Recommended Reading List: Top 3 Philosophy Books of All-Time

Superman and Philosophy

The article is a reading list sharing the best books to read in various categories based on many hours of reading and research. You'll find many good books to read, organized by category.

This is a reading list for people who don't have time for unimportant books. We only list the best books to read in each category. You can be sure that each one is fantastic and will be worth your time.

Want to keep things simple? Check out the “Top 3” lists in this article to get some great book recommendations without feeling overwhelmed by all the options.

Every day, we will roll out 6 books in different categories to cater to different interests and needs of our readers.


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Paperback / softback by Helen Beebee, Michael Rush

As long as you're not expecting too much, this book is really nice. It is literally what it says: an introduction to why philosophy matters, with enough of an introduction to the subject in general to give people a decent idea of what philosophy might be like if they really got into it. It's not a history or catalog of philosophical ideas, and certainly not philosophers. It's an attempt to get the reader starting to think about things... philosophically. And in this, it's pretty effective, and a quick, fun, and light easy read. I enjoyed it, and will likely be picking up more books on the subject of philosophy in the future, for the depth that this one lacks by necessity.

With humor and easy-to-understand language, the authors illustrate the importance of philosophy to everyday life. Beebee and Rush do not lecture to the reader but show why philosophy matters by doing it. They take a philosophical approach to important life questions. The reader has an opportunity to follow how philosophers think through issues. This is a helpful book for anyone interested in knowing how philosophy is done and why it matters for all of us.

We constantly disagree with each other on issues of fundamental importance. Does God exist? Should the latest scientific findings be trusted? Are there innate psychological differences between men and women?

In four lively chapters, Beebee and Rush explain philosophy’s role in addressing such questions. They consider what it means to be human, how we should engage in public debate, philosophy’s relationship with science and religion, and the nature of our moral choices. Far from being only an abstract endeavour, philosophy engages with issues on a practical level, and philosophers draw inspiration from real-life situations. At its core, philosophy is about how to live and how to make sense of the world we inhabit. It is a set of tools and techniques for clearly and systematically considering our arguments and uncovering our hidden assumptions, which helps us to make more informed choices about what to believe and how to act. Philosophy is everywhere, and open to everyone.

This Is Philosophy

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Paperback / softback by Steven D. Hales

This is Philosophy: An Introduction is the best that we have found so far

Start with its non-philosophical advantages: it's inexpensive, succinct (yet covers lots of ground), and it's written in a voice that's not only comprehensible but also interesting to an undergraduate who's taking his/her first course in philosophy (which is my general audience).

Additionally, the book contains excellent bibliographies at the ends of the chapters, and tons of relevant links that are directly accessible if you have the e-version of the book, and easy to look up if you don't. They range from entertaining (and spot-on) pop culture links (Star Trek, The Simpsons, Jeopardy!) to video links (for example, demonstrations of Libet's experiments) to entire philosophical texts in the public domain. And the book's index is thorough and useful -- another rarity these days.

But what about the philosophy? We can't comment on the Ethics chapters, as the writer of this review don't use those in his intro courses (we have a separate ethics course where he teaches).

But the rest of the book does exactly what an introductory text (arranged topically) is supposed to do -- which is to introduce readers to the big philosophical questions and give them a sense of the playing field around each of them. Hales includes the essentials laid out in well-ordered chapters, often divided into "arguments for" and "arguments against" (followed by objections and responses). For example, the chapter on God is divided (after a discussion on faith) into "why there is a God" and "why there is no God" sections, with the former including discussions of the ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments in addition to Pascal's Wager (too often excluded from intro texts, for some reason), and the latter including the problem of evil and an argument from religious pluralism (again, something that's often not included in intro texts). Along the way Hales explains how you can, at least sometimes "prove a negative", which is a useful point to make, given how cemented the contrary view has become.

Critics of Hales' section on God seem to me to miss the point of an introductory text, which is to introduce as opposed to providing an exhaustive discussion of everything ever said on the subject. Providing a broad overview of arguments that have gone on for centuries always leaves one open to "straw man" type objections, but Hales captures the essential features of these arguments while providing plenty of opportunity for discussion and disagreement. Furthermore, Hales constantly reminds readers that there's a lot more out there on these topics -- and shows them where to find it! For example, the first sentence of his conclusion on the God chapter says: "while the pros and cons of the most prominent arguments concerning the existence of God have been discussed in the present chapter, there are still many theistic and atheistic arguments out there" -- and he briefly summarizes a few of those and provides links for following them up.

Especially noteworthy is Hales' section on knowledge/epistemology. This is the most challenging topic for introductory texts, I've found, and Hales' treatment of it is exemplary. Rather than organize the entire chapter around skepticism, which is a common strategy, Hales begins with discussions of truth and evidence -- subjects that students need to consider independently of the skeptical challenge. Once he has considered questions about what counts as evidence and how much of it we need, he moves on to the nature of knowledge and skeptical issues.

Any concise introductory text is going to leave some things out that individual instructors would like to see included. In the past, this has often led me to use multiple texts, or a text and a reader. With Hales' book, however, such omissions are surprisingly rare; and, where they do occur, his incorporation of readily available external resources has made the gaps easy to fill.

In short, We highly recommend Hales' book for introductory courses and will continue to use it for the foreseeable future.

