The Best Textbooks on Every Subject

For years, my self-ed­u­ca­tion was stupid and waste­ful. I learned by con­sum­ing blog posts, Wikipe­dia ar­ti­cles, clas­sic texts, pod­cast epi­sodes, pop­u­lar books, video lec­tures, peer-re­viewed pa­pers, Teach­ing Com­pany courses, and Cliff’s Notes. How in­effi­cient!

I’ve since dis­cov­ered that text­books are usu­ally the quick­est and best way to learn new ma­te­rial. That’s what they are de­signed to be, af­ter all. Less Wrong has of­ten recom­mended the “read text­books!” method. Make progress by ac­cu­mu­la­tion, not ran­dom walks.

But text­books vary widely in qual­ity. I was forced to read some awful text­books in col­lege. The ones on Amer­i­can his­tory and so­ciol­ogy were mem­o­rably bad, in my case. Other text­books are ex­cit­ing, ac­cu­rate, fair, well-paced, and im­me­di­ately use­ful.

What if we could com­pile a list of the best text­books on ev­ery sub­ject? That would be ex­tremely use­ful.

Let’s do it.

There have been other pages of recom­mended read­ing on Less Wrong be­fore (and el­se­where), but this post is unique. Here are the rules:

  1. Post the ti­tle of your fa­vorite text­book on a given sub­ject.

  2. You must have read at least two other text­books on that same sub­ject.

  3. You must briefly name the other books you’ve read on the sub­ject and ex­plain why you think your cho­sen text­book is su­pe­rior to them.

Rules #2 and #3 are to pro­tect against recom­mend­ing a bad book that only seems im­pres­sive be­cause it’s the only book you’ve read on the sub­ject. Once, a pop­u­lar au­thor on Less Wrong recom­mended Ber­trand Rus­sell’s A His­tory of Western Philos­o­phy to me, but when I noted that it was more polem­i­cal and in­ac­cu­rate than the other ma­jor his­to­ries of philos­o­phy, he ad­mit­ted he hadn’t re­ally done much other read­ing in the field, and only liked the book be­cause it was ex­cit­ing.

I’ll start the list with three of my own recom­men­da­tions...

Sub­ject: His­tory of Western Philosophy

Recom­men­da­tion: The Great Con­ver­sa­tion, 6th edi­tion, by Nor­man Melchert

Rea­son: The most pop­u­lar his­tory of west­ern philos­o­phy is Ber­trand Rus­sell’s A His­tory of Western Philos­o­phy, which is ex­cit­ing but also polem­i­cal and in­ac­cu­rate. More ac­cu­rate but dry and dull is Fred­er­ick Copel­ston’s 11-vol­ume A His­tory of Philos­o­phy. An­thony Kenny’s re­cent 4-vol­ume his­tory, col­lected into one book as A New His­tory of Western Philos­o­phy, is both ex­cit­ing and ac­cu­rate, but per­haps too long (1000 pages) and tech­ni­cal for a first read on the his­tory of philos­o­phy. Melchert’s text­book, The Great Con­ver­sa­tion, is ac­cu­rate but also the eas­iest to read, and has the clear­est ex­pla­na­tions of the im­por­tant po­si­tions and de­bates, though of course it has its weak­nesses (it spends too many pages on an­cient Greek mythol­ogy but barely men­tions Got­t­lob Frege, the father of an­a­lytic philos­o­phy and of the philos­o­phy of lan­guage). Melchert’s his­tory is also the only one to se­ri­ously cover the dom­i­nant mode of An­glo­phone philos­o­phy done to­day: nat­u­ral­ism (what Melchert calls “phys­i­cal re­al­ism”). Be sure to get the 6th edi­tion, which has ma­jor im­prove­ments over the 5th edi­tion.

