“Philosophy is mathematics, but for humans.”
That’s what my algebra professor in university used to tell me. And he was right!
Obviously, we are more dynamic and complex than mere numbers. But at the same time, the abstract methods we use to analyze numbers can be used to explain human consciousness.
After-all, at one point in history, philosophy and mathematics were intertwined; they were practically the same thing.
Why am I telling you all of this?
Well, I (and I’m guessing you as well) grew up in a techno-centric environment. Starting from school, I was taught that I should focus on tangible things — software development, design, engineering, economy, etc. My discipline should be “practical” to contribute to society.
Philosophy, literature, arts, poetry? Oh, these things don’t matter. You won’t need those to make a living — they don’t apply to real life. It’s mental gymnastics!
(Sidenote: I believe we should strive to make a LIFE, not merely “make a living”)
Other than a superficial reading of Plato and Aristotle, we never fully dived into the fundamental principles.
It’s a pity because I come from a country that gave birth to many great philosophers who quite literally changed the course of history.
Yet, no one could understand the impact philosophy has on our world. Or, on ourselves.
When I became an adult, and I was hit with the growing pains of maturing, I realized why we need philosophy:
- It teaches you how to think
- It’s a tool to make sense of the world
- It gives meaning to the inherent suffering of life
- It helps you accept different perspectives, thus becoming more empathetic
- It’s a study of human nature
- It can keep you sharp
- It helps you understand people and yourself
So, I started reading. At first, it was difficult. Yes, it can be quite hard to comprehend a philosophy book fully.
But what makes this journey even harder is that, like math, philosophy has 100s of different subjects and branches.
And this is why I’m writing this!
In this list, I’ll try to create a short “canon” that will give you an overview of the must-read philosophy books you need to read. These will help you have a holistic understanding of philosophy.
Consider it a guide that will hopefully steer you in the right direction.
Top 10 Philosophy Books That Changed The World
Keep in mind that this list is entirely subjective. You won’t become a great philosopher or a world-class thinker.
But if you manage to read all of them, you’ll have a better understanding of what we call “philosophy” than 99% of people.
Most importantly, I’m confident that your life will transform. It won’t happen the moment you finish the 10th book, but the ideas and the process you’ll expose yourself to will carry over to your day-to-day life.
1. Republic by Plato
You can’t talk about philosophy without mentioning the idealistic vision of Plato.
A book that’s written in the form of a dialogue, between Socrates (Plato’s teacher) and Athenians, it explores a wide arrange of philosophy topics. From ethics to phenomenology to ontology.
But the main focus, instead, the philosophical question this collection of small books tries to tackle, is about justice in man and a city-state (a community, in modern terms).
Many people regard it as the cornerstone of western philosophy, even though many ideas are considered outdated. That’s up to you to decide.
“Republic” is #1 on this list because it’s a great introduction to philosophical “logos” and the notion of questioning and breaking down everything to its first principles.
“Wait, that’s a name, not a book.”
I know, bare with me here.
Aristotle’s work is anti-diametrical to Plato’s. They use different presuppositions, different methods, and arrive at different conclusions.
Nonetheless, his philosophy books are equally important.
And they’re especially relevant to you because they offer an extremely useful categorization of the different branches of philosophy.
That’s why I recommend you use Aristotle’s work as a reference text whenever you want to expand your philosophical endeavors.
You’ll find that this guy has grappled with pretty much everything there is to inquire and conclude.
3. Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
This book has many things you need to unpack. It needs to be read multiple times to grasp what it has to offer.
The interesting part? Everyone will find different meaning in reading it.
If you want to understand the basis of Eastern philosophy and see how it has influenced Western civilization, “The Way Of Tao” is a must-read philosophy book.
Even though it’s a religious book (obviously, it’s about Taoism), the principles and paradigms can be applied by anyone. That is the nature of Eastern philosophy.
Yes, I know. A bunch of old, dead guys again.
Again, I’m not giving you a specific book to read. If you pick one, you pretty much read them all.
Stoicism, as an idea, isn’t hard to grasp. It’s VERY hard to apply, though. And perhaps that’s the reason it has such a profound effect on your life – once you’re able to use it effectively.
But, beware. Stoicism has merit but doesn’t get obsessed with it. I’ve seen many people conflate the idea of controlling your emotions by having no feelings at all.
As you dive deeper, you’ll realize that no system is 100% accurate. Be conscious of this limitation.
It’s all about perspective, right Epicurus?
