25 Works of Fiction Every Philosophy Student Should Read

Posted January 10, 2011

Staff Writer: Aniya Wells

Philosophy and literature go together like cheese and crackers. It’s entirely possible to enjoy one without the other, of course, but when combined, they form an explosively potent partnership that brings out the best elements of each discipline. When executed properly, anyway. Philosophy students, professionals and aficionados alike should supplement their inquiries by reading fiction that infuses different belief systems into the narrative. Plenty more exist beyond the ones listed here, though the following make for a nice introduction to the exceptionally broad concept. Seek out what the others have to say and absorb a wonderful spectrum of ideas and perspectives.

  1. The Republic (380 BCE) by Plato: All of Plato’s Socratic dialogues (which admittedly straddle the line between fact and fiction) could have easily made this list, but The Republic remains one of the most influential works of "Western" philosophy and political thought today. In it, the iconic philosopher opines on everything from his theory of forms to the integral role poetry plays in society — among myriad other subjects, of course.

  2. Utopia (1516) by Thomas More: As one can probably ascertain from the title, Sir Thomas More’s heavily influential religious and political novel reflects upon the components of a perfect society. Though minimal conflict exists given the eponymous nation’s harmonious structure, philosophy students, professionals and aficionados will certainly find it an engaging, fascinating inquiry all the same.

  3. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift: Before he penned the single most amazing literary treatise on the subject of cannibalism, one of the English language’s highly celebrated satirists was amusingly skewering pretty much everything. Along with some amazingly deft insights into human nature, Gulliver’s Travels also involves an exceptionally enjoyable adventure narrative.

  4. Candide (1759) by Voltaire: This epic satire zeroes in on Voltaire’s criticisms against the Catholic Church, related through a dryly comedic, breakneck plot. When it was first published, Candide‘s unapologetic religious and political commentary earned him just as much praise as it did outrage.

  5. Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) by Friedrich Nietzsche: Even those with only tangential familiarity with the works of influential "Western" philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche typically know a little something about the ubermensch concept and his declaration of God’s "death," all of which can be found in this essential philosophical read. He cheekily dissects the Bible’s structure in order to deliver commentary on religion, morality and other related subjects.

  6. Flatland (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott: Victorian society’s rigid code of conduct and class structure provided the author with plenty of rich philosophical, satirical veins to mine for narrative platinum. Frequently considered one of the most imaginative, original novels ever written, this undeniable masterpiece relays its core themes through unique mathematical characters and constructs.

  7. Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Probably the only novel in existence with a relatively sympathetic axe murderer at the center, Crime and Punishment is a classic of philosophical literature. The famed Raskolnikov spirals into guilt and turmoil over his violent actions until finally confronting the reality.

  8. The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin: Though the feminist movement was still over half a century away, Kate Chopin’s second novel expresses one woman’s increasing frustration with her expected station in life. The Awakening laid the groundwork for a flood of future writers to explore questions of rigid gender roles and expectations.

  9. The Metamorphosis (1915) by Franz Kafka: Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning as a giant, horrifying bug (usually interpreted as a cockroach), which leads to a legendary existential meltdown. What follows is a tragic and deeply philosophical inquiry into the very nature of humanity, family and life itself.

  10. Siddhartha (1922) by Hermann Hesse: While not a fictionalization of Gautama Buddha’s life, the central figure of Siddhartha embarks upon a similar journey of self, philosophy and spirituality that shares plenty of parallels. Hermann Hesse found inspiration in Indian thought while plagued with ennui and channeled his appreciation into an essential classic.

  11. Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley: Thanks to a combination of nocturnal education and advances in reproduction technology, society has fallen into a dystopian nightmare of staggering boredom. Although the citizenry enjoys everything they could ever possibly want, a few find that such a privileged lifestyle ultimately proves dissatisfying — and go about forging something more unique for themselves.

  12. The Stranger (1942) by Albert Camus: Albert Camus never felt a need to label himself an existentialist, though his most famous novel reflected some of its core tenets — along with absurdism, nihilism, stoicism and plenty more. An essential read for philosophy students with a particular love for comparison.