Sub­ject: Cog­ni­tive Science

Recom­men­da­tion: Cog­ni­tive Science, by Jose Luis Bermudez

Rea­son: Jose Luis Ber­mudez’s Cog­ni­tive Science: An In­tro­duc­tion to the Science of Mind does an ex­cel­lent job set­ting the his­tor­i­cal and con­cep­tual con­text for cog­ni­tive sci­ence, and draws fairly from all the fields in­volved in this heav­ily in­ter­dis­ci­plinary sci­ence. Ber­mudez does a good job of mak­ing him­self in­visi­ble, and the ex­pla­na­tions here are some of the clear­est available. In con­trast, Paul Tha­gard’s Mind: In­tro­duc­tion to Cog­ni­tive Science skips the con­text and jumps right into a sys­tem­atic com­par­i­son (by ex­plana­tory merit) of the lead­ing the­o­ries of men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion: logic, rules, con­cepts, analo­gies, images, and neu­ral net­works. The book is only 270 pages long, and is also more idiosyn­cratic than Ber­mudez’s; for ex­am­ple, Tha­gard refers to the dom­i­nant paradigm in cog­ni­tive sci­ence as the “com­pu­ta­tional-rep­re­sen­ta­tional un­der­stand­ing of mind,” which as far as I can tell is used only by him and peo­ple draw­ing from his book. In truth, the term refers to a set of com­pet­ing the­o­ries, for ex­am­ple the com­pu­ta­tional the­ory and the rep­re­sen­ta­tional the­ory. While not the best place to start, Tha­gard’s book is a de­cent fol­low-up to Ber­mudez’s text. Bet­ter, though, is Ko­lak et. al.’s Cog­ni­tive Science: An In­tro­duc­tion to Mind and Brain. It con­tains more in­for­ma­tion than Ber­mudez’s book, but I pre­fer Ber­mudez’s flow, or­ga­ni­za­tion and con­tent se­lec­tion. Really, though, both Ber­mudez and Ko­lak offer ex­cel­lent in­tro­duc­tions to the field, and Tha­gard offers a more sys­tem­atic and nar­row in­ves­ti­ga­tion that is worth read­ing af­ter Ber­mudez and Ko­lak.

Sub­ject: In­tro­duc­tory Logic for Philosophy

Recom­men­da­tion: Mean­ing and Ar­gu­ment by Ernest Lepore

Rea­son: For years, the stan­dard text­book on logic was Copi’s In­tro­duc­tion to Logic, a com­pre­hen­sive text­book that has chap­ters on lan­guage, defi­ni­tions, fal­la­cies, de­duc­tion, in­duc­tion, syl­l­o­gis­tic logic, sym­bolic logic, in­fer­ence, and prob­a­bil­ity. It spends too much time on meth­ods that are rarely used to­day, for ex­am­ple Mill’s meth­ods of in­duc­tive in­fer­ence. Amaz­ingly, the chap­ter on prob­a­bil­ity does not men­tion Bayes (as of the 11th edi­tion, any­way). Bet­ter is the cur­rent stan­dard in class­rooms: Pa­trick Hurley’s A Con­cise In­tro­duc­tion to Logic. It has a table at the front of the book that tells you which sec­tions to read de­pend­ing on whether you want (1) a tra­di­tional logic course, (2) a crit­i­cal rea­son­ing course, or (3) a course on mod­ern for­mal logic. The sin­gle chap­ter on in­duc­tion and prob­a­bil­ity moves too quickly, but is ex­cel­lent for its length. Peter Smith’s An In­tro­duc­tion to For­mal Logic in­stead fo­cuses tightly on the usual meth­ods used by to­day’s philoso­phers: propo­si­tional logic and pred­i­cate logic. My fa­vorite in this less com­pre­hen­sive mode, how­ever, is Ernest Le­pore’s Mean­ing and Ar­gu­ment, be­cause it (a) is highly effi­cient, and (b) fo­cuses not so much on the ma­nipu­la­tion of sym­bols in a for­mal sys­tem but on the ar­guably trick­ier mat­ter of trans­lat­ing English sen­tences into sym­bols in a for­mal sys­tem in the first place.

I would love to read recom­men­da­tions from ex­pe­rienced read­ers on the fol­low­ing sub­jects: physics, chem­istry, biol­ogy, psy­chol­ogy, so­ciol­ogy, prob­a­bil­ity the­ory, eco­nomics, statis­tics, calcu­lus, de­ci­sion the­ory, cog­ni­tive bi­ases, ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence, neu­ro­science, molec­u­lar bio­chem­istry, medicine, episte­mol­ogy, philos­o­phy of sci­ence, meta-ethics, and much more.

Please, post your own recom­men­da­tions! And, fol­low the rules.

Recom­men­da­tions so far (that fol­low the rules; this list up­dated 02-25-2017):

If there are no recom­men­da­tions for the sub­ject you want to learn, you can start by check­ing the Alibris text­books cat­e­gory for your sub­ject, and sort by ‘Top-sel­l­ing.’ But you’ll have to do more re­search than that. Check which text­books are asked for in the syl­labi of classes on your sub­ject at lead­ing uni­ver­si­ties. Search Google for recom­men­da­tions and re­views.