5. Crime and Punishment by Dostoy… Dostoefhsl…Dostoevsky!
(I will never spell his name correctly)
Before everyone starts commenting that this is a novel… I’m aware.
It’s a superb, kick-ass novel, better than 99% of “philosophy” books that get published nowadays.
As you’re reading about the moral dilemmas and existential dread of Raskolnikov, you’ll realize that you’re reading about humanity as a whole.
I consider this a “dangerous” book. Dostoyevsky writes about reality. Whatever you feel and discover while reading his book, know that’s it’s real and terrifying. A part of you…
6. Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
Certainly a controversial figure. His ideas will penetrate your consciousness like nothing else.
This book contains the pervasive paradigms that paved the way to the postmodern philosophy.
“God is dead” sent waves of panic and despair to many people. And sadly, predicted the monstrosities that happened at the beginning of the 20th century.
A serious philosophy book you ought to read slowly and carefully. Do you recognize the patterns he describes in 2019?
7. Memories, Dreams, Reflections by G.C. Jung
I hope you’ve realized by now that what I consider a “philosophy book” isn’t the norm.
Jung is a psychologist. His book transcends the trade of psychology and touches upon universal truths. His work reflects a deep understanding of human nature and reveals a profound truth about ourselves.
“Memories, Dreams, Reflections” is a semi-autobiographical book. I chose this one because it’s a light read compared to his more dense and complex work.
You’ll learn about his process and methods, something that is even more valuable than his ideas, in my opinion.
I believe Jung will be a catalyst for change in the future. You should be prepared.
8. Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida
I was hesitant to include postmodernists in this list. Mainly because their work tends to be extraordinarily unorthodox and can lead most people to the wrong conclusions (it happened to me!)
But Derrida’s book is an exception. It deconstructs western philosophy and judges the very medium philosophy uses; writing.
It’s not an easy book to read, but it’s valuable. Get ready to question everything.
9. Skin in The Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
If you haven’t heard of Taleb, you’re in for a treat.
The deadlifting philosopher is a breath of fresh air compared to the New Age hyperboles of the late 20th century.
Rooted in empirical data and real-life experience, Taleb attacks the pseudo-intellectual establishment.
His vitriolic prose is exhilarating to read, albeit he can be quite stubborn in his ideas.
If you seek to equip yourself with a “modern” idea, applicable to every single area of your life, “Skin in The Game” oughts to be part of your library.
10. Maps Of Meaning Jordan B. Peterson
Have you been online in the past 12-36 months?
If so, you’ve encountered at least a few of Peterson’s soundbites.
“Clean your room, bucko!”
I have a love-hate relationship with him. I read “Maps of Meaning” before he became the mega-start that he is today. I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and precision he was able to map the human consciousness.
So, instead of reading his mainstream “12 Rules For Life”, opt-in for the more in-depth, lengthy, and complicated book.
(Don’t hate me 😛 )
Yup, this is a placeholder for your philosophy book.
It may sound ridiculous right now, but if you think about it, the most significant philosophers were people like you and me.
People who have questions and sought answers. People who are thirsty for knowledge and truth.
I invite you to pick up your pen or pencil, grab a piece of paper, and start writing.
You’ll quickly realize that you don’t know your mind as well as you think. The more you dig, the more gold you’ll find.
First of all, this isn’t your typical list. I’ve left out so many important people and philosophical systems it’s not even funny! You can “grill” me in the comments below…
But I think it’s an adequate list for anyone who’s looking to read useful material…
That said, there are some people I can’t leave out:
These are some of the names you’ll see popping up if you keep at it.
Are these philosophy books for beginners?
I don’t think there are specific philosophy books for beginners. The original texts are superior.
(There are some options, but I think you’re better off reading the real deal)
Sure, it’ll be hard in the beginning. New, complex ideas unravel in front of your eyes, while you stare at the very nature of yourself.
Philosophy can be taxing. And this is precisely why it’s so important to read it.
In the age of fast information, prepacked thoughts, and social media platitudes real philosophy can offer a unique challenge to your mind.
Timeless concepts and methods change the way we think and use our minds.
In 2019, understanding philosophy is as important as it is necessary. I hope you begin your journey today!
P.S – Hey, feel free to comment on your list of philosophy books. I’m curious about what you’ve been reading! Oh, and don’t forget to share this post with all the bibliophiles you know 🙂
About the Author
George Kourakos is an ad-man by day, a writer by night. He is a mathematician with a creative side. Working full time as a copywriter, George wants to explore his creative side by writing about his favorite topics.