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Pathways to Philosophy
introductory book list

Here is a selection of just few of the many books available for the student starting out in philosophy. Depending on one's taste or natural ability, any one of these would be suitable for someone who had never encountered a philosophy book before. The first of the five sections contains books that ease one into the subject relatively gently. The books in section two are more difficult, though still accessible if you are prepared to make the extra effort. Section three contains classic texts, available in various editions.

The fourth section has recommendations by members of the Philosophy Pathways community. If you would like to contribute a short review of any introductory philosophy book not listed here email klempner@fastmail.net.

Section One

Lewis Carroll Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass

The author was a mathematician who published original papers on logic in the scholarly journals of the day. These 'children's stories' contain many intriguing logical, semantic and philosophical puzzles. See if you can spot them!

Brenda Almond Exploring Philosophy (Blackwell)

Originally published by Penguin as The Philosophical Quest, this revised and expanded version is an engaging and personal approach to the problems of philosophy, based around a fictional correspondence with a philosophical muse.

Jostein Gaarder Sophie's World (Orion)

A philosophical novel originally from Norway that spent several months in the British top ten hardbacks list. Written for teenagers, it has proved popular with readers of all ages. Good at conveying the wonder of philosophy, its ambitious scope means that some individual philosophers are treated somewhat sketchily.

Thomas Nagel What Does It All Mean? (OUP)

A short, easy to read introduction, based on lectures to American college students. However, it does little more than pose the problems, leaving the reader to do all the hard work of thinking about them (not a bad thing).

Robert Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Vintage)

An exhilarating read, even for those who are not interested in either Zen or motorcycles. This novel was included on the Oxford University 'Introduction to Philosophy' book list.

Gerald Rochelle Doing Philosophy (Dunedin)

Angled towards more practical issues in philosophy — although by no means exclusively — this book tests your understanding with questions running right through the text, with further questions at the end of each chapter. Sample question: Did the killing of Libyan leader Gadaffi in October 2011 'raise any human rights issues'? An excellent book to stimulate debate in an Introduction to Philosophy class, or to work through on one's own.

Jenny Teichman and Katherine Evans Philosophy: A Beginner's Guide (2nd Edition, Blackwell)

The biggest book in this section and very comprehensive, included here because a number of students have commented that it is very user-friendly. I agree, but don't try to tackle too much at one time!

Nigel Warburton Philosophy: The Basics (2nd Edition, Routledge)

A book that has sold extremely well, covering issues and arguments from the main areas of philosophy in a clear and concise way.

Bernard Williams Morality (Penguin)

A short introduction to the problems of moral philosophy, focusing on our reasons for being moral, and including criticism of utilitarian accounts of ethical judgement that appeal to the principle of the 'greatest happiness for the greatest number'.

Section Two

Sir Alfred Ayer The Central Questions of Philosophy (Penguin)

A challenging approach to the problems of philosophy, which shows the well-known British philosopher's lucidity and intelligence.

Peter Carruthers Introducing Persons (CUP)

A lively and original inquiry into the nature of consciousness, our knowledge of others, and the criteria of personal identity. Includes questions for study. Recommended for Pathways program Searching For the Soul.

Laurence Goldstein The Philosopher's Habitat (Routledge)

An original and accessible survey of the main areas of intellectual activity of the philosopher. As an aid to study, a number of questions are included at the end of each chapter.

Guttenplan, Hornsby and Janaway (Eds.) Reading Philosophy (Blackwell)

An original appproach which aims to show the student how to read and criticize a philosophical text, using actual examples of texts by classical and contemporary philosophers. This book is provided free by the University of London to students taking the Diploma via the External Programme.

Anthony Grayling (Ed.) Philosophy: A Guide Through the Subject (2 Volumes, OUP)

Based on undergraduate courses taught at the University of London, these impressively large books together give a good picture of the state of the art in academic philosophy today. This book is provided free by the University of London to students taking the BA via the External Programme.

Martin Hollis Invitation to Philosophy (Blackwell)

An original approach to the problems of philosophy, presented in a readable style. Some of the arguments are subtle and need to be taken at a slower pace.

Calvin Pinchin Issues in Philosophy (Macmillan)

Designed as an A-Level text book, this gives a good overview of the topics that would be covered in a typical first-year degree course.

