This month marks my 7th year in studying philosophy on my own. Here are some of my favorite continental philosophy / theory books that I recommend. I will rank the difficulties of each book from a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = very easy; 10 = very hard) to give you an idea on which ones you might want to try. Most of these texts changed the way I saw the world and how I should live my life, I hope they will change yours too.
All for Nothing by Rachel K. Ward
“The truth needs no author and no defense. This text has been given to you and what does not vanish is not ours.”
This was one of the the first philosophy / theory text I read in my life. It was originally a PhD thesis from the European Graduate School that got published as a book. The text gives a profound critique on the decadence of human desire and our tendency towards hedonism. It is written in fragments / aphorisms that touches on many different topics such as philosophy, love, work, fashion, architecture, academia, art, vanity, inheritance, privilege, politics and truth. While this book is the least famous on this list, it is really good. I still reread it every once a while.
Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud
“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”
This is Freud’s most popular and accessible book where he talks about how humans struggle for individualism in a society which prohibits it. As a result, civilization causes all forms of mental disorders, leading to the birth of the super-ego which controls our ego. It is in this famous text where Freud indirectly proclaims that we are all neurotics (depressed, anxious, etc.). The foundation of civilization is based on neuroticism. We are a bunch of crazy talking animals who are trying to control our own craziness. It is also in this book where Freud famously responds to why communism will never work due to humans being naturally aggressive (“Homo homini lupus”). Overall, this is an excellent book for those who are into mental health because there is no such thing as someone who is mentally healthy.
The Interpretation of Dreams
Beyond the Pleasure Principle
A Case of Hysteria: (Dora)
The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche
Difficulty: 4-9 (depending on how closely you read)
“You must have chaos within you in order to give birth to a dancing star.”
A famous book by Nietzsche that I find preliminary to 20th century continental philosophy—especially Freudian psychoanalysis. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche talks about two fundamental aspects of humans that are represented by two Gods: Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo represented structure, logic, and order (i.e. law and society). Dionysus represented irrationality and chaos (i.e. art, music and dance). Nietzsche saw how dangerous outcomes will follow if our society had one overpowering the other. A society that is focused solely on Apollo will lead to a society of depression and isolation. Whereas a society focused solely on Dionysus would lead to insanity.
For Nietzsche, the balance of Apollo and Dionysus created the tragedy of Ancient Greek myths where they represented an authentic form of suffering which has now been lost. Contrary to what our society perpetuates today, Nietzsche thinks we must not avoid and repress suffering, but to confront it. For Nietzsche, suffering makes great human beings (think about people like Martin Luther King, Virginia Woolf or Franz Kafka).
Look for English translations by Walter Kaufman.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra (this book is where the quote I used comes from)
Beyond Good and Evil
The Gay Science
Human, All too Human
Genealogy of Morals
A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes
“To try to write love is to confront the muck of language; that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive and impoverished.”
A Lover’s Discourse is Barthes most famous work where he talks about the experiences of love from a first person point of view. It offers a great blend between literature, critical theory and philosophy. Barthes pushes the structure of language to the limits where love cannot be described through its own signification and becomes semi-utterances. This book is influenced by a lot of philosophical ideas that went on during the 70s—most notably deconstruction.
The Death of the Author
Infinite Thought by Alain Badiou
“Philosophy privileges no language, not even the one it is written in.”
Badiou is one of the most famous intellectuals in France today. His ideas are often discussed amongst continental philosophy departments and others such as English and Social Sciences. This is a great intro book to Badiou’s famous philosophy on multiplicities of truth by using set theory. It is a book that is written clearly with great rigor. Badiou’s ideas were heavily influenced by Jacques Lacan. So if you are into psychoanalysis, you might like Badiou.
