What makes a popular philosophy book a good book?

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 15, 2013

I’ve lately been contemplating the question of what makes a popular philosophy book a good book. I am focussing on the case of philosophy professors who are writing a book that is explicitly aimed at a broader audience, and who may or may not also have written scholarly articles on the topic of their popular-philosophy book. Which quality-criteria should that book meet? Here are some thoughts.

1. Trust. The reader has to be able to trust the author that she has done the research needed to be able to write a book on this topic (please do swap ‘he’ and ‘she’ if you prefer so). Since it is a popular rather than a scholarly book, the author doesn’t need to elaborately demonstrate that she has done her homework (for example via references and careful summaries/overview of the literature as it has developed), but she must have done that homework. The reader has to be able to trust the author that she does know what she is writing about. For this criterion, I think it makes a difference whether the author is also a professor, since the general public tends to grant professors the status of an expert on the topics they are writing about. Hence if a professor of philosophy writes a popular book, most people will be assuming that she also knows the scholarly literature well, and that the popular book reflects that literature. Professors do know that the default position is that readers trust them to have expert knowledge on what they are writing, and therefore our professor who writes a popular book should not damage that trust.

2. Accessibility. An important difference between a scholarly philosophy book and a popular philosophy book should be its accessibility. It is fine for a scholarly philosophy book to be written for fellow specialists and hence to be specialised and very likely ‘technical’ in some sense. By contrast, a popular book can, at best, assume an interest in philosophical questions and, perhaps, some basic philosophical background, but definitely nothing more. It should be accessible, and that accessibility will show itself both in the lack of assuming much specialist knowledge, as well in its writing style, which will tend to be less dense, and more infused with lively examples.

3. Arguments. The popular book should not merely be based on rhetoric, intuitions and emotional appeals, but should consist of arguments that an educated layperson can follow. Hence, the examples or other stylistic devices that may be needed to meet the accessibility criterion should not do all the work: there should still be an argument that explains or justifies the intuitive conclusions that the examples provoke. Conclusions should never merely be reached by the force of emotional appeal or examples, but be based on arguments.

4. Not for profit. The quality of the argument will be different if the book is aimed at a broader audience. I am deliberately saying ‘different’ rather than ‘poorer’, since quality criteria for scholarly work are different from quality criteria for popular work. For example, if a piece of popular philosophy wants to be good, it needs to be accessible, whereas in scholarly philosophy this is generally not an aspect of quality. But that said, a popular philosophy book should not sacrifice the quality of the book to the profit motive of either the author or the publisher. Or indeed any other motive that may harm the quality of the book, such as the author’s vanity or need for attention or affirmation of her star-status.

5. Plagiarism. Plagiarism is a capital sinn in scholarship, possibly the capital sinn. In scholarly philosophy, plagiarism should be avoided at all cost. In popular philosophy, that is still the case, though one could argue that the reader may not need to be given the same amount of details in terms of references. Still the fact that a book is written for a broad audience doesn’t absolve a person from proper acknowledging how one builds on and uses work by others. One shouldn’t create the impression that one has created new work when what one is really doing is to reformulate or re-apply the insights and analysis done by others.

6. Noblesse Oblige. With social and intellectual status, and the corresponding power, come certain duties and responsibilities. Philosophers (and anyone writing a book) should not cause harm – and if an author has a high social status (which is quite often the case with professors writing popular philosophy books), one has to be extra careful. If one has a high status, then one has relatively much power to do good – but also much power to harm or do bad. As an author of a popular philosophy book, one is not only able to significantly contribute to a certain debate, but also to pollute or damage such a debate. In normative philosophy, an important aspect of Noblesse Oblige is to (try to) do as one preaches. Of course, no ordinary human being lives like a saint, but one shouldn’t defend a normative claim and not make a serious effort in living up to that norm. This sixth criterion is more context-dependent and therefore (as a criterion) vaguer than the other criteria; but still some elements of Noblesse Oblige sometimes play a role in deciding what makes a popular philosophy book a good book.

Do these criteria make sense? Are these criteria perhaps biased towards political philosophy/theory and (applied) ethics, the areas in which I work most?

Full disclosure: If these criteria survive the typically-smart-and-sharp discussion on this blog, I’ll use them to assess a particular book in a follow-up post.



Rachel Stone 07.15.13 at 9:14 am

At a first look, I’m unhappy with 4, the not for profit motif, because it confuses a motivation (money/prestige) with an effect (a distorted book). I think a better criterion links back to the idea of trust. Coming from the point of view of a historian, the big problem I have reading any field of history that I don’t know extremely well is not knowing whether the author is suppressing counter-examples. E.g. when an author says: “in early China, women were not allowed access to power”, she’s ignoring case X, Y and Z where women did have power, because they somehow “don’t count”.

So I need to feel comfortable that the author is not ignoring evidence that doesn’t suit their argument, and I often find that that can stem as much from ideological viewpoints as from purely financial motivations. It’s obviously impossible to avoid some ideological bias, but I think you need to have some secure sense that the author is adjusting their argument to fit the evidence and not the other way round.


