Having a rich mindset is essential for growth and reading philosophy books helps one discover tools to delve deep into their thoughts and beliefs.
Asking questions forms a very vital part of our substructure and we tend to ask ourselves why we are here, why the world is the way it is, or what’s the purpose of our existence.
We—basically—want to understand our lives and the existence of elements around us.
While we may not be able to get all the answers to all the questions that we have, philosophy gives us a platform to discover a higher sense of self. As philosophy explores and tries to answer our questions, it helps us reimagine and, possibly, change our world views for the better.
In a field with this much potential and as old as philosophy, knowing where to start is usually difficult…
That’s where I come in! In this post, I have compiled lists of the best books philosophy has to offer. I covered the best philosophy books for beginners, best Chinese philosophy books, and outlined a guide on how to choose a good philosophy book.
Let’s get started!
How to Choose a Good Philosophy Book (Things to Consider)
For beginners, finding the perfect philosophy book can be a bit challenging. So, I compiled a set of touchstones for finding the best philosophy books.
Remember, with philosophy, there isn’t a “one shoe fits all” solution. Here are the considerations:
Author’s Outlook and Cultural Context
Philosophy books are different in such a way that the author’s outlook on things is way more important than in other academic or nonacademic texts.
And you’re probably going to read texts which were written centuries ago, in another culture. Although most philosophy books usually transcend cultural and temporal bounds, you have to make sure that the author’s viewpoints and thoughts are still relevant in your cultural and temporal contexts.
Let’s again place focus on the “one shoe fits all” outlook on things. One book or all the books you find might not give you the ultimate answer to your questions, or you might not reach a conclusion right away, but these books will unlock tenets and spark a progressive thought process.
Philosophy is a complex field, a subject you can’t read and digest in a short period. It takes a lot of time and requires focus to understand the principles and their true meanings. If you’re a beginner, look for something that baby-feeds you.
Why Is It So Hard To Read And Comprehend Philosophy?
You might be wondering why so many philosophical texts are difficult to read…
Like, why are they criminally difficult to read or grasp?
There are two possible reasons:
- The first reason—which also happens to be minor—is the morphing of literature itself. Most contemporary philosophers have published books that are much easier to read—which by the way, have issues and ideas just as complex as those in philosophy books from 3 centuries ago or earlier.
- The second reason is the complexity of the issues and ideas that the books are trying to convey. Most of the philosophy books cover complex ideas, but some contemporary philosophers don’t cover topics as difficult to grasp as those covered before the 20th century.
I just feel like there are philosophers from all periods who people find difficult, we have philosophers like Kant and Co from the 18th century and McDowell and others from the 20th and 21st centuries.
Best Philosophy Books for Beginners
This is philosophy, served in a novel—an entertaining way to get introduced to philosophy.
The story follows a 14-year old teenager, Sophie, as she becomes the student of a famous philosopher in a quest to answer life’s most thought-provoking questions.
Thomas Nagel argues that “the best way to learn about philosophy is to think about its questions directly,” so he attempts to serve a short overview of the biggest philosophical problems to the beginning student.
He looks at possible solutions to these problems: knowledge of the world beyond our minds, knowledge of other minds, the mind-body problem, free will, the basis of morality, right and wrong, the nature of death, the meaning of life, and the meaning of words.
Thomas respects the value of open-mindedness; therefore, on top of expressing his opinions, he leaves the stated fundamental questions open. This allows the readers to accommodate other solutions and encourages them to think for themselves.
This is an excellent guide to philosophy for beginners. Bertrand Russel’s A History of Western Philosophy is a collection of summaries of a lot of relevant Western philosophical ideas in history and short biographies of popular and relevant Western philosophers.
It’s a comprehensive, clear, and informative book written by a writer who went on to become a respectable philosopher.
Best Chinese Philosophy Books
This book formed the foundation of Taoism and has been a vital text in Chinese thought and spirituality for more than three millennia.
Lao Tzu wrote it to teach peace, harmony, and balance. He achieved the purposes, and he has become a deity in religious Taoism and traditional Chinese religions.
This is the book you pick up when you want to understand the art of strategizing or dealing with people.
This timeless book is one of the most influential texts ever written and can be applied in the military, in business, politics, and any context that requires conjuring a plan of action. Each of its 13 chapters describes an aspect of warfare, covers tactics involved, and offers immediate application.
Confucius believed that for a country to thrive, its population—especially leaders—had to get a good grip on its morals. In tandem with this belief, Confucius trained his followers to be ethically cultivated men who presented themselves properly, were well-spoken, and acted with integrity in all their undertakings.
The teachings in the Analects were well received, and the text has been one of the most widely read and studied books in China for over a millennium.
Top 10 Philosophy Books
Plato is a very important figure in Greek philosophy, he was Socrates’ student and Aristotle’s teacher. To the rest of the world, he has to be regarded as the godfather of political science.
In the Republic, Plato presents his thoughts on the “perfect republic” and the nature of justice.
“Is the just man happier than the unjust one?” Plato asked.
Plato also presents other people’s sentiments of what an ideal republic should be governed.
Another subject that would spark a huge debate in today’s political atmosphere is Plato’s top five regimes. Plato believed that the top five regimes best to worst were:
This is a very short book—with only 40 pages—and it teaches peace, harmony, and balance.