  13. The Age of Reason (1945) by Jean-Paul Sartre: The first novel of the Les chemins de la liberte trilogy covers three days in philosophy professor Mathieu’s life, exploring the role of freedom in the human experience. Read it in conjunction with Sartre’s Being and Nothingness for a broad glimpse into his heavily influential philosophical leanings.

  14. Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury: In a dystopian world where books end up burned to discourage intellectualism and critical thinking skills, a "fireman" finds his preconceptions challenged by a free-spirited young woman. Many consider it a commentary on censorship, but the author really meant it to reflect the role of the mass media in society.

  15. Invisible Man (1953) by Ralph Ellison: Philosophy students, professionals and fans interested in the history, sociology and psychology behind the eventual Civil Rights Movement must absolutely pick up Invisible Man. The passionate, provocative novel perfectly encapsulates the whats and whys behind one of the most volatile periods in American history.

  16. Under the Net (1954) by Iris Murdoch: A blend of picaresque and philosophy, Iris Murdoch tells the tale of confused young writer Jack Donaghue who wanders through life in search of inspiration and money. He bounces from event to event thanks to a series of misunderstandings, driving home the heavy theme of language’s delicate artistry.

  17. Atlas Shrugged (1957) by Ayn Rand: Not everyone agrees with Ayn Rand’s controversial Objectivist philosophy, but anyone studying the subject in depth should understand how it compares and contrasts with others. Frequently considered her greatest work, Atlas Shrugged offers up a comprehensive primer on the mindset.

  18. Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe: Postcolonial literature offers up an incredible bevy of psychological, sociological, historical and philosophical insights, and this novel is one of the greatest examples. Because of the European invasion, the Igbo tribe (itself sharing plenty of parallels with its oppressors) begins breaking down and drives clan leader Okonkwo to the furthest brink of despair.

  19. Solaris (1961) by Stanislaw Lem: Solaris masterfully blends science fiction tropes with intensive philosophical themes, resulting in an incredible, essential classic. As a small throng of human scientists attempt to communicate with a bizarre extraterrestrial entity, plenty of questions regarding biology, astronomy, inter- and intrapersonal relationships, suicide, memory and other facets of existence.

  20. A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess: Behind the sex and ultra-violence lay an intense, highly regarded inquiry into the familiar theme of social programming versus free will. The painstakingly crafted futuristic slang takes some time to maneuver, but patient readers will be greatly rewarded for their efforts.

  21. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut: This pitch-black comedy winds through time to explore protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s experiences in World War II, and its subsequent effects on his psyche and outlook. Pick up Slaughterhouse-Five for postmodernist musings on the absurdities and major questions piqued by life itself.

  22. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) by Robert M. Pirsig: Appropriately subtitled "an inquiry into values," the philosophical favorite by Robert M. Pirsig takes readers on a 17-day journey by motorcycle, punctuated by plenty of intelligent, insightful discussions. The concept of quality frequently crops up in these dialogues, which the author intentionally modeled after the Socratic style.

  23. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) by Milan Kundera: Prague-based intellectuals during the Communist era of Czech history dispute Friedrich Nietzsche’s belief in the eternal recurrence. Rather, their actions and words reflect an acceptance of life as fleeting, wholly impermanent and entirely unable to replicate itself.

  24. The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood: Margaret Atwood sets her heavily-acclaimed novel in a theocratic future where women must capitulate to the will of the patriarchy. Such a premise stimulates plenty of thoughts and talks regarding religion, gender roles, patriotism and sexuality; any philosophy student particularly drawn to feminism simply must read this book.

  25. The Death of Vishnu (2001) by Manil Suri: Inside a Bombay apartment complex lay a dying alcoholic, surrounded by a throng of its highly argumentative tenets. Their experiences and beliefs overlap — when they don’t outright clash — in a truly biting (and frequently humorous) satire of Indian society and philosophy.

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