John Quiggin 07.15.13 at 9:23 am

Having tried my hand at popular economics, I think all of these desiderata are applicable, except maybe 6, which seems to be specific to ethics. I can’t exactly imagine how my life would exemplify disbelief in DSGE macro, for example.

On plagiarism, it’s more important in popular writing than in academic work to avoid appropriating other people’s expressions without acknowledgement, and less important to give credit for ideas. While it’s desirable for other reasons to acknowledge the source of ideas, I don’t think there’s an implicit claim of originality in the absence of citation, as there is with a technical book.

And, I agree with Rachel. The big problem is loading the dice for ideological reasons. I tried hard to avoid this in Zombie Economics for example by using the neutral term “market liberalism” rather than pejoratives like “neoliberalism” to describe the ideas I was criticising. The reviews I got from presumptively hostile sources suggested that I was at least partially successful in that.


Ingrid Robeyns 07.15.13 at 10:14 am

Rachel – you are right, that’s very helpful – thanks.

John – that’s an interesting take on plagiarism – and contrary to what I thought to be the case. I’ve always thought that the default interpretation in both scholarly and popular work is that if you don’t cite a source for a specific idea or argument, you are signaling that this is your original idea. (Of course, some ideas are so widespread that it is almost obvious that they are not the original idea of the author).


John Quiggin 07.15.13 at 10:28 am

In writing an opinion piece (700 words) I feel free to use other people’s ideas (but not their expression) with or without acknowledgement depending on what works. It’s a bit different in a popular book, since there’s more room for acknowledgements, but still I’d say that the default assumption is simply that you are presenting ideas that you believe, and expressing them in your own words, not that you are the first person to have thought of these ideas.

As a sort of exception that proves the rule, I get very annoyed reading Nassim Taleb, since he consistently claims originality for ideas that are pretty well known. Still, he doesn’t get into real strife for this, whereas if he was caught lifting blocks of text, his books would be pulped.


Tony Lynch 07.15.13 at 10:41 am

I think some examples would help. I go with Russell’s “The Problems of Philosophy”.


bill benzon 07.15.13 at 10:43 am

I have trouble with 4, and here I’m thinking about two books I’ve written, both general trade books, both with 5-figure advances. That’s not best-seller advance money, but it’s pretty serious for the book biz and signals publisher intention to make some money. Neither of which sold out its first printing. But not for lack of trying.

While neither was a philosophy book, both were intellectually serious. I tried my best to write books that would have wide appeal without, at the same time, trashing my intellectual credibility. The fact that neither has HAD wide appear thus cannot be chalked up to ‘good’ intentions. Wanting to reach a large audience does not necessarily lead to pandering.


bill benzon 07.15.13 at 11:10 am

OTOH, I once wrote a scathing review of Robert Aunger’s The Electric Meme, where the neuroscience was laughbly and embarrasingly incompetent. I ended by accusing the author of intellectual irresponsiblity, thus:

Whatever these scholars may have had in mind when they penned their praise I suspect they will reconsider if and when any of their graduate students start spiking to the beat of Aunger’s neuromemetic drummers. Intellectual specialists lacking neuroscientific knowledge might well be deceived on their first reading of Aunger’s prose, especially if they read him generously and assume that he knows what he’s talking about. But they will not remain deceived once they study his words carefully. No, despite this superficial praise, I am not yet worried about the specialist community.

The Electric Meme, however, has been published as a trade book directed at the educated public. Judging from the comments posted at Amazon.com, for example, some of these readers have taken Aunger’s ideas at face value and are quite pleased with them. That is not surprising. The general idea of memes has been a seductive one; people want to believe it. Readers are thus willing to believe that any difficulties they experience in reading The Electric Meme reflect their own ignorance.

One of the attractions of writing for a general audience is that one has an opportunity to speculate more freely than one can in the refereed literature. At the same time, your audience is less likely to detect any mistakes you make as they lack the specialized intellectual skill required. Balancing speculative freedom against your responsibility to a vulnerable audience is difficult. Aunger took the freedom but misjudged the responsibility.

And that’s toned down a bit from the draft as the publisher was worried about British libel laws.

This book was published at the height of the memetics craze and the memetics craze, in turn, has been riding the all things sciencey and Darwin craze. I think everyone wanted to go big, especially John Brockman, pop science superagent. But as for just why it went so terribly wrong, that’s tricky. And I think there’s a communal component to it. You’ve got a small community of memeticists of varying backgrounds all of whom really believed that memetics was the “key to all mythologies.” Some of them had academic training (Dawkins, Dennett, Blackmore, Hofstadter Aunger) and some not (Richard Brodie, Aaron Lynch, Brockman). I can imagine a certain amount of playing to the public going on but I think it’d be difficult to disentangle that from actual belief in memetics. I think these people really want culture to be that simple.


Primo 07.15.13 at 11:21 am

Browsing for non-fiction, I’ll be drawn instinctively to books released by university presses because while such provenance moderately raises the odds the writing will be dense, turgid and humourless, there’s the assurance that the author is, at minimum, not a hack, and will probably be an expert who is familiar with the standard arguments in the field. It’s also the easiest way to ensure criteria 1, 3 and 5 are met. This is especially important with non-technical narrative non-fiction, like narrative history. I’d settle for a less polished style for the assurance that the sources are credible, the arguments have been adequately contested, and the historiography is up to date.