Miller and Smith (Eds) Thought Probes (Prentice Hall)

A very entertaining handbook, exploring philosophy through science fiction short stories by such writers as Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Roger Zelzany, Frederik Pohl. Recommended for Pathways program The Possible World Machine.

Bertrand Russell A History of Western Philosophy (Unwin)

Highly entertaining and readable. Russell had strong views about his predecessors, and expressed them with great perception and wit. Good for dipping.

Roger Scruton Modern Philosophy (Reed)

A wide-ranging survey of problems investigated by twentieth-century philosophers up to the present date. A rallying call against narrow specialism and the rise of the philosophical 'technocrats'. His more recent book An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy (Duckworth) is also worth a look.

Sir Peter Strawson Analysis and Metaphysics (OUP)

An elegant work, based on a series of lectures given at Oxford and recently at the Bejing Philosophy Summer School, China. Strawson helped bring about a revival of interest in metaphysics amongst British philosophers in the 1960's.

Jonathan WestPhal Philosophical Propositions (Routledge)

An interesting approach, which concentrates on analysing the nature of philosophical arguments. Good if you like logic.

David Hamlyn Metaphysics (CUP)

An authoritative but accessible introduction to the problems of metaphysics, giving a sense of the range and the difficulty of the questions addressed by metaphysicians today. Recommended for Pathways program The Ultimate Nature of Things.

Section Three

George Berkeley Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713)

A joy to read. Berkeley presents some of the most perplexing arguments in philosophy in a gripping and deceptively lucid style.

Rene Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)

Descartes broke with tradition and sought an audience for his views outside the philosophical 'schools'. The originality of the arguments combined with the confessional style makes this an exciting read, but in parts quite difficult for a beginner.

David Hume Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779)

Published posthumously, these lively and brilliantly written dialogues represent a challenge to religious thinking no less relevant today than in Hume's time.

Plato Phaedo (around 385 BC)

Recounts the last day of Socrates' life. While waiting for the hemlock, he discusses with his close friends arguments for the immortality of the soul. Guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye. (See also: Meno, Republic, Theaetetus.)

Ludwig Wittgenstein The Blue and Brown Books (Blackwell)

An underground classic. Originally, notes dictated to a few students between 1933 and 1935, stencilled copies were widely circulated. Shows the development of Wittgenstein's later views on mind and language.

Kirk, Raven and Schofield The Presocratic Philosophers (2nd Edition CUP)

Don't be put off by the rather scholarly format. The book contains translations of the 'fragments' of the Greek philosophers who lived up to the time of Socrates, together with a concise philosophical commentary. Recommended for Pathways program The First Philosophers.

Section Four

Jim Holt Why Does the World Exist? (Profile Books 2012)

"While more substantive than most self-proclaimed introductory books, Why Does the World Exist? is equally as friendly to the neophyte. The titular question really is the focus of the book which leads Holt to search for answers in Oxford (more than once), David Deutsche's cluttered living room (just once), and at the bottom of a wine bottle (numerous). Holt is a generous author who often reviews a complicated concept or an important theory for his readers' benefit. This book would nicely complement a first or second-year metaphysics course, but inquiring minds in general are likely to find it a stimulating and engaging read." (Kaitlyn Berry)

Richard E. Creel Thinking Philosophically: an introduction to critical reflection and rational dialogue (Blackwell 2001)

"This book does not cover all the fields of philosophy (for example Logic is missing), but I like this book very much, as it begins by helping the reader to acquire a lively sense of what philosophy is, how it began, why it persists, and how it is related to other fields of study, especially science. Creel also provides methods for thinking about or discussing philosophical problems. He then explores three fields in detail: Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Value, and Metaphysics, each of them explained, defended, and critiqued in numerous positions." (Simone Klein)

Anthony Harrison-Barbet Mastering Philosophy (2nd Edition Palgrave 2001)

"Another very good, bit more demanding book. It investigates a wide range of problems within a generally historical framework from the Ancient Greeks through to the present day. The book provides many review questions with some guided answers and comments to encourage the reader to engage actively in philosophical problems and the book also contains extensive suggestions for further reading." (Simone Klein)

