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by on August 4, 2013 at 4:12 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1 prior probability August 4, 2013 at 4:27 pm

The 1940s kitchen of tomorrow brought back memories of a Robin Hanson lecture I attended last spring on how images of the future have lots of round edges and shiny surfaces …

2 Sean August 4, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Hmm, you may have found the first “Great Books” collection ever to skip the Enlightenment.

3 Vernunft August 4, 2013 at 6:36 pm

No…Wittgenstein. Oh.

:looks down at the floor:

I’m so sorry.

4 Dismalist August 4, 2013 at 7:17 pm

Yes, pity about the Enlightenment. I guess the less important stuff had to go.

Aside from that glaring omission, and the overemphasis of the recent past, this makes a decent reading list for High Schoolers. One could deepen this in college, of course.

[Leaving aside the recent past and the non-western points of view, I was exposed to about half the material on the list, plus Enlightenment writings, at the public high school I attended, seemingly a century or so ago.]

5 Jonathan August 4, 2013 at 7:31 pm

True. But is that a good thing or a bad thing?

6 FC August 4, 2013 at 11:08 pm

Good. The important Enlightenment work was in math and natural sciences. The literary and philosophical productions were warmed-over Hellenism.

7 Vernunft August 5, 2013 at 12:18 am

No, no they weren’t.

8 Nathan Goldblum August 5, 2013 at 6:43 am

That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!

9 Brian Donohue August 5, 2013 at 10:09 am

Am I out-of-date, or aren’t we still arguing Enlightenment politics?

Post-modernism is a silly head-fake.

10 FC August 5, 2013 at 4:13 pm

Intellectual history, especially in humanistic studies, is a conversation in the longue duree. So to speak, as Livy read Herodotus, Machiavelli read both, and we read all three.

11 Adrian Ratnapala August 5, 2013 at 2:18 am

They seem do define something called the “Aristocratic Age” which encompasses the enlightenment, but which starts earlier. It seems to go from Chaucer to Swift.

12 Ricardo August 5, 2013 at 7:29 am

Voltaire is covered in the “Aristocratic Age” while Hume, Locke and Rousseau are covered in the “Democratic Age.” That’s confusing considering that Voltaire’s Candide and Rousseau’s The Social Contract were written just a few years apart.

13 anon August 4, 2013 at 6:34 pm

1. The 1940s kitchen of tomorrow.

The 1950s kitchen of tomorrow was captured by Jaques Tati in Mon Oncle, which featured the 1950s house of tomorrow, Villa Arpel. Here’s a kitchen scene:

14 Hoosier August 4, 2013 at 7:45 pm

No Tale of Genji on the great books? The list is way too European focused.

15 Vincent August 5, 2013 at 2:59 am

No East Asian works at all

16 mkt August 5, 2013 at 1:27 pm

Actually the list has a couple of East Asian works, see chapter 3. But yeah, a bit too Euro-focused.

My gripe: they left out Thucydides. To be sure, a quick survey course would probably need to skip most or all of Thucydides … but this list is not for a quick survey course. If it has space for five works by Tolstoy and four by Dostoyevsky, then it ought to have space for Thucydides.

From just a skimming the list, I thought it was actually not too bad a list. I did miss the large number of works by Franzen, that does seem like going overboard.

Re some other comments: to call this a high school reading list is bizarre. Go to even the best high schools, in the US at least: what percent of the works on this list will graduates of those high schools have read? For that matter, go to the Great Books colleges — St. Johns, Thomas Aquinas, and to a lesser extent Columbia, the Univ of Chicago and Reed — what percent of these works will graduates of those colleges have read?

If the high school comments are meant to refer to the level of difficulty, it is true that many of these works can be (and in some cases already are) commonly part of a high school curriculum. But is a Great Books supposed to exclude high school level literature? That strikes me as a bizarre criterion. If we restrict the list to only include college-level works, is it even possible to create a Great Books list? The works we would have to exclude would leave such gaping holes that we would not be able to call such a list of Great Books list — it would fail to include too many of the Greatest Books.