But for a broad introductory overview to a field, a sufficiently educated non-academic may be better equipped to produce engaging and accessible work. To someone who has little idea what academic philosophy even is, I’d probably recommend something by Julian Baggini before a popular work by a professor.


RSA 07.15.13 at 1:04 pm

Very interesting criteria. All but 4 and 6 strike a chord with me, based on what popular philosophy I’ve read. I’ve also written a popular science book, in the area of computer science, and they apply there as well. In case it’s helpful, here are a few other things I’ve thought about:

Broad representation. I had to separate my own interests from those of the field, making it clear to readers sometimes that I was expressing my own views about what’s important rather than what most other people think. This wasn’t disagreement about facts or theories, but rather emphasis. I think it’s good to give readers context, so that they don’t go away thinking that a tiny slice of a perspective on the field is all there is.

Generalization. Related to what I’ve written above, I also think it’s important that the explanations extend beyond the examples given in the book. You’re giving readers a way to think about new problems and solutions, not just a package of conceptual knickknacks to gather dust on a mental shelf. The other side, of course, is that the scope of the explanations should also be outlined, so that readers recognize where the explanations might break down.

I think I see the point of 4. When someone asks why you wrote a book, the best answer isn’t “To make money.” A better one, for me, is “Because the ideas are important and I think more people should know about them.”


Bloix 07.15.13 at 1:36 pm

May I suggest another? Perhaps “transparency” or “disclosure”? When the author is presenting a point of view or taking sides, s/he has an obligation to reveal that there are proponents of a competing view and to give the reader enough information to understand the basics of the debate. There’s no obligation to be even-handed but the existence of disagreements among reputable scholars should be made known.


Trader Joe 07.15.13 at 2:12 pm

As more of a consumer than author, the first two items are really conditions precedent for the work to even be a candidate for being deemed a “good” book

#1 Trust – necessary for me to even pick up the work or consider it
#2 Accessibility – necessary for me to get past the first chapter (or so)

If these don’t get met its like motzart on AM radio – no matter how great it is, no one hears it.

Once those are met – ultimately #3 Arguments – is the thing that will carry the day. Thoughtful arguments made in an accessible way will get the book recommended and recommended again which will increase its reach and increase the probability the work will be deemed both good and influential.

#4 – #5 – Perhaps its naive, but I would assume someone who wrote the book is in it for some sort of profit either monetary or status and that the publisher has at least generally established a lack of eggregious plagarism. Even if the work was thought to be “good” by an average reader, the taint of plagarism would likely prevent it ever being widely deemed as such by the reviewers and practitioners who establish such things.

#6 – “nobless oblige” As an average reader of such works I’m not likely to be able to detect if the work ‘did no harm’ unless someone explained to me after the fact how that was so. I can see how from a reviewers standpoint this is an appropriate criteria, but its not likely to influence a member of the general reading public until long after the fact (if at all).

The only thing I’d add is to realize that there is often a big gulf between what the “broad readership” thinks is good and what trained, knowledgeable, practitioners think is good. An understanding of who is bestowing the “good” label is in my mind key to this argument.

Maybe to draw an analogy – the marketplace says Pizza Hut pizza is ‘good.’ If your market is everyone in the world, it probably is. If your market is just Brooklyn, NY then maybe not so much. If it is chefs in Rome then its going to fall short. If a book is meant to appeal to the “chefs” to be deemed ‘good’ it will be an inherently different work than one which appeals to the masses.


medrawt 07.15.13 at 2:32 pm

When I’m looking at popular nonfiction, specifically in the territory of an academic field, #1 and #3 are the things I’m consciously thinking about. I think it’s difficult to assess #2 without grappling more directly with the identity of the presumed audience, and engaging the possibility that even in the so-called “popular” field maybe there are more than one possible audience. As someone who majored in philosophy as an undergraduate, I would need more handholding than a professional, but probably less than a reader like my father, who is intelligent and well-and-widely read, but never AFAIK took a class specifically on a philosophical topic. He might require still less handholding than a less widely read college graduate, or someone with a high-school level education.

#5 I don’t think about that much but agree is necessary and important. #4 … I think leading with “not for profit” is problematic. I don’t mind that someone wrote a book hoping it becomes whatever passes for best-sellerdom among those sorts of books. Indeed, I would generally assume that without a desire for profit playing a role the book would be less likely to exist. Perhaps #4 and #6 could be blended into a general consideration of the author’s motivations, the book’s intended effects, and the likely effects (intended or otherwise) of the book if it is successful. I take #6 to encompass possibilities like “this book offers moral justification for the continuing divergence of the economic and/or elite from the increasingly marginalized poor,” but if that were the case I would care more about THAT motivation than I would care about the author’s desire to reach a broad audience for the purpose of making $. (And indeed, in the case of certain types of book, demagoguery might be considered helpful in maximizing an audience; #4 and #6 might be hard to disentangle.)

