Continuing our ‘Desert Island Books’ posts, editor Samuel Fawcett lists five essential books that any philosophy student should read.
René Descartes – Meditations on First Philosophy
Descartes is often referred to as the father of modern philosophy, and his Meditations underpins his thought and outlines most of his key ideas. Intended as a proof of the existence of God, the Meditations have nonetheless proved a touchstone for both religious and secular philosophers, as they stress the importance of scepticism and methodic doubt. It is in this work that the famous ‘I think, therefore I am’ statement originates.
Ludwig Wittgenstein – Philosophical Investigations
A hugely controversial figure in his day, Wittgenstein proposed that nearly all philosophical problems were simply due to semantic and linguistic issues. Philosophical Investigations is his attempt to demonstrate the limitations of language and meaning and how it impedes our search for truth. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the philosophy of language, and serves as a foundation for much of post-modern thought. This work is famed for Wittgenstein theorising that if a lion could speak English, we wouldn’t be able to understand it.
Simone de Beauvoir – The Second Sex
De Beauvoir was a giant of both existentialist and feminist philosophy, and her work, The Second Sex, is regarded by many as her magnum opus. The book deals with the multitudinous ways in which women’s bodies and thoughts are regulated by a patriarchal society and puts forward a pathway to liberation. It is a groundbreaking work that is credited with igniting second-wave feminism, and it was instantly placed on the Vatican’s list of prohibited books. It was in this work that de Beauvoir stated, ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’
Hegel – The Phenomenology of Spirit
If you can make your way through Hegel’s turgid and often over-complicated prose, The Phenomenology of Spirit is one of the most rewarding and important books in understanding modern philosophy. It is in this work that Hegel outlines his famous ideas of the dialectic and absolute idealism. The broad range of topics and ideas covered in Phenomenology formed the basis for many future philosophical and political schools, including existentialism, communism, fascism and nihilism.
Plato – Republic
No list of essential philosophical texts would be complete without Plato’s Republic. Arguably the most influential work of philosophy and political theory ever written, the Republic outlines Plato’s concepts of justice, liberty and fair governance. In outlining these ideas, Plato also puts forward his famous allegory of the cave and his theory of ideas. So many philosophical schools and ideas can trace their roots back to Plato’s Republic, and this alone makes it an essential read for philosophy students.