had to include another book from him. Philosophy: The Classics, is specifically a book designed to introduce you to the many bodies of philosophical literature.
I actually consulted this book a little bit to know what else to put on this list.
Overall, he covers thirty-two different philosophical texts, from Plato to Kuhn.
This is a lot like a group of SparkNotes summaries and breakdowns, which is incredibly helpful when digging into the different texts later. In fact, I would definitely read this one before getting into some of the others books on this list, for example…
I feel like Plato’s Republic is easily the ancient philosophy book I hear the most about. It’s kind of foundational, and even though some of the principles don’t hold up as well these days, it’s still an HUGELY important step in philosophical history.
Unless you’ve been living in Plato’s cave all your life, you’ll know that Plato was one of the most well-known philosophers of Ancient Greece. But Republic is actually about his teacher, Socrates.
The book is presented as a conversation between Socrates and several others. And it really digs into just about every type of philosophy you can think of: politics, metaphysics, ethics, art, psychology, you name it.
In other words, if you’re starting to dig into the classics, there’s no better place to start than this book.
What I love about Meditations is that it was written by a frickin’ Roman Emperor! That’s right, Marcus Aurelius was an emperor/philosopher, and he had a lot of deep thinking that he did.
Side note: He was also played beautifully by Dumbledore himself, Richard Harris, in Gladiator.
I actually already mentioned this book in my list of books that will make you smarter, but it’s worth repeating here, because it’s such a hallmark of philosophy.
It’s particularly good if you want some philosophy centered around leadership and self-control, which was a topic near and dear to Emperor Aurelius’ heart.
Overall, it’s one that I highly recommend for the student of philosophy, especially if you want something coming from a unique perspective on things.
Here’s a fun fact. It used to be that philosophy was not only the practice that we think of it today, but also the source of scientific knowledge. This led to some interesting conclusions of science, but also some wrong ones.
It was after Galileo revealed some of these problems in the system that Rene Descartes began to differentiate between the methods of philosophy, and what we know call the scientific method.
In other words, this book was a major breakthrough in the creation of the scientific method. And I think it’s no surprise that it came out in 1637, where the next 400 years of technological history would take humanity more steps forward than the previous 4000 years combined.
It’s an important piece of philosophy, even if it’s a bit overlooked in some places.
John Locke is a name you’ve probably heard. He’s a famous philosopher that was pretty big in his day, and has left a lasting impact.
What drew me to this book is that it really talks about issues that are relevant today. For example, he talks about how many philosophers don’t spend enough time exposing themselves to foreign ideas, but instead spending all their time among people who share their thoughts and values.
In other words, he’s condeming the idea bubble. This is something probably very familiar to us all, those of us who live in a current political climate. There are a lot of bubbles happening, and I think it’s very interesting to get a look at the approach to this philosophy from someone who lived over 300 years ago.
Philosophy is not just one thing, it’s actually a collection of different disciplines. If you want a good introduction to one of those, it’s this one, an introduction to ethics. And while it would be nice to have Chidi from The Good Place teach this to us, instead we have Bernard Williams.
I will admit, this one was a little more of a slog than the others, but that’s because it gets really deep into its subject. It’s a true introduction to ethics, and one that should not be ignored.
And let’s be honest, we need some improvement in our ethics these days, especially as technology advances and we’re faced with some difficult questions.
So yeah, if you want to know more about ethics, this is easily the best book to go to.
This one is pretty easy to pick up because it’s not intended as a philosophy textbook, but it’s actually an autobiography of Saint Augustine, who was a well-known Christian saint who lived in the fourth century.
The autobiography gives a lot of juicy philosophical thought on religion, God, meditation, stoicism, what it means to be human, faith, sin, etc.
In short, it’s packed with big ideas and deep thinking from a man in a unique position comparatively.
Chances are, if you took a Philosophy 101 class in college, you might have read The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. It’s a great introduction to not only the texts and history of the discipline itself, but also the very ideas and the nature of critical thinking.
It’s a great way to get introduced to the methods of thinking like a philosopher.
It also helps that Russel is a very good writer, and covers a lot of topics including logic, metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. It’s truly a great overview.
Of all the people who have had a life to provoke philosophical thinking, it’s Viktor Frankl. The poor soul was a Holocaust survivor, but also a psychiatrist. So his whole experience during World War II was geared to make him think critically about life, religion, and philosophy.
He observed that those who found meaning in life in the Nazi concentration camps were often those who were able to keep going, and so he spends lot of time dwelling on this idea of meaning.
It’s a great read, and a very sobering one at that. It really makes you think about what’s important to us, and why.
In fact, if you could only read one first-hand account from this list, I’d make Frankl’s book the one to go with.
This is the only philosophical novel I have on the list, but it’s actually a fascinating read, and a really good philosophical breakdown.
Imagine that three philosophers walk into a cafe in Paris at the same time: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Raymond Aron. They walk in, meet, and discuss existentialism.
This book allows the author to deconstruct the different thought patterns of various early-20th-century philosophers, and she does it beautifully.
The book itself is not much more than a bunch of dialogue, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s clear that Bakewell knows her subject, and she’s really good about presenting it in a way that is accessible to the rest of us.
So there you have it, my top 13 picks for the best philosophy books for beginners.
While this wasn’t meant to be a deep dive into all the different types of philosophy, from stoic philosophy7 to political philosophy, to practical philosophy, to moral philosophy, it should still give you a good idea of what’s needed to dig deeper.
I hope this turns you into a thinker, and teaches you some philosophy lessons.