Philosophy recs
July 4, 2021 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Looking for original works by philosophers (dead or living) that I, a beginner, might find rewarding to read. That address questions relevant to our lives today and are not too opaque and maybe even fun to read.
posted by Omnomnom to Grab Bag (36 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay Nature blew my mind when I first read it. I particularly love his bit about the transparent eyeball. The whole essay is about people's relationship with the natural world which I think is still pretty relevant today.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 9:03 AM on July 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Thomas Nagel's Mortal Questions and What Does It All Mean? are good starters. It may not be formal philosophy per se, but I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter covers similar territory.
posted by rikschell at 9:28 AM on July 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

Well there's this recent Metafilter thread on Stoicism.

Also I previously saved a link to The Best Philosophy Books To Read Before You Turn 25 (Or After!) but still have not gotten around to look into them.

I would add William James who was all about pragmatism and published many books and his ideas were borrowed by many politicians and psychologists.

And as everyone here knows, I always recommend Is God a Taoist by Raymond Smullyan (very short).
posted by forthright at 9:29 AM on July 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

John Locke is easy to read and still resonates in today's world, I think. You can even read some of his books for free via Project Gutenberg, like An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding.
posted by hz37 at 10:44 AM on July 4, 2021

Bruno Latour is a current leader in the field of science and technology studies (STS). His books Aramis and Science In Action are both fun and applicable works on how knowledge is created and expanded in society. I read them a decade+ ago but still think about both regularly in the context of responses to climate change and political responses to new research.
posted by migurski at 11:30 AM on July 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

You might want to look at the philosophy section on, actually. Those are written by academic philosophers, but intended for a lay audience or novices. They're written at a reasonably challenging level, but they're also distilled down to get to a statement about some issue without getting into the weeds with a thousand other philosophers and endless counterexamples in journals you can't find (and would have to pay for if you did). There are TONS of them there - don't get lulled by whatever happens to be on the first page.

Beyond that,...
Todd May
Rorty (who is evil, believe none of what he says)
Andy Clark
posted by el_lupino at 11:31 AM on July 4, 2021

All of the dozen philosophers named thus far, as well as those on the linked "best of" list, are white males. This is really upsetting.

I mean, this is REALLY upsetting. We're sitting here telling each other that the thoughts that matter about the very nature of the world are exclusively those of white males. We're recommending that someone interested in philosophy immerse themselves exclusively in the thoughts of white males.

I'm not criticizing the respondents thus far. I was a philosophy minor in college, and I don't offhand remember learning about a single female or POC philosopher. I am criticizing a society that is marinated in the ideas of one small group of people to the exclusion of everyone else. I hate that I'm going to have to go do a Google search now in order to find a philosopher other than a white male.
posted by Flock of Cynthiabirds at 12:23 PM on July 4, 2021 [7 favorites]

We're sitting here telling each other that the thoughts that matter about the very nature of the world are exclusively those of white males. We're recommending that someone interested in philosophy immerse themselves exclusively in the thoughts of white males.

Thank you for calling this out. I should have (and could have) not knee-jerk recommended some dead old white dude and instead suggested that OP check out the writings of Angela Davis. I appreciate the wake-up call for real.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 12:42 PM on July 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Off top of head, a few non-white-male philosophers that I think would be accessible:

Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (about Nazism and the nature of evil)
Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Mapping the Margins (fantastic article about intersectionality)
Paolo Freire (a white man but from South America, which I think is underrepresented in philosophy) wrote one of my favorite books ever, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, about moving towards a world in which everyone is fully liberated
Susan Okin’s Justice, Gender, and the Family
Martha Nussbaum is great, but I don’t remember the name of any specific work
Meng Zi/Mencius and Zhuang Zi are both wonderful - Meng Zi is probably more readable, but Zhuang Zi is mind-blowing if you don’t know a ton about Taoism
Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (about decolonialization, makes a controversial but interesting argument)
posted by chaiyai at 12:45 PM on July 4, 2021 [5 favorites]

