5 Great Books for Philosophy Majors

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5 Interesting Books for Philosophers

  • Plato’s Apology
  • Aristotle’s Prior Analytics
  • The Analects of Confucius
  • Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason
  • Additional Reading

Students taking courses in philosophy read a wide range of books from various different cultures and historical periods. Philosophers can specialize in various different areas of inquiry such as epistemology, ontology, moral and political philosophy, or logic and philosophy of language. Nonetheless, certain works serve as common starting points for discussion of central issues in philosophical inquiry and philosophers and philosophy students need to be familiar with them.

1. Plato’s Apology

The distinguished philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that all philosophy was series of footnotes to Plato. By that Whitehead meant that Plato’s dialogues introduced many of the issues that still concern philosophers and addressed them in ways that are still relevant to current discussions. The Apology introduces readers to Socrates, Plato’s philosophic mentor, and discusses such important themes as the nature of wisdom and the philosophical life.

2. Aristotle’s Prior Analytics

Aristotle was Plato’s student, and his works, like those of Plato, are still widely read and discussed. Although many of Aristotle’s works are worth reading, Prior Analytics is particularly important as it serves as the foundation of formal logic. Since logic concerns the nature of valid and invalid reasoning, it underlies all areas of philosophy, as one’s ability to reason or think critically about any particular subject depends on understanding the nature of reasoning itself. Prior Analytics is especially notable for its treatment of the syllogism, which is the cornerstone of deductive reasoning.

3. The Analects of Confucius

Just as Plato and Aristotle are foundational figures for western philosophy, so Confucius is one of the great figures of Chinese philosophy, informing both ancient and modern thought about society, family, politics, and the goals of people’s lives as individuals embedded within social systems. The Analects are particularly interesting in the way they link together the flourishing of a society to the moral development and character of individuals, especially of leaders.

4. Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is a key work in modern philosophy and is the source of many of the concepts that underlie recent thought about how philosophical discourse is conducted and the nature of philosophy as a discipline. It raises many important points in epistemology (the study of knowledge) including distinctions between those things known analytically and prior to examination of empirical evidence (such as mathematical theorems) and those types of knowledge which depend on empirical evidence. A seminal innovation was Kant’s discussion of the “synthetic a priori” elements that condition people’s experience such as space-time and causation.

4. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty

A classic of moral philosophy, Mill’s On Liberty advanced the “harm principle” which is namely the notion that people should have the liberty to do anything that does not harm others. This principle, along with Mill’s cogent defense of the need for free speech and inquiry as a precondition for advancing knowledge, underlie much of modern political and ethical thought in western democracies.

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5. Additional Reading

Newton famously said he saw far because he stood on the shoulders of giants. Recent philosophers build on the works of great thinkers of the past. The more one reads of current and past philosophers, the greater one’s ability to contribute to the discipline.