Tao Te Ching is one of the foundational texts of Taoism and has shaped Chinese thought and spirituality for thousands of years.
The word “tao” translates to “the way,” and Taoism underlines the importance of learning and following the rhythm of the Universe in everything you do.
It emphasizes that going against the Universe’s flow will lead to internal disharmony and unfavorable outcomes.
Stoicism, philosophical belief that happiness and fulfillment can only be achieved by submitting to destiny.
Emotions are irrelevant!
A distinguished representative of stoicism, Marcus Aurelius used Meditations to outline a philosophy that encourages commitment to virtue above pleasure, places peace of mind above happiness, and teaches the art of staying calm in the storm.
This book was made with a flavor of practicality, it provides simple solutions to huge everyday problems.
This is one of the most difficult philosophy books I have come across, and this is definitely his most important philosophical text ever.
In this book, Kant presents two diametrical schools of thought, namely rational thought and empirical, experiential knowledge.
Let me be honest here, with my casual approach to reading, I have failed to munch this text but I went around looking for a good summary.
So, to sum it up in my reworded version, the Critique of Pure Reason attempts to define what reason alone—without evidence from experience—can add to one’s knowledge. Kant defines a posteriori knowledge (Knowledge gained through the senses) and compares it to a priori knowledge, which is the knowledge that is acquired independently of any particular experience. Kant analyzes the two types of knowledge to establish illusions of human reason and break it down to its core constituents.
Just like Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil isn’t your casual afternoon read.
Nietzsche wrote this book as a critical response to convention philosophies of good and evil. He recommends a direct and contextualized way of thinking that places emphasis on the realities of life and disregards traditional moral conventions, which include free will, self-consciousness, and religion.
Nietzsche presented his arguments in 296 sections and divided them into nine subject areas.
Sun Tzu wrote a classic military strategy book, which applied to Chinese warfare and military thought and is still relevant in all levels of the military all over the world today.
The Art of War has since been adapted for use in politics, business, and other scenarios involving decision-making.
Just like many other texts in this post, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness was not written in English but is available as a translated book.
This text is an excellent account of the human condition, exploring the things that give our lives significance.
Frankl endured four different Nazi labor camps, including Auschwitz, and lost his family during the holocaust.
He later used his experience and the experiences of others during that hellish and god-awful period in his life to give the world powerful philosophical teaching.
Frankl states that one cannot avoid suffering but can choose to accept it, find meaning in it, and carry on with renewed purpose.
Frankl introduced a theory called logotherapy, derived from the Greek word logos, which translates to ‘meaning’). The theory presents a polar point of view to that of Sigmund Freud, stating that our primary drive in life is not pleasure but the discovery and pursuit of what we find meaningful.
A realistic statesman and philosopher, Machiavelli believed that leaders, who are the ones we entrust with collective prosperity and stability of the state, have to—sometimes—play dirty to achieve the state’s objectives.
This belief turned the then ‘convention political philosophy’ on its belly and advocated for the need for realism rather than idealism.
Hume’s Treatise is one of the most influential works of Western philosophy, and the fact that it was published before he was even 30 shows how great a thinker he was.
With this book, Hume attempts to employ scientific methods of observation to study human nature and challenges the principles of traditional metaphysical thought.
Hume’s philosophy of informed skepticism is diametrical to both metaphysics and rationalism, and holds that man is neither a religious creation nor a machine, but a creature that is dominated by sentiment, passion, and appetite.
The most difficult philosophy book ever written
- Critique of Pure Reason — Emmanuel Kant
- Thus Spake Zarathustra — Friedrich Nietzsche
- Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus — Ludwig Wittgenstein
- Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind 2nd Edition — Wilfrid Sellars
- Principia Mathematica 3 Volume — North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell
- Being & Time — Martin Heidegger
- Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia — Gilles Deleuze
- Phénoménologie de la perception (Phenomenology of Perception) — Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s
- Phänomenologie des Geistes (Phenomenology of the Spirit) — Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
- The Metaphysics — Aristotle
Other Great Books on Philosophy
- Ethics — Benedict de Spinoza
- Nicomachean Ethics — Aristotle
- Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings — Thomas Aquinas
- A Theory of Justice — John Rawls
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing — Marie Kondo
- The Solitaire Mystery: A Novel About Family & Destiny By Jostein Gaarder
- 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos — Jordan Peterson
- The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World — The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu
- The Complete Essays of Montaigne — Michel de Montaigne
- The Last Days of Socrates — Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo — Plato
- Nature and Selected Essays — Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life — Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With The Heart Of A Buddha By Tara Brach
- A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects — Mary Wollstonecraft
- The Daily Stoic — Ryan Holiday
- A New History Of Western Philosophy — Anthony Kenny
- The Gulag Archipelago — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
- Letters From A Stoic — Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Why should you even bother reading philosophy books?
You might think that philosophy is for academics only or may seem like texts full of gobbledegook. Those two assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth; in fact, philosophy is for everyone and it provides us with answers and/or means to find answers to life’s questions and problems.
Philosophers are usually great thinkers and are people who have experienced or observed other people’s experiences. They ponder on life’s problems and attempt to find sustainable solutions to such problems.
So, let us ask again, why should you read philosophy? Because to overcome or cope with life’s many challenges, you need to understand yourself, the people around you, and the world in general.