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Saturday, January 10, 2015


My light-hearted attempt at list-making seems to have caused a slight disturbance in the Force, as we aficionados of Star Wars would say.  Since my daily blog visits [leaving aside RSS feeds, whatever they are] only blipped up from one thousand to two thousand, it would be excessive to say that the list went viral, but it certainly seems to have gone bacterial, at the very least.  Lost in the flurry of comments was any sense of why on earth I gave that advice to Matthew Mccauley in the first place.  Perhaps I should explain.  You may call this the geological or paleontological theory of American Philosophy Departments.

There are three main types of rocks:  sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous.  Here is a brief description of sedimentary rock, snatched from the Internet:  "Sedimentary rocks are formed from particles of sand, shells, pebbles, and other fragments of material. Together, all these particles are called sediment. Gradually, the sediment accumulates in layers and over a long period of time hardens into rock. Generally, sedimentary rock is fairly soft and may break apart or crumble easily. You can often see sand, pebbles, or stones in the rock, and it is usually the only type that contains fossils."

Paleontologists find sedimentary formations extremely instructive because by looking at a cross section of the layers of sediment that have been transformed into rock, they can date the relative age of the fossils found therein. 

American departments of philosophy have something of this same sedimentary structure, as a consequence of the flows of European theories washing up on our shores and depositing layers of silt that harden as they settle.  Ever since the first colonists came to the New World in search of land they could wrest from the local inhabitants, they have been receiving waves of philosophy from  the old country.   On my shelves, for example, is a slender, leather-bound volume titled Elements of Logick  that I picked up second-hand many decades ago.  It was originally published in 1827 [my edition dates from 1835] and the author, Levi Hedge, L. L. D., tells us in the Preface that he has drawn on Locke's Essay and a number of other familiar works of the English seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

By the time I was studying philosophy at Harvard in the 1950's, the sediment of successive philosophical waves was clearly visible in the major departments.  There were still some aging senior professors who had brought German Idealism back with them from their student years abroad.  Transformed by tenure into solid layers of academic rock, they were trapped like fossils in the lowest and hence most ancient layer, still teaching what they had learned as young men [there were no young women, needless to say].  A bit younger were the Logical Positivists, for whom  the Wiener Kreis was still their point of reference.  They also had achieved the rocky permanence of tenure, trapped in the layer above the Absolute Idealists.  And so it went.  Wittgenstein [early and then late], Oxford Ordinary Language Philosophy, Existentialism, Phenomenology -- wave after wave crashed against the Atlantic shore, the waves sometimes washing all the way across the Appalachians to the Midwest.   Each wave, when it receded, left a sediment of young professors for whom that was the happening thing.

Each new group of eager young graduate students would immerse itself in the latest philosophical style to arrive from Europe [Pragmatism being the only indigenous American philosophical school], avidly reading the journal articles in which the new thing was anatomized.  At about the time when they earned life tenure and sedimented into stone, a new fashion would arrive.   

The students who had neglected to study the history of their discipline, bemused and excited by the novelty of the nouvelle vague, were condemned endlessly to recapitulate their graduate student days in courses that were ever farther from what was happening in the journals of the moment.  If you made a vertical cut in a large Philosophy Department, there you would see the successive philosophical styles frozen in tenured stone and laid out for view.

So it was, last Wednesday after class, that I advised Matthew to read the great works of the tradition as a way of escaping the intellectual claustrophobia of the moment in which he happened to be serving his graduate student apprenticeship.  His professors would do a fine job of introducing him to the latest disputes in the professional journals, but, I warned, no matter what is right now the hot, pressing question that everyone is talking about, you may be absolutely certain that twenty years from now it will be something totally different.  With a certain careless joie de vivre, I remarked that there were only twenty-five or so books one absolutely needed to read.  Quite naturally, Matthew asked me what they are.  Inasmuch as I am roughly four times as old as Matthew, I felt a certain pedagogical responsibility to produce the list.




Michael said...

Hi Professor Wolff,
I think part of the backlash (or whatever you might call it) to your list stems from the fact that you're writing at a time when academic philosophy's "geology" is fast changing, and being challenged in some interesting ways. (In fact, it seems a bit like the "culture wars" from the 80s and 90s that happened in literature.)

I'm curious, have you read Bharath Vallabha's blog "The Rough Ground" ( He's writing some very interesting observations on the structures and limitations of academic philosophy as an informed outsider (he has a PhD in Phil of Mind from Harvard, but left academia a few years ago). You might be interested in his observations (in particular here:

and here: ).

To be clear, I share these not because I think you were wrong to post your list--far from it--but to suggest that some newer trends seek to alter the sediment of philosophy (if that metaphor makes sense).

Michael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Disciplinary Integrity said...

I think Professor Wolff made his list for sedimental reasons.

David Auerbach said...

I think Professor Wolff made his list for sedimental reasons.

Ludwig Richter said...

Professor Wolff, my formal training is literary rather than philosophical. (Full disclosure: I’ve only read in their entirety thirteen of the twenty-six works on your list.) Any number of people have compiled lists of the essential works that serious students of literature should study as part of their education. If I were to compile such of list of literary works, it would be much longer than twenty-six. I wonder why that is.

In all fairness, your list contains a number of books that are not, shall we say, for the faint of heart. For example, I can’t think of a single literary work that is as difficult as Spinoza’s Ethics. So perhaps the number of core works in philosophy needs to be shorter because of the effort required to develop a passable understanding of them?

In addition, I’m pondering how there are works that are considered philosophical that, as far as I’m concerned, should be on the literary list but are not included on your philosophical list. On the literary list, I would include, for example, Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, Augustine’s Confessions, and Montaigne’s Essays. The Bible is certainly a literary work—is it also a philosophical work? I can also see arguments for adding to my literary list the Bhagavad-Gita, the Tao Te Ching, the Analects, Plato’s “Symposium,” The Prince, Candide, and (a la Cavell) Emerson’s essays and Thoreau's Walden, among others. Philosophy can undoubtedly have great aesthetic power, but aesthetic power does not necessary make for foundational works in philosophy.

Of your twenty-six, how many would I add to my literary list? To be sure, I would add The Republic and The Apology. I might add Descartes’ works, On Liberty, and selections from Leviathan. If I had read Hume’s works in their entirety, perhaps I would add them. But no way would I add Spinoza.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

In America, in the 1970s, an interesting way to learn up philosophy was to trek unto the lairs of the then burgeoning world of fundamentalist Christians and do analytic battle with all manner of theological niceties. Or, walk to some highway, stick out a thumb and see what sort of philosophical discussion would take you to the next exit. Plenty of stuff to ponder. Eventually, a pattern of "Have you read...." emerge, and there was the philosophical reading list. There was time when Jonathan Livingston Seagull was big. Now, not so much....