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Thursday, January 8, 2015


I met my Marx class yesterday for the first time, and talked non-stop for two and a half hours!  After class, I was chatting with one of the Philosophy Department first year grad students in the course and I mentioned that there are about twenty-five books by great philosophers that every grad student should read by the time he or she gets the Ph. D.  That, along with a firm foundation in mathematical logic, would stand you in good stead for a career.  Naturally he asked what they were [who can resist a list], and I told him I would work up a list.  I plan to hand it out next Wednesday, but it occurred to me that readers of this blog might be interested in it.

1-5.  Plato, the EUTHYPHRO, APOLOGY, and CRITO [all short, pretty much a quick read], the GORGIAS [my all time favorite dialogue], the REPUBLIC, the THEATETUS, maybe the SOPHIST.  I consider this five books, not seven.  The first three are really one book.


8.   Medieval Philosophy -- I don't know.  You can't read the entire SUMMA by Aquinas, God knows.  But you need somehow to familiarize yourselves with the metaphysical debates of the Middle Ages [which includes the important Jewish and Arabic philosophers].

9-10.  Descartes, DISCOURSE ON METHOD and MEDITATIONS.  With the MEDITATIONS, it is fascinating to read around in the volume of Responses that Descartes got when he sent it out to all the important philosophers in Europe [there is a funny story with that -- remind me to tell you.]  The fascinating thing is that most of the objections that four centuries of philosophers have thought up to the MEDITATIONS appear in those responses, which were written within weeks of receiving the work.

11.  Leibniz, MONADOLOGY

[Maybe -- Spinoza, ETHICS.  Maybe not.]

12.  Thomas Hobbes, LEVIATHAN


15.  George Berkeley, either A TREATISE CONCERNING THE PRINCIPLES OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE or THREE DIALOGUES BETWEEN HYLAS AND PHOLINUS.  Berkeley published both of these in his middle twenties!  When I was a student, we had a game called "I am now older than *** when he wrote ***.]  Berkeley and Hume were killers.  Locke and Kant were reassuring.  There was still plenty of time.


19.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau, OF THE SOCIAL CONTRACT.  [When I went to Oxford in 1954 as a twenty-year old graduate student on a traveling fellowship, the Kant scholar T. D. Weldon, who, I later learned, was more or less permanently drunk, told me I had to read MILE.  It was not good advice.]


[I pass in silence over Hegel]

23.  Jeremy Bentham, INTRODUCTION TO THE PRINCIPLES OF MORALS AND LEGISLATION [If you are going to study Utilitarianism, you might as well know where it came from.]

24-25.  John Stuart Mill, UTILITARIANISM, ON LIBERTY

At this point, everything explodes, with Kierkegaard [one of my favorite philosophers], Nietzsche, Frege, and all manner of other big names cropping up.  I leave all of that to your professors.

And there it is!  Are there other great books that I have omitted?  Good lord, yes.  Political Scientists are all gaga over Machiavelli, but I can't see it.  Should you read Augustine's CITY OF GOD?  Of course, but there are limits.  "Twenty-five" has a nice ring to it, and if you get through all of the books on this list, you will have a better education than your fellow students [and very possibly than some of your professors, but don't tell them I said that.]

The really great thing about this list is that it has not changed since I was a student, and it will not have changed, I warrant, by the time you are my age!  That is a claim that cannot be made in many other academic disciplines.


Chris said...

Spinoza really is a gigantic leap forward for rationalism, and Rousseau's book on inequality is a biting critique of Hobbes and Locke's state of nature and views on property.

Chris said...

Professor Wolff,
If it's not too presumptuous, what are the essential texts for doing hardcore analytic philosophy. I know Frege and Wittgeinstein are considered essential, but a list of this sort would be helpful for those of us still in grad school who are expected to have a working knowledge of all things analytic.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

To be perfectly honest, Chris, I no longer know. You could have asked me that question fifty years ago [well, you could not have, of course], but I am totally out of touch with academic philosophy now. I am not even sure what is now called Analytic Philosophy. David Lewis, Saul Kripke, Derek Parfitt? Lord, I don't know.

A. Cameron said...


I'd be very interested in hearing you elaborate a bit on why you are on the fence about Spinoza, but certain of the Monadology's place in the pantheon of philosophical texts.
Whatever one may think of Leibniz, I am reminded of a wonderful quote, said of Leibniz by Diderot, that leaves little room for doubt about the breadth and depth of his intellectual achievements: "When one compares one's own talents with those of a Leibniz, one is tempted to throw away one's books and go die peacefully in the depths of some dark corner."

Matthew J. Brown said...

At first I was really on board with this list, until a friend pointed out to me how white, male, and Euro-centric this list is. Granted, that's a reflection of the same biases in the discipline as a whole. But surely there are Asian philosophers or women that stand up to some of the figures on the list? (Perhaps we can give On Liberty half credit, given Harriet Taylor's purported role in that book.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Well leaving to one side the North Africans who were Muslim philosphers, whom do you have in mind? Remember, this is a list that stops in the middle of the 19th century. I think there is nothing more insulting to a woman than to include her simply because she is a woman.

