Read These 5 Books to Understand Philosophy

If there's one thing that's harder to understand than science, it might just be philosophy. At least science can hang its hat on the real, physical world. Philosophy can seem so slippery, existing in a realm of ideas and arguments and cold, hard logic. But philosophy's not really so bad, and as a matter of fact, it can really change the way that you look at some of the basic facts about your life. There's more to it than nebulous questions like "What if we're all dreaming?" and "What if the universe is in a jar on a shelf somewhere?" Here are five philosophical disciplines that you should know about — and the books that will get you there.

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Metaphysics is probably the first thing you think of when you think of philosophy. It basically covers any question you have about the nature of Reality with a capital R. Do you think there are two types of reality? That's a metaphysics question. So are questions about the nature of change, the nature of causality, and the nature of identity — and questions about whether any of those concepts are actually real in the first place. The thing about metaphysics is that it intersects with actual physics in some unexpected ways, and the more that physicists uncover, the more that metaphysical questions become relevant.

One of the best examples is probably the nature of time. Maybe you feel like time is just a present moment that continually changes. Maybe you think it's like a tape measure creeping ever forward while leaving a trail of the past behind it. Or maybe you think the future and the past are all set in stone, and we just only experience one particular moment at a, well, time. Which of those are true (and it's probably a lot more complicated than any of those suggestions) could have major effects on the study of physics, and vice versa.

The book to read: Check out Adrian Bardon's "A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time" to find out how thinkers from the past perceived time — and how relativity, quantum physics, and other scientific theories changed those thoughts.


There's one particular question in ethics that has been so thoroughly memed, you probably already know all about it: the trolley problem. It goes something like this. A runaway trolley is barreling down a track toward five people. The only way they could be saved is if the trolley switched tracks before hitting them — except that track has one person standing on it. You and only you have control of the lever that switches the tracks. When you see the trolley barreling down on the five people, is it your responsibility to pull the lever and make sure only one person is killed instead? If you do, would you have murdered that person? If you don't, would you have murdered the other five?

The book to read: If you're just beginning to study ethics, we recommend "Ethics: A Beginner's Guide" by Peter Cave. Cave covers the hypothetical and not-so-hypothetical moral questions of the ages, running all the way up to modern political thought.


Many major branches of philosophy have a single phrase associated with them that illustrates a central problem in a tongue-in-cheek manner. (Hey, philosophers have a sense of humor too!) For epistemology, that phrase is "turtles all the way down." Imagine you're an ancient scholar who believes that the world rests on the back of a giant turtle. But what does the turtle rest on, you ask? Easy: another turtle. And another below that, and another below that. It's turtles all the way down.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge and how we know things, and the turtles illustrate one (perhaps shaky) way that human beings justify their beliefs. Say you believe something because you have proof, and you believe in that proof because you have more proof of that proof, and so on, and so on. You can't ever hold the entire chain of justification in your head, though — so, at some point, you must be waving your hand and saying there are more turtles down there.

The book to read: To know something, you must be certain of it — the challenge is to find an idea for which certainty has never eroded away. Pick up Chuck Klosterman's "But What If We're Wrong?" (the cover is designed to make it look like you're reading upside down) and explore the right way to think about the wrong thoughts of the past and present.


Logic might be the most intimidating of all the philosophical disciplines, dense with mathematical symbols and cold, unerring calculations. But if you have a certain type of mind, it might be the only one that appeals to you. Logic is probably put to practical use more than any other philosophical tradition, and it can be seen in computer programming, mathematics, and even law. Unlike the other types of philosophy on this list, you won't find a lot of pontificating about different paradigms or worldviews. Instead, you'll just find out the right way to do it — and there's no other way.

The book to read: If you're feeling daunted, why not take your logical medicine with a spoonful of illustrated sugar? "Introducing Logic: A Graphic Guide" by Dan Cryan, Sharron Shatil, and Bill Mayblin explains the practice of logic clearly and with lots of pictures.

Bonus Book: Fiction

In a book that's meant for teens but is really appropriate for anybody, Jostein Gaarder takes the reader on an engaging and mind-bending journey through the history of philosophy in the one-and-only "Sophie's World." We aren't going to give away the ending, but the novel follows two teenage girls separated by more than just time and distance, yet inextricably linked in their growing understanding of the borders of reality. It's not science fiction and it's not magic — it really is just rooted in the life-changing power philosophy has to transform the way you see the world.

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 25, 2018

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