Superman and Philosophy

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Paperback / softback by William Irwin, Mark D. White

They have ventured into comics before – Green Lantern & Philosophy: No Evil Shall Escape This Book; Iron Man & Philosophy: Facing The Stark Reality and Spiderman & Philosophy: The Web Of Enquiry – as well as piggy-backing on texts as diverse as South Park, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones and, er, the music of Black Sabbath and Metallica. They are fun books, which every school ought to have in their libraries. Scotland has a proud philosophical tradition, though it is taught only intermittently on the curriculum. Any endeavor that redresses that is to be welcomed.

This particular volume arrives at an auspicious anniversary. For 75 years, readers have enjoyed the adventures of Kal-El, aka Clark Kent, aka Superman, ever since he first appeared in Action Comics #1, in April 1938. But – unlike Batman or the X-Men – he appeared as an intervention into a pre-existing philosophical discourse.

George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman had introduced the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, especially the Übermensch to English readers in 1903. Nietzsche’s ideas were, in the same period, travestied by Hitler. The best section of this book concerns how Superman relates to Nietzsche’s thought. It could be argued that Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, deliberately and consciously sought to counter Nazified notions of the Superman: as several writers in the book observe, the character who most resembles Niezsche’s Übermensch – a figure who repudiates Judeao-Christian notions of morality in order to advance humanity – is Lex Luthor, not Superman. Indeed, Siegel and Shuster’s earliest engagement with the mythology was the 1933 story “The Reign of the Superman”, in which the “Superman” was a bald scientist bent on world domination. Superman is the incarnation of Judeao-Christian ideas: he defends the weak, feels pity, and – let us not forget – is sent by his Father to earth, where he is a better human than the humans, dies at the hands of Doomsday and is resurrected from the grave (or Kryptonian Regeneration Matrix). Perhaps “Superman and Theology” should be next.

Although at first Superman’s powers were somewhat limited (he couldn’t fly, but could jump really high; he didn’t have heat-vision or freeze-breath), the modern characterization which offers him nigh-invulnerability came at a narrative price: how do you create tension if the character can do anything? The answer was moral dilemma, and several chapters here concentrate on moral philosophy. Should Superman save Lois Lane, or a bus full of children? Is the only way to deal, permanently, with General Zod capital punishment?

It is a pity that a number of the chapters rehearse the same summary of broad trends in moral philosophy; more than once the reader is told about utilitarianism (morality being a consequence of the maximisation of happiness and the minimisation of pain); deontology (actions are good or bad independent of consequences, with Kant’s categorical imperative as the key formulation) and virtue ethics (not the action but the actor).

Although the work of Judith Jarvis Thomson is mentioned, à propos of her investigation of secrecy, it’s peculiar that none of the writers invoke her development of Philippa Foot’s discussions of moral judgement and what might be termed ethical triage. Foot’s famous thought experiment involves that quintessential Superman problem – the runaway train – with the individual asked to push a switch to move the train onto one of two forks. Each fork is then weighted: one has a baby, the other a pensioner. One has a morally blameless individual, the other has two wife-beaters. How do we apportion value in such, admittedly very hypothetical, circumstances?

The moral questions extend to negative and positive moral obligation – do we have a duty to do things, or a duty not to do things – which at least attempts to unravel the paradox that Superman seems very good at dealing with Metallo, Parasite, Darkseid, Mr Mxyzptlk and Atomic Skull, but very bad at dealing with famine, AIDS, poverty, terrorism and Kim Jong Un.

Superman supposedly stands for “Truth, Justice and the American Way”, and the latter two require some elucidation. Much to the horror of Fox News, Superman renounced his American citizenship in Action Comics #900, although as several commentators here observe, “Superman” never had it in the first place. Andrew Terjesen deals with patriotism, though the piece could have benefited from an analysis of the more jingoistic versions of Superman in the 1940s (Action Comics #58 had the awful cover “Superman Says You Can Slap a Jap... With War Bonds and Stamps!”) Christopher Robichaud offers a very good piece contrasting the concept of justice in Rawls and Nozick, with a witty imagining of an ultra-libertarian Superman.

One of the frequent failings in many of the books in this series is that they reiterate famous philosophical ideas and substitute “Superman” or “Homer Simpson” or “Gregory House” for the more mundane version. By contrast – and especially interesting in our post-Levenson days – Jason Southworth and Ruth Tallman’s excellent piece on journalistic ethics deals with the “reality” of the Superman story. Clark Kent, we are reminded, manufactures stories, lies, fakes interviews and photographs, fails to disclose conflicts of interest, withholds sources, uses covert surveillance, and is as quick to defame perceived “criminals” as he is to cover up his own breaking into LexCorp and stealing information. If Superman derives his powers from the sun, Clark Kent would do well on the staff of the Sun.

Nevertheless, it is surprising how little of Superman is actually here. Posing the question “Do the residents of the Kryptonian city of Kandor know they are actually in a bottle on Braniac’s spaceship?” would be an easy way into Nick Bostrom’s trilemma on virtual worlds; and the plot in “52” about Luthor’s genetic creation of superheroes could lead to a discussion of the ethics of stem-cell research, the capitalist appropriation of scientific advances and trans-humanism generally. Hank Henshaw, the Cyborg Superman, would be a simple way to explore the philosophy of identity. Apart from the sections on Nietzsche, the only major engagement with continental philosophy comes in a superb essay by David Hatfield which uses the wonderful “Kingdom Come” story to explore the ideas of René Girard on violence and the sacred.

Classical philosophy was happy to use classical mythology as a means of exemplifying propositions – think of the Ship of Theseus in Plutarch; Achilles and the tortoise in Zeno; or the Choice of Hercules in Prodicus. This series – and this book – are bold attempts to revive that tradition, using the myths we have in our contemporary culture. Up, up and ontology!