Both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard wrote philosophy in a way that’s more narrative than what you’d expect. Not endorsing either, but they’re both... interesting. I will endorse Plato, who’s quite readable and also quite insightful.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:54 PM on July 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Susan Wendell's The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability is straightforward and insightful. Published in 1996, it was a foundational disability studies text that looked at chronic illness.
posted by Jesse the K at 1:10 PM on July 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Western philosophy is basically a 3000-year conversation with itself, so finding a way in can be hard, since everything that comes later is a reaction to something earlier. That said, I tried to come up with some interesting pieces that I think could be rewarding for someone who isn't as knowledgeable of the multitudes of arguments over the centuries.

Plato's Republic is an interesting piece of work, Plato's longest, and while arguing for what the ideal political situation would look like, also has a lot of narrative missing in his other works, and has lots of elements his contemporary audience would have recognized as poetry.

Aristotle is known for a lot, but I'd say the most interesting is Poetics. You'll see lots of literary criticism that is still in use, as it was basically the first known work to confront the topic.

Descartes Meditations is where that famous "I think therefore I am" line comes from, but the argument is largely self-contained and is a small part of the book's argument that we can prove we, and others, exist.

Kant is basically impenetrable, but he did write some shorter essays that are much easier to bite into. I really love Perpetual Peace, where he argues that an international order will be necessary as nations get more advanced, if you can find it. Another highlight is What is Enlightenment, which, well, tries to answer that question. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals is a pretty legible explanation of his idea of ethics/morality, but can still be a little hard to get through.

Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra is just a very weird, very interesting short piece of work.

Foucault's Birth of the Clinic has some pretty interesting insight into modern conceptions of medicine.

Hannah Arendt's most famous work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, has its critics, and may require some knowledge of Kant to get through happily (I've never read it without having also read Kant, so I'm not sure what that experience would look like). It is, however, a foundational text on authoritarian governments. Honestly, I find The Human Condition more interesting. It's kind of an argument against Heidegger, but I can't recommend trying to read Heidegger (on to of being a horrible writer, he was also nazi).

Simone de Beauvoir has lots of good things to read. The Ethics of Ambiguity lays out some of the issues of morality in existentialism, but is well laid out enough that you don't need to have a doctorate in Sartre to get through it. But, really, everybody should read her The Second Sex, which lays out some of the fundamental ideas currently in play around feminism and is among the first works to lay out the difference between sex and gender.

Oh and I do endorse the American pragmatists listed above. They sort of went off on their own way, so they're not as tied to the European line of philosophy, and therefore are much easier to get through.
posted by General Malaise at 1:17 PM on July 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

I don’t think I’ve ever finished a Donna Haraway book - i am not philosophically talented - but I’ve gotten good stuff to think about from the beginnings.
posted by clew at 1:51 PM on July 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Another vote for Nagel. A lot of 20th-century philosophers were pretty mediocre writers. He was a very good one, and his essays are really a joy to read.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:53 PM on July 4, 2021

If you read German, read Nietzsche in the original--he's an astonishingly clear writer and I would be saying 'read Nietzsche' if you had come along asking for accessible German texts rather than philosophy. (I read Nietzsche in English as a(n admittedly bright) teenager, so it's accessible as far as philosophy goes, but is not breathtaking.)
posted by hoyland at 2:09 PM on July 4, 2021

I just love Rebecca Goldstein's work. I don't know if she qualifies as a philosopher in most people's minds; most of her books are either fiction or about a philosopher. Plato at the Googleplex is wonderful. And I adore her first book of fiction, The Mind-Body problem, which in many ways is about a young woman philosopher confronting the male academic establishment.
posted by BibiRose at 2:11 PM on July 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Oh yes, Simone Weil. Everyone should read her essay "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force."
posted by BibiRose at 2:16 PM on July 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

A lot of great suggestions above.

