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.

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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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