I also cosign to Bloix’s suggestion that a good philosophical book should educate its reader on the subject under discussion such that the reader is then equipped to agree or disagree with the author’s actual argument.


Matt 07.15.13 at 2:55 pm

This might fit under either 2 or 3, but I think it deserves to be made a bit more explicit: clear examples. I’ve been, in bits of spare time, slowly reading a pretty good history of economics book, _The Ordinary Business of Life_, by Roger Backhouse. It’s pretty accessibly written, but sometimes I fear I’m not getting the point, and a good example or illustration of the idea would be very useful. Unfortunately, there are very few. As an alternative model, I’ll mention Jonathan Wolff’s excellent _Introduction to Political Philosophy_, which I think exemplifies the ideas above, and also makes use of some really good, clear examples or illustrations (I don’t mean drawings, but ways of illustrating a point.)


MattF 07.15.13 at 3:00 pm

I suspect that ‘accessibility’ is, maybe ironically, hard and complicated. As an example, a book needs, like it or not, to place itself somewhere in the genre spectrum. Does the book need a ‘self-help’ chapter? A ‘science’ chapter? A ‘modern-world-of-today’ chapter? Are people who disagree going to be soothed or turned away?


js. 07.15.13 at 3:12 pm

I am having some difficulty with #6. I suppose it would depend on the kind of (popular) book one were writing, but I am imagining a kind of broad overview of theories and problems in ethics say—some Aristotle, a bit on deontology, relativistic challenges, etc., etc.,—I am sure you can imagine it at least as well as me. I don’t think that undertaking the writing of such a book would or should require me to try and become any sort of moral exemplar in my life—at least no more than would be the case if I weren’t writing such a book or studying moral philosophy at all.

Also, I would endorse Bloix’s “transparency” criterion, and indeed take it a bit further. If I am a moral philosopher writing a popular overview of moral philosophy, I should not pretend to be a neutral observer of the debate. I think it would be best to make my intellectual allegiances clear while also of course presenting the strongest possible arguments for opposing views.


Anarcissie 07.15.13 at 3:21 pm

What is the book supposed to accomplish? I’m assuming instrumentality, not art for art’s sake. It seems to me an evaluation of its attributes would require an understanding of its purpose. It is not clear to me what this book is supposed to do for the reader of it.


js. 07.15.13 at 3:44 pm

What is the book supposed to accomplish?

I was supposing something like the following: there’s an audience out there who are not professional philosophers but who are interested in learning about philosophical theories, debates, etc. (Anecdotally, a friend of mine who’s a (public) librarian asked me not too long back for recommendations for popular philosophy titles because they would get requests for such regularly at the library. So, evidently, such an audience exists.) The point of the book then would be to familiarize the reader with the relevant range of philosophical positions/debates/controversies, while assuming that the reader is antecedently interested but lacks the background.

Happy to hear from/defer to IR on this, tho.


mud man 07.15.13 at 3:57 pm

“Trust” seems to me the catchall, and difficult for a lay reader to make a judgement about. “Being a Professor” doesn’t near get it. Mostly I look for recommendations … one important reason I follow CT. What Anarcissie said also, if I’m on board with what the book is intended to accomplish, I’m willing to struggle with Accessibility.

John @2, to the contrary I think not polluting a debate ought to be especially important in economics and other matters of public policy. (Also difficult for a lay reader to judge, so back to #1.) Really, all these criteria apply to any popular technical work beyond cookbooks.


Jed Harris 07.15.13 at 4:14 pm

This list seem to me to miss a very important criterion: Significance. I can easily imagine a book that aces all six criteria but is about some boring technical issues in metaphyics or one of the more arcane debates about the status of moral “facts”. A book like that could be of debatable value even to philosophy, no matter how well written. Conversely a book that strongly engages issues of great importance could be forgiven some less than awesome rankings on the other values.


RentedMule 07.15.13 at 4:26 pm

Following on Bloix’ comment on disclosure/transparency, I’d actually prefer that to 4 as initially proposed. My father wrote a number of non-fiction books and, while both he and his publisher hoped to make money from the books, it is difficult for me to see how the profit motive would be a significant enough issue to merit a “commandment” on its own. The virtue of the disclosure/transparency suggestion is that, by making it an explicit criteria, it *should* force the author to examine what s/he write for opinion or bias more closely. My suspicion (admittedly built on a small, internal sample of one) is that readers are OK with opinion and bias, especially if the author can be clear when a topic is more likely to have a significant subjective aspect.


Lee A. Arnold 07.15.13 at 5:22 pm

Ingrid, I think Anarcissie #16 and Jed Harris #19 touch something very important that is missing from the list. Two things, actually: What is the goal of the book, and, who is the target audience, within the realm of popular readers (age, comprehension level, other interests, etc.)? Academics writing technical literature already have goals + target audience prestated: the goal is a debate (of some sort) addressed in the abstract or first paragraph; the target audience of course is their peers.

