Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.

What Philosophers Read

Twenty-eight of the world's “most important philosophers” were asked which three books influenced them the most while undergraduate students.

The three most popular answers were:

  1. Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
  2. Critique of Pure Reason by Kant
  3. Dialogues by Plato

Some notable responses were:

Daniel Dennett (Tufts University):

“That’s easy:

Word and Object, Quine.

The concept of mind, Gilbert Ryle

Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein

“I got to study with Quine and Ryle, but Wittgenstein had died before I encountered his work”.

Shelly Kagan (Yale University):

Catch 22, Joseph Heller: “This is a novel, a work of fiction. It is a humorous book, though it is very dark humor, and the perspective gets progressively darker as the novel moves along. It is set in World War II, and portrays an American soldier who is desperately trying to stay alive while dealing with the insane military bureaucracy and the impossible-to-satisfy demands it makes upon him. But the book speaks to something larger that we all face from time to time, in that it portrays the difficulty and importance of staying whole and sane in a job–or society, or world–that is often both hostile and irrational”.

Night, Elie Wiesel: “This is a work of nonfiction, a memoir, though it is written in a highly terse almost poetic literary style. It recounts the author’s experiences during the Holocaust, when as a young Jewish teen he was shipped to the concentration camp in Auschwitz. This book is haunting and at times unbearably sad, and for me it serves as a unforgettable lesson in how appallingly cruel people can be –and continue to be– to one another”. (Man's Search for Meaning was better.)

Critique of Religion and Philosophy, Walter Kaufmann: “This is a work of philosophy, written by one of my teachers in graduate school, although I first read it as an undergraduate several years earlier. The book offers unusually penetrating accounts of both philosophy and of religion, and most centrally it criticizes the common tendency to give lip service to one’s religion without taking its various teachings and claims seriously. Kaufmann was not himself a religious man, but he was a serious student of religion, and he knew it was too important to treat in the typical superficial manner”.

Dialogues, Plato: “This is a cheat, because of course this isn’t a single book, but a collection of books, or more properly, dialogues, by the first great philosopher of the western tradition. What I have in mind in particular are the early Socratic dialogues and those that portray Socrates’ last days (like the Apology, or the Crito or Phaedo). In these works, Plato paints a breathtaking portrait of his own teacher, Socrates, as someone who cared about philosophy so completely that he was willing to die for it, rather than give it up. It was this portrait that first persuaded me that the life of the philosopher was both noble and admirable, and something to which I could aspire”.

Derek Parfit (Oxford University):

Methods of Ethics, Henry Sidwick
Utilitarianism, J. S. Mill
The View from Nowhere, Thomas Nagel: “my favourite book published in the 20th Century, and which seems to me to make many very interesting claims about fundamental philosophical questions”.