Being and Event
Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil
In Praise of Love
Limited Inc. by Jacques Derrida
I strongly recommend this book if you wish to learn deconstruction because Derrida provides a simpler way of explaining his ideas in the first essay titled, “Signature Event Context” while showing the problems of J.L Austin’s speech act theory (you can also find this essay in some of Derrida’s other works such as Margins of Philosophy). In it, Derrida also talks about the impossibility of transmitting our intentionality through communication. This is an argument that is explained with much more detail in Voice and Phenomenon—a book, like Of Grammatology, that you should not read if you are new to Derrida (I will talk about these in the next section).
The Courage of Truth by Michel Foucault
A series of lectures given at the prestigious College de France (AKA the “Harvard of France”) by Foucault who died shortly after. I think this book shows some great thoughts on how we should be more accepting of new / opposing ideas and that the truth is never what we think it is. Foucault also responds to some criticism by his fellow French intellectuals such as Jacques Derrida. It is a lecture that I can appreciate and respect, even if I am not a fan of Foucault.
The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett
“It’s a lot to ask of one creature, it’s a lot to ask, that he should first behave as if he were not, then as if he were, before being admitted to that peace where he neither is, nor is not, and where the language dies that permits of such expressions.”
There is a reason why Beckett won the Nobel Prize of Literature, and the reason is quite vain (that’s the point). The Unnameable is basically existentialism under the guise of literature where its hypnotic text is nearly incomprehensible. The story was written from the first person perspective by an unknown narrator called “the unnamable”. The book is a good example of stream of consciousness narration that you also see in other renown 20th century writers such as James Joyce.
Waiting for Godot
Seduction by Jean Baudrillard
“For nothing can be greater than seduction, not even the order that destroys it.”
Jean Baudrillard is Roland Barthes’ most famous student. Baudrillard was known as a provocative cultural critic and is sometimes referred as “the high priest of post-modernism”. He was infamous for publishing a text called Forget Foucault where he sent a copy to Foucault and asked him to read it.
Seduction was one of my first few critical theory books I read which left a lasting imprint on me. Although this book does talk about seduction through appearances, the text is definitely not your how-to-guide on seducing your love interest. Seduction talks about a ritual game and the play of signs, an advantage that woman always had which undermined all of its oppositions throughout history. The book also consists of Baudrillard’s incredibly provocative criticism on feminism (especially Luce Irigaray), as he writes, “yesterday they were diverted from the truth of history, today they are diverted from the truth of their own desires”.
Simulacra and Simulation
The Conspiracy of Art
The Gift by Marcel Mauss (Baudrillard was influenced by him)
Difficult Books that I Recommend
The following are what I consider as “high risk, but high reward” books. I am listing these (in no particular order) because they are very good if you are up for a challenge. I do not recommend any of them unless you have a background in philosophy or are a serious reader.
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger
“Only he who already understands can listen.”
I never got the chance to finish this book due to its difficulty (I will finish it one day). In it, Heidegger establishes his foundational ideas and criticism on the question on Being and how we have always avoided answering it through history (especially in Western philosophy). Heidegger is well known for combining phenomenology with existentialism. When reading this book, one should keep in mind that it was unfinished and a lot of Heidegger’s ideas actually change later in his life. This is why I would not recommend this as a first Heidegger book. I would suggest you to try reading some of his lectures first.
Heidegger (along with Husserl and Nietzsche) is one of the leading precursor to mid-late 20th century continental philosophy. Anyone who wishes to learn contemporary continental thought—especially Derrida, Sartre, and Levinas—must first pass through Heidegger’s ideas. I recommend the translation by Joan Stambaugh from SUNY press.
What is Metaphysics
Letter on Humanism
Nietzsche: Volumes One and Two
The Phenomenology of Spirit by G.W.F. Hegel
When people say Hegel is really hard to read, they are not exaggerating. I only read a few chapters from this book because it is incredibly difficult. I would strongly suggest that you follow a reading guide or have a Hegel expert near you because this is one of the most difficult text that exists. Many people get through this book without knowing what Hegel is talking about. Unfortunately, it is a must read for anyone who is interested in continental philosophy (or any other modern philosophies) because Hegel happens to be an important intellectual figure responsible for having a significant impact on famous figures such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Edmund Husserl, Jacques Lacan, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and many more.
