Before searching for the best modern philosophy books. Why are we here? What is reality? How can we love? These are just some of the hard questions we all have had in our lifetime and ones we are still constantly looking for the answers to. Some of the world’s most brilliant thinkers were engaged in the field of philosophy and passionately shared their ideas through books, treatises, and in the case of Socrates and Plato, orations in front of a live audience.
But philosophy is more than just old guys throughout history in white togas, tweed jackets, or thick glasses. It is a way of learning how to think and essentially how to find meaning in existence. When we read philosophy books and study philosophical ideas, we learn more about logic, imagination, ethics, morality, and self-awareness. Philosophy can help us understand our lives, find our purpose and fulfil it. Let’s begin our search for the best modern philosophy books.
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Nussbaum opens with the ancient myth of Oresteia in which the Furies – goddesses of revenge – hunt down Orestes, who killed his mother. Athena intervenes and sets up a system of judicial law, but invites the Furies to temper their retributive anger and be part of the city. They accept and transform from bloodthirsty vengeful creatures to being kind, just, and gracious. Nussbaum delves from here into the depths of anger and, drawing upon Stoic ideas, proposes how we might think differently about forgiveness.
One of the key problems with anger is that it’s often about insecurity and status-injury, “And status-injury has a narcissistic flavour.” It would be a lot healthier for society if we were to focus on deterring future wrongs, rather than seeking Fury-like payback – which is irrational and often just makes the situation worse. It’s a book that has the potential to change the world for the better.
In this book, Quassim Cassam develops an account of self-knowledge which tries to do justice to these and other respects in which humans aren’t model epistemic citizens. He rejects rationalist and other mainstream philosophical accounts of self-knowledge on the grounds that, in more than one sense, they aren’t accounts of self-knowledge for humans. Instead, he defends the view that inferences from behavioural and psychological evidence are a basic source of human self-knowledge. On this account, self-knowledge is a genuine cognitive achievement and self-ignorance is almost always on the cards.
As well as explaining knowledge of our own states of mind, Cassam also accounts for what he calls ‘substantial’ self-knowledge, including knowledge of our values, emotions, and character. He criticizes philosophical accounts of self-knowledge for neglecting substantial self-knowledge and concludes with a discussion of the value of self-knowledge.
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When we talk about the best modern philosophy books, we have to talk about how to love by Sarah Bakewell. This book is oriented around a number of existential questions in Michel Montaigne’s writings, is an extremely powerful way of understanding philosophy’s practical, personal and potentially transformative power. Bakewell’s blend of philosophical meditation, historical survey, and intelligent self-help counteracts philosophy’s bad reputation of being divorced from the history and affairs of the world. If you want to think through philosophy at its most inspiring and essentially helpful, you should read this book.
Bernard Williams was one of the most important philosophers of the past fifty years, but he was also a distinguished critic and essayist with an elegant style and a rare ability to communicate complex ideas to a wide public. This is the first collection of Williams’s popular essays and reviews. Williams writes about a broad range of subjects, from philosophy to science, the humanities, economics, feminism, and pornography.
My friend Massimo Pigliucci has written a fun-but-also-serious comprehensive book that updates Stoicism. Admittedly, I was sceptical of Stoicism, but this book (along with Nussbaum’s) has changed some of my views because it shows that the philosophy is not all about resignation, indifference, and having a stiff upper lip. Through the lens of the Stoic virtues – practical wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice – Pigliucci highlights how it can be applied as a force for good: not only helping people through difficult times but also on a grander scale through social activism and criminal justice reform.
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Richard Holton provides a unified account of intention, choice, weakness of will, the strength of will, temptation, addiction, and freedom of the will. Drawing on recent psychological research, he argues that, rather than being the pinnacle of rationality, the central components of the will are there to compensate for our inability to make or maintain sound judgments. With the help of a wide range of relevant empirical studies, Holton uses his analysis to cast new light on topics such as will-power, temptation, addiction and free will.
Intelligent Virtue presents a distinctive new account of virtue and happiness as central ethical ideas. Annas employs her extensive knowledge of both ancient and modern philosophy to offer a rich reworking of ancient notions of flourishing and virtue for the 21st century. She examines the nature of practical reasoning to show how the exercise of the virtues can be part of (or even perhaps the whole of) a flourishing life. Annas argues that exercising a virtue involves practical reasoning of a kind which can illuminatingly be compared to the kind of reasoning we find in someone exercising a practical skill.
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Kitcher constructs an original and persuasive secular perspective, one that answers human needs, recognizes the objectivity of values, and provides for the universal desire for meaningfulness. Kitcher thoughtfully and sensitively considers how secularism can respond to the worries and challenges that all people confront, including the issue of mortality. He investigates how secular lives compare with those of people who adopt religious doctrines as literal truth, as well as those who embrace less literalistic versions of religion. Whereas religious belief has been important in past times, Kitcher concludes that evolution away from religion is now essential.
He envisions the successors to religious life, where the senses of identity and community traditionally fostered by religion will instead draw on a broader range of cultural items those provided by poets, filmmakers, musicians, artists, scientists, and others. With clarity and deep insight, Kitcher reveals the power of secular humanism to encourage fulfilling human lives built on ethical truth.
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