Matthew J. Brown said...

For non-Europeans, my personal feeling is that Chinese philosophers like Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, and Zhuangzi are almost certainly as significant as many of the philosophers on this list. Indian/Buddhist philosophy is also enjoying a lot of attention from philosophers like Evan Thompson and Graham Priest, though I don't know the names from that tradition off the top of my head.

In terms of women philosophers, I admit that it is difficult to come up with names that sound as significant as the ones on your list. But is that a statement about their work, or its historical significance, or just our own unconscious biases? Some very significant names to consider would be Sappho, Margaret Cavendish, Mary Wollstonecraft.

Cindy Scheopner said...

Why leave to one side the North Africans who were Muslim philosophers? Aquinas surely would have had less to work with had they not provided him with their interpretations of the Greeks.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No, no, you do not understand the expression as it is used in English. I am not suggesting we omit the Muslims. Quite to the contrary. The point of the exdpression is that there are already are on the list persons who are not white males, namely the great Arabic philosophers, such as Alfarabi, Avicenna, Algazali, etc.

Chris said...

"But is that a statement about their work, or its historical significance, or just our own unconscious biases? "

My general understanding was that if a class, gender, or race of people is systematically oppressed, it follows that the hurdles and challenges they face to producing 'great works' are often too severe to land them an individual place in prosperity. And of course even if they do produce a great work, those in power will ignore it, or prevent it seeing the light of future generations. It's not because of their race, class, or gender, that they lack the capacity to produce work, it's because of systematic oppression that their capacity is not actualized. So the reason the great works of philosophy before the 19th century are all white male dominant is because white male dominance and rule were exceptionally well institutionalized[and of course white male dominance is STILL well institutionalized].

I think in some senses the answer to your question Matthew is that it's about all three of your considerations, and not just one...?

Daniel Munoz said...

If you're looking for a reading list in analytic philosophy, I'd suggest Sinan Dogramaci's (though it's mostly papers, not books):

Some additions you'll want to make if you're doing analytic ethics (like me!)

1. The Right and the Good (ch. 1-2) - W.D Ross
2. "Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?" - H.A. Prichard (bonus: his letter to Ross, published in Moral Writings, which is one of the first stabs at the modern theory of reasons!)
3. Principia Ethica (ch. 1) - G.E. Moore
4. The Methods of Ethics - Sidgwick
5. Groundwork... - Kant (as RPW says)
6. The Sources of Normativity - Korsgaard
7. Reasons and Persons (parts 3 & 4) - Derek Parfit
8. Intention - Anscombe (for phil. action & ethics)
9. "The Notional Category of Modality" - Kratzer (for phil. language & ethics)
10. The Possibility of Altruism - Thomas Nagel
11. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, A Treatise of Human Nature (2.3.3) - David Hume

And a bonus: Practical Reality - Jonathan Dancy

You can tell I'm biased toward early 20th-century British moral philosophy.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

A very nice list indeed. The first several items, along with Sidgwick and Rashdall, are what I read in 1954 in a graduate reading course on British Ethical Theory [except that I read the whole books, of course -- also G. E. Moore]. Ah, those were the days. Have fun.

LFC said...

Re Chris's comment:

"...Rousseau's book on inequality is a biting critique of Hobbes and Locke's state of nature and views on property."

I read Rousseau's 'Discourse on Inequality' for the first time fairly recently. It contains among other things the line "the man who meditates is a depraved animal," which is the one sentence that has stuck w me verbatim. But also interesting stuff on the mutual (symbiotic, i think we would say) interaction of reason and the passions, etc etc.

Re Machiavelli: The Prince is important in history of pol thought as -- on one view, at any rate -- an articulation of a secular "reason of state" (though Machiavelli himself never used that phrase) divorced from Christianity (and religion in general). That's one reason pol scientists or pol theorists, at any rate, read it. Plus it's short and there are good translations available. I'm not saying a philosophy grad student needs to read it, but i don't pretend to know what a philosophy grad student shd read, b.c i'm not a philosopher (thank goodness, i'm tempted to add, somewhat cheekily).

LFC said...

P.s. Of course if you're a serious student of history of pol thought, you also have to read Machiavelli's 'Discourses on Livy' but i never did, b.c in addition to not being a philosopher, i'm not an historian of political thought (though, if pressed, I could probably pass for one at a cocktail party, provided the chat did not go on for more than approx. 5 or 10 minutes).

Sara L. Uckelman said...

Very pleased to see medieval philosophy gets a nod. If you want one specific book which is both typical in type for the period and also has (a) interesting medieval metaphysical/theological views and (b) interesting philosophical views from the modern perspective, I'd go with Ockham's Summa Logicae.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thanks for nodding in. A little link-following reveals that the person concealed behind SLU/AmC does some extremely impressive calligraphy. Fascinating.

SouthernPhilosopher said...

