Do you sometimes worry about the large-scale destruction of tropical forests, about failing states around the world, or the neo-colonial attitude of rich countries in responding to migration from many poor African countries? These summer reads ask why traditional Western thought fails to provide answers to these problems and shows how philosophers have begun to change that.

1. Derrida: A Biography by Benoît Peeters
The much debated Algerian-French philosopher comes to life in Peeters’ landmark work. There was little on which Derrida did not have an informed view and he wrote on subjects as diverse as the death penalty, postcards, and Karl Marx. He sparked debates on issues of our times: the relationship between religion and politics and the position in society of undocumented migrants. Derrida is best known for his concept of “deconstruction”–the idea of taking apart any system of knowledge that claims universal truth or validity and showing its commitments to specific places, ideas, and people. In writing on ‘White Mythology,’ he inspires critical reflection on Euro-American supremacy and its roots in Enlightenment philosophy. This biography recounts Derrida’s struggles to gain recognition in the French academic establishment, his success in the United States, his brief imprisonment in Prague during the Cold War, as well as his secure family life and his illegitimate son. Peeters adeptly blends these stories with a deep understanding of Derrida’s works.

2. An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns by Bruno Latour
From Parmenides to Heidegger, the ‘great’ philosophers spent centuries addressing the question of “being.” In the twentieth century, however, the subject fell out of favor. Now Latour has given the issue a twist. Using the eyes of an imaginary anthropologist, he asks what counts as “being” for this tribe to which we belong: the moderns. He distinguishes fifteen modes of existence–including technology, fiction, and organization–and explains how these intersect to create the stable environments in which moderns live. This daring, humorous, and intelligent approach makes issues like climate change or global disease control understandable in a more profound way. A must read.

3. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human by Eduardo Kohn
Cultural anthropologist Kohn wants you to think differently about thinking, and he challenges the Western idea that it’s something only human beings do. In the Amazon, for example, the locals provide him with the practical advice to sleep face up when staying in the woods overnight. Seeing your face, rather than your back, a jaguar will not attack you, for it then ‘knows’ you are a ‘someone’ rather than a ‘something’. Like us, the jaguar makes a distinction between ‘things’ which can be eaten, and ‘individuals’ which can not. Telling stories about monkeys’ ‘understanding’ signs of danger and dogs ‘mistaking’ a puma for a deer, Kohn does away with the still common idea that only humans use signs, or think. He even suggests that plants live in a world already filled with meaning. Taking indigenous worldviews seriously, the objectivation and exploitation of nature become the deviant point of view. Do Forests Think? asks readers to leave the isolated worldview of Western modernity and discover a more caring relationship to our non-human surroundings.

4. The Politics of History in Contemporary Africa by Michael Onyebuchi Eze
Eze calls on Africans to rethink their history in its own right. He urges us to reject the traditional European views that romanticize the continent as wild or that exploit it for profit. Covering a wide range of literature from both European and African thinkers, Eze moves easily between the early nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Hegel and Cheich Anta Diop, arguably the most important West African scientist and writer of the twentieth century. He digs into the horrors of slavery and colonialism and offers a vision of an African renaissance. But the legacy of resource exploitation (think rubber, gold, and diamonds) and oppressive cult dictatorships still plagues African politics. Eze suggests that restoring governmental legitimacy to so many African states requires both political and economic democracy. The Politics of History will appeal to readers interested in the complexities of African history and politics as well as to European and American audiences eager for a fresh perspective on their nations’ roles in global issues.

5. Disciplinary Decadence: Living Thought in Trying Times by Lewis R. Gordon
Lewis Gordon says that philosophy is stale–and will remain so unless it leaves its disciplinary cloisters. Instead of focusing on rigid methods or fields of expertise, philosophy should begin with real-world questions. Following in the footsteps of theorists like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse who offered new ways to think about fascism and consumerism, Gordon takes on the topics that matter to us today: Education in American society, our obligation to future generations, and increasing global inequality under the flag of ‘development.’ Drawing from his wide reading in African studies and Western philosophy, Gordon provides unexpected views on so many problems that are so familiar that it is sometimes hard to see them clearly.

About The Author

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Angela Roothaan is an assistant professor of philosophy at VU University Amsterdam. She received her master’s degree at Leiden University and her Ph.D. at the University of Amsterdam. A passionate writer, she has published five philosophy books in Dutch and many academic articles, which always probe the intersections of science, ethics, spirituality, and politics. She writes a blog with the aim to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower.