The Six Best Books on the History of Philosophy

Lennox Johnson Books

From beginner-friendly introductions to comprehensive textbooks on the history of philosophy, this page features books to suit any learning style.  It’s important to note that there is no single best book on the history of philosophy. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive overview.

It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.

Here are the best books on the history of philosophy in no particular order.

A Little History of Philosophy – Nigel Warburton

A Little History of Philosophy

Category: Pop-Nonfiction | Length: 272 pages

Publisher description: Philosophy begins with questions about the nature of reality and how we should live. These were the concerns of Socrates, who spent his days in the ancient Athenian marketplace asking awkward questions, disconcerting the people he met by showing them how little they genuinely understood. This engaging book introduces the great thinkers in Western philosophy and explores their most compelling ideas about the world and how best to live in it.

In forty brief chapters, Nigel Warburton guides us on a chronological tour of the major ideas in the history of philosophy. He provides interesting and often quirky stories of the lives and deaths of thought-provoking philosophers from Socrates, who chose to die by hemlock poisoning rather than live on without the freedom to think for himself, to Peter Singer, who asks the disquieting philosophical and ethical questions that haunt our own times…

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How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy – Julian Baggini

Category: General Introduction | Length: 432 pages

Publisher description: One of the great unexplained wonders of human history is that written philosophy flowered entirely separately in China, India and Ancient Greece at more or less the same time. These early philosophies have had a profound impact on the development of distinctive cultures in different parts of the world. What we call ‘philosophy’ in the West is not even half the story. Julian Baggini sets out to expand our horizons in How the World Thinks, exploring the philosophies of Japan, India, China and the Muslim world, as well as the lesser-known oral traditions of Africa and Australia’s first peoples. Interviewing thinkers from around the globe, Baggini asks questions such as: why is the West is more individualistic than the East? What makes secularism a less powerful force in the Islamic world than in Europe? And how has China resisted pressures for greater political freedom? Offering deep insights into how different regions operate, and paying as much attention to commonalities as to differences, Baggini shows that by gaining greater knowledge of how others think we take the first step to a greater understanding of ourselves.

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A New History of Western Philosophy – Anthony Kenny

A New History of Western Philosophy

Category: General History | Length: 1058 pages

Publisher description: The individual volumes of Sir Anthony Kenny’s acclaimed History of Western Philosophy have been hailed as “wonderful authoritative hugely rewarding” (Times Higher Education Supplement) and “genial and highly accessible” (London Review of Books). Now these four splendid books have been combined into one magnificent volume, providing a continuous sweeping account of the great thought of the Western world. Here readers will find not only an authoritative guide to the history of philosophy, but also a compelling introduction to every major area of philosophical inquiry. Kenny tells the story of philosophy chronologically, his lively narrative bringing the great philosophers to life and filling in the historical and intellectual background to their work. Kenny also looks closely at each of the main areas of philosophical exploration: knowledge and understanding; science; metaphysics; mind and soul; the nature and content of morality; political philosophy; and God.

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An Illustrated Brief History of Western Philosophy – Anthony Kenny

An Illustrated Brief History of Western Philosophy

Category: General Introduction | Length: 464 pages

Publisher description: Now in its 20th anniversary edition, world-renowned philosopher Anthony Kenny’s highly acclaimed survey of Western philosophy has been updated to provide essential coverage of contemporary Anglophone analytic and continental philosophy, and features a brand-new introduction on the history of philosophical sub-disciplines.

  • 20th anniversary edition of Sir Anthony Kenny’s acclaimed survey of over 2,500 years of Western philosophical thought, featuring new chapters on Anglophone analytic and continental philosophy
  • Offers the most concise and compelling story of the complete development of philosophy available
  • Written by one of the most learned and pedigreed philosophers alive in Britain…

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A History of Philosophy – Frederick Copleston

A History of Philosophy

Category: Comprehensive History | Length: 9 Volumes

Publisher description: Conceived originally as a serious presentation of the development of philosophy for Catholic seminary students, Frederick Copleston’s nine-volume A History Of Philosophy has journeyed far beyond the modest purpose of its author to universal acclaim as the best history of philosophy in English.

Copleston, an Oxford Jesuit of immense erudition who once tangled with A. J. Ayer in a fabled debate about the existence of God and the possibility of metaphysics, knew that seminary students were fed a woefully inadequate diet of theses and proofs, and that their familiarity with most of history’s great thinkers was reduced to simplistic caricatures. Copleston set out to redress the wrong by writing a complete history of Western philosophy, one crackling with incident and intellectual excitement — and one that gives full place to each thinker, presenting his thought in a beautifully rounded manner and showing his links to those who went before and to those who came after him.”…

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Classics of Western Philosophy – Steven M. Cahn

Category: Anthology | Length: 1376 pages

Publisher description: The Eighth Edition of Steven M. Cahn’s Classics of Western Philosophy offers the same exacting standard of editing and translation that made earlier editions of this anthology the most highly valued and widely used volume of its kind. But the Eighth Edition offers exciting new content as well: Plato’s Laches (complete), new selections from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (on courage), Descartes’ Discourse on Method (complete), all previously omitted sections of Berkeley’s A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (complete).

These additions―with no offsetting deletion of content of the Seventh Edition―yield an anthology of unrivaled versatility, the only one to offer the complete texts of: both Descartes’ Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, both Berkeley’s A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics and selections from the Critique of Pure Reason.

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The following sources were used to build this list:

University Course Syllabi:

Other Recommendations:


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