St. Anselm's Ontological Argument for the Middle Ages.

guy said...

i'm curious to know why Hegel got the silence. i was trained in a thoroughly western-analytic dept. Your list practically describe the canon of my 1st 2 years of grad school. But not once was i asked to read anyone 'continental.' Is this your sentiment? Does Hegel fit that description? (i won't lie, the fact that these 'continental' folks were omitted has made me all the more curious to read them now.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I omitted Hegel because I hate him. I can't stand reading the PHENOMONOLOGY or the PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY, although I have. The so-called Continentals [almost everyone on the list is, after all, a Continental] were omitted because after the early 19th c. everything goes haywire and there is no longer a single tradition. I assume that grad students will read some of that in courses or, like you, hunt it up because it is NOT assigned in courses.

guy said...

Do you mind making another recommendation? i have to develop a social/political philosophy course. i'd love to cover anarchism briefly. What's the best primary introductory text to anarchism in your view? Proudhon? Godwin? Bakunin? Someone else?

A Lady of Leisure said...

I think with analytic ethics, Peter Singer's "Practical Ethics" is excellent.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

To "Guy": The problem you face is that there are a number of quite different positions that are labeled "anarchism." No one text will communicate all of them. Obviously, I would be delighted to hbave you use my little book, but of you do, you will not at all be teaching anything about Bakunnin or Godwin. I am afraid you are on your own.

LFC said...

Since this comment thread seems to be still going (more or less), I might add another word about Machiavelli.

One of the things that is interesting about him is the range of very divergent interpretations over the years and the way people with different views on current questions have tried to appropriate him. (Not wholly dissimilar in these respects to Marx, one might say.)

A flood of new books on Machiavelli came out around 2013 and 2014, because 2013 was the 500th anniversary of the writing of The Prince (though not of its publication -- it wasn't published until 1532, five years after Machiavelli's death).

As one example of the recent debates, I just became aware this evening of a critical review by Quentin Skinner (in the New York Review of Books in 2014) of a book on Machiavelli by Philip Bobbitt, a law professor known among other things for his writings about strategy and int'l affairs. Bobbitt then replied to the Skinner review, both in NYRB and at more length online. There is also a recent book by Maurizio Viroli, arguing that most people have read The Prince incorrectly.

Without really having read carefully any of the things just mentioned (most of the Q. Skinner review is behind a paywall anyway), I think it's noteworthy that a 500-year-old book (as well as Machiavelli's whole body of work) is still stirring this kind of controversy.

I'm not trying to change anyone's mind about whether Machiavelli is or is not worth reading, but in view of the recent 500th anniversary of The Prince and the wave of renewed interest, I thought this note might not be out of place.

Dr.A said...

I hereby offer a list of the top 15 philosophers' texts (one per author, though it was hard to do!) appropriate to a broad and pluralistic education in Philosophy from Ancient to Contemporary Philosophy:

1. Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo by Plato

2. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle

3. Meditations on First Philosophy: In Which the Existence of God and the Distinction of the Soul from the Body Are Demonstrated by René Descartes

4. The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

5. A Vindications of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

6. An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals by David Hume

7. Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant

8. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One by Friedrich Nietzsche

9. Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill

10. Being and Time by Martin Heidegger

11. Existentialism Is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre

12. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

13. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michael Foucault

14. Principia Ethica (Principles of Ethics) by G. E. Moore

15. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein

This list of philosophy classics is expanded to 50 annotated entries available on


marcel said...

I have two questions concerning your recommendations of Aristotle:

1. Do I really need to read the whole Metaphysics and Physics? They are terribly long-winding and tedious. I read some parts of it during a course I took years ago, but none of it since. As I am currently writing my thesis on Kant's theoretical philosophy and philosophy of science, I feel like a little update on Aristotle's metaphysics on the side would be quite sensible. Which parts of his theoretical works would you recommend as truly essential?

2. Should I read the Physics, or the Metaphysics first? You named the latter before the former, but I was always told that first philosophy is to be studied last.

Best, Marcel

George Berger said...

Matthew. Why does almost any serious effort by one of your euro white males get met with a critique of the lister's "narrative"?

Thomas Riggins said...

As far as the European philosophical tradition is concerned there are only six pre 20th century thinkers worth reading in order to to understand our current world situation: Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel and Marx. The others are important from an historical perspective but, in relation to the six mentioned are either derivative, defective or repetitive. Knowledge of these six will prepare you for any important contemporary philosopher who is unlikely to be a flash in the pan. If you had only 3 to read then pick Spinoza, Hegel and Marx as without them you won't understand anything. You still might not undestand anything with them but you would at least stand a fighting chance.

Savoyard Reaction said...

Can we really trust thw list of someone who embraces anarchism as a political philosophy, thinks atheism is a religion, and who presumably thinks marxist economics could ever be better than a market economy?

Maliha said...

This may sound presumptuous of me, but do you happen to have a similar list for people without a philosophical background (as in, the Republic being the only book ever read that has anything pertaining philosophy), preparing to study it as a graduate student?

Unknown said...

The hegel - husserl - Heidegger - derrida stuff is prob what I consider most important. Smoke some weed until you see your own consciousness in a significant way and begin.

Anonymous said...

Cindy is a boring feminist. I wouldn't invite her to a party.

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