Is the goal of the pop philosophy book: 1. a survey of philosophy, 2. a focus on a field or a change in the field, 3. explication of a new idea of the author’s, 4. a personal journey in the style of Montaigne, 5. a combination with self-help, etc. etc.? (“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” is a combination of most of these, and it is still in print.)

Goal question: Why does anyone write on philosophy, for another person?

Target audience for pop nonfiction is very different than academics. Why do people read such books? The list of answers, while not large, is various: Out of curiosity, to find something different. Need for comfort, to find something familiar. Want to improve themselves, to be smarter in conversation. Out of concern or alarm for the world. Recommended by a friend or authority. In an aesthetic search or spiritual quest. For the “shopping experience”: a search, a reward. –Is the book conscious of any of this?

One way into this, perhaps the best way, is to write the book while imagining that you are sitting with a young niece or nephew, and talking to them about the topic. WRITE DOWN what you imagine saying to them: are they (in your imagination) understanding what you say; does it hit them right between the eyes? –To assess a particular book as a pop book, did the author do that?


William Berry 07.15.13 at 5:54 pm

Jed Harris @19: Significance, exactly.

I thought of Mortimer Adler explaining that Aristotle and Aquinas are the only important philosophers who ever lived.

Popular and accessible? yeah, sort of. Significant? Hardly.


js. 07.15.13 at 5:59 pm

This list seem to me to miss a very important criterion: Significance. I can easily imagine a book that aces all six criteria but is about some boring technical issues in metaphyics or one of the more arcane debates about the status of moral “facts”.

I don’t know about this. Leaving aside the fact that I think debates about the objectivity of values and related topics are both interesting and important, I think it is difficult at best to decide in advance what is or is not a “boring technical issue”. For example, the ontological status of universals, or the moderns’ arguments about the category of substance are arcane by most measures, but in the hands of a good writer who cares about the subject, they could very well be anything but boring, at least for someone who for whatever reason finds themselves interested in the topic. And I don’t at all think that it should automatically be a count against a book on some such topic that it is less “important” than one on distributive justice, say.


phosphorious 07.15.13 at 7:07 pm

I suppose that this might be subsumed under one of the other qualities (#2 perhaps?) but what should we say about originality? Is it appropriate for a work of popular philosophy to break new ground? One of the annoying things about Ayn Rand (foo example) is that she presents herself as a radical break from all philosophical tradition who effortlessly points out the foolish errors of everyone else. This is of course untrue, and any claim of originality in a work of popular philosophy has always raised a red flag for me as a result. Philosophical ideas need to be vetted just like scientific ones.

On the other hand, as Tony Lynch points out above at #5, Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy is a model of the genre, and gives the standard version of his theory of descriptions which was original and still new at the time.

This might, as I say, reduce to #2, since the most cutting edge work is unlikely to be accessible and so originality would be excluded on those grounds, or it might involve #1, since we need to trust the author to say whether the original work is any good. (I’m reminded of Bart Kosko’s “Fuzzy Logic”, which I got from the BOTMC and read as an undergraduate. It made some rather bold claims about the revolutionary power of multi-valent logic, claims which have not really held up. Plus, Buddhism.)

So, originality in popular philosophy: good, bad, indifferent?


Akshay 07.15.13 at 7:51 pm

As a reader of popular non-fiction books, I would go with:

1) Does the book convey a sense of enthusiasm about its subject and wonder? Do you feel in awe about the billions and billions of stars, or the diversity of life, does the book make you feel you want to learn more about the subject? The best in science writing does this. For philosophy, do the historical figures come to life, do their ideas speak to you, feel relevant and important, or interesting or fun or wondrous?

2) Are difficult concepts explained with clarity and simplicity, without making it too simple? Gold Standard: Einstein for Beginners by Swartz and McGuinness, a comic book version of special relativity which even mathematically derives the equations for time dilation and length contraction.

3) For philosophy: does the author give you the feeling he understands your point of view better than you do yourself, even though he disagrees with you? Charles Taylor did that to me. But even for authors with less philosophical empathy than Taylor, is the point of view presented in such a convincing manner that you feel forced to change your outlook? For instance, Peter Singer seems to have convinced many people that animal suffering is important.

By contrast to the above, several of Ingrid’s criteria seem rather minimal ethical standards, like “trust”, “non-harming” and “non-plagiarism”. Obviously a book written by a dishonest propagandizing blowhard is not going to be worth reading. I am guessing that she did not like the book about to be reviewed, but quite rightly wants to be as precise and moderate as possible ;-) (On the other hand, why waste time and a good mood on a bad book, unless it is particularly influential?)

On the last point I thought bit about whether to list common failings of popular books, but Matt Taibi’s famous review of The World is Flat pretty much sums them all up, so I can be short: the more you are like Thomas Friedman, the worse your book.


sean matthews 07.15.13 at 8:06 pm

The list here makes no connection with me whatsoever. In fact to be blunt it reads like self-obsessive distraction, since it is entirely focussed on your authentic purity of heart, etc. Not on whether the book is, you know, competently written.