When this question comes up I always get in a plug for Susan Wolf's "Meaning in Life and Why It Matters". An excellent and very readable approach to a big philosophical problem (why do we do anything at all?).

I'd also suggest Frantz Fanon's "The Wretched of the Earth" and "Black Skin, White Masks". Few remain so pressingly relevant on the trenchant problem of racism as Fanon.
posted by dis_integration at 2:19 PM on July 4, 2021

Two that I, a layperson, enjoyed in recent years:
Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, Alexis Shotwell
Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Kate Manne
posted by jocelmeow at 2:19 PM on July 4, 2021

Oh, and if you just want an introduction to the Western canon, Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder is a delightful read.
posted by General Malaise at 2:43 PM on July 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

When I first started reading philosophical-type books as an undergraduate, the following are some of the ones I found most accessible, relevant-to-life, and exciting. Most are a bit old at this point:

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel
Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (and essays)
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity
Alasdair Macintyre, After Virtue

More recently, I’ve heard very high praise for Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe, but since it is an explanation of other philosophers it probably doesn’t fall under the “original works” criterion in your request.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 5:10 PM on July 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

As I often do on Metafilter, I will recommend Wittgenstein's On Certainty, which I think is his most accessible work.
posted by wittgenstein at 5:34 PM on July 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

Albert Camus essays are a good intro to existentialism.

Postmodernism is complex, but Baudrillard is jazzy.

Friedrich Nietzsche can sometimes be quite witty and thought-provoking, but with a caveat that he can also be misogynistic and deranged. Interesting stuff, but should be approached with skepticism.

(If you're totally starting from the basics, you should read Sophie's World (as mentioned above) it will help;)
posted by ovvl at 7:34 PM on July 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Of the six big classic modern philosophers -- Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley and Hume -- Hume is imo the best writer. His Treatise and Enquiry contain comprehensive statements of his philosophy, but he wrote lots of shorter works on more particular topics; you might browse titles and see if anything looks likely. If you have an interest in the history of biblical interpretation, Spinoza's Theologico-Political Treatise is a classic and much easier to read than his masterpiece, the Ethics.

For women philosophers I would mention G.E.M. Anscombe. She is definitely a hard-core analytic philosopher, but her writing is unusually engaging for the degree of rigor it proposes, and conveys a dry wit. Her most read work is Intention.
posted by bertran at 8:26 PM on July 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

I don't know if you've already seen The Good Place, but I think it's a great entry point into philosophy. They do a great job of summarizing different philosophies, and since it was such a large and popular show, there's plenty of analysis and reading lists available - sometimes by episode!

Platypus and Plato Walk into a Bar
may be a good starter-sampler for you.

On specific topics:

I read Camas Davis' "Killing It: An Education" recently, and she included some reflection on a philosopher who studied the ethics of meat eating. I'll see if I can stop by the library tomorrow and find the reference for you.

YMMV on "fun," but I really liked Sarah Perry's Every Cradle is a Grave with a cw for ... everything relating to birth, death, suicide, etc.

I find discussion on simulacra really interesting, but I don't think I've sat down with it explicitly. Same with Audre Lord - though every time I've read anything of hers I've been absolutely blown away. (And now I'm wondering what the distinction between feminist and philosopher is?)

I think there are a lot of links to really great sources for I guess "general purpose" philosophy in this thread, but personally I've had the most luck getting through philosophical works when I'm researching by topic than by philosopher. If you find yourself bouncing off of multiple works, I would recommend trying that angle instead!
posted by snerson at 8:30 PM on July 4, 2021

Look into John Rawls. His canonical work is A Theory of Justice. I think this is really relevant to today because it really helps you get to the root of what's wrong with our society in particular and capitalism in general. The principle is what he calls "the veil of ignorance". The idea is that if you are trying to pick the principles that would govern a just society, you must do so from behind the veil of ignorance; that is, from the perspective of a person who does not know what position they will occupy in that society. It's a simple thought experiment, but apply it to capitalism and it's clear that the structure is fundamentally unjust.
posted by number9dream at 9:04 PM on July 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

