5 Must-Read Philosophy Books

5 Must-Read Philosophy Books

Put on your philosophy hat with these 5 must-read philosophy books.

1. Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

“Outrageously funny, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar… has been a breakout bestseller ever since authors—and born vaudevillians—Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein did their schtick on NPR’s Weekend Edition. Lively, original, and powerfully informative, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar… is a not-so-reverent crash course through the great philosophical thinkers and traditions, from Existentialism (What do Hegel and Bette Midler have in common?) to Logic (Sherlock Holmes never deduced anything). Philosophy 101 for those who like to take the heavy stuff lightly, this is a joy to read—and finally, it all makes sense!”

2. Zeno and the Tortoise: How to Think Like a Philosopher by Nicholas Fearn

“For those who don’t know the difference between Lucretius’s spear and Hume’s fork, Zeno and the Tortoise explains not just who each philosopher was and what he thought, but exactly how he came to think in the way he did. Nicholas Fearn presents philosophy as a collection of tools — the tricks of a trade that, in the end, might just be all tricks, each to be fruitfully applied to a variety of everyday predicaments. In a witty and engaging style that incorporates everything from Sting to cell phones to Bill Gates, Fearn demystifies the ways of thought that have shaped and inspired humanity — among many others, the Socratic method, Descartes’s use of doubt, Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism, Rousseau’s social contract, and, of course, the concept of common sense. Along the way, there are fascinating biographical snippets about the philosophers themselves: the story of Thales falling down a well while studying the stars, and of Socrates being told by a face-reader that his was the face of a monster who was capable of any crime. Written in twenty-five short chapters, each readable during the journey to work, Zeno and the Tortoise is the ideal course in intellectual self-defense. Acute, often irreverent, but always authoritative, this is a unique introduction to the ideas that have shaped us all. “Entertaining and witty. A smooth, sweet concoction that should tickle the taste buds of the most philosophobic readers.” — Julian Boggini, The Times Educational Supplement (U.K.) “A concise and entertaining attempt to place the skills of philosophy at our fingertips.” — Olivier Burckhardt, The Independent on Sunday (U.K.)”

3. If Ignorance Is Bliss, We Should All Be Ecstatic by Fred Leavitt

“Nothing we think we know – NOTHING – is likely to be correct.

If Ignorance is Bliss, We Should All Be Ecstatic explores the limitations of knowledge and argues that neither reasoning nor direct observation can be trusted. Not only are they unreliable sources, but they do not even justify assigning probabilities to claims about what we can know. This position, called radical skepticism, has intrigued philosophers since before the birth of Christ, yet nobody has been able to refute it.

“Fred Leavitt uses two unique methods of presentation. First, he supports abstract arguments with summaries of real-life examples from many and varied fields, which make the arguments much more convincing and compelling. He cites more than 200 studies from psychology, mathematics, chaos theory, quantum mechanics, evolutionary theory, history, the corporate world, politics, the military, and current news reporting. Second, Leavitt’s writing is user-friendly, even when dealing with complex issues.

“Whether answering the telephone, turning on the TV, talking with friends, or munching on an apple, we expect things to happen predictably. These expectations, paired with radical skepticism, exemplify cognitive dissonance at the highest level.”

4. Warburton: A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

“Philosophy begins with questions about the nature of reality and how we should live. These were the concerns of Socrates, who spent his days in the ancient Athenian marketplace asking awkward questions, disconcerting the people he met by showing them how little they genuinely understood. This engaging book introduces the great thinkers in Western philosophy and explores their most compelling ideas about the world and how best to live in it.

“In forty brief chapters, Nigel Warburton guides us on a chronological tour of the major ideas in the history of philosophy. He provides interesting and often quirky stories of the lives and deaths of thought-provoking philosophers from Socrates, who chose to die by hemlock poisoning rather than live on without the freedom to think for himself, to Peter Singer, who asks the disquieting philosophical and ethical questions that haunt our own times.

“Warburton not only makes philosophy accessible, he offers inspiration to think, argue, reason, and ask in the tradition of Socrates. A Little History of Philosophy presents the grand sweep of humanity’s search for philosophical understanding and invites all to join in the discussion.”

5. I Think, Therefore I Laugh by John Allen Paulos

“The preeminent explicator of mathematical logic to non-mathematicians, John Allen Paulos is familiar to general readers not only from his bestselling books but also from his media appearances, including The David Letterman Show and National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” and “Science Friday,” as well as articles in Newsweek, Nature, Discover, Business Week, the New York Times Book Review, The Nation, New York Review of Books, and The London Review of Books.”

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IF IGNORANCE IS BLISS, WE SHOULD ALL BE ECSTATIC by Fred Leavitt