A trade book has to be well enough written so that people who have no professional reason to read it will do so. If it does not achieve that, then sincerity, purity of heart, authenticity, etc. are irrelevant. Plagarism may get you in trouble with your colleagues but I don’t see why it should end up on a list of criteria for a good philosophy book in particular. As for not writing for money: as Samuel Johnson, or even David Hume, might have said, ‘gimme a break’.

Best modern example – far and away – of a popular philosophy book that I know of is Simon Blackburn’s Think. Best less modern is any decent collection of Bertrand Russell’s essays.


phosphorious 07.15.13 at 8:20 pm

“Best modern example – far and away – of a popular philosophy book that I know of is Simon Blackburn’s Think. Best less modern is any decent collection of Bertrand Russell’s essays.”

And don’t both of these books have at least a few of Robeyn’s qualities? Are they completely devoid of arguments (#3)? Are they inaccessible (#2)? Were they sloppy with their sources (#5)? Did Russel, at any rate, not attempt to live a public life that lived up to his published philosophy (#6)?

C,mon. . . I bet if you tried you could make some connection to this list. . .


RichieRich 07.15.13 at 8:24 pm

I think Thomas Nagel’s What does it all mean? is a superb popular philosophy book.


trane 07.15.13 at 9:29 pm

BREVITY is generally a characteristic of a good introductory text.

As some other commenters above, I don’t think #4 holds. A recent example that comes to mind is Robert Paul Wolff whose writing (as I recall from his autobioghraphy) of both ‘In Defense of Anarchism’ and ‘About Philosophy’ was helped along by his making money from them. See also here: http://robertpaulwolff.blogspot.dk/2013/07/a-meditation-on-being-writer.html

I am with Matt (at #13) re: Jonathan Wolff’s Introduction to Political Philosophy. That is really good for a non-philosopher like me. [I actually think I bought the book on Matt’s recommendation here on CT some years ago; so thank you Matt for that :-) ] I much enjoyed that book, and am currently reading Wolff’s ‘Ethics and Public Policy: A philosophical inquiry’, which is just brilliant.


John Quiggin 07.15.13 at 10:16 pm

“Fuzzy logic” is a cute name for a useful but not earth-shattering idea. It’s of personal interest to me, since it turns out to be equivalent, under some weak, conditions, to rank-dependent probability weighting, which is my main contribution to decision theory – comparing the names, you can see that I really need a better PR agent.

There are plenty of other examples, like chaos and catastrophe theory.


David Margolies 07.15.13 at 10:40 pm

As to 6, several months ago I bought ‘Making of a Philosopher’ by Colin McGinn, and read several chapters, with every intention of finishing it presently. But now I have lost my taste for it.


Matt 07.15.13 at 10:56 pm

[I actually think I bought the book on Matt’s recommendation here on CT some years ago; so thank you Matt for that :-) ]

My pleasure, though I should note that I read the book on the advice of Jon Mandle, back in the pre-crooked timber days. (I had already read Wolff’s great book on Robert Nozick, was was disposed to like the book.)

His current situation aside, McGinn’s book seems like a good example of what _not_ to do in many ways. I read it pretty casually (mostly while sitting in a book store, I think) but it struck me that, 1) the philosophy was likely too dry and sometimes too technical for non-philosophers, but too dull and unoriginal for philosophers, and 2) the gossip parts of it were dull even if you already knew who Michael Dummett and Christopher Peacock were, but would be completely uninteresting if you didn’t know who they were. So, no matter what the audience, it seemed to me to be a pretty poorly done book.


Bruce Wilder 07.16.13 at 1:02 am



Tom Hurka 07.16.13 at 2:18 am

I think a successful popular book, in philosophy or any field, should have a point of view, i.e. a side of the debate that it’s defending. Some of the comments above imagine a survey-type book — “Some people say x about e.g. moral facts, some people say y, and some people say z” — but while that may be OK in some academic writing it’s deadly in more popular writing. Twenty-odd years ago I wrote a sort-of philosophy column for a newspaper and that’s what my editor was always telling me: forget the damn even-handedness, readers want to know what YOU think.

About #4: I don’t think Ingrid was against writing for money as such, she was against letting the desire for money compromise the quality of your writing. And we have to remember that writing a trade book, like most things we do, is done for multiple motives, e.g. to earn some money/fame AND to communicate some ideas you care about. But in a trade book, success, both financially and in terms of communicating, depends on a wide readership, which depends in turn on accessibility, liveliness, etc. So the “quality” Ingrid is interested in has to be understood to include those, and will usually involve some argumentative shortcuts and simplifications, i.e. some sacrifices of “quality” in a more narrowly academic sense.


Odm 07.16.13 at 2:20 am

In point 5, I think “sinn” should be “sin.” (Maybe you confused it with the German word for sense?)


