Fun reads for philosophers?

Suppose you want to recommend ten or a dozen philosophy books to students (not complete beginners) for out-of-term-time reading, books that are positively enjoyable to read, even fun, written with a light touch and some zest, though still thought-provoking and instructive. To make things a bit easier, we’ll allow books published any time in the last fifty years, and include collections of papers. But — and this makes it much tougher — we’ll not allow books on ethics or politics (so no provoking Singer, no very readable Nozick …). And let’s rule out one or two books like Kripke’s Naming and Necessity that are already on everyone’s reading list. So what would you choose?

I’ve been looking along my shelves for inspiration: but since I’ve recently given away a lot of my books, keeping what’s now a mostly rather austere logical collection, that’s not a great deal of help. Here, however, are a few things that come to mind:

  1. Simon Blackburn, Truth: A Guide (OUP, 2005) [Blackburn always writes enviably well, and can be very funny (try his Lust): this is serious, wide-ranging, philosophy done very readably.]
  2. Daniel Dennett, Elbow Room (OUP, 1984) [Dennett is always worth reading: what to choose? This is short, full of ideas, and perhaps these days less well-known than it should be.]
  3. Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (NLB, 1975). [Still a provocation, still fun to read.]
  4. Imre Lakatos, Proofs and Refutations (CUP, 1976). [Maybe it’s not clear where this leads, but the journey is certainly fun! Maybe more philosophy could be written as this kind of dialogue.]
  5. David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds (Blackwell, 1986) [David Lewis writes so well that almost anything of his will be worth reading: but experience shows that students can get particularly caught up in the madness of this book! Perhaps I’m cheating by including this here, as — at least in some places —  it is already  a staple of reading lists. But don’t miss out on the fun if you haven’t read it.]
  6. Hilary Putnam, Mind, Language and Reality (CUP, 1975). [Another oldie. Does it count as fun? Well, I certainly remember the excitement of reading the papers in the first two volumes of Putnam’s Philosophical Papers when they came out: this is the second of those volumes. There is much here that is still very worth reading for its own sake, written with zest and insight, and there is much which will illuminate later debates too. Dip into it!]
  7. R. M. Sainsbury, Paradoxes (CUP, 3rd edn 2009) [OK, this is more like a conventional student text than others on the list — but these are fun topics, well handled.]
  8. Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures (Profile Books, 1998) [Sokal famously wrote a parody of post-modernist abuse of scientic terminology, a farrago of nonsense which was accepted and published in a pomo journal. His book with Bricmont explores the misuse of science, and contains some sane philosophy along with way.]

And now what? Surely some Fodor: but which? Add Quine’s Quiddities perhaps? I gulped down Eric Olson’s The Human Animal when it came out and admire it a lot. In a quite different vein, Edward Craig’s The Mind of God and the Works of Man is wonderful.

But what would you put on your list? (Or if you are still a student, what off-piste reading have you found particularly enjoyable/illuminating?)

Added April 16 A link on Brian Leiter’s estimable blog has attracted readers outside the usual logicky people who follow Logic Matters, so there’s been a welcome flurry of further suggestions in the comments — which shows, inter alia, how very varying people’s ideas of philosophical fun can be!

No women philosophers in my list above? Guilty as charged. The lack has been rectified in some of the later comments below! In a wider-ranging list I’d have certainly included Martha Nussbaum’s Fragility of Goodness and perhaps some others of hers. In the Great Retirement Book Dispersal, hers are indeed are among the few non logic/language/m&e books to survive.

52 thoughts on “Fun reads for philosophers?”

  1. Trenton Merricks’ Objects and Persons is great fun: wonderfully written, clearly argued, and full of the kind of crazy conclusions that attract students.

    Jerry Fodor’s The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way is one of his most accessible and it discusses the kind of evolutionary psychology people will be exposed to outside of philosophy.

  2. David Auerbach

    On the Fodor question.
    Almost certainly early or middle rather than late, since these are these are students after all.
    The earliest (Psychological Explanation(?) might be fun, since it has arguments and represents a great moment in philosophy in mind. And, it will give a good sense (however slanted) of the problems with Ryle, et al.
    If that’s too early, then I think A Theory of Content and Other Essays, partly because it has more chronological sweep and includes the modularity stuff.

    Maybe Kripke’s “Speaker’s Reference and Semantic Reference”. It has an introduction to English/Schminglish methodology, some points about scope and a quickie introduction to Grice. (I’m too ignorant to come with a sufficiently entertaining piece by Grice himself.)

    For some of them:
    Either “The Lady or the Tiger” or “Forever Undecided” by Smullyan. Not quite philosophy, but still an awful lot gets done in the guise of puzzles.
    (Oh, while we’re on the subject, and you want short: Boolos, “Gödel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem Explained in Words of One Syllable”)

    Perry’s Dialog on Personal Identity?