Gary Cox How to Be a Philosopher — or How to Be Almost Certain that Almost Nothing is Certain (Continuum 2010)

"This small book introduces us to philosophy not by presenting us the usual views of the usual philosophical lab problems but by tackling just two (scepticism and realism). He uses these problems to make us think not about the contents, but about the approach and the attitude to problems, in a metacritical way, and philosophy not as a body of knowledge, but an activity — something you do, not something you learn. Writes Cox, 'My point, however, is that to be a philosopher you don't actually have to know any of the arguments! Philosophy... is not so much a body of knowledge as an activity. So all you have to do to be a philosopher, at least at a basic level, is simply start doing philosophy; simply start philosophizing.' Written quite tongue-in-cheek, it's fun to read, but one shouldn't fall into the serious mistake of taking it too lightly. Refreshingly, it ends up in Sartre instead of Wittgenstein or Carnap, for a change." (Joao Magalhaes)

Clare Saunders, David Mossley, George MacDonald Ross, and Danielle Lamb Doing Philosophy a Practical Guide for Students (Continuum 2008)

"This is a book, which although written primarily for those intending or starting to study philosophy in a university setting, should nevertheless prove helpful for all beginners to this subject. As such this is a quick and easy read. The book includes advice on deciding which texts to read with encouragement and help in tackling primary sources, and also some very useful advice on how to write a philosophy essay. Included are a helpful bibliography and directions to internet addresses which, at the time of writing, are still viable." (Sara Richards)

Christopher Falzon Philosophy Goes to the Movies, An Introduction to Philosophy (Routledge 2002)

"An original introduction, this book uses examples from films to guide the reader through the some basic philosophical problems. This is a great device for those with no previous knowledge of philosophy because the questions raised are given concrete and familiar formulations, a change from the tendency to abstraction in some other introductions. One of the consequences of reading the book is that not only does one have grounding in philosophy, but also that when watching the films again we can impress (or annoy) our friends with what we have learnt." (Brian Tee)

Fernando Savater The Questions of Life — An Invitation to Philosophy (Polity Press 2002)

"A book that has, deservedly, sold over 70,000 copies in Spain and has been translated into 10 languages. Savater here presents an overview of the main philosophical themes, whilst engaging us with his own views and arguments. Savater shows how philosophizing infuses all aspects of life and is not merely a compartmentalized catalogue of opinions. As can be seen from the subtitle Savater asks us to try to think philosophically for ourselves. This book goes a long way to helping us achieve that. Each chapter is accompanied by a set of provoking questions and an appendix with biographies of important thinkers complements the book." (Brian Tee)

Roger Trigg Philosophy Matters (Blackwell 2002)

"Trigg takes the view that philosophy is a method of thinking rather than a collection of facts. This method, one of rational investigation that leads to knowledge, is then defended from various challenges such as relativism, naturalism and scientism. The result is a rewarding and innovative re-instatement and introduction to the origins, nature and role of philosophy." (Brian Tee)

Muriel Barbery The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions 2008)

"Less didactic than Sophie's World, the novel lets the two female characters speak for themselves (by abandoning the omniscient narrator), and is set in a distinctly urban setting. The story is told by alternating a chapter from the thoughts of a brilliant, self-taught French concierge, Renee aged 54, with chapters from the two journals of a brilliant 12 year-old Paloma, one for her mind and one for her body. She calls the journal for her mind, 'Profound Thought No.__' and ambitiously starts each chapter in that journal with a haiku on her topic. The other journal, the one for her body, she calls 'Journal of the Movement of the World No.__'). Five cats belonging to Renee, Paloma and the person who revolutionizes their lives, Mr. Ozu, are the subject of significant ruminations on decoration and totem: figuring out the importance of the names of the cats (Leo, Levin, Tolstoy, Constitution and Parliament) is what brings the three characters together. The 12 year old is biting and incisive and adorable ('I'm intellectually gifted; she is the champion of precision response'). Marx, deontology, structuralism, Husserl, phenomenology, eternity, projects, tea, opera, time, grammar and death and the giving of gifts in honour of cats are addressed with wit and insight. And of course, the hedgehog, although ever-present metaphorically, is only once mentioned directly!" (Catherine Uffen)