What are the "essential/core" texts any student of philosophy should have read?



I'm really interested in Philosophy and want to learn more, so I'd like to read the main bodies of work that have built up the discipline of Philosophy. The reason being that if I read a modern text that is discussing well established ideas and arguments previously rasied by other philosphers I will know what those older arguments or ideas being discussed actually are and I can but the current reading into context more easily.

In the same way a student of political theory will be directed to certain works by Hobbes, Machievali, Marx etc I'd like to get help in doing this with Philosopy.

So: What are the "essential/core" texts any student of philosophy should have read?

EDIT:20/03/2012 I'm not daunted by difficult reading and I like to put works in historical context so I can understand how ideas developed through time. Also any prospect of joining a class is a non-starter (unfortunately as I'm sure discussing Philosophy would be very helpful in my understanding) so I'd be reading on my own in my own time


Posted 2012-03-15T19:52:13.970

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4Just to offer a starting point... Plato seems to be the usual choice for a first read in philosophy. I'd recommend the Apology or Crito first. – Josh1billion – 2012-03-16T11:38:03.080

1@Josh1billion really? Who recommends you use Plato as an introduction to philosophy? I think that's a terrible idea. Obviously Plato is important, and it will eventually be essential that you know something of Plato, but as a starting point? No. – Seamus – 2012-03-16T13:24:52.483

2@Seamus Well, that's your opinion. When I took my university's Introduction to Philosophy course, Plato was the very first read. Prior to that, when I independently read an introduction to philosophy book (along the lines of what stoicfury is recommending in his answer), Plato also came first. The latter gave an explanation on the choice, and, from my experience, I'm inclined to agree with the author: Plato is relatively easy to read, and Socrates's method of argumentation (dialectic) gives the reader a taste of the critical thought prevalent throughout all future philosophy. – Josh1billion – 2012-03-16T17:05:19.240

1Adding to that, ianfuture asked for the "'essential/core' texts that any student of philosophy should have read"; if any one Western author's works are most universally agreed to fit that description, they would be those of Plato. Would you care to explain your reasoning for discouraging an introduction with Plato, beyond the simple "No" you've offered thus far? – Josh1billion – 2012-03-16T17:05:26.993

I don't think the dialogues of plato are the best "starting point" for the study of Philosophy. Reading about plato is certainly important. I think the starting point should be, as stoicfury suggested, a modern introduction. Perhaps this just reflects the diversity of modern philosophy, but I've managed rather well without ever having read much plato. – Seamus – 2012-03-16T17:41:13.300

@Seamus: Right, an introductory text is certainly the best approach. It sounds to me as if he's asking specifically in regards to primary texts when he says "'essential/core' texts," however, and that's the basis upon which I formulated my comment: "So: What are the 'essential/core' texts any student of philosophy should have read?" That said, I'm still not convinced that choosing Plato as the author of one's first primary texts is a "terrible idea." – Josh1billion – 2012-03-16T21:23:26.310

1Haha, "terrible idea" might be a bit strong. :P Seamus probably meant Plato is not a great idea to read unaccompanied (and for some of his works that is certainly true), but either way he (Plato) is indeed usually up there as one of the first to read in most philosophy intro books (Apology, Allegory of the Cave, etc.). That said, the accompanying intro book itself provides the necessary support to read it, so it could just as easily be Hume or entry-level Kant stuff (all 3 of which are usually found somewhere in an intro book, regardless of which is "first"). :) – stoicfury – 2012-03-17T01:29:28.667

Perhaps "terrible idea" was a bit strong. But I think Plato's importance isn't as great as assumed here. I bet you can find more influence of Hume and Kant on modern philosophy than you can of Plato. – Seamus – 2012-03-19T14:45:36.207

If we were speaking specifically of modern philosophy, sure, you'd be right in calling me out for mentioning Plato's works. However, the question isn't asking specifically in regards to modern philosophy, but in regards to philosophy as a whole: "... so I'd like to read the main bodies of work that have built up the discipline of Philosophy." You've yet to convince me that Plato's works do not constitute an appropriate answer, nor have you convinced me that Hume's or Kant's contributions have had a more significant impact on the development of philosophy-- as a whole-- than those of Plato. – Josh1billion – 2012-03-20T03:04:01.057



If you don't know what the core/essential texts are, in my opinion you are ill-equipped to read them alone, unless you are the next Einstein or something. Even otherwise very advanced readers who are new to philosophy can completely miss the subtleties of philosophical literature, particularly literature that is either not from our current era or writing that has been translated from another language (or both). There will likely be jargon and phrases you are not familiar with, in many cases which you won't be able to easily look up on Google.

