Books to teach teenagers philosophy?
April 12, 2012 5:54 AM   Subscribe

Please help me find good beginner texts in philosophy for teenagers.

Recently, I've gotten to know some teenagers (15-17) who are excited by philosophy/theology. They've asked me if I could recommend some books.

I can't.

Here's why:
- Textbooks on philosophy are awful. Particularly "beginner's" books. I would love to find one I could recommend but I've never seen one that helps ease people in; all they do is strip the urgency and fun out of philosophy. It's like getting a book on directing and inside it's just a bunch of plot summaries of movies. Gross. And worse, it dumps people at the end of the "road", philosophically, rather than encouraging them to walk it themselves. What a waste of time! When some old white guy does the work for you of making Socrates irrelevant because he (the guy who wrote the book) dismissively summarizes and critiques his (Socrates/Plato/Xenophon's) philosophy, you can be forgiven for thinking that philosophy is a) boring and b) already "figured out". So, prove me wrong.

- Where is the "shallow end" of philosophy? There ain't one. Yeah, I know Plato is fun to read, but his philosophy is so broad that it can be really difficult to feel like you're asking important questions with him. And then after that things go from weird to impenetrable (Aristotle, et al). I still believe that there are books that can act as good philosophy primers, mostly by asking good questions and showing how we approach them, but I don't know what they are.

So Metafilter, please help me find some books that are engaging and fun and relevant for kids who, against all odds, are actually interested in asking important questions. Thanks!

Oh, P.S: if there's a theistically-minded book that you think accomplishes the above goals, I want that. We don't segregate.
posted by Poppa Bear to Religion & Philosophy (53 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Which you want are philosophical novels:

Nausea, for example.

I don't really want to recommend Ayn Rand, but that's also an option.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
posted by empath at 5:57 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also -- Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger....
posted by empath at 6:01 AM on April 12, 2012

I think you want a novel called "Sophies World". Also " The Story of Philosophy" by Will Durant is excellent and probably good for teenagers.
posted by Busmick at 6:04 AM on April 12, 2012 [8 favorites]

Sophie's World
posted by maybeandroid at 6:04 AM on April 12, 2012 [10 favorites]

At that time I really enjoyed Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder. I still think it's pretty good as a general introduction to philosophy.

CS Lewis might be good for a little light theology?
posted by curious_yellow at 6:04 AM on April 12, 2012

I read a few of these cartoon-y philosophy for beginners books when I was taking philosophy classes in college. (Yes, I also read the real assigned texts!) I think I had the Sartre (in the link) and the Nietzsche, but there are many others. I don't know how serious philosophers would rate them, but I remember they were quite entertaining, and not condescending. I don't know if that's the kind of thing you're looking for, but I think 15-17 year olds would appreciate them.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 6:10 AM on April 12, 2012

Also there are books like "The Matrix and Philosophy" and I think they have a Simpsons one and a Lord of the Rings version. It basically takes the movies and talks about them as they relate to certain philosophies and philosophers. Very basic but if they like those movies/shows its definitely a good place to start. It will lead them to look further into certain ideas.
posted by Busmick at 6:11 AM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are two or three series of graphic-novel style breezy lay intros to philosophy and related fields. Example. I'm fairly sure I have a copy of Foucault for Beginners floating around here somewhere.
posted by gimonca at 6:12 AM on April 12, 2012

One of my philosophy professors actually used Sophie's World as a text to Intro.
posted by valkyryn at 6:13 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

If they are of a Speculative Fictiony bent, Anathem might be very interesting.

Sophie's Choice is really the one and maybe only answer here, though.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:15 AM on April 12, 2012

Hah! I meant Sophie's World, of course.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:15 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

My high school had a ethics/philosophy requirement (every year). We read things like Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:16 AM on April 12, 2012

I had 'Philosophy for Dummies' in high school and found it pretty readable and interesting.
posted by tivalasvegas at 6:17 AM on April 12, 2012

Seconding Sophie's World.

As for theology - would you consider a couple of book tie-ins from PBS? The book tie-in for the Bill Moyers/Joseph Cambell special The Power Of Myth is actually pretty great, and Campbell is very engaging. It's more about "what is the purpose of myth and religion", and shows the connections and similarities between elements of different religions and gets into "so why is it that there are so many stories about heroes going on quests anyway", stuff like that. There's an argument that "religion was developed to explain scientific questions," but Campbell's argument is more like "actually, no, religion was meant to be more like pscyhology or therapy". The kids may have more questions than answers when they're done reading, but they'll be fascinating questions like, "so, wait, how has the fact that Christianity did thus-and-such affected the society we're in, and if they'd done this other thing what may have been different?"