17 Ricardo August 6, 2013 at 12:13 am

I agree. Anything aside from specialist academic literature can probably be read by a bright 16-year-old. However, the problem with 16-year-olds is that they haven’t been alive for long enough to possibly conquer most of the texts on that list unless they are prodigies or speed-readers. I find it difficult to believe that anyone except for the most gifted young people will have had the time to read and appreciate everything on the list from Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Machiavelli, Hume, Pascal, Milton, Nietzsche, Sartre, Proust, etc. Carefully prepared excerpts or associated Wikipedia articles, maybe, but not the complete texts and not in the same way that a college-educated grown adult would read and appreciate them.

18 Anon. August 4, 2013 at 8:48 pm


“Despite his secluded upbringing, his writings, even those in his early years, posed questions deemed radical for his time. They showed an influence by the enlightenment and in many ways herald the nihilism of Nietszche.”

What kind of idiot, in this day and age, thinks Nietzsche was a nihilist? How has this silly meme not died out yet? Next they’ll be telling us he was a Nazi, too!

19 Ape Man August 4, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Well, this silly idiot thinks that those who think that Nietzsche was not a nihliist protest to much.

20 GiT August 4, 2013 at 9:29 pm

“I call an animal, a species, an individual corrupt, when it loses its instincts, when it chooses, when it prefers, what is injurious to it. A history of the “higher feelings,” the “ideals of humanity”—and it is possible that I’ll have to write it—would almost explain why man is so degenerate. Life itself appears to me as an instinct for growth, for survival, for the accumulation of forces, for power: whenever the will to power fails there is disaster. My contention is that all the highest values of humanity have been emptied of this will—that the values of décadence, of nihilism, now prevail under the holiest names.”

21 Rowz August 4, 2013 at 11:01 pm

The word “nihilist” seems to be generally employed in the way that “atheist” was during olden times: as a derisive term for someone who doesn’t share the particular moral/theological views espoused by the accuser.

22 Ape Man August 5, 2013 at 6:49 pm

I think your analogy is apt, only I think you have it the wrong way around. Just as people like Hume and Spinoza tried to distance themselves from charges of atheism so to do many people with views that fit the dictionary definition of nihilism try to defend themselves from the charge. The reason they try to defend themselves from the charge has nothing do with their beliefs being incompatible with the allegations and everything to do with the social stigma attached to the word.

23 Turkey Vulture August 4, 2013 at 11:23 pm

Yeah, Nietzsche pointed out a bunch of stuff that he thought was nihilistic, so he gets called a nihilist.

24 Ape Man August 5, 2013 at 6:44 pm

There is two ways to approach claims of nihilism. We can say, “They word means what it wants to mean and I say that Nietzsche was no nihilist.” Or we can say, “Nihilism, what a strange word, why don’t we look it up in a dictionary?”. And if we look it up in a dictionary we find that nihilism means…

Definition of NIHILISM
a : a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless
b : a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths
a : a doctrine or belief that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake independent of any constructive program or possibility

Are people here seriously trying to argue that Nietzsche did not believe 1b? I think a case could be made for 1a and 2a as well, but I am willing to grant they are arguable. But to say that Nietzsche believed in objective moral truth takes a lot of education to say with a straight face.

25 Ricardo August 6, 2013 at 12:35 am

It is tough to read Nietzsche’s writings and come away with a 1a) or 2) impression of nihilism. His writings are a celebration of value-creators, conquerors, artists and thinkers who remake civilization in their own image. He doesn’t think this is absurd, senseless or useless at all but, rather, this is what gives purpose to the lives of the privileged elite.

As for 1b), I’m hardly a Nietzsche scholar but I think he changed his mind on the question of objective reality or truth and may not have always been consistent. He certainly assumes there are inferior and superior types of man and that it is proper for the superior types to go off and do their own thing even if it means exploiting, oppressing or merely acting indifferently toward inferior types.

Nietzsche certainly has strong opinions on what is proper or desirable for individuals or for society overall and it is tough to square these strong opinions that take hundreds of pages to express with the imputation that the guy really regards life as senseless or useless. Nietzsche does spend a lot of time attacking and mocking other philosophers along with their claims to having discovered objective truth or morality but he isn’t completely destructive. He does propose an alternative way of looking at the world that most would regard as harsh and brutal but not quite devoid of meaning.

26 Ape Man August 5, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. From On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.