    Hallett’s book on Cantor.

    Boy, this reveals my age and parochialism all at once.

  3. Putnam — Reason, Truth and History: why we can’t be brains in a vat, how “cats” could refer to cherries and “cherries” to cats.

    Kripke — perhaps the recently published collection, Philosophical Troubles: Collected Papers, Volume 1

    Seeing “Halletts’ book on Cantor” beings to mind Shaughan Lavine’s Understanding the Infinite (which I think is more fun to read).

    If older work is allowed, Berkeley’s Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous is good fun (and interesting to argue against).

    Galen Strawson, Mental Reality.

    Robert Kane, The Significance of Free Will.

  4. Great post, will be checking it out from time to time!
    Unfortunately I have nothing to recommend, except for, maybe, Smullyan’s books.

  5. Hallett on Cantor: yes! (Much more so than the Lavine, for my money; a tougher read, but so much deeper and richer and stranger.)

    And Cora Diamond, The Realistic Spirit.

    And more Lakatos: ‘Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes’. (If the name of the game is ‘what to take out of the library for the vacation’, then I’d go for the collection in which it first appeared: Lakatos and Musgrave, Criticism & the growth of knowledge (1970).)

  6. great topic! i respect the inclusion of “plurality of worlds” but i personally found it tough reading. my contributions to the list:
    -john perry, “reference & reflexivity”, ”
    -jon barwise & john etchemendy, “the liar”
    -roland barthes, “mythologies” (talk about readability..)
    -hilary putnam, “ethics without ontology” (sorry, you said no ethics.. but still :)
    -michael dummett, “the nature and future of philosophy”
    -anything by j.l. austin!
    -anything by thomas nagel!

  7. How to Read Wittgenstein – Ray Monk : it’s a great introduction to the relevance and importance of Wittgenstein’s thought, only around 150 pages.

    Wittgenstein on Human Nature – P.M.S. Hacker : this is also a short book (around 100 pages if I remember correctly) but extremely helpful in contextualising Wittgenstein and explaining the fundamental reasons for his demolition of philosophy. Hacker is possibly the authority on Wittgenstein.

    Ludwig Wittgenstein: the Duty of Genius – Ray Monk : Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein is illuminating and probably the most enjoyable of all my suggestions purely because it doesn’t demand a philosophical view (you know how it is, you enjoy reading the philosophers you agree with and hate reading the ones with whom you don’t – as a general rule). It also really helps one get a better understanding of Wittgenstein’s life and his conception of philosophy.

    Purely for style of prose and intelligent, interesting writing Hacker is second-to-none. Find his website and read some of the papers he has uploaded there, there are about 20: they are all fantastic and the detail and justification he offers is exceptional. Though I guess you really have to be sympathetic to Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy to ever enjoy anything about/by him, why is why I suspect most philosophers don’t like him too much!

    However I can offer a relatively uncontroversial but still extremely enjoyable read: J. L. Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”. He has an excellent style of writing (despite his excessive use of commas) and this book seems to me to be the most comprehensive and detailed refutation of theism, something I enjoy a lot… Also his book “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong” is good but probably only the first few chapters are worth reading (it’s metaethics not ethics… that’s my excuse).

    It really depends who the list is for. People who read and understand very technical analytic philosophy tend to enjoy it; people who read and understand Dostoevsky or Nietzsche tend to enjoy it. I think out-of-term time reading should be light, however, and probably should be restricted to books written to be introductions as we are not assuming any prior familiarity. Though lots of the above suggestions look great!

  8. Paul Horwich – Truth

    Arthur Danto – The Transfiguration of the Commonplace

    Gregory Currie – The Nature of Fiction

  9. i thought nelson goodman’s fact, fiction and forecast was accessible and fun enough…maybe not light-hearted, but still a pretty good book of philosophy.

  10. Nelson Goodman’s Ways of Worldmaking. I sat down to read that book on a Saturday afternoon because I had to read it for a paper I was writing. I planned to read the first chapter or so before moving on to something else. I ended up spending my entire afternoon with it and read it one sitting. Easily the most fun I’ve had reading a work of philosophy.

  11. -Kivy’s The Corded Shell

    -Moore’s Points of View

    -Mendelssohn’s Philosophical Writings (especially “On Evidence in the Metaphysical Sciences” and “On Sentiments”)

    -Gill’s The British Moralists on Human Nature and the Birth of Secular Ethics

    -Anscombe’s Intention

    -Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe

    -Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel’s Describing Inner Experience?

  12. Annette Baier’s _Postures of the Mind_ was suggested to me when I was finishing as an undergrad. It was good then, and it is still good now.

