The best books of 2012

With 2012 safely behind us, we ask TPM’s reviewers to select a favourite book published last year (give or take a few months), taking into account our commitment to the twin virtues of philosophical rigour and readability. As a slightly late stocking stuffer, we offer you this rich, juicy and still mildly festive list of philosophy books which are both illuminating and enjoyable.

Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, MIT Press.
Most philosophers are bright and well read. A handful has genuine insight. Very few are able to look at an ancient religious tradition and be both scathing about its supernatural excesses and sympathetic to its real wisdom. Hardly any can write clearly, rigorously and with vim and humour. A minority say things of importance to people outside the profession. Take these groups and arrange them in a Venn diagram. Owen Flanagan sits in the very lonely space where they all overlap. – Julian Baggini, founding editor of tpm

Sally Haslanger, Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique, Oxford University Press.
Haslanger’s volume brings together her influential essays on social reality. Her extremely insightful analysis of social reality (in particular social construction and race and gender) draws on, and is situated within, work in metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of language as well as moral and political philosophy. This book shows how abstract philosophical theorising can help us understand better the world we live in. Resisting Reality is engaged philosophy at its best. – Ásta Kristjana Sveinsdóttir, associate professor of philosophy, San Francisco State University

Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, Liveright.
This book is written mostly as a series of interviews with philosophers, physicists, and theologians, with lots of scene-setting information about Holt’s travels and thoughts between interviews. The story is personal as well as philosophical, especially at the end when he addresses questions of love and death as well as the big metaphysical question that drives the book. Constantly returning to the same issue could seem repetitive, but on the whole Holt avoids this trap, and I can’t imagine a more accessible and likeable introduction to the question of why there is something rather than nothing. – Duncan Richter, professor of philosophy at Virginia Military Institute

Shelley Kagan, Death, Yale University Press.
One of my recent favourites, this book is based on Kagan’s Open Yale Course on the same subject. The book covers a vast range of questions about death, both metaphysical and ethical. How should death best be understood? Should death be feared? Is immortality something to be valued? Would suicide ever be rational? In each case, Kagan’s discussion is both clear and careful, and the book’s conversational style makes it surprisingly easy for readers to plunge into such a heavy topic. – Amy Kind, professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College

Jesse Prinz, Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind. W W Norton.
It is over a decade since the Decade of the Brain. The explosion in research over the last twenty-two years may encourage the idea that our physical make-up provides our destiny, unless clever scientists can change it. Prinz’s elegant and far-reaching book brings society back into the picture Though many of its specific conclusions will be familiar to Prinz’s regular readers, the whole picture is an important and refreshing repositioning of community in our understanding of the mind. Prinz’s knowledge of related sciences should be a model for the field. – Anne Jacobson, professor of philosophy at the University of Houston

Alan Ryan, The Making of Modern Liberalism. Princeton University Press.
This collection gathers papers published over four decades, providing a wide-ranging and challenging exploration of the philosophical underpinnings of liberalism. The essays use historical thinkers to illuminate urgent contemporary problems and themes, and Ryan’s investigations of the concept of freedom and of the nature of property rights are fascinating and invigorating. The publication of this book, and of his massive two-volume On Politics (Penguin, 2012) make it evident, indeed undeniable, that Alan Ryan is not only among the most significant political philosophers working today, he is also one of the most exciting. – Troy Jollimore is professor of philosophy at California State University (Chico)

Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Penguin.
Sandel’s ability to write in a clear, colloquial, and unpretentious way is impressive. (I am envious.) His target is “market triumphalism”, or “the faith that markets are the primary means for achieving the public good”. He is profoundly sceptical of this particular fundamentalism, as we all have reason to be, thanks to the present economic crisis. Sandel’s piecemeal critique is elegant and incisive. It is timely, and I also like the way Sandel makes his case without lapsing into quasi-Marxian jargon. Expressions such as “surplus value” and “exploitation of the proletariat” never appear in the text. – Alan Haworth, Human Rights and Social Justice Research Institute, London Metropolitan University

Helen Steward, A Metaphysics for Freedom, Oxford University Press.
Steward introduces a novel position in the free-will debate – agency-incompatibilism. In the free will literature, compatibilists and incompatibilists (i.e., those who take free agency to be compatible with determinism and those who do not) have assumed that it would be possible for there to be agents in a deterministic world and focused their debate on whether agents in such a world would act freely. Steward thinks that this is a mistake. Agency itself, she argues, is incompatible with determinism. Not only has Steward introduced a novel view into a debate that stretches back thousands of years (no mean feat), she has made a compelling case for this view. Moreover, she argues persuasively that human and non-human animals are agents, creatures capable of settling for themselves what they shall do. Anyone interested in mind and agency must read this book. – Clayton Littlejohn, lecturer in philosophy at King’s College, London

Bruce N Waller, Against Moral Responsibility, MIT Press.
Waller challenges a dogma of contemporary philosophy – the near consensus that we possess free will just insofar as we possess the capacity to act with moral responsibility. Waller takes an unusual position in arguing that we possess a form of compatibilist free will, while at the same time denying that we are ever morally responsible for our actions. Whether or not the argument is ultimately persuasive, the author develops it with much detail, care, and attention to empirical data. – Russell Blackford, author of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, Wiley-Blackwell

Jonathan Wolff, Ethics and Public Policy: A Philosophical Inquiry, Routledge.
This is a first-class examination of where philosophy meets public policy by one of the leading political philosophers today. Wolff illuminates the enormous potential for philosophical engagement with social and political issues in an accessible and even inspiring account. – Thom Brooks, reader in law & affiliate member of philosophy department, Durham University

  1. What no reference to Stephen T. Asma’s Against Fairness (Chicago, 2012). Could it be that it’s because it’s one of the worst books ever to have been penned by an official “philosopher”? See:

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