Ethical Realism

February 19, 2010

Eight Essential Philosophy Books

Filed under: philosophy — JW Gray @ 8:54 am

If you have decided to learn about philosophy, then you might want to start by reading some of the greatest philosophy texts. It will often be a good idea to read supplemental books along with the classic texts to help you understand them. Many philosophers have written their own interpretations of the classic texts in order to help us make sense out of them. Here are eight fairly enjoyable philosophy texts that I recommend:

1. John Searle’s Minds, Brains, and Science

Some arguments involving philosophy of mind using simple language. Searle argues that many other philosophers want to “explain away the mind” rather than try to genuinely understand it. Searle argues that the mind is a special physical domain of reality.

2. Pierre Hadot’s What is Ancient Philosophy?

This might help you make sense out of Ancient Philosophy in general, and it argues that ancient philosophy was a “way of life” rather than just arguments that tell us what to believe.

3. Nietszche’s Pre-Platonic Philosophers

Based on his lecture notes, but makes sense out of pre-platonic philosophy without being overly complected. Pre-Platonic philosophers paved the way for philosophy and introduced just about every major  approach one could take in life. I also recommend Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, which is also about pre-Platonic philosophy. (Robin Waterfield’s The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists is probably also worth a look.)

4. Epictetus’s  Handbook (i.e Enchiridon)

When life gets hard, the Handbook is here to save the day. He suggests that we can change our emotions by changing our thinking.

5. Plato’s Euthyphro

A dialogue that asks us, Are things good only because we like them?

6. Plato’s Republic

Tries to answer many important questions, such as What is Justice? And, Why do philosophy?

7. Laurence Lampert’s Nietzsche’s Task: An Interpretation of Beyond Good and Evil

Supplemental book to help make sense of Nietszche. (Nietzsche’s Teaching is Lampert’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.)

8. Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil

What is most important in life, and how does this relate to our moral systems? (I also recommend Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathusra, which can be read like a novel, but it would probably be a good idea to read it with Lampbert’s Nietzsche’s Teaching.)


After you are familiar with philosophy, there are many other “classic” texts that you might want to read. Here are 20 more books that I recommend to every philosophy enthusiast:

  1. Philosophy as a Way of life – Pierre Hadot
  2. The Inner Citadel – Pierre Hadot
  3. Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
  4. Therapy of Desire – Martha Nussbaum
  5. Essays on Moral Realism – edited by Geoffrey-Sayre-McCord
  6. Free Will – Gary Watson
  7. A Theory of Justice – John Rawls
  8. Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments – R. Jay Wallace
  9. Rationality in Action – Searle
  10. Foucault Reader – edited by Paul Rabinow
  11. Concept of the Political – Carl Schmitt
  12. Incompleteness – Rebecca Goldstein
  13. Individuals – P. F. Strawson
  14. Causation – edited by Ernest Sosa an Michael Tooley
  15. Causation and Counterfactuals – Edited by John Collins, Ned Hall, and L. A. Paul
  16. Utilitarianism – J. S. Mill
  17. Critique of Pure Reason – Immanuel Kant
  18. Treatise of Human Nature – David Hume
  19. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals – Immanuel Kant
  20. Leviathan – Thomas Hobbes

Of these twenty additional books, the first four are the most enjoyable, and the rest are best for the “initiated.” The final four books are older classics, so they are, in my opinion, a lot harder to read than usual.

No matter what you end up reading, you will probably want to make heavy use of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a free internet resource found at

It can also be a good idea to get ahold of one or two introductory philosophy textbooks that summarize many of the arguments the major philosophers give. For example, Looking at Philosophy by Donald Palmer can be helpful.


  1. Wow, I’m surprised you left Heidegger out of this list. One of my favorite of his is What is Called Thinking? One part deals with Nietzsche, the other part is a careful examination of the meaning of a Greek philosopher’s phrase; it’s not the phrase that I found invaluable, but the process of analyzing it. When Heidegger investigates an idea, I imagine he is like a hungry tiger circling and meditating on his pray.

    I hated Leviathan. Couldn’t stand reading it.

    Have you read Kirkegaard? I recently began Fear and Trembling, it is beautiful.

    Though you have many of Nietzsche’s major works, and I wouldn’t want to make this list any longer than it is, I want to say that two of my favorite books were The Gay Science and Human, All Too Human.

    Comment by Armin — February 27, 2010 @ 1:11 am | Reply

  2. I have read just about everything by Nietzsche that he published and then some. I liked it all.

    Good point about Heidegger. Being and Time should be read, but I don’t know if anyone can make sense out of it without taking a class. I haven’t read “What is called thinking?” but I did read his Problem of Knowledge.

    Comment by James Gray — February 27, 2010 @ 1:40 am | Reply

  3. […] will spend some time in the near future to discuss the must-read philosophy books and accompanying interpretive texts, formal logic, informal fallacies, and elements of a good […]

    Pingback by How to Become a Philosopher « Ethical Realism — July 25, 2010 @ 12:24 am | Reply

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