Great Popular Philosophy Books (that changed my life)

I am a reader of non-fiction. (A post about the most influential work of fiction that I ever read, Orwell’s 1984, can be found here.)

Since a list of all the non-fiction books I’ve read would be quite long—literally thousands— I would like to briefly mention four books that changed my life before I was a professional philosopher and four more that changed my life after I became a professional philosopher.) This doesn’t mean these are the best or most important books I’ve read, or that other books might have had a greater influence on me if I had read them. But these are the ones that most affected me when I was young, and their message resonates within me still.

As a college freshman in 1973, the most memorable book I read wasn’t one assigned for my classes, but one I stumbled upon in the college library—Will Durant’s The Mansions of Philosophy: A Survey of Human Life and Destiny. (An updated version of the book was retitled: The Pleasures of Philosophy.) The book did bear the imprint of a 1920s American male view of women, much to my dismay, but the rest of the book has stood the test of time. Its prose is glorious and its philosophical insights still fresh today. I have reprinted parts of its beautiful introduction as well as its conclusion in previous posts. What drew me to the book was that it was so unlike the foreboding philosophy I was reading in my classes. It seemed Professor Durant was speaking directly to me about substantive topics in plain, clear language. On the first page, he says of his book: “I send it forth … on the seas of ink to find here and there a kindred soul in the Country of the Mind.” I thank him for sending it to my kindred soul.

Shortly thereafter I happened upon Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. I have noted my affinity for the depth and breadth of Russell’s philosophy in a number of my essays, as well as my belief that he was the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. While professional philosophers will not rank this popular book with his classics in the philosophy of mathematics or his famous work in logic—W.V.O Quine famously said that Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica was “one of the great intellectual monuments of all time”—this was the Russell book that affected me most. I can still remember exactly where I was sitting in a small public library in south St. Louis County in 1974 when I read it.

And while sophisticated defenders of religion may quibble with Russell’s arguments—as they do with any arguments that challenge their preconceived beliefs—the fact is that religion stands on the wrong side of history and will be, as I have argued often, ultimately relegated to the dustbin of history. For, as Russell knew, rational persons could never believe religion’s fantastic claims unless they were indoctrinated, immature, irrational, fearful, feeble-minded or misled. Of course, more sophisticated believers don’t accept the supernatural elements of their religions but hide its nonsense behind esoteric language and obscurantism. Yet to this day I find it astonishing that any marginally intelligent person can take religion seriously. But then perhaps I just don’t get it. Either way I thank Russell for awakening me from my dogmatic slumber more than forty years ago.

Shortly after finishing my undergraduate degree, a friend gave me a copy of Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, whose very first lines I’ll never forget.

Is love an art? Then it requires knowledge and effort. Or is love a pleasant sensation, which to experience is a matter of chance, something one “falls into” if one is lucky? This little book is based on the former premise … “

I have written previously about this small but powerful book and its effect on me. I have not successfully put its message into practice, but I have never forgotten its fundamental lesson—that love is something you have to work at. Its insights have always remained in my subconscious, even though I may have been unable to summon them to affect my behavior. There are few books that say something new and profound about a topic that everybody talks about, but this book did.

While sitting in the dealer’s room in Las Vegas in 1985, preparing to enter graduate school, I read Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers. Already familiar with Durant, I was determined to read this classic, one of the best-selling philosophy books of all time. From it, I learned that the history of philosophy was a long, continual dialogue, and I was excited to think that in graduate school I might learn enough to be part of that dialogue. It wasn’t so much the philosophers in the book that inspired me, but Durant’s love of them. Today this book is the single most prized possession in my library; thanks to my son, I have a copy signed by Will Durant himself. The book also contains the most beautiful dedication I’ve ever read. It is from Will to his beloved wife Ariel. Thirteen years his junior, he expected her to outlive him:


“Grow strong, my comrade … that you may stand
Unshaken when I fall; that I may know
The shattered fragments of my song will come
At last to finer melody in you;
That I may tell my heart that you begin
Where passing I leave off, and fathom more.”

(Will and Ariel Durant were married almost 70 years and died a few days apart. You can read about their intellectual development, world travels and wondrous love story in Will & Ariel Durant: A Dual Autobiography.)

Now here are four more that changed me after I become a professional philosopher. I reiterate that I’m not saying these are the best or most important books I’ve ever read, but they are ones that stand out as profoundly affecting me.

On Human Nature

In graduate school, E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature was assigned for a seminar in evolutionary ethics. (I’ve written previous posts about Wilson’s thought here and here.) It is the only one of the books selected as most affecting my thought that was assigned for a class. My mind was startled and transformed by its first few pages.