  13. Oh, yes, Annette Baier actually offers humor, great fun!

    Although I adore _Fragility of Goodness_ I have never found it fun or zesty. To bring students to Nussbaum, I offer “For Love of Country?” instead. Mary Midgley’s work in general is so much more deft and even playful, Claudia Card’s work on evil perversely offers the occasional dark humor (okay, she’s not fun on this topic, but she has a kind of zest), and Sally Haslanger is a student-grabbingly good time. (See especially “But Mom, crop tops are cute!” My class read that one weeks ago and they’re still quoting it.)

  14. Completely agree with Susan Haack’s Philosophy of Logics, I remember that being a lot of fun to read when I started out.

  15. 1. Goodman, Languages of Art
    2. Anscombe, From Parmenides to Wittgenstein
    3. Nagel, Mortal Questions
    4. Austin, Philosophical Papers
    5. Hacking, The Emergence of Probability
    6. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
    7. Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say

  16. This is pretty hard since most of my reading is in value theory (and I am a student, and I take it that metaethics, even broadly construed, counts as “ethics”, and…), but Susan Haack’s Evidence and Inquiry is a wonderful – yet neglected – book. Also, I am surprised that no one has mentioned Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? Both of them are far-ranging and delightful reading.

  17. The biggest surprise in my philosophy reading so far has been Richard Taylor’s Metaphysics. Even the index is funny.

  18. In order of funness:

    David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind
    Thomas Nagel, The Last Word
    JP Moreland, Consciousness and the Existence of God
    Jaegwon Kim, Physicalism or Something Near Enough
    Alvin Plantinga, Nature and Necessity
    Richard Swinburne, The Evolution of the Soul

  19. Interesting tips, thanks! however: any particular reason for choosing books published in the last 50 years?

  20. I suppose it’s not quite in the fifty year limit, but Austin’s How To Do Things with Words is enormously fun.

    I also remember a few memorably amusing sections in Searle’s Intentionality and Rediscovery of the Mind. Oh, and Geach is always enjoyably wry.

  21. J L Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia, and his How to Do Thing with Words are perfect for the purpose. Jonathan Barnes’s study of ancient logic, Truth Etc, is absurdly funny. I’m a huge fan of Bernard Williams’s Truth and Truthfulness – a salutary mixture of philosophy of language, mind, and ethics, political theory and intellectual history.

  22. For those interested in metaphysics and personal identity:
    Dennett and Hofstadter, The Mind’s I
    –nice collection of papers, with commentary afterwards.

  23. Arthur Danto’s The Transfiguration of the Commonplace is one of the best written and most skillfully constructed works of philosophy I have ever read.

  24. Catherine Hundleby

    Sandra Harding’s “Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?” and “The Science Question in Feminism” both are zesty, full of irony, and even absurdity.

    The same for Lorraine Code’s “What Can She Know?” and “Rhetorical Spaces.”

    More recently, Miranda Fricker’s “Epistemic Injustice” makes lively use of films to make technical points.

    Andrea Nye’s “Words of Power” will get a rise out of pretty much any philosopher, but she’s careful.

  25. Catherine Hundleby

    Anything by Michele Le Doueff or Val Plumwood will inspire and startle.

    Evelyn Fox Keller is passionate and provocative.

  26. not an aesthetician

    I’d enthusiastically second Mimesis as Make-Believe. It’s a testament to what analytic philosophy has to offer as a discipline–it shows how much logical rigor and fluency in philosophy of language and metaphysicics can illuminate issues of basic human and cultural interest, when these things are supplemented by sensitivity and a sophisticated knowledge of the rest of the humanities. And it’s stylistically marvelous to boot.

    I found Nancy Cartwright’s The Dappled World absolutely thrilling as an undergraduate.

    Richard Wollheim’s The Thread of Life may count as ethics, but if not it should be on the list for sure.

  27. Obviously (and mentioned once above): Bernard Suits’s The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia, a beautifully written and gently funny book. The only philosophy book I can imagine reading on the beach.

  28. David Stove, The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies, and Cricket versus Republicanism and Other Essays Stove’s political views don’t resonate with me but he’s brilliantly funny.

  29. Some Bernard Williams would be a worthy instruction in style.

    A less ambitious assignment: almost every piece in the LRB by Rorty or Fodor is lively and a lot of fun.

  30. Everyone has his prefered giants, so on the occasion of their recent passing with large gratitude for their works I suggest Mchael Dummett’s
    Truth and Other Enigmas and Ruth Barcan Marcus’s Modalities – Philosophical Essays

  31. E.J. Lowe’s ‘Subjects of Experience’ and ‘The Four Category Ontology’. Both are enjoyably packed with food for thought on phil of mind and metaphysics respectively.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top