Accordingly, I would strongly recommend starting with a solid introductory book before you dive into them such that you can acquire a firm grasp of the basic concepts you will need to know. Some authors are of course easier to read than others, but however you slice it, you want to be on level 1 before you get to level 2, and that means acquiring an introductory understanding of philosophy before you dive into some of the more classic texts.

As for the "core/essential texts", it's not exactly a simple task to just sum up all the texts we've read and provide a list, especially a list that's in a good order because in many cases order does matter. But more importantly, it's not often necessary or even useful at times to read the entirety of a particular text; in fact, it can even be off-putting and seriously diminish your interest in philosophy if you force yourself to read the whole of a particularly bland text. For example, I've read the whole of The Critique of Pure Reason, and while many would probably agree that it is an essential/core text, I would not recommend reading the whole thing unless you plan on being a Kantian scholar (I had to read it for a class). It just gets too dry in parts and honestly, even classic texts will have sections which will not be very exciting for you — trust me, no one finds all of philosophy interesting and cool.

The easiest (and "safest") way to get a solid grip on the core texts of philosophy would be to just buy an anthology for each major subfield of philosophy. Often these anthologies have the relevant texts annotated to help with clarity, and omit much of the unnecessary sections which you would otherwise pointlessly labor through. This will save you a lot of time both in reading but also in understanding what's important to understand, and then if you find a particular text/subject really interesting, you can always get the full text later.


Posted 2012-03-15T19:52:13.970

Reputation: 11 008

Examples needed for "in many cases which you won't be able to easily look up on Google". (cf.) – Pacerier – 2015-09-29T21:08:30.563

1Really? You want me to cite a paper that says "there are some things in books that you can't find on the internet?" I don't think this is a bold statement. One could have difficulty with any number of passages in a philosophy textbook, and while those passages might exist online, explanations of every such passage almost certainly will not, especially for esoteric philosophy texts. – stoicfury – 2015-10-02T19:31:22.507

Not citations, but examples. Re "in many cases", list one case. Because Google has uploaded a ton of past books online. Couple that with the ever-increasing number of online resources, especially from major schools themselves.

– Pacerier – 2015-10-08T07:44:29.020

4Note: There is no inherent wrong in reading texts directly without any prior introduction or guide helping you along the way. Secondary literature will just help you become a more well-rounded philosopher faster than reading original texts will, because they do a TON of work for you: condense the material, collate similar/referenced works, provide common criticisms, etc. It's noble to want to do that oneself but why reinvent the wheel? Especially when it's merely for a better foundational understanding of philosophy. When you want to write you own Critique, then do that. :) – stoicfury – 2012-03-22T02:41:43.543


My main objection to the nature of your question has already been dealt with by stoicfury, but I would still like to suggest particular core texts that I feel are thought-provoking, engaging, and worthwhile to read and reflect upon in their own right, with or without introductory texts, summaries, and guides. Subtleties, like stoicfury mentioned, can be missed by even experienced philosophers - but it does not follow that reading primary works (in translation or the original) will not benefit the curious or passionate. Nor does it follow that the best start for a budding philosopher is to avoid primary works in their entirety. Anthologies are good for breadth but not usually for depth into any one thinker's arguments. Anthologies can obfuscate more than clear up the layer of jargon by introducing too many thinkers, each with their own (as well as a shared) diction; anthologies also tend to drop readers in the midst of an argument rather than devote the space to showing how a thinker arrived at the (what may seem to the reader) starting place of an excerpt. Frankly, this is a debate amongst professors of philosophy on how best to introduce and teach their subject and craft to others.

