Philosophers Name the Best Philosophy Books: From Stoicism and Existentialism, to Metaphysics & Ethics for Artificial Intelligence

As an Eng­lish major under­grad in the 90s, I had a keen side inter­est in read­ing phi­los­o­phy of all kinds. But I had lit­tle sense of what I should be read­ing. I browsed the library shelves, pick­ing out what caught my atten­tion. Not a bad way to make unusu­al dis­cov­er­ies, but if you want to get a focused, not to men­tion cur­rent, view of a par­tic­u­lar field, you need to have a knowl­edge­able guide.

Back in those days, the inter­net was, as they say, in its infan­cy. How much bet­ter I would have fared if some­thing like Five Books had exist­ed! The site’s gen­er­al idea, as it trum­pets on its home­page, is to rec­om­mend “the best books on every­thing.” Argue amongst your­selves about whether any one resource can deliv­er on that promise, but let’s keep our focus on the excel­lent space of their Phi­los­o­phy sec­tion, curat­ed by free­lance philoso­pher-at-large Nigel War­bur­ton.

You may know Dr. War­bur­ton from his many for­ays in pub­lic phi­los­o­phy. Whether it’s the Phi­los­o­phy Bites pod­cast, or its spin-offs Free Speech Bites and Ethics Bites, or his work on the BBC’s ani­mat­ed his­to­ry of ideas series, or any one of his books, he has a rare knack for bring­ing the obscure and often dif­fi­cult con­cepts of aca­d­e­m­ic phi­los­o­phy to light with both con­ver­sa­tion­al good humor and intel­lec­tu­al rig­or. Most of that work takes place in dia­logue, the orig­i­nal form of clas­si­cal phi­los­o­phy.

The Five Books forum is no excep­tion. In the lat­est post, War­bur­ton inter­views Uni­ver­si­ty of Sheffield’s Kei­th Frank­ish on the five best books on Phi­los­o­phy of Mind. What is “Phi­los­o­phy of Mind”? Read Frankish’s answer to that ques­tion here. What are his five picks? See below:

  1. A Mate­ri­al­ist The­o­ry of the Mind, by D.M. Arm­strong
  2. Con­scious­ness Explained, by Daniel C. Den­nett
  3. Vari­eties of Mean­ing: The 2002 Jean Nicod Lec­tures, by Ruth Gar­rett Milikan
  4. The Archi­tec­ture of the Mind, by Peter Car­ruthers
  5. Super­siz­ing the Mind: Embod­i­ment, Action, and Cog­ni­tive Exten­sion, by Andy Clark

What about the best books on Ethics for Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence? It’s a far more press­ing ques­tion than it was when Arthur C. Clarke pub­lished 2001: A Space Odyssey, which hap­pens to be one of the books on Oxford aca­d­e­m­ic Paula Boddington’s list. In his inter­view with Bod­ding­ton, War­bur­ton asks for, and receives, a clar­i­fi­ca­tion of the phrase “ethics for arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence.” In her choice of books, Bod­ding­ton rec­om­mends those below. You may not find some of them shelved in phi­los­o­phy sec­tions, but when it comes to our sci-fi present, it seems, we may need to expand our cat­e­gories of thought.

  1. Hearti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence: Embrac­ing Our Human­i­ty to Max­i­mize Machines, by John Havens
  2. The Tech­no­log­i­cal Sin­gu­lar­i­ty, by Mur­ray Shana­han
  3. Weapons of Math Destruc­tion: How Big Data Increas­es Inequal­i­ty and Threat­ens Democ­ra­cy, by Cathy O’Neil
  4. Moral Machines: Teach­ing Robots Right from Wrong, by Wen­dell Wal­lach and Col­in Allen
  5. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke

There are dozens more enlight­en­ing inter­views and lists of five best books—on Niet­zsche, Marx, and Hegel, on Exis­ten­tial­ism, Sto­icism, Con­scious­ness, Chi­nese Phi­los­o­phy…. Too many to direct­ly quote here. There are lists from War­bur­ton him­self, on the best phi­los­o­phy books from 2017, and best intro­duc­tions to phi­los­o­phy. The whole expe­ri­ence is a lit­tle like vis­it­ing, vir­tu­al­ly, a cou­ple dozen or so high­ly-regard­ed philoso­phers in every field, lis­ten­ing in on an infor­ma­tive chat, and get­ting a book­list from every one. You’ve still got to find and buy the books your­self (and read and talk about them), but this kind of guid­ance from liv­ing philoso­phers cur­rent­ly work­ing in the field has nev­er before been so wide­ly and freely avail­able out­side of acad­e­mia.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