If you want more straight-up theology, another book tie-in I thought was really funky was the one for Bill Moyer's Genesis series. That was a series of 6 panel discussions, where he invited theologians from Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to come in each week, where they'd discuss one of the stories from Genesis; comparing each religions' perspective on it, discussing their impact, going into why so many people have embraced these stories.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:18 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has introduced many teenagers to philosophy.
posted by alms at 6:18 AM on April 12, 2012

Seconding Nausea. I read it in high school and ended up being a philosophy minor in college.
posted by anotheraccount at 6:21 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think you should also take a look at Thomas Nagel's "What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy." It's been a long time since I've looked at it, but as I recall it does a nice job of raising issues without just spoonfeeding the reader.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:41 AM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar . . .: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart is a very accessible way to get into philosophy. There are at least two follow-on books in the same vein, so it must be a commercially successful approach at the very least. Because jokes are easier to remember than concepts, much of the material has stuck with me, and for much longer, than other intro texts.
posted by eaglehound at 6:43 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing Sophie's World.
posted by phunniemee at 7:07 AM on April 12, 2012

Busmick nailed it: Sophie's World and the Durant book.
Also, I would recommend
The Philosopher At The End Of The Universe...philosophy explained through science fiction films by Mark Rowlands.
posted by PickeringPete at 7:12 AM on April 12, 2012

Annie Dillard has many excellent essays that tackle philosophy, nature, theology, death, meaning, and everything else (usually all at once, poetically). They were incredibly inspiring to me when I was that age. Many of Montaigne's essays would also be excellent. Nthing Sophie's World.

There is so much good fiction that is philosophical I don't know where to begin. Dante's Inferno is the most psychological book of the comedy, and blew my mind even though I wasn't religious. Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, The Picture of Dorian Grey, and Borges all come to mind. All teenagers love Hesse.
posted by ke rose ne at 7:15 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I remember The Porblems Of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell as being a pretty good introduction.
posted by ninebelow at 7:16 AM on April 12, 2012

Any of Stephen Law's books such as The Philosophy Files and The Outer Limits are accessible starters and tailored for teens. He has a sense of humour and the chapters are illustrated with cartoons as he poses the great questions in a really lively and engaging way. He has a series called The Philosophy Gym which has some interesting, fun topics and explorations.

I have also used Roger-Pol Droit's 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life with teens as warm-ups in philosophy lessons.

Sophie's World is good, obviously it's been mentioned - I used to give the first chapter to my students to read at the start of term as a taster of what was to follow. All of them chose to read on, and loved it.
posted by honey-barbara at 7:22 AM on April 12, 2012

Oh, and there's also the Popular Culture and Philosophy series.
posted by valkyryn at 7:23 AM on April 12, 2012

Seconding "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"

Maybe "Grendel" by Gardner.

Also, "Thus spoke Zarathustra" may be an interesting read to start curiosity.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 7:32 AM on April 12, 2012

Ke rose ne's suggestion of Hesse is also excellent.
posted by PickeringPete at 7:32 AM on April 12, 2012

Dostoevsky! Start with Crime and Punishment, if you want more philosophy you can move to Notes from the Underground. If they're able to handle those, you could have them read the Brothers Karamazov.

I didn't find Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing to be as difficult as his other writings, so that could be a good introduction to him.

If you want some short theological works, you could read part of St. Augustine's Confessions or St. Athanasius (On the Incarnation is short but a nice summary of his Christology).

Along with the earlier suggestion about C.S. Lewis, maybe you could have them read some Chesterton? Orthodoxy is a quick read.

I read most of these books in high school and discussed them with my teachers (I also read Aristotle in high school, so it's possible, if difficult, with this age group).
posted by kingfishers catch fire at 7:36 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Russell's History of Western Philosophy. It's an imperfect book in many ways but it is witty, clever, wide-ranging and captures the real zest of real philosophy better than anything else I've ever read.
posted by Segundus at 7:50 AM on April 12, 2012

Oxford University Press's Very Short Introductions series are a good start.
posted by minifigs at 7:52 AM on April 12, 2012

I read and enjoyed Candide in high school - in both French and English classes.

My mom (retired high school teacher) used Ishmael in her classes - her students loved it.
posted by SisterHavana at 7:58 AM on April 12, 2012

I was going to recommend the book What Does It All Mean? by Thomas Nagel, but I'm glad to see you've already marked that as the best answer. Read a chapter or two, and I'll bet you won't have the same reaction about how all beginner philosophy books are awful. Nagel's book helped me get into philosophy when I was in high school, and probably contributed to my decision to major in philosophy in college.