Felix Sadeli 07.16.13 at 3:15 am

I enjoy Baggini and Blackburn, but if the aim is to woo general readers into getting interested in philosophy in the first place (as opposed to those who somewhat have already liked philosophy and want to know more), then some sort of poetic license that would take care to make sure that the word “boring” will never cross their minds as they are reading the book ought to be a high priority. My ideal example would be Will Durant’s “The Story of Philosophy”; philosophy is an epic tale with philosophers as heroes, sometimes triumphant but often tragic. Once the readers get hooked they will look for more and eventually come across the dry facts, the technical terms, and the all-too-human lovers of wisdom. Of course, by then it will be too late for them, once you fall for philosophy there is no turning back.


js. 07.16.13 at 4:49 am

I’m not sure if it quite qualifies as a “pop philosophy” book, but I think Bernard Williams’ Morality: An Introduction to Ethics is quite excellent. Others may of course disagree, but if nothing else it quite agrees with Tom Hurka’s point about having a definite point of view. It would also I think fulfill most if not all of IR’s criteria.


Tony Lynch 07.16.13 at 8:57 am

Yes – how did I forget? – William’s book is brilliant. He was brilliant, and he never condescended. Never condescending is crucial.


LFC 07.16.13 at 12:58 pm

Along autobiographical lines, Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philosopher, which I vaguely remember dipping into some years ago, might be a better choice than McGinn — though I don’t remember the Magee book v. well and I had mixed feelings about the (necessarily) self-involved tone, as I recall.


adam.smith 07.16.13 at 4:51 pm

Somewhere between “accessibility” and “significance” I’d like to see “fun” as a criterium.
Obviously de gustibus and all that, but if you look at the popular non-fiction books on the right of this blog, that’s undoubtedly the area where Freakonomics beats out all others. Writing in a way that doesn’t just allow your lay readers to follow along (i.e. accessibility), but actually makes them want to finish the book and talk about it with others is a key feature of a good non-fiction book. Ideally, you want people to read this in their spare time, for fun.
As the Freakonomics example (and especially Freakonomics II) shows, that doesn’t obviously remove other criteria, especially 1) Trust, but I’d consider it a necessary condition for a great non-fiction book of any kind.

Staying with Freakonomic (and inspired by John DiNardo’s critiques of it which are very worthwhile reading) the other thing I’d add is an intent to teach rather than an intent to show off. Freakonomics – partly because it started out as Dubner swooning over Levitt – is often more about showing off sparkly stuff than about teaching the reader something. A great non-fiction book is interested in actually advancing the readers’ knowledge. I just finished Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and he goes to great length to make the book educational for the reader.


Shatterface 07.16.13 at 5:22 pm

An index.


sean matthews 07.16.13 at 6:17 pm

Never condescending is the best suggestion so far on this list. And of course Williams is good – Williams was also the person I first thought of as an example, but I crossed him off again because he never wrote a ‘popular’ book.

Actually I am slightly startled to realise that many of the best books that I would list fall vaguely into the category of undergraduate textbooks, or at least books you might find on an undergraduate reading list (most of the worst ones too, but that is a separate issue).


Aristotle 07.16.13 at 7:52 pm

“The popular book should not merely be based on rhetoric.”

I assume you are using the term “rhetoric” in the popular and pejorative sense (the way “philosopher” is sometimes) but remember there are lots of rhetoricians out there who wince when reason and rigorous argument are opposed to rhetoric. And it hurts their feelings


Ingrid Robeyns 07.16.13 at 8:42 pm

sorry for only now returning to this discussion – I’m done with grading our “resit-exams” and will first need a good night’s sleep before processing all your suggestions and comments fully.

Reading the comments made me wonder whether the category ‘popular philosophy books’ may entail different types of books — I was in fact not thinking of something like Jo Wolff’s Intro to political Philosophy – which I would put in the category of (intro) textbooks, but more something like Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom or, more recently, Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy — which, I now confess, was the book that prompted me thinking about quality criteria for popular philosophy books.

So I was taking the ‘significance’ for granted – I think I am assuming that if someone writes a book, there must at least be some people who find the theme or topic of the book interesting. Yet there will inevitably be often lots of dispute on which books are significant and which aren’t — I don’t think I’m willing to conclude that if a book is not seen as significant or interesting by the vast majority of people, that it cannot be a good book (it may simply be on a topic in which only very few people are interested).

Tom Hurka’s point (#34) about the even-handedness (which relates to points made higher up in the thread): I would argue that there should be room for both books that are even-handed and for books that argue for a particular claim. But for both categories I would defend the view that as an academic writing a popular book, one should not willfully distort the empirical evidence and mistakes in reasoning (and the consequences for the plausibility of certain views) to make one’s case seem more plausible. I think that is especially bad (perhaps even immoral?) given that the audience is not always in the same privileged position as fellow academics to check these claims. The lay readers trust the author, whereas among academics our task is not to trust each other, but to challenge and critique each other. That’s a different relationship, and makes it even more imperative not to try to cheat on the reader if you write a popular book.

odm (#35) – thanks for the reminder — I try to filter out all errors, but English is my third language, which means inevitable mistakes (and badly formulated sentences) will creep in (hopefully not too often!). I hope that our non-native commenters will feel a bit more welcome if I let my mistakes stay there visibly :-)


rea 07.16.13 at 9:18 pm

if you don’t cite a source for a specific idea or argument, you are signaling that this is your original idea.

