30 Essential Reads for Philosophy Majors

Philosophy may not enjoy the greatest of reputations when it comes to potential majors, but nevertheless, the subject holds great appeal to worldly types who find its interdisciplinary nature totally tantalizing. After all, the arts, sciences, politics, economics, and pretty much every other degree plan out there crosses over with the ancient subject at some point. So those studying philosophy should stand proud of their choice to pursue such a broad, eclectic field! But they should probably realize just how much reading it’s going to involve. Like, English major levels. And the following will likely find their way into the curriculum at some point:

  1. Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

    One of the most influential philosophical and religious texts of all time, the literary cornerstone of Taoism (and, to a lesser extent, Buddhism as practiced in China) covers a broad spectrum of philosophical topics. Politics, tranquility, social mores and pretty much everything else one can think of all receive insightful inquiry here.

  2. The Art of War by Sun Tzu

    One need not adhere to a military career to find some of The Art of War‘s tenets useful, as numerous East Asian (and even some “Western”) politicians, lawyers, businesspersons, and even athletes can attest. Considering its reach extends far beyond its ancient Chinese origins, philosophy majors, minors, and other students would do well to give the text a thorough reading.

  3. Analects of Confucius by Confucius

    As with the works of Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu, Confucius’ philosophy continues resonating worldwide millennia after publication; the book chronicling the belief system bearing his name, however, was likely compiled by his closest acolytes. Most of his teachings involve outlining morality and humanity, particularly as they relate to social interactions.

  4. Complete Works by Plato

    This legendary Greek philosopher garners the most recognition for his Socratic dialogues, modeled after the teaching and debate style of his mentor Socrates. These heavily influential talks outline Plato’s supertheories of supereverything, which means plenty of politics, science, mathematics, logic, epistemology, rhetoric, and other philosophical topics to go round.

  5. Corpus Aristotelicum by Aristotle

    Contemporary philosophy students have medieval scholars to thank for preserving another one of Socrates’ devoted acolytes’ major works, although speculation abounds over how much of it is authentic. Regardless, though, the Corpus Aristotelicum and its detailed examinations of politics, metaphysics, rhetoric, poetry, ethics, logic, science, and physics remains an essential read for all philosophy buffs, particularly those with a more “Western” bent.

  6. The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

    Penned during the author’s year-long prison stint prior to his execution for treason, the partial inspiration for A Confederacy of Dunces asks the timeless question of why God allows bad things to happen to good people. Despite this heavy thesis, scholars do not believe Boethius meant for his musings as a religious diatribe (Jesus and dogmatic principles, for example, receive no mention), but rather an observation on the nature of existence using “God” as a broad semantic stand-in for life’s inevitable ebbs and flows.

  7. The Metaphysics of the Healing by Abu Ali ibn Sina

    Also known as The Book of Healing, Abu Ali ibn Sina’s (usually Anglicized as “Avicenna”) masterpiece completely revolutionized many scientific and mathematical disciplines; although the title makes reference to the author’s entirely game-changing surgical and medical contributions, it has nothing to do with either topic. Rather, he “narrows” his attentions to building on earlier writings about logic, metaphysics, music, natural science, geometry, and astronomy from the Greeks and his fellow Muslims.

  8. The Incoherence of the Incoherence by Abu I-Walid Muhammad bin Ahmad bin Rushd

    Abu I-Walid Muhammad bin Ahmad bin Rushd challenged his Sufi contemporary Imam Al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers, which lambasted the incorporation of Greek (specifically Aristotelian) thought into Islamic academia. Here, he utilizes a dialogue structured and responds to specific criticism, attempting to synthesize the two different belief systems into one harmonious whole.

  9. Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas

    Summa Theologica may be unfinished, but it still exists as one of the most important Catholic/Christian (and therefore “Western”) treatises ever published. Although he writes about multiple theological subjects, Thomas Aquinas’ main goal is actually quite simple – explain what the Church believes (or at least believed at the time – some things HAVE changed, after all) and why.

  10. Secretum by Petrarch

    Scholars often hail Petrarch as the grandfather of the humanist school, and Secretum – which many believe may not have ever been intended for public consideration – offers up pretty compelling evidence for this mindset. Reading like more of a self-assessment than anything else, he earnestly addresses Augustine of Hippo’s accusations that he does not take faith, God, the afterlife, and other core Catholic/Christian beliefs seriously enough.

  11. Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes

    Philosophy students eager to snap up as much metaphysical literature as possible should consider Rene Descartes an essential read, particularly his six meditations reflecting the shape of what he believes to be real and certain. Each one builds upon the other and structures itself as a six-day meditation ritual reflecting on whether or not God and the soul are actually things.

  12. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

    For the more politically-minded, Leviathan provides one of the earliest explorations of social contract theory, which attempts to make sense of humanity’s interactions with its governing bodies. Published as the English Civil War raged, the philosopher advocated for a solid, centralized social contract structure over which a supreme sovereign entity reigned.

  13. Treatise on the Art of Philosophising Soberly and Accurately by Anton Wilhelm Amo

    Most of this esteemed, though sadly often overlooked, Ghanaian philosopher and academic’s essays fueled one of his quintessential publications. As the title states, he pulls from his epistemological empiricism to deliver a discourse on ethical, honest intellectualism accessible to anyone hoping to participate.

