A list of the most important philosophical investigations as we begin to try to understand what has changed in the past few years.
2020 was some year. We've seen the trauma, the drama, and the politics. We've lost people, and we've survived. But what does it all mean? That's probably a question for 2021. Here are ten books that can help explain the events we've been through and help us plan for the future.
10. Metaphysics, by Aristotle
Aristotle is the only philosopher to make this list twice. Metaphysics is a core component of Aristotle’s philosophy, and we need to understand that much of what has survived from The Philosopher’s time intact is precisely his contribution to metaphysics, which explores the mind’s exploration of sets of principles such as science, including among other things physics itself.
9. The Republic, by Plato
The Republic is an indispensable 2020 text as well, with its classic tale of the strong man of the people who attempts to subvert democracy and replace it with tyranny. Plato’s philosophy is deeply engaged by Karl Popper and the interested reader will likely benefit by reading both.
8. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig
Pirsig’s most famous book is also a fascinating read in these trying times. At times it can be a welcome reminder that adversity is nothing new to us; but the core message is perhaps more resonant than ever before as so many of us reflect upon the adaptations we made to sustain ourselves and keep moving forward even during a time of such great sacrifice.
7. A Philosophy of Walking, by Frederic Grosz
Grosz does an amazing job of explaining the importance, Zen and otherwise, of a life in motion in A Philosophy Of Walking. Walking for justice was a theme in 2020, as protest gripped the news and wrested control away from Donald Trump in a precursor of the 2020 Presidential Election. This book outlines the history of the peaceful protest as developed by Gandhi and as a means to the creation of social change that spans the globe and can be used by all people.
6. Beyond Good & Evil, by Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche’s work, Beyond Good & Evil, is thought of as a more analytical version of Thus Spake Zarathustra. I recommend it here because it provides a historical foundation for the belief that human nature has made progress against some of its darker inclinations, but the dynamic between the individual and the group that Nietzsche was so fond of analyzing is no less ripe for discussion today.
5. Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle
The Aristotelian philosophy that led us to this point in history is not to be dismissed in 2020 either. The mechanistic nature of character formation is given a deep read in this classic text by The Philosopher. When we think through the core issues around the challenges we face in the contemporary world, it can be quite comforting to withdraw, as Pierre Hadot might say, the Veil of Isis, allowing ourselves a look at the events which have led up to this point and providing context for our hopes that things will get better.
4. The Open Society And Its Enemies, by Karl Popper
Written at the close of the Second World War, Popper’s magnum opus is a treasure trove of solid centrist thinking. It invites us to think about the political spectrum in a new way, now that economics and technology have become so much more intertwined than they have been before. The classical concepts of liberty that so much of America is at least theoretically based upon find a welcome and enlightening update here.
3. Negative Dialectics, by Theodor Adorno
Theodor Adorno’s work becomes relevant as well, as we approach a possible endpoint for the postmodern philosophical movement. Metaphysics failed human beings during the Holocaust, and it appears a repeat of that disaster at scale has been narrowly averted this year. The work is dense and difficult and does not err on the side of optimism, but it is an enlightening work which does a great deal to put the contemporary strife into perspective.
2. The Plague, by Albert Camus
Albert Camus’ classic allegory of the plague speaks to readers for a variety of reasons in 2020, including the absurd nature of group dynamics at the social level demonstrated by Trump and his supporters’ refusal to mask up for much of the year. The twin threats of plague and authoritarianism cement Camus’ work here as one of the best philosophy books to read during these trying times. The only book on this list to win a Nobel Prize, it is certainly no stretch to say this is an absolute masterpiece worth reading at any time made even more relevant by recent events.
1. Ethics of Ambiguity, by Simone De Beauvoir
A masterpiece of postmodern ethical thinking. De Beauvoir pushes back against the analytical trend we observe in philosophical thinking during the 20th century to great effect, clearly communicating a structure which consists of a modified Aristotelian virtue ethics which presupposes far less than the original and thereby requires far less structure.
And there you have it. Each of these books can bring an untold amount of value to each of our lives. Philosophy helps us cope with a changing world, and each of these cornerstones of the process that brought us to the place we find ourselves in today is no less relevant than the day it was written.