170+ Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Emi­nent Philoso­phers Name the 43 Most Impor­tant Phi­los­o­phy Books Writ­ten Between 1950–2000: Wittgen­stein, Fou­cault, Rawls & More

28 Impor­tant Philoso­phers List the Books That Influ­enced Them Most Dur­ing Their Col­lege Days

48 Ani­mat­ed Videos Explain the His­to­ry of Ideas: From Aris­to­tle to Sartre

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (12)
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  • Stephen says:

    I kind of expect­ed to see a title from Robert Noz­ick, such as Philosph­i­cal Expla­na­tions, or maybe even a recent title from Jim Holt.

  • Wendy says:

    You have not read it, have you?

  • Bill says:

    The his­toric Judeo-Chris­t­ian world­view based on the Bible basi­cal­ly con­sists in 1) An ethical/moral sys­tem root­ed in a spe­cif­ic meta­physics, and 2) this meta­phys­i­cal sys­tem is itself root­ed in a spe­cif­ic epis­te­mol­o­gy. By way of demon­strat­ing point 1, con­sid­er the first com­mand­ment (of the Ten Com­mand­ments): “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slav­ery.” (Exo­dus 20:2; Eng­lish Stan­dard Ver­sion trans­la­tion). This isn’t a ‘com­mand’ in the form that we typ­i­cal­ly think of as a com­mand, that is, there is not ‘ought’ or ‘should’ in the state­ment. It is a propo­si­tion­al state­ment, a state­ment about what IS the case, not what OUGHT to be the case.

    Such a world­view is com­plete­ly at odds with a Mod­ernist world­view, and arti­cles found on this web­site are almost cer­tain to take Mod­ernist world­view pre­sup­po­si­tions almost for grant­ed.

  • Zizek Rules says:

    Wow! Sug­gest­ed read­ing AND a lec­ture!!

  • Greg says:

    Good Lord. What a wretched, half baked list: the almost cer­tain­ly wrong and wide­ly dis­card­ed reduc­tive par­a­digm for phi­los­o­phy of mind; imbe­cil­ic works on AI (by the way, if you want to actu­al­ly under­stand AI as it actu­al­ly exists you need to do the math — so brush up on your lin­ear alge­bra and take a course that requires you to devel­op algo­rithms). A click through the con­scious­ness link has more of the same dreck. I was going to drop into deep despair until I clicked on the Chi­nese phi­los­o­phy link — thank you for that.

  • Swansword says:

    The first com­mand­ment is Exo­dus 20:2–6, against idol wor­ship.

  • conner shelby says:

    The first thing to do is read all of Plato–hopefully with some friend­ly study aides. Then Aristotle.Then a dozen or more major Greek philoso­phers. THEN you’ll be ready for the more heady stuff.

  • John Mack says:

    The Jews of the time of Jesus made only the last 7 com­mand­ments, the ethics com­mand­ments, bind­ing on the Gen­tiles who wished to affil­i­ate with any of the Jew­ish syn­a­gogues found through­out the Roman Empire.

  • Chuck Denk says:

    1)First off, any book on Phi­los­o­phy of Mind that does­n’t seri­ous­ly con­sid­er Elim­i­na­tive Mate­ri­al­ism can’t be much dif­fer­ent than what I read in the mid ’80s when I was going to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ari­zona, earn­ing my B.A. in Phi­los­o­phy.

    2)In the cur­rent anti-sci­ence envi­ron­ment in the USA’s fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, ref­er­ence to Phi­los­o­phy of Sci­ence is sore­ly lack­ing. Although I’m not famil­iar with cur­rent lit­er­a­ture, Philip Kitcher’s “Abus­ing Sci­ence: The Case Against Cre­ation­ism” is easy to under­stand, and makes a lucid dis­tinc­tion between pseu­do­science and sci­ence. Hav­ing a basic under­stand­ing of what sci­ence is and how it it works is a cru­cial part of defend­ing one­self from bad sci­ence, pseu­do­science, and just plain non­sense.

  • Rev. Nagi Mato says:

    All this about Phi­los­o­phy and noth­ing by Alan Watts… sad.

  • Thomas Barran says:

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Dis­course on Inequal­i­ty” and “On the Social Con­tract.”

    For a woman philoso­pher, Suzanne Langer–Philosophy in a New Key

    Der­ri­da, “On Gram­ma­tol­ogy”

    Schopen­hauer, “The World as Will and Rep­re­sen­ta­tion.”

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