Thinking of Answers by A.C. Grayling. I just got this for my 16-year-old brother, who picked it out at the bookstore. He seemed to find it very engaging.

Confessions of a Philosopher: A Personal Journey Through Western Philosophy from Plato to Popper by Bryan Magee. This has a lot about Kant and Schopenhauer, but it's also very autobiographical, with an emphasis on how philosophy has impacted him on a visceral, personal level (for instance, he talks about his earliest memories of being puzzled by philosophical conundrums as a child).

The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy by Magee. A collection of interviews, each one about a different philosopher.

The Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb. A brilliant presentation of ancient philosophy.
posted by John Cohen at 8:29 AM on April 12, 2012

I see the "shallow end" of philosophy as learning logic and deductive reasoning. Reading a big list of ancient philosophers and their claims without having the tools to evaluate them for yourself is like watching football without having any idea how it's played.
posted by RobotHero at 8:41 AM on April 12, 2012

Some people have strong opinions on Alain de Botton, but The Consolations of Philosophy is a good introduction to the greats of Western Philosophy.

I also quite liked A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
posted by TheOtherGuy at 8:45 AM on April 12, 2012

No need to limit yourself to western philosophy! Try the Tao Te Ching.

There's also a lot of "philosophy of ___". So, for instance, if they are interested in philosophy of biology, you could offer them a couple chapters of darwin's Origin of Species.

I don't know much about philosophy that isn't Eastern/Western, but there's more than two continents! I imagine this is the perfect sort of reason to head down to the library and have a good chat with your local librarian.
posted by aniola at 8:46 AM on April 12, 2012

Just came here to reiterate aniola's point, philosophy isn't all lofty metaphysics and moral philosophy and I think making people aware of that point makes philosophy a lot more accessible. Try to play to their interests in other areas, or just send them in the direction of philosophy of mind/philosophy of cognitive science because it's the coolest thing in the history of things. I like Mindware by Andy Clark as a good survey of the field. It doesn't shy away from going straight into topics like the Physical Symbol System Hypothesis or artificial neural networks or what have you, but it's the furthest thing from dry, it's written very clearly (it's aimed I think at college freshmen, which makes it just as suitable for a high schooler) and Clark does a good job of couching the issues at hand in examples that I think a lot of curious people will have already spent some time wondering idly about. I heartily recommend it.
posted by invitapriore at 8:57 AM on April 12, 2012

Russell's History of Western Philosophy. It's an imperfect book in many ways...

That's the understatement of the millennium.
posted by goethean at 9:58 AM on April 12, 2012

Philosophy can be found in some really fun places too! In particular, science fiction novels often deal with very important philosophical questions - Phillip K. Dick is the one I'm most familiar with in this respect, but there are many others. You can also find plenty of thought-provoking materials in comic form, such as the cyberpunk Ghost in the Shell (the ethics and problems arising from blurring the line between man and machine), or the political philosophy of V for Vendetta (when is violent action justified? What is the individual's responsibility toward society?). I'm thinking of these resources as providing jumping points for individual contemplation or group discussion - they don't spell out the questions for you, you have to find them yourself.

What I'm trying to say is, these works provide an entry point into philosophical thought and discussion which is both engaging and accessible to young people of their experience and learning. Entertain and inform at once!
posted by fearnothing at 10:29 AM on April 12, 2012

I think Deleuze & Guattari stated somwhere that the two books of their Capitalism and Schizophrenia are meant to be read by teenagers because otherwise you'll be too indoctrinated with traditional philosophy to understand it properly. I wouldn't take their word for it, though.

Other than that, however, if you want to look outside Western philosophy, Yutang Lin's The Importance of Living is the awesomest introduction to Eastern (well, Chinese) philosophy I've read.
posted by daniel_charms at 11:46 AM on April 12, 2012

Come to think of it, 18-year old me also found Daisetz T. Suzuki's books on Zen Buddhism quite accessible (Salinger's characters loved him as well). Oh, and Mircea Eliade's works on comparative religion.
posted by daniel_charms at 11:54 AM on April 12, 2012

Nthing Sophie's World, but also recommending The Solitaire Mystery by Gaarder. (Gaarder said that he wrote Sophie's World for the main character in The Solitaire Mystery.)
posted by Hactar at 12:49 PM on April 12, 2012

Late to this, but Action Philosophers, is a nice light-hearted introduction. A very accessible history of philosophy.
posted by rtimmel at 1:32 PM on April 12, 2012