  14. On the Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

    By the time On the Social Contract saw publication, the eponymous theory already drifted about the scene in a solid enough state, albeit one open to interpretation. Jean-Jacques Rousseau just added to it, infusing ideas of a direct democracy in with the ideology’s take on a monarchal, bureaucratic political structure.

  15. Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant

    Aristotelian philosophy’s traditional perspectives on judgment and analysis receive something of an academic smackdown in this ambitious assessment of a priori human thought. Most of Immanuel Kant’s oeuvre aimed to synthesize the concretely known with the speculative while still allowing room for some more abstracted speculations.

  16. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

    Without Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist movement may have taken on a completely different shape, maybe even kicked off later; either way, though, it’s an early, essential glimpse at the mindsets behind women’s rights. The author meant to rip apart social norms denying women equal opportunities in the classroom, the home, and beyond, paving the way for later activists like Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan.

  17. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

    Rigid class structures give way to more collectivist economic and social protocol in one of political philosophy’s most controversial texts. Seeing as how many different interpretations of this frequently inflammatory read continue impacting peoples worldwide even today (not to mention inspire philosophers past and present), students of many disciplines should give it a read and see what it actually says.

  18. Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard

    Many philosophy enthusiasts paint Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard as the progenitor (if not first follower) of the existentialist movement, or at least the Christian wing. His semi-autobiographical inquiry into ethics, faith, and consciousness – particularly as embodied in the story of Abraham and Isaac – guided him through the trauma resulting from his fiance’s death.

  19. Walden; Or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau

    Some dispute regarding whether or not the renowned transcendentalist author really lived out a year in blissful solitude or just occasional flirtations with blissful solitude exists, but it still doesn’t entirely tarnish his points any. Walden creates a compelling case for self-reliance, an appreciation of nature, and pleasure in simplicity, all while mercilessly satirizing then-contemporary American culture.

  20. Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Ralph Waldo Emerson also stands as one of transcendentalism’s most notable proponents, perpetuating a philosophy celebrating individualism, nature, freedom’s many forms, and living up to one’s fullest potential. Suffice to say, his many well-regarded essays on the subjects make for rather uplifting reading when some of philosophy’s more cynical corners start weighing too heavily.

  21. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

    Classical liberalism — the political philosophy which John Stuart Mill helped develop — separated the state from the individual, adroitly summarized with the Harm Principle, which says the government holds no authority to interfere in anyone’s business unless they’re infringing upon someone else’s rights. Victorian society, as one can probably easily imagine, found such an ideology utterly radical and scandalous.

  22. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

    Speaking of utterly radical and scandalous, On the Origin of Species continues to draw ire centuries later because the naturalist author dared to pioneer the entire field of evolutionary biology. While more scientific than philosophical, its impact on…well…pretty much everything since then (for better or for worse) earns the book a spot on every majors’ and minors’ shelves.

  23. Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

    Everyone’s favorite misanthropic existentialist parodies Judaism and Christianity with the adventures of the fictional prophet Zarathustra. While his famous, often entirely misinterpreted, theories regarding the Ubermensch appeared in earlier writings, here Friedrich Nietzsche further congeals the concept and discusses its (and society’s) relationship with God.

  24. Being and Time by Martin Heidegger

    At the intersection of existentialism, deconstruction, and hermeneutics sits the controversial Martin Heidegger and the incomplete (but still essential) Being and Time. It’s pretty dense stuff, focusing on the nature and meaning behind existence itself as well as slowly dismantling and examining metaphysical principles.

  25. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

    Building on Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist foundation, Simone de Beauvoir injected a hearty dosage of communism, existentialism, and psychoanalysis into the frothy mix, which wouldn’t fully bubble until decades later. A philosophical and sociological landmark, this treatise on women’s rights cobbled together an intellectual argument calling for complete equality.

  26. The Roads to Freedom trilogy by Jean-Paul Sartre

    Inspired by watching Nazis rampage through his native France (as well as World War II in general), the existentialist and Marxist took to writing the novels The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, and Troubled Sleep as a way to further refine his philosophical leanings. Nobody should be surprised that the surrounding elements, sometimes autobiographical and semi-autobiographical, marked an evolution in his thoughts.

  27. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

    Whether one absolutely despises Objectivism or thinks its justification of selfish behavior is just about the raddest thing going, it still warrants consideration; and “know thine enemy” certainly works as an excuse to pick up this unholy brick-novel hybrid. Thoroughly dystopian, the novel pretty much encompasses everything author Ayn Rand stood for in most of her oeuvre.

  28. The Order of Things by Michel Foucault

    Discourse and epistemology are the name of the game here, particularly when it comes to digging deeply into humanity’s relationship with the sciences throughout history. The social sciences in particular, although he also covers some of the life sciences, linguistics, art, and economics while eking out the truths and realities relevant eras conjured from them.

  29. Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida

    Of Grammatology is a must for any and every postmodernist, deconstructionist, and poststructuralist out there, although most of its more immediately noticeable influence lay within the literary realm. Which makes perfect sense, seeing as how he deconstructs and re-examines the very notion of writing and its role in shaping human communication and thought throughout time.

  30. Man and His Symbols by Carl Jung

    Philosophy majors without a hefty background in psychoanalytic criticism can still jump on board one of its pioneers’ major theories and understand how they came to inspire later thinkers. Along with his more ardent followers, Carl Jung outlines his ideas regarding dream symbolism, the Collective Unconscious, archetypes, and other career highlights

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