 … if the brain is a machine of ten billion nerve cells and the mind can somehow be explained as the summed activity of a finite number of chemical and electrical reactions, boundaries limit the human prospect—we are biological and our souls cannot fly free. If humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection, genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species … However much we embellish that stark conclusion with metaphor and imagery, it remains the philosophical legacy of the last century of scientific research … It is the essential first hypothesis for any serious consideration of the human condition.1

Yes, I knew all this before I read Wilson, but his prose cemented these ideas within me. Evolutionary biology is the key to understanding mind and behavior, and to understanding morality and religion as well. Life and culture are thoroughly and self-evidently biological. Yet most people reject these truths, choosing ignorance and self-deception instead. They mistakenly believe that they are fallen angels, not the modified monkeys they really are. But why can’t they accept the truth? Because, as Wilson says, most people “would rather believe than know. They would rather have the void as purpose … than be void of purpose.”2

Still, Wilson’s lessons weren’t depressing. Science liberates by giving us self-knowledge, while simultaneously placing within us the hope “that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.”3 Wilson taught me who we are, the dilemmas we face, and how we must choose our future path. As Wilson says, the evolutionary idea is the greatest and truest one that humans have ever discovered.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

One cannot summarize Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, in a few brief paragraphs. One has to read it to appreciate it. Sagan’s basic message is that unreason and superstition are dangerous, while science and reason light the world. But it’s one thing to state this message, it’s another to communicate it. And that’s what Sagan does. If you read this book closely you will learn to despise ignorance and pseudo-science in all their forms.

In the first chapter, Sagan quotes Edmund Way Teale “It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care about how you got your money as long as you have got it.” Right away you know that Sagan cares about truth. He continues ” … it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” You may disagree, believing instead that the masses need Platonic noble lies or the Grand Inquisitor’s deceptions, but it is clear from reading Sagan that he won’t deceive himself; he has a passion for the truth.

We can undermine our reason in a thousand ways, but Sagan will have none of it. For if we infuse our understanding with our prejudices and emotions, we live in darkness. But if we dispassionately reason, we will increasingly bring light to that darkness. This process is painstakingly slow, but illumination comes to those who persist. Let there be light.

   Man’s Search for Meaning

Victor Frankl’s Man’s Man’s Search for Meaning is the most emotionally moving text that I have ever read. I have taught out of it on many occasions and have read it cover to cover at least five times. Anyone can read it in a few hours. But the book is worth returning to over and over again to be reminded of its central lesson—that meaning can be found in our labor, our relationships, and our suffering. Yet nothing that I write does justice to the experience of reading this book—its power lies in its narrative.

So let me describe a single scene in the book to give you a sense of the power of Frankl’s prose. Being marched off to work one dark morning, cold and hungry, while being hit with the butt of rifles by Nazi guards, a fellow prisoner says to Frankl, “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.” This exchange caused Frankl to think about his wife, her face, her smile, her look:

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which a man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of human is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for the brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.

Afterword – In 1942, Frankl, his wife, and his parents were deported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto where his father died. In 1944 Frankl and his wife Tilly were transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, but Tilly was later transferred from Auschwitz to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she died in the gas chambers. Frankl’s mother Elsa was killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, where his brother Walter also died. Other than Frankl, the only survivor of the Holocaust among his immediate relatives was his sister Stella. She had escaped from Austria by emigrating to Australia.4

I will respond to the above with a few lines of original poetry:

And so the world goes on,
good gods perpetually sleeping,
good people perpetually weeping,
and waiting, for a new world to dawn.

The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence

No book can be profound in the way that Frankl’s book is, but a book can change you for other reasons. Before I read Kurzweil, I thought about prospects for improving humanity in terms of genetic engineering. But Kurzweil made me see another way to transform the species—through artificial intelligence and robotics—and with it a new vision of the future appeared to me. Moreover, the broad outlines of his vision are already coming true.

With the caveat that many things can derail technological evolution—asteroids, viruses, climate change, nuclear war, a new dark ages, etc.—if scientific advance continues, the future will be unlike the past. Let me embellish that. The future is going to be really different than the past. Perhaps everyone knows that, but Kurzweil convinced me of it. He also showed me how universal death is avoidable.

So will the Universe end in a big crunch, or in an infinite expansion of dead stars, or in some other manner? In my view, the primary issue is not the mass of the Universe, or the possible existence of antigravity, or of Einstein’s so-called cosmological constant. Rather, the fate of the Universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.5

I have written a book, The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives, one of whose central themes is that life can only have full meaning if it persists indefinitely. Kurzweil was the first to suggest to me how this was scientifically possible. I will never forget reading this book on a screened-in front porch in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. It bent my mind in a new direction. 

