Aug 31, 2015

10 Philosophical Texts I'd Bring to a Desert Island

A bit over a year ago, a longstanding friend and colleague -- someone I actually went to college with -- asked me a question so intriguing that I ended up sitting down and recording a 20-minute YouTube video answering it in detail.

He wrote me:  If you could bring ten philosophical works to be stranded with on the proverbial desert island, which ten would they be, and why? 

Approaching The Question

It's a great question to raise, since it provokes one -- especially a scholar and teacher as spoiled as I am by having a well-apportioned philosophical library almost literally within arm's reach -- to have to consider more than one matter.  First, you have to decide:  what precisely counts as a "book"?   Can one get around the strict ten-book limit by, say, making one of the books an anthology like the Plato: Complete Works volume edited by Cooper?  Or, if you really wanted to cheat, something like Cahn's Classics of Political and Moral Philosophy -- which I've previously used as a textbook precisely since it contained so many complete texts (and was also very inexpensive to boot).

As tempting as that might be, it seems to me rather pointless to carry out the exercise, if one isn't going to take it seriously as an occasion to prune away one's library to those single works that are most valuable.  So, no anthologies -- just single stand-alone texts.  That makes the choice quite a bit tougher, doesn't it?

Of course, there are some pretty voluminous works of Philosophy, and a number of those explicitly engage with the writings and thought of other people -- intertextuality is a key characteristic of philosophical work, at least much of the better work.  So, for example, by taking someone like Thomas Aquinas, you're going to get at least snippets of a slew of other authors, and when you're lucky, Thomas' own take on them as well.

So, does that mean that there should be a priority accorded to more encyclopedic books, those which encompass the outlines of many more books and authors?  It certainly is a consideration, but it can't be the primary one, at least not for me.  If I'm going to be stuck on a desert island, just reading and rereading these ten works for the rest of my life, there's a few other criteria that count more for me.

One of these is what I'll call -- making no attempt to define it here -- philosophical depth.  In fact, that mode of measure might not be the best one, since it's not just a matter of the profundity of the author or the thought, but also of breadth and range -- how far and to how many matters will this work take me?  But, "depth" works for a different, more metaphorical, reason.

When you look down into the depths, you -- or at least I -- can suddenly feel a sense of vertigo, the reality or the sublimity of depths sinking down yet further.  One might, translating the lower and lower into the higher and higher, like this to the sense of awe or wonder.  For me, at least, the vistas of perspective offered by great philosophical works communicate that sort of excitement, that sort of awareness -- and do so just as much after the last reading as they did in the first one.

I suppose that another one of the qualities I am looking for is best summed up with the term "style" -- that will perhaps be surprising, though, when you see who I picked, since some of these thinkers (Hegel is a prime example!) are anything but clear or elegant, let alone beautifully incisive, in the ways they express their thoughts.  But, at least for certain of them -- often when you read them in the original -- their works do possess, or rather actively embody that quality.

The Ten Books I'd Bring.

I had to think long and hard about this -- and eliminate many contenders who definitely would have made it into a longer list (e.g. David Hume's Treatise of Human Nature, or Anselm's Proslogion).  But that's the beauty of such an exercise -- you have to decide what for you are the most essential of the essentials.

So, here's my list, annotated with a few reasons for selecting it:

1) Plato's Republic -- I can't imagine not reading Plato for the rest of my life, if I have a choice about it!  And if I have to narrow it down to just one of his works, it may as well be one of the longest, ranging over a whole host of classical and yet perennial topics, from the nature of the soul, to theories of justice, to the forms beyond mutable material existence, to the different sorts of cities and souls.

2) Aristotle's Metaphysics -- similarly, how would I not select something of Aristotle?  This was a bit tougher -- would it be this work, or the Nicomachean Ethics, or the Politics?  I suppose that -- whether this is true or not -- I feel like I understand those other two better than the Metaphysics, so I'd like to get to keep on studying that one!

3) Augustine's City of God -- another thinker who I really love -- and here I wavered considerably between this far ranging work and the intensely personal Confessions.  Ultimately, I decided that over a lifetime, I might get more out of the City of God.

4) Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae -- this almost feels like cheating, but it isn't, as it is indeed one work, actually a work Thomas didn't manage to entirely finish in his lifetime!  If you haven't spent some time in the labyrinth of this text, almost a cacophony of voices from antiquity through the middle ages, well, you could spend a lifetime doing so.

5) Rene Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy -- a short work to be sure, but one of those that really does possess that dimension of profundity mentioned above.  If I could pick the specific edition for the volume I'd take with me, it would be the French and Latin version (Descartes wrote the original in Latin, you know) that also includes the objections and Descartes' replies.

6) Blaise Pascal's Pensees -- well, I simply love Pascal, and his sprawling, unfinished last work provides a wonderful companion piece to (and polemic against) Descartes' masterwork of rationalism, as well as engagement with so much more!

7) G.W.F. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit -- I'm not a Hegelian myself, but I play one on TV, or rather then YouTubes, and that's because even though I'm not a Hegelian, I think his thought contains more than just moments of brilliance.  Broad, sweeping scope, an ambition to encompass and understand everything -- there's much to learn and reflect upon with this work.

8) Maurice Blondel's Action (1893): Essay on a Critique of Life and a Science of Practice -- one of my favorite less-well-known philosophers.  Imagine if you crossed Pascal with Hegel, and found someone who did Phenomenology before was called that as a movement.  That's Blondel, and this is his earliest systematic work.  Wonderful stuff!

9) Martin Heidegger's Being and Time -- someone I disagree with on a lot of matters, but also draw upon quite a bit as well.  Heidegger's work has grown on me over the years, and the analyses contained in this work, once you get past the verbiage, are amazingly illuminating.

10) Max Scheler's Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values -- here's a guy just as worthy of study and reflection as any of these others, including his contemporaries Heidegger and Blondel.  This is one of his best works, working out some of the themes absolutely central to his overall philosophy.

Is This List Arbitrary?

I'm going to answer with a resounding Yes! to that question -- but point out that there are two different ways that usually pejorative word can be used.  It is indeed an "arbitrary" list in the sense that most people would likely intend the term -- it represents and stems from my own personal preferences about philosophical works.  Any such list will be arbitrary in that sense -- books that prove indispensable to me might be uninteresting, unimportant, or even unintelligible to you, and vice-versa. 

Then again, it is a list I was invited to compose, presumably as someone who, after several decades working in the field, hopefully knows a bit about what books in philosophy turn out to be particularly worthwhile to invest time, energy, and labor into -- that is, I'm being asked to be an arbiter, a maker of judgements that are not just a matter of pure caprice or entirely subjective preference (though, to be sure, not entirely free of these, I'll bet!)  So, the list is also arbitrary in that sense as well.

It's quite a useful exercise to engage in -- and I invite you to do so, and to leave your list as a comment here, knowing full well that it's very likely your list will be at odds with my own.  What I'm particularly interested to hear about, though, are the reasons why you would choose your selected ten books -- what do you get out of them, or hope to get out of them?

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