Or that the idea has become such a basic part of the scholar’s toolbox that citation is not necessary. I can talk gravity without referencing Newton, or evolution without referencing Darwin.


David Owen 07.16.13 at 9:33 pm

While there can surely be lots of types of good popular philosophy book, I think the author’s job is continuous with that of art critics, theatre critics, book reviewers,etc. namely to represent something perspicuously so that the reader is better able to reflect on it for themselves. So my simple criterion for judgement would be the quality of making an issue/topic/debate/phenomenon perspicuous in a way that it wasn’t before. At thend the end of the book, if the reader can make their own experience of X or view of Y more intelligible to themselves, then that is a good book for me.


Hangler 07.16.13 at 10:07 pm

Deryck Beyleveld, The Dialectical Necessity of Morality.
No, I’m kidding.
Blackburn, definitely. And (whatever else you might think of him) Dawkins is a master of popular exposition of science.


Lee A. Arnold 07.16.13 at 10:15 pm

Ingrid #44: “I don’t think I’m willing to conclude that if a book is not seen as significant or interesting by the vast majority of people, that it cannot be a good book”

Now I understand. You are using the word “popular” in the title of your post to mean “general interest”, rather than “read by a large number of the population”.


millicent friendly 07.16.13 at 10:58 pm

One of the nice things about philosophy is that, compared to the sciences, very little trust or authority is involved. Maybe a big-picture history of philosophy could be distorting and misleading in ways the unwary couldn’t detect, but with Nagel or Blackburn or Williams, the arguments are there on the page and you can evaluate them for yourself.

I think Anthony Appiah’s non-specialist stuff is very good.


Ingrid Robeyns 07.17.13 at 6:30 am

Lee #48: yes – sorry for the confusion! Perhaps I should have used the word ‘public philosophy’ rather than ‘popular philosophy’?

millicent friendly # 49: perhaps I am too pessimistic, but I don’t think it’s that easy. I see quite a number of people reading public/popular philosophy books who lack the basic training to judge/evaluate philosophical arguments for themselves. They are much more vulnerable to be carried away by the force of emotional appeal and catchy arguments than the reader who is trained in evaluating arguments/being a critical reader.


Tony Lynch 07.17.13 at 12:35 pm

Is your suggestion that this holds for Williams, Nagel and Blackburn? That, I think, is simply false of their writings, and arguably condescending to their readers.


Tony Lynch 07.17.13 at 12:41 pm

Drop the “arguably”.


ingrid robeyns 07.17.13 at 5:23 pm

Tony #51: no, that is not my suggestion. But your comment makes me realise that the work of Williams, Nagel and Blackburn would not count as what, in this country at least, is counted under ‘public philosophy’. I also don’t think Nagel, Williams or Blackburn (whether in English or – if that were to exist – in Dutch translation) would be read by the very large number of people who do read, for example, the Dutch translation of Sandel’s latest book. So my hypothesis is this: the Dutch version of ‘public philosophy’ is aiming at a much broader audience than ‘public philosophy’ in the UK or the US version of ‘public philosophy’, and therefore has to be more accessible, and will be read by more people who have no training at all in critical reading.


Wonks Anonymous 07.17.13 at 9:39 pm

Is that a jargon spelling like “iff” for if-and-only-if?


Tony Lynch 07.18.13 at 1:17 pm

I was grumpy. I am sorry. Sandel is a worry, as he was from the start with his rhetorical posing on Rawls


Gene O'Grady 07.18.13 at 5:37 pm

Not really germane, but since philosophy and popular are joined in this discussion, I would like to report that the Finley Wildlife Refuge south of Corvallis has a summer intern who has brought along her dog Zizek to accompany her this summer. Yes, named after that Zizek. May require a whole new definition of popular?

If the Williams in question is Bernard Williams, wouldn’t his Sather Lectures published as (I believe) Shame and Necessity sort of count as a popular book? Maybe I think so because I read it with considerable interest and have failed to penetrate his more directly philosophical material.


sean matthews 07.20.13 at 7:43 pm


I see an essential problem here in that you seem to be concerned here with books for an audience that, more or less by your explicit definition, is not qualified to assess the quality of what they are reading. They may read Michael Sandel one day and find it interesting, but they will read Paulo Coelho the next and find it equally so.

People like this are not paying any attention to what people like you are saying (and even if they were, they are not competent to assess the quality of your opinion).

In fact it seems to me that you are reduced to a situation that looks very like that of a junior official in the curia in the early 1960’s, drafting a report to the sacred congregation of the index.

I assume that this is not the situation in which you see yourself. So I am wondering: what is the purpose?


ingrid robeyns 07.20.13 at 9:25 pm

Sean Matthews @57: I don’t share your analysis. I think the people reading ‘public philosophy’ are a homogenous group. Yet *some* of them may be mislead by the style/rhetoric of *some* public philosophy books into believing it is good philosophy, whereas there are good arguments why it is not. By having a conversation on what makes good public philosophy (what I attempted in this post), they may re-evaluate the book they read. That’s all. I can’t speak for all countries, but in some countries at least, we’re not having that conversation, or not having it in enough detail.

Comments on this entry are closed.