Western canon

Dante, Homer and Virgil in Raphael's Parnassus fresco (1511), in which the Western canon is visualised

The term Western canon denotes a canon of books and, more broadly, music and art that have been the most important and influential in shaping Western culture. As such, it includes the "greatest works of artistic merit." Such a canon is important to the theory of educational perennialism and the development of "high culture". In practice, debates and attempts to define the canon in lists are essentially restricted to literature, including poetry, fiction and drama; biographical and autobiographical writings; philosophy; and history. A few accessible books on the sciences and mathematics are also included.

Contents

Examples

Examples of shorter canonical lists of most important works include the following:

The Great Books of the Western World is an attempt to present the western canon in a single package of 60 volumes

University reading lists reflect the Western canon:

Longer, more comprehensive, lists include the following:

Chronological brackets

  • Philosopher John Searle[1] suggests that the Western canon can be roughly defined as "a certain Western intellectual tradition that goes from, say, Socrates to Wittgenstein in philosophy, and from Homer to James Joyce in literature..."

Origins

The process of listmaking—defining the boundaries of the canon—is endless. The philosopher John Searle has said: "In my experience there never was, in fact, a fixed 'canon'; there was rather a certain set of tentative judgments about what had importance and quality. Such judgments are always subject to revision, and in fact they were constantly being revised."[1]

One of the notable attempts at compiling an authoritative canon in the English-speaking world was the Great Books of the Western World program. This program, developed in the middle third of the 20th century, grew out of the curriculum at the University of Chicago. University president Robert Hutchins and his collaborator Mortimer Adler developed a program that offered reading lists, books, and organizational strategies for reading clubs to the general public.

An earlier attempt, the Harvard Classics (1909), was promulgated by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot, whose thesis was the same as Carlyle's:

... The greatest university of all is a collection of books.

Debate

There has been an ongoing, intensely political debate over the nature and status of the canon since at least the 1960s, much of which is rooted in critical theory, feminism, critical race theory, and Marxist attacks against capitalism and classical liberal principles.[2] In the United States, in particular, the canon has been attacked as a compendium of books written mainly by "dead European men", that does not represent the viewpoints of many in contemporary societies around the world. Allan Bloom in his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, has disagreed strongly.[page needed][Need quotation to verify] Yale University Professor of Humanities Harold Bloom (no relation to Allan) has also argued strongly in favor of the canon,[3] and in general the canon remains as a represented idea in many institutions,[1] though its implications continue to be debated.

Defenders maintain that those who undermine the canon do so out of primarily political interests, and that such criticisms are misguided and/or disingenuous. As John Searle has written:

There is a certain irony in this [i.e., politicized objections to the canon] in that earlier student generations, my own for example, found the critical tradition that runs from Socrates through the Federalist Papers, through the writings of Mill and Marx, down to the twentieth century, to be liberating from the stuffy conventions of traditional American politics and pieties. Precisely by inculcating a critical attitude, the "canon" served to demythologize the conventional pieties of the American bourgeoisie and provided the student with a perspective from which to critically analyze American culture and institutions. Ironically, the same tradition is now regarded as oppressive. The texts once served an unmasking function; now we are told that it is the texts which must be unmasked.[1]

One of the main objections to a canon of literature is the question of authority—who should have the power to determine what works are worth reading and teaching? Searle's rebuttal suggests that "one obvious difficulty with it [i.e., arguments against hierarchical ranking of books] is that if it were valid, it would argue against any set of required readings whatever; indeed, any list you care to make about anything automatically creates two categories, those that are on the list and those that are not."[1]

Works

Works which are commonly included in the canon include works of fiction such as some epic poems, poetry, music, drama, novels, and other assorted forms of literature from the many diverse Western (and more recently non-Western) cultures. Many non-fiction works are also listed, primarily from the areas of religion, mythology, science, philosophy, psychology, economics, politics, and history.

Works which directly address the canon (both for and against):

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b c d e Searle, John. (1990) "The Storm Over the University", The New York Review of Books, December 6, 1990.
  2. ^ Hicks, Stephen. (2004). Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Scholargy Press, p. 18.
  3. ^ Bloom, Harold. (1995) The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages Riverhead, ISBN 1573225142

External links


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