When someone hides something behind a bush and looks for it again in the same place and finds it there as well, there is not much to praise in such seeking and finding. Yet this is how matters stand regarding seeking and finding “truth” within the realm of reason. If I make up the definition of a mammal, and then, after inspecting a camel, declare “look, a mammal’ I have indeed brought a truth to light in this way, but it is a truth of limited value. That is to say, it is a thoroughly anthropomorphic truth which contains not a single point which would be “true in itself” or really and universally valid apart from man. At bottom, what the investigator of such truths is seeking is only the metamorphosis of the world into man. From same book as above.

27 Turkey Vulture August 5, 2013 at 11:53 pm

I don’t think 1b, on its own, would mean “nihilist” is the proper label. Isn’t the term for 1b just a moral relativist? Seems like you’d need both 1a and 1b to be the case for nihilist to be a better label than something else., with most of the heavy lifting done by 1a.

I think somewhat of a case can be made for 1a, at the same time that it seemed like he really, really wanted to come up with a way to make existence not senseless and useless.

I don’t think a case can be made for 2a. It has been quite a while since I read anything he wrote, but any talk of destruction I recall was a prelude to construction. Smash the old tablets and make new tablets, etc.

28 Brian Donohue August 5, 2013 at 10:11 am

I suspect the bona fides of any ‘nihilist’ who goes to the trouble of writing a book.

29 Larry Siegel August 4, 2013 at 11:01 pm

Well, we can (and should) all disagree on what Books are Great. It’s a start. The list doesn’t leave out the Enlightenment, it folds it into the crease between the Aristocratic and the Democratic ages. (I find the division of modern history into Aristocratic, Democratic, and Chaotic ages silly; we’re still in the Democratic age.)

@Dismalist: And I thought I went to a tough high school! Guess not.

30 Keith August 4, 2013 at 11:05 pm

4 books from Jonathan Franzen on the great books list?! I haven’t read anything by him. Has anybody else? My impression is he is a guy trying to write chick lit. Am I way off?

31 FC August 4, 2013 at 11:15 pm

Franzen calls his writing “high art.” (Yes, really.)

Nietzsche would call it nihilistic.

32 albert magnus August 4, 2013 at 11:17 pm

I like how the Great Books list includes ‘The Western Canon’ as sort of a list within a list.

33 Cliff August 4, 2013 at 11:46 pm

5. All the “selections” from The Arabian Nights (other than the introduction) are not even IN the Arabian Nights! They are other stories now associated with that work… (I just got finished reading a “good”/accurate translation)

34 amateur veterinarian August 5, 2013 at 12:18 am

4 works by Franzen (not his fault, I am sure) . 0 (Zero!) by Sappho, Horace, Racine, Lafontaine, Bulgakov, Chateaubriand, Halevy, or any modern Greek or Polish poet, no Icelandic sagas, and from the last century, no Undset, Tolkien, Wodehouse or Jimenez, and the wrong works by Proust, Joyce, and maybe even (19th century) Dickens (what is wrong with Scrooge & his friends?)…a transparently Gnostic and Bloomian version of a denominational reading list …. impressive but not trustworthy…

35 amateur veterinarian August 5, 2013 at 12:30 am

sorry, just reread the list, 5 by Franzen, And if you are listing Plato but only the Republic, and listing Descartes, why leave off Wittgenstein and other more human-friendly (and animal-friendly) philosophers?

36 Claude Emer August 5, 2013 at 1:46 am

Rigorous humanities education = western lit books, half of which belongs in high school reading assignments? Yawn.

37 Larry Siegel August 5, 2013 at 4:43 am

“Yawn” is not a critique. Please submit your suggestions for a better list.

38 Ricardo August 5, 2013 at 11:12 am

Do high school students really read Descartes, Kant, Rousseau, Hume, Plato’s Republic, Herodotus’ Histories, etc. cover-to-cover? Certainly not in my American public high school, although I might imagine someone who went to private school in the 1940s might have read the latter two — in Greek.

I think for most people, they might have encountered carefully chosen excerpts from many of these books prepared by a teacher (and, for the kids these days, the associated Wikipedia articles and Cliffs notes). The real challenge is to read them all the way through and have an in-depth understanding of the texts and the debates they inspired.

39 Dan Weber August 5, 2013 at 10:50 am

I’m so glad they had bogosort. It’s my favorite sorting algorithm.

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