Trying to work out how to get started with philosophy can be a scary task. It can seem like there are endless difficult, obscure books which could lead you round in circles. However, there are also plenty of clear, accessible, and still fascinating introductory texts. This list will guide you through the best introductions to philosophy, and suggest some other ways you can explore philosophy further.
If you’re applying for Maths and Philosophy at Oxford, it’s a good idea to explore not only philosophy on its own, but also the intersection between the two fields. You’ll find in this list some introductory texts to the Philosophy of Mathematics. You could also take a look at our further reading for maths.
Where To Get Started With Philosophy
Ben Dupré – 50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Need To Know
If you are new to philosophy, this is a great place to start. Although not particularly academic, it is a brilliant walkthrough of all the core concepts in the discipline. It presents 50 central philosophical problems in bitesize chapters, with lots of anecdotes to get you thinking, and leaves lots of open-ended questions for you to consider.
Simon Blackburn – Think
Although a lot more difficult to digest than Dupré’s 50 Ideas, this is a more in-depth explanation of key philosophical issues. Think considers six core topics in great detail, and I would particularly recommend the chapter on God for an interesting and thought-provoking debate.
Although admissions tutors will not expect you to have formed an opinion and every debate in philosophy, I would recommend spending some time trying to digest the issues you have read and heard about, and formulate some of your own ideas and thoughts, as this is what will impress interviewers most.
Jostein Gaarder – Sophie’s World
Sophie’s World is probably my favourite philosophical book. It is a fictional tale of a girl (called Sophie), who ends up trapped in a philosophical matrix, negotiating her way through by considering the major doctrines of philosophy. An entertaining first look at philosophy, the novel covers many of the discipline’s most contentious issues. It particularly focuses on the knowledge problem, with Sophie reaching the conclusion that there is no external world at all.
The Knowledge Problem: It is difficult for us to discern what we actually know to be true. We presume we have a body and that there is a world external to us that can interact with our body, but how do we know this? Our senses can mislead us, so how can we ever trust them? We have dreams that closely resemble reality, so how can we know we are not dreaming? And how do we know there is not some evil deceiver continually misleading us, and in fact, we are nothing more than his science experiment?
Descartes – Meditations
This is one of the most influential texts in philosophy, and it is deep and complex. Although admissions tutors will not expect you to have a grasp of the text, or to understand any of the concepts in detail, it is a great starting point for philosophy students. It covers a variety of topics, from epistemology (the theory of knowledge: what it is, whether we can have any), to philosophy of mind and the mind-body problem. Even if you just read the first couple of Meditations (there are six in total), it will give you a good idea of the type of philosophy you will be studying in depth during a philosophy degree.
The Mind-Body Problem: This is a problem central to philosophy. If we have a material body and an immaterial mind or soul, how can they interact with each other? For example, when we reach for a book, our mind tells our body to do that, but how can something immaterial interact with something corporeal?
Bertrand Russell – The Problems of Philosophy
This is another really interesting overview of the fundamental problems of philosophy. As a reputable philosopher, Russell is also a good name to mention on your personal statement or in your interview. This is a short and digestible book, and I would definitely recommend it as an ideal place to get started with philosophy.
Getting Started with the Philosophy of Mathematics
Stewart Shapiro – Thinking About Mathematics
This is the most comprehensive pre-university study of the philosophy of mathematics. It covers lots of interesting topics concerning the intersection between maths and philosophy, and explores in-depth theories of number and the infinite. It does get very theoretical in places, so don’t worry if you don’t understand it all, just try and grasp the main concepts covered in each chapter.
Ian Stewart – What is Mathematics?
If you’re interested in the methods used in mathematics but haven’t read much about them, this book is a great place to start – and it could provide an interesting niche for your personal statement. It also has some really interesting sections on the philosophy of mathematics, questioning what a number is and where it belongs in the general scope of the world and concepts.
Eugenia Cheng – Beyond Infinity
This is a great introduction to the concept of infinity, an area I found particularly intriguing in the intersection of maths and philosophy. It begins by going through the concepts of infinity and different ways of perceiving the infinite, before developing applications of infinity in maths, often from a philosophical perspective. Definitely worth a read, even if you only get through the first few sections.
What if I don’t like reading?
As well as these books, there are also an abundance of useful philosophy and maths internet resources.
BBC Radio 4 has released a really interesting series on YouTube that goes through key philosophical concepts. They are very short and accessible, and present lots of different ways to view questions in philosophy.
I would also recommend any of the In Our Time podcasts, which can be found on BBC iPlayer. If you type in keywords, such as philosophy and maths, or specific concepts you are interested in, you’ll find some great podcasts that you can listen to wherever.
The best way to get started with philosophy is to think. Think about the concepts you have read or heard about. Then try and engage your friends and family in conversation about these topics. This is how you will get a good indication of whether philosophy is for you!