I would suggest picking up a cheap used copy of an anthology-style textbook for an intro philosophy class. These consist of excerpts carefully trimmed down to convey important ideas without allowing you to get lost in the weeds. Reading philosophy effectively takes a bit of practice. The anthologies also provide a broad overview of the major areas of philosophy, which will help you identify topics that interest you and help you start to see relationships between the major philosophical questions. That will give you a good foundation for branching out to longer works.
posted by Comet Bug at 9:05 PM on July 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

I am rather fond of Bertrand Russell's "In Praise of Idleness"
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 5:10 AM on July 5, 2021

Philosophy can be roughly divided into a number of different subject areas. There are really technical ones like the limits of knowledge and perception, and how can we tell if something is true. There are really practical ones like how should a government be organized and what should its objectives be. It might be helpful to find a topic you are interested in rather than just diving into, say, John Stuart Mill because reasons.

Most of the major political movements have been accompanied by philosophical writing including the rise of feminism, the civil rights movement, libertarianism, etc. Nazism was blamed on Hegel by some.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:43 AM on July 5, 2021

John Locke is easy to read

Well, yes and no - English has changed since the 18th Century, and this presents some difficulties, especially in things like philosophical vocabulary. I'm sure it's the same in old books on other topics, like literary criticism. The most obvious one for Locke is that we think of concepts or abstract mental representations when we hear the word "idea'; but, for the English philosophers of this time, an "idea" meant more like what we would call a sensation or perception.

I think Jonathan Bennett has or used to have a page with translations of canonical works of modern philosophy, such as excerpts from Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, into modern English, for students. I don't know if that is really needed; a good introduction at the beginning of a good edition will probably orient you enough.. It's good to get a little historical context before reading an old philosophy book, anyway. For Locke, understanding the impact that Newton had just made on the European intellectual world, and appreciating how Locke saw what he was doing as trying to continue and extend that project, that he (like Newton) believed that physical reality, nature, was basically corpuscular, that it reduced in the end to little particles, and this sort of atomistic metaphysics also governs his thinking about the mind.....that kind of background is helpful.
posted by thelonius at 7:17 AM on July 5, 2021

Teaspoon has been doing some translations of John Locke which might be an interesting read to get you started with him.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 8:42 AM on July 5, 2021

Seconding Zarathustra and adding Foucault's "Discipline and Punish." Note that I'm not a scholar and I don't know if others find Foucault as easy to read as I have!
posted by rhizome at 2:27 PM on July 5, 2021

I will heartily endorse Kierkegaard. His essay "On the Present Age" is spot-on social and human commentary even today, and his essay "On the Difference Between A Genius and An Apostle" touches on the themes he takes up in his far more rigorous works. His "Training in Christianity" is aimed at a non-philosophical audience and is the plain distillation of his thought.
posted by riverlife at 3:30 PM on July 5, 2021

I'm late to the party here but want to put another vote in for Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus. It is beautifully and lucidly written and explores a most fundamental question (whether to live or to die).

Ursula K. LeGuin wrote a great interpretation of the Tao te Ching which, for my money, is one of the best pathways into Taoism. Highly recommended.

As a beginner, you might find some value in Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It's a decent primer on philosophy that lays out some of the fundamentals of the traditional western world view and contrasts it with a search for answers to its' shortcomings. Also, not a terrible novel.

Lastly, Viktor Frankel's Man's Search for Meaning is insightful and approachable. Frankel was a concentration camp survivor who makes an argument that nihilism is not the only response to overwhelming evil.
posted by kaymac at 5:15 AM on July 6, 2021

Simone Weil's The Need for Roots and Ivan Illich's Tools for Conviviality are two I'd recommend. You can find PDFs floating around online for both.
posted by panic at 7:21 PM on July 7, 2021

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