I would like to sincerely thank the authors of these books for the contribution they made to my education. Their thoughts transformed me. ___________________________________________________________________________

1. Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) 1-2.
2. Wilson, On Human Nature, 170-171.
3. Wilson, On Human Nature, 209.
5. Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (New York: Viking Press, 1999) 260. 

I thank Durant, Russell, Fromm, Wilson, Frankl, Sagan, and Kurzweil for leaving a part of themselves in their books, where I found them and was enriched by the encounter.

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7 thoughts on “Great Popular Philosophy Books (that changed my life)

  1. I hear your precious, searching self in every line. Your gratitude to these fellow seekers is moving. You’ve motivated me to reread a few of them and re: Sagan on truth inspired me to introduce myself. Those lines on truth . . . Be well old friend. D

  2. This was super interesting. I had been wondering how many books a true philosopher like you has read, but wow…..THOUSANDS of them? I struggle to read 12 books a year, and I read at least 30-60 minutes a day. I must be a very slow reader.

    Thankfully, in one respect I am like you: I never read fiction. If I want to read a story, to me nothing beats the autobiography or biography of an interesting person/artist/thinker.

    The section about Frankl, along with your own poem, made me struggle not to cry. I remember the book by Frankl, and I will read it again. So much hurt….when I hear people saying things like “Well, the Holocaust happened so long ago, don’t think about it”, it makes my blood boil, I don’t have to be Jewish to feel and understand that it could have been me, my own family, my own parents.

    I will read Durant’s autobiography, hopefully I can find a proper one from Penguin Books or similar, high quality version. Also impressive is Durant’s own poetry.

    Thank you.

  3. Luigi

    thanks as always for your comments. I really enjoy reading them. As for the number of books I was just now thinking about it. I’ve been reading almost 60 years so 20 books a year would be over 1,000. But it would really depend on what reading a book means. If it means cover to cover, that’s one thing. If it means a significant part of a book that’s another. And if it means perused the book that would be something else. Each of these standards is easier to meet.

    I don’t know but I’ve not been reading some book cover to cover my whole life. And in grad school, I was probably reading 10 or 15 each semester. And I taught for over 30 years and taught about 250 classes in that time and all those books would have been cover-to-cover, although some books I would have reread like Frankl for instance. Anyway, I’d say 1,000 – 2,000 is ballpark for the cover-to-cover classification. But again that’s only 20-30 a year over 60 years. So not as impressive as some young scholar saying that.

    But if you count books that I read part of then the figure would be much higher. Lots of books I’ve read decent parts of but not the whole thing. And if you count ones I just perused, my gosh I probably received over 1,000 exam copies of books when I was teaching and looked at over 1,000 in libraries and bookstores and nowadays on the “look inside” Amazon feature.

    Here’s the only thing I can say for sure. When I was a professor at Ursuline College I had about 1,000 philosophy books in my office. I vividly remember a student asking me if I’d read all of them. For fun I actually went thru them and found that I”d only read about 100 cover to cover; another 100 I’d read good parts of, and the rest I had accumulated as my philosophy library and had barely touched at all.

  4. Yes, of course I was not imagining that you have read thousands of books cover to cover, that would be impossible, no one could do that. Not some impressive as some young scholar, you say? I always find your modesty surprising :).

    Thinking about it, just 100 years or so ago, there weren’t a whole load of philosophy books and philosophy treatises, I suspect. How many books has someone like Schopenhauer read? As far as I know, he ‘only’ knew really well Plato, Kant, and maybe some Aristotele. And the farthest back we go, the less philosophy books there were.

    After all, I don’t think it’s about how many books one has read, but how much he knows and understands.

    Another thing I noticed is that reading fiction feels super easy compared to reading non fiction. And yes, I too, definitely, cannot read some books cover to cover. After a while, I guess we become very selective about what we read.

    But I am relieved, if a real philosopher like you has read 20-30 a year, then as a “very small guy” I am not too shabby with 12 a year 🙂 But even that I have found quite difficult.

    I am pretty sure I do it as well as possible, highlighting what I think are all the most important bits, and then review at least once the whole book, but only the highlights, so it’s much faster the second time.

    Thank you so much for your reply!

    PS. I am definitely going to get Durant’s “The Lessons Of History”, had a look and found it super, super interesting. And the writing itself, I think, is impressive and powerful. Will get “Fallen Leaves” too.


  5. I read Victor Frankel several years ago. My wife read, my Dad read it anf my sister-in-law read it. It is one of the best book I have ever read. I am glad you included it in your favourite books.

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