If you understand these reservations but would nonetheless like to proceed with primary texts outside of anthologies, then I would recommend the following as introductions to the field, that also reasonably satisfy the criterion of being a "core" text.

(Also, I'm assuming you mean philosophy in the Western tradition and so will confine my recommendations accordingly.)

I'd recommend reading a few of Plato's dialogues to start. There are plenty of in print and secondhand editions available that collect thematically similar dialogues. They're good, they're short, they make sense even to the lay reader (most of them). Also, if you are serious about pursuing philosophy, then Plato is an author you will have to gain at least some familiarity with. If you feel comfortable and are still interested after acquainting yourself with a few dialogues, I'd recommend moving onward to Plato's Republic.

In the modern era, Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy is clearly written, again short, and opens up a whole new host of issues that we are still struggling with today.

John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is superficially slower going than the above too, though is also cleanly written, and can be understood by an intelligent lay person.

I'll leave it at that, though there are a lot more that are accessible to intelligent, patient people, and many great, exceptional works that may fall outside the traditional "core" of Western pedagogical philosophy. There are also many great histories of philosophy by philosophers (Russell's, Copelston's, Scrunton's, Wildelband's come to mind), which can act as thorough companion guides to most thinkers' contexts and their jargon.


Posted 2012-03-15T19:52:13.970

Reputation: 716


The list is long, and will depend a lot upon your eventual area of specialization.

The best place to begin is with an undergraduate "Intro to Philosophy" course, as that will not only offer a good syllabus, but will help contextualize the works. It is quite easy for a novice to read a given work by, say, Plato, and completely miss the interesting issues at play. Reading philosophy is a learned skill, and doesn't necessarily come naturally.

However, if you're absolutely committed to doing it on your own, I'd suggest you work on Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and Kant; it's hard to imagine reading any later philosopher without a good grasp on those four, at least. But that's just the barest of beginnings...

Michael Dorfman

Posted 2012-03-15T19:52:13.970

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4You can't understand Kant without having read Hume, surely? And anyway, Hume should be on that list in his own right. – Seamus – 2012-03-16T13:23:12.640

1Hume and Nietzche ! – explorer – 2012-03-18T20:03:33.813


I minored in philosophy in college and trying to get back into it after 8 years. I'm finding Encyclopedia Britannica's The 100 Most Influential Philosophers to be a good launch pad. You get a few pages about all of the big names in philosophy, both Eastern and Western. Afterward, you can decide where you would like to focus your efforts.

Raymond Saltrelli

Posted 2012-03-15T19:52:13.970

Reputation: 121


What I've found to be invaluable in delving into philosophy is the audio lectures at Amazon.com. I bought the audio book, "Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition." I listen to one or two lectures each day and really enjoy the different lecturers, all highly esteemed and accomplished professors and experts. Through Amazon this series was free and also one other--it was a special introduction. These lectures are from the Great Courses series.

You can listen to the lectures over and over. I went to university for many years and found that taking notes and trying to capture all the salient points was challenging sometimes, with this method you are able to listen over and over (which I do sometimes). As an introduction, I think this could be the way to go. I can't imagine the cost if you were to pay for these lectures at Harvard or Yale, etc.

Just a suggestion for you. You can listen to a sample too before buying.

Brenda O'Grady

Posted 2012-03-15T19:52:13.970

Reputation: 11


I have found that students are often overly influenced by the first philosopher they read.

I would suggest you start with a short history of Philosophy by Bryan Magee as he does not have the biases that Russell had and is not as deep as Copleston's History. In addition there are videos of the Television Series where Magee interviews Philosophers about Philosophy and Philosophers that is accessible on the Internet.

You might then want to listen to "Philosophy Bites" via podcast. There is a very good Introductory Course on Western Ethics that was videotaped produced by Harvard University. Then go and listen to John Campbell of U.C. Berkeley lecturing in his Intro to Philosophy of Mind.

After that if you are still interested in Philosophy you might try reading: Plato: Meno, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo in that order. At this point you should feel free to choose what you would like to read next, I would suggest a historical approach - as often later philosophers are responding to what earlier philosophers have written/said.


Posted 2012-03-15T19:52:13.970

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