When I was fifteen, I randomly came across a book that nailed me to philosophy: Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Though it can look daunting at first glance, I remember it spell-bound me at the time with its uniqueness in tone, form, and clarity. (Admittedly, I read it in German - the effect is likely lost to some extent in translation...)
When, during my philosophy degree, I advanced to his Blue Book and the Philosophical Investigations, it revived the singularly direct, crystalline experience of my first encounter with him, and philosophy.
posted by progosk at 3:01 PM on April 12, 2012

In my high school years, I came across the book Ultimate Questions: Thinking About Philosophy and read it cover to cover, it was that engaging. I didn't even realize it was a textbook at the time. It's extremely accessible and invites the reader to participate in the critical thinking process on almost every page, frequently tying the theories to relevant real-world scenarios. The book leaves it up to you to determine which answers/theories you prefer, though it also gives you guidance in thinking things through. It revolves around answers to several main questions like How do we know what we know? Do we really have free will? etc. This is the book that first introduced me to philosophy and sparked an interest that's been with me ever since.
posted by datarose at 3:23 PM on April 12, 2012

Sophie's World, absolutely, and Samuel Enoch Stumpf's Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy is an excellent, no-frills overview. My brother, sister and I were all philosophy majors and we all used that book to supplement our course texts and prep for exams, etc.
posted by désoeuvrée at 4:04 PM on April 12, 2012

Oh and since people seem to be recommending all manner of books including random fiction: as a philosophically-minded teenager I was a huge Kurt Vonnegut fan (and still am, of course).
posted by désoeuvrée at 4:13 PM on April 12, 2012

It's already been suggested several times, but I nth Sophie's World. I read it when I was 14 (the same age as the protagonist in the book, methinks), and I was hooked in philosophy ever since. I even took the whole intro series and few upper-div philosophy classes at my university.
posted by mild deer at 5:54 PM on April 12, 2012

Oh, and also: Why I Am So Wise. This book seems to appeal to teens' general arrogance on knowing everything they think they know about life. :P
posted by mild deer at 5:57 PM on April 12, 2012

Action Philosophers!

Seconding the rec for "Plato and a Platypus" et al, which have really stuck with me. The explanation of Zeno's arrow paradox through the vacuum joke is brilliant. (Note that the political debate book is very left-leaning, anti-Bush, if that's an issue.)

And YMMV, but the "The Screwtape Letters" by C.S. Lewis, "Small Gods" by Terry Pratchett, and "Good Omens" by Pratchett and Gaiman had a profound effect on how I think about philosophy and religion.
posted by nicebookrack at 7:19 PM on April 12, 2012

Oh oh! The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self & Soul is an amazing introduction to lots of areas of philosophy. It's a bunch of short readings, some fiction some non-fiction that raise or explore a philosophical issue particularly well. After each is a short (~2 page) discussion from the editors with an emphasis on bringing the questions out and raising more. It's definitely about making the issues both lively and clear and not about answering questions for you. It was edited by Daniel Dennett (who was an excellent philosopher before he got so old and cranky) and Douglas Hofstadter of Godel, Escher, Bach fame.
posted by mathtime! at 9:44 PM on April 12, 2012

I was also going to recommend The Mind's I.

Insurmountable Simplicities, by Casati and Varzi.

Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality, by John Perry.

The Problems of Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell.

I'd happily assign (selections from) any of these to clever high school students. They are fun, not overly complicated or advanced, and do not pander.
posted by painquale at 9:57 PM on April 12, 2012

godel, escher, bach
posted by facetious at 12:05 AM on April 13, 2012

Professional Philosopher here: If they have any interest in going to study philosophy later on, then they should definitely read Betrand Russell's Problems of Philosophy (as others have recommended). It is extremely well written, engaging, and will make them realise that they know nothing at all about anything.

I also read Plato's Republic when at was around that age, and it was great. It's not hard to follow at all, because it's written in dialogue form, and it deals with surely one of the most urgent problems there is- what is good/justice? They don't have to agree with a word of it to find it interesting.

I also dipped into some Nietzsche at that age, but I didn't really appreciate any of it except the aphorisms (which you'll find in various books, Beyond Good and Evil, the gay science etc). Just spending an hour thinking about 2 lines from Nietzsche can open up new lines of thought. For example: "Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species."
posted by leibniz at 1:01 PM on April 14, 2012

These Graphic Guides are not only fun to read/look at, but also really informative about both the major and minor details of the lives within philosophical movements. I was given the Foucault book as a birthday present, and enjoyed how accurate the writers could be in boiling down some of Foucault's more difficult arguments. The additional benefits are that the books are cheap and offered on a wide range of subjects.
posted by _superconductor at 1:01 PM on April 16, 2012

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