When most people think of philosophy, they likely imagine indecipherable books that stretch on for a thousand pages, saying and solving nothing. They envision stuffy old men in misbuttoned shirts, untied shoelaces with mismatched socks, shuffling about the hallways of some archaic university, mumbling to themselves, completely unaware of the humanity around them.
And most of the time, they wouldn’t be wrong. As someone who reads a lot of philosophy, I’ve struggled through my fair share of overlong philosophy books that seem outdated or worse, irrelevant. Which isn’t to say I haven’t also come across brilliant ones that offer a nuanced understanding of the often indecipherable world around us.
Here are four best books on modern philosophy that I discovered in recent years. They cover a wide array of topics and were (mostly) enjoyable reads. Approach them with an open mind, and they may rekindle the sense of wonder you lost to adulthood.
Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering
There are two things I loved about this book. The first is that Samuelson structures the book around one of the fundamental questions of philosophy: how do we justify and cope with unnecessary suffering in the world? The book is a nice tour of the major perspectives throughout history—from the Ancient Greeks and Christianity to Buddhism and Confucius.
The second thing I like is that Samuelson grounds his philosophical discussion in the real world. He is a volunteer teacher at a local prison. Therefore, he grounds many of the philosophical issues he brings up about suffering with discussions he’s had with the inmates at the prison where he teaches. The result is a nice application for some of the headier topics.
3 Ideas That Might Change Your Life
Gödel, Escher and Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
I’m going to be honest. I’ve tried to read Gödel, Escher, Bach two different times in the last three years and failed (spoiler: there’s a bunch of math and stuff). But this time I powered through and I’m extremely grateful I did. Two comments:
- Not even considering the content of the book, the format is absolutely a joy to go through. Hofstadter pulls from number theory, music theory, visual arts, molecular biology, Zen Buddhism, ancient philosophy, and funny little dialogues with talking animals and somehow ties them all together neatly into an 800-page book about paradoxes, self-referential systems, AI, and consciousness. The amount of thought and effort that went into this book is dizzying as well as breathtaking. It may be the most impressive book I’ve ever read in my life, for whatever that’s worth.
- The central point of the book takes a long time to get to. In fact, you spend almost 700 pages leading up to it. Hofstadter complains in the preface to the anniversary edition that most people who read GEB actually don’t even get the main point of it. And part of that is likely because he doesn’t get to it until the last chapter.
His point is that systems, be they DNA strands or formal logic or computer programing languages or the human brain, are self-referential and inherently incomplete. This self-reference and incompleteness creates a sense of paradox, like:
The following sentence is false.
The preceding sentence is true.
He then argues that it’s the emergence of these self-referential systems that make up the basis of consciousness. That essentially, what we understand as the “self” is merely a symbol constructed within the mind that is always interacting with every other symbol the mind constructs. In that sense, what we perceive as consciousness is a constantly fluid system of interactions between the mind’s “self” symbol and its “other” symbols.
I’m not doing his thesis justice, of course. But here’s another reason I loved this book—it explains how matter can order itself into such patterns of information that it can “spin up” and start processing greater and greater amounts of information to the point it becomes “conscious,” and how this is a very special and rare thing indeed.
I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Nietzsche
If 2017 was the year I fell in love with Kant, 2018 is the year I fell in love with Nietzsche. I didn’t expect to love I Am Dynamite. Hell, I didn’t even expect to like it. I bought it because I wanted to use one of Nietzsche’s ideas in a section of my new book and was curious about some of his biographical details. This book had just come out and was being lauded as the most humane and accurate treatment of the philosopher’s life, so it seemed like perfect timing to buy it. I’d just pick it up, check out a few details, maybe use an anecdote or two in my own book, and that’d be that.
But I ended up reading the whole damn thing, cover to cover, in three days.
I couldn’t put it down. Not only is it sublimely written. But I had no idea how fascinating the man’s life had been. Likely born with a neurological disorder, Nietzsche spent most of his life in severe pain. He couldn’t be exposed to bright lights. He spent weeks at a time in dark rooms. He had debilitating migraines. Injuries from his military days hobbled him and poor medical treatments for dysentery and diphtheria left his digestive tract in ruins. His body was a ruin.
By all accounts, he should have been a decrepit, miserable soul. Yet, he lived his life with a fierce, shameless vitality. He attracted and mingled a motley band of celebrities, professors, royalty, and bohemians. Intellectually, his thoughts leapt over chasms that had halted those who had come before him. He was a charming, if bitter, man who had an almost prophetic vision into the future of western culture, as well as the world.
That little section in my book that was going to reference Nietzsche turned into multiple pages. Then it became a whole chapter. Then much of the book’s central premise came to rely upon Nietzsche’s thought. I read three of Nietzsche’s other books this year. I read another biography about him. I just couldn’t get enough of the man. One day, I’d like to read all of his major works.
If you are interested in philosophy, this book is a beautiful entry point to Nietzsche’s work and ideas. If you just love good biographies, this book is also a pure joy. If you’re into European history and want to understand some of the social forces that later led to the German nationalism, the Nazis, and how Nietzsche’s ideas were later distorted to justify some of the world’s worst atrocities, then this is also a must-read. I’m into all of the above, so I was in heaven. This was my favorite book in 2018.
This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom
Full disclosure: I hated the last third of this book. I thought it was terrible. But the first two-thirds were so beautiful and profound, I couldn’t help but admit that this was my favorite read this year. The 35-page introduction was probably worth the price by itself.
This is a philosophy book. Philosophy tends to be either a) an absolute chore to get through, often hardly making sense, or b) one of the best reading experiences of your life (there’s a reason my favorite book the last three years have always been philosophy books). This Life is, at times, breathtaking in its simplicity and depth.
The book attempts to create a secular basis of morality, something philosophers have done for millennia. The starting point is simple: we all die. This is possibly the only subjective truth we all share. And it’s from our knowledge of our own death that makes life feel scarce and valuable. Therefore, all meaning in life stems from the knowledge of our own death. Hägglund then spends most of the book making an array of arguments extending from this realization—how religious beliefs of an eternal life are at the root of all unethical behaviors; how the freedom to choose one’s own meaning is the hardest yet most important use of one’s mind; how the desire to escape death inevitably forces us to avoid what gives us meaning in life.
Then, about 220 pages in, the book gets political. Hell, it goes beyond political—it becomes unabashedly Marxist. While I have no problem airing intelligent discussions about Marxism, Hägglund tries to argue that Marxism is the logical extension of the moral framework he set up in the first two-thirds of the book. In my mind, it simply doesn’t work. The feeling of an author stepping out of his area of expertise is tangible while reading. He seems lost in some sections, desperately clawing to square his political beliefs with his philosophical beliefs. As a result, many of the statements about economics, means of production, growth and so on are naive at best, and plain wrong at worst.
Despite that, I wholly recommend the first 200 pages of this book. They are fantastically written and explained. They are deep and life-affirming without being religious. They are, hands down, my best reading experience of 2019.