Lectures on the Philosophy of History
The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
Kant might be a bad writer, but he has a brilliant mind and that is all that matters at the end. This book requires you to have a solid understanding of Rene Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and George Berkeley.
There is a reason why everyone who wishes to learn modern philosophy or any post-Kantian philosophy (19th century onwards) must first understand Kant’s ideas on consciousness and transcendental idealism. The Critique of Pure Reason is where Kant begins his famous argument that we can never know anything in-itself and the only thing we can experience is phenomena. It is a classic problem on consciousness that has never really been solved till this day. I recommend the translated editions from Cambridge University Press.
Voice and Phenomenon by Jacques Derrida
In my opinion, this is Derrida’s most important work since I feel like a lot of his fundamental ideas began here. Derrida also said that this book was among one of his personal favorites.
Voice and Phenomenon talks about the problems of Edmund Husserl’s ideas on consciousness and our intentionality in relation to indication and expression through temporal manifestation of spacetime. While this text is only 90 pages in length, it is difficult and dense. Unpacking it requires a lot of time and pre-understanding of Husserl’s phenomenological project (look into Husserl’s Ideas I, Ideas II, and Logical Investigations). It would be helpful to grasp Husserl’s criticism on psychology, logic and mathematics. It is also smart to learn his ideas on the difference between logical and pure grammar. In short, I would recommend you to “try” some of Husserl’s works before attacking Voice and Phenomenon—even if Husserl can make you (me) feel very stupid due to how difficult he is.
This book has two translations done by two different scholars. The first one is titled Speech and Phenomena translated by David B. Allison, and the newer one is Voice and Phenomenon translated by Leonard Lawlor; both are from Northwestern University Press. I have never read the Allison translation, but I heard it is very good.
The Origin of Geometry by Edmund Husserl. Translated by Jacques Derrida
Heidegger: The Question of Being and History
Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida
“There is no outside text”
This is the Derridean book most people complain about due to its notorious difficulty. But it is also Derrida’s most famous work where he address his ideas on “differance”, “trace”, “archi-writing”, and “supplement”. This book requires you to have a pre-understanding of not just Husserl, but also Socrates, Plato, Ferdinand de Saussure (semiotics / linguistics), Louis Hjelmslev (glossematics / linguistics), Roman Jakobson (linguistics), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (philosophy of mathematics), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (political philosophy), Martin Heidegger (phenomenology / existentialism), Claude Levi-Strauss (anthropology), Friedrich Nietzsche (existentialism), Sigmund Freud (psychoanalysis), Etienne Bonnot de Condillac (epistemology and psychology), and William Warburton (literary critic / theorist).
This book took me two years to read and I still don’t understand everything in it. The text is split into two parts where part I is more difficult than part II. If you plan on reading it, I would get the 1998 edition translated by Spivak over her newer 2016 edition (both are published by Johns Hopkins University Press). The 2016 edition has been criticized a lot by Geoffrey Bennington, a very well respected Derridean expert.
Ecrits by Jacques Lacan
I once saw a guy reading this 900 page tome at Starbucks while sitting on a couch. I was thinking to myself, “that is definitely not a coffee table book”. Ecrits (writings) is the only book Jacques Lacan published. The reason why I do not recommend this as a first Lacan book is because it is best to learn Freud first. Lacan pretty much takes Freudian concepts and applies them into language and linguistics which makes him super hard to read. If our unconscious mind effects the way we interpret language, then how does Lacan explain psychoanalysis through language? If you wish to read Lacan, I would suggest starting on his lectures listed below (these are the ones I had good experiences with). Learning Hegel, which is a feat on its own, will also help you understand Lacan.
Seminar X: Anxiety
Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis
Seminar XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (especially this if you plan on reading Slavoj Zizek)
Seminar XX: On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge
How to Read Lacan by Slavoj Zizek