Philosophy doesn’t have to be all Hegel and Frege, you know; like all disciplines, it might get finicky and complex for the layperson once you start scratching well below the crust, but above all else philosophy is about thinking deeply. And anyone can give that a shot, right? You gotta start someplace, and in with a discipline that ranges from economics and politics to the nature of reality and the ethics of extreme sports, there’s a lot to choose from. So forget that you haven’t read everything from Plato to Žižec, and expand your mind with the 10 best philosophy books for deep thinking newbies.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)
Don’t be put off by the heft of this number: you won’t need any prior knowledge going in, and de Beauvoir’s text can guide you through the intricacies of her own argument without the help of an academic tutor. A thorough grounding in Marxist feminist thought, it’s a fantastic historical survey of the difference between sex and gender: as the author says, ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, woman.’
Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1961)
German political theorist (she disavowed the label ‘philosopher’, so apologies for that) Arendt’s work is all about power, authority and democracy. As a European Jew who fled to America during the Holocaust, she is concerned with violence and how it relates to the left and to the right. All her books are excellent, but we’d recommend Eichmann in Jerusalem, a study on whether evil is radical or thoughtless, based on her reportage on Eichmann’s post-war trial.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886)
Seeing as we’re already on evil… Nietzsche’s book slams the idea of traditional morality, accusing other moral philosophers of being dogmatic in their approach to it and arguing that good and evil are different expressions of the same basic instincts. Nietzsche’s iconoclastic attitude is really energizing and this is a good read, whether or not you find yourself convinced. Check out Thus Spake Zarathustra for more of the same!
Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762)
A text that helped stir up political fervor in the late eighteenth century France, this book argued against the divine right of the monarch to rule and made the case for the people’s ability to rule themselves. It interrogates the idea of legitimate political authority – where it comes from, how it’s regulated – and suggests a democratic model that can work out legislation within the state. Again, agree or disagree, it’s interesting stuff and still feels relevant today.
Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks (1929-1935)
Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, was imprisoned by his country’s Fascist government in 1926, and he wrote these notebooks (available complete or as an abridged selection) while he was in jail. Although they’re structurally unsystematic (again: he was in prison at the time!) they’re staggeringly wide-ranging in topics – he covers Fascism, Fordism, Italian history the French revolution, folklore, religion and culture and more. He critiques capitalism in a variety of ways, most notably, maybe, in his take-down of the cultural hegemony that maintains it. You can dip in and out of this one: we recommend it!
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1532)
A political treatise from the sixteenth century that, with only minor changes to the diction, might well have been written only last year. Machiavellian might be an adjective now, but back then, Machiavelli was a politician and a political theorist who wrote about power: how to get it, how to wield it, how to maintain it. Here, realpolitik débuts on the world stage and political philosophy was never the same afterwards.
G.E.M. Anscombe, Intention (1957)
Anscombe wrote on mind, logic, language and ethics, but is perhaps best known for her work on action theory. Her three-volume work, Intention, is all about, well, intention, but also (and relatedly) action and practical reasoning. It’s pretty difficult stuff compared to some of the text here – whose easy prose style is at odds with the complexity of their arguments – but she’s considered a giant amongst analytic philosophers, and in the field with a very skewed gender balance, she’s worth a try.
Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance (1987)
This fits into the category of philosophy of mind, and in it Dennett examines and explains how we go about explaining and predicting the actions and behaviors of others – in essence, by zooming in and out of different levels of abstraction. If we view something from the intentional stance, we’re assuming it’s operating with a degree of belief, thinking or intent, rather that, say, operating mechanically. Even if you’ve never pondered these issues, Dennett’s books are great reads – he’s an engaging and entertaining writer no matter what his topic. If you’ve already tried Anscombe, this’ll be a breeze.
Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto (1985)
This isn’t a book but an essay, fully titled: ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’. Like de Beauvoir, she argues that there’s nothing innate about ‘being’ female, because that’s a state that is deeply socially constructed. She uses the cyborg as a way of rejecting rigid, essentialist boundaries – what it is to ‘be’ human or machine. Check out her book Simians, Cyborgs and Women (1990)for this and further essays.
Jostein Gaardner, Sophie’s World (1991)
Finally, if all that’s too heavy, and you just want to dip your toe into the philosophical pond, try this one: a novel about a young Norwegian girl who starts taking philosophy lessons from the mysterious old Alberto Knox, who takes her on trips through time to visit the old masters – only then they discover, in a trippy metaphysical twist, that Sophie’s reality is not real at all… Can they escape? Well, there’s only one way to find out…
What philosophy books would you recommend to keen non-specialists?