January 17, 2015

Wolff's Top 25 List

Robert Paul Wolff has on his blog a list of what he thinks are the 25 must read books for philosophy graduate students (he has added clarifications here and here). Every book on his list is of course a classic. Any philosophy graduate student would benefit from reading those texts. No arguing that. And yet... And yet what?

Reading Wolff's list it was hard for me to pinpoint how I felt as there were so many mixed emotions. There was anger, frustration, confusion for the imaginable reasons: what, just these entries again?  Really, these are the top 25 texts any graduate student in philosophy has to read, irrespective of their philosophical interests, and irrespective of contingent features such as gender, culture, race, etc.? There is a faux universality to the list which it is almost hard to believe anyone could take seriously. And yet, here is a person who is genuinely putting it forward as what he sees as a kind of normative list for any graduate student. Could Wolff be really so oblivious to the issues of diversity? It is hard to believe, as he has himself made clear on his blog how much he had been involved in making academia more open to minorities.

Pondering this juxtaposition - an utterly conservative list made by someone who is otherwise open to issues of diversity, and who is a marxist even - turned the anger into disbelief, which in turn turned into comic relief. Ha! Yes, there is bound to be a limit to every rebel, and Wolff is generally, in a wonderful sense, a great rebel within academic philosophy. And yet, dear rebel, here your age and limits are shining through: you got your PhD at Harvard fifty years (1957) before I did (2008). And it is hilarious that the list is itself being put forward in a spirit of rebellion, as a way to go against these-young-philosophers-and-their-latest-journals-mindset, as if Wolff is standing up for the right and the good, against the forces of fashion. Bravo! Yes, let us fight against fashion. But to do that do we have to go back to that same old list?

At this point slowly the humor receded into a sadness. For I recalled how many times in my classes my professors trotted out a similar list, when in fact the curriculum more generally was nothing other than such a list writ large onto my education and my development as a thinker. I remembered how those books were introduced to me as what I need to grow as an intellectual, to free my mind from the tyranny of my cultural background, and how I just sat there in those classes, staring blankly, absorbing it all as if it was the Holy Word from the professors on high. As a student I put myself in the care of my professors - teachers no different in many ways from Wolff - and yet how much did my teachers really know, or care to know, about my situation, about where I was coming from? How much did they care about what it must feel like for me to see these same European authors repeatedly put forward as who I was supposed to grow into, and to hear the same silence about other philosophers and traditions that I knew existed, and which I knew that my professors were not so dumb as to not at least have heard of? But if they know of those other traditions, if they have heard of them, why do they keep being silent about them?

Here the sadness turns into shades of anger again. Have some guts and say it out loud and say it to my face: yes, we think these European thinkers are the best philosophers the world has known, and that is why you are learning only them. Don't hide behind silly claims like that all you know is European philosophy. You know there are other traditions. So why don't you want to learn about them for yourselves? How can you evaluate them if you don't even know them? Would you feign the same ignorance and disinterest if a lost book by Kant was discovered, or if another letter Wittgenstein wrote to Russell was discovered? Of course not, You would run to those texts as if the very meaning and nature of philosophy might lay hidden in those texts. So are the thousands upon thousands of texts of philosophy from across the world that much less important than drafts of writings by Kant or Wittgenstein's correspondence?

And, no, don't bother giving a trite defense like: "well, you are in America, and these European texts are what one needs to learn in order to be a philosophy professor in America." Really? Is that what America is essentially, a former European colony, and this is what any American has to pledge allegiance to? This is the same defense people give in teaching a white washed history of America in middle school, and it is no better when given in defense of a college curriculum. In fact, it is a worse defense when given with respect to philosophy, which is supposed to aim at sharing our common humanity, and finding ways to bridge and reach across differences of where we were born or what culture we are living in. To use being in America as a defense of a Eurocentric philosophy curriculum is to miss what is glorious about both the ideals of America and philosophy.

None of this is to say I can't understand why Wolff wrote the list that he did. It is easy enough to understand. Wolff was talking to one of his students, and Wolff is passing on what he thinks are the 25 central texts to read in graduate school. At bottom, it is about the dynamics between teachers and students. Wolff is the teacher. That means that, from his perspective, what he knows is what must be worthy of being taught. And what does he know? These texts, and so they become the basis of the curriculum as far as he is considered. This is perfectly reasonable in a sense.

But in another sense, it raises the question: Does what Wolff knows, and what he learnt in the course of his career, track what is most pertinent for students to learn in the current time? Or have there been cultural changes in the last fifty years such that there might be a schism between what and how Wolff learnt and what and how students now need to learn? Here is where I think Wolff's inference goes awry. He wants to contrast what is fashionable every twenty years (and what is in vogue in the latest journals) with what is lasting and more universal, with what is the essence of "the tradition". Wolff assumes that in the course of his career he has learnt what is most essential to the tradition. I don't believe this. And I am not falling for it anymore. In his career Wolff learnt a lot about one tradition. That's it. A great, grand tradition. A beautiful, inspiring tradition. Yes, definitely. But that is not the tradition. And no matter how cool Wolff is as a teacher, how hip, how much he is down with Marxism, it doesn't change the fact that his education might not be a guide to my education, his arc as a philosopher might not be a guide to my arc as a philosopher.

There is a contrast to be drawn with what is in vogue in the latest journals, but that is not with a tradition which is already set in stone and familiar to us. It is in contrast with a new, global tradition which we as thinkers and world citizens have to co-create and knit together. My situation as a person, and as a philosopher, begins with the fact that I am an Indian-American, that I belong to the east and to the west, that no one tradition as they used to be defined in the past captures what my tradition is, or can be. I am a mutt. A mongrel. Someone on the boundaries of traditions and cultures. And an education which does not acknowledge that fact, which does that begin with that fact, which does not speak to that fact, is not an education worthy of me.

Yes, there are, and will be, innumerable open questions about this new path. Much to be debated and argued. Much to fight about. There is bound to be pain, confusion. Old structures have to crumble and there will be uncertainly of what can take their place. In the face of such imminent chaos, a list which affirms the familiar, old structures is soothing, and provides something to hold onto. But for me the choice is made. I am not living into that fantasy of stability and false universality anymore. As a person and as a teacher Wolff can of course make whatever list he wants. As long as some students find such a list helpful, it is naturally worthwhile to some people. But that list has no claim on me. As I see it, it belongs to structures which, though still contemporary, are quickly becoming outdated and out of touch.


  1. Thinking about the pragmatics of knitting together such a global tradition, I wonder if one of the stumbling blocks is that philosophers still place a great deal of importance on reading the primary sources. For example, in the sciences and mathematics, we certainly don’t require our graduate students to read the original texts or papers unless it is pertinent to their research. So why is it the case that in philosophy, one must go to primary sources even when it’s not one’s research area? No doubt it is really fun to read primary sources, but if we want to form a more inclusive tradition, one that allows students to follow a path most meaningful to them, we need to expose them to different schools of philosophical thought (eastern, western, feminist, analytic, continental, etc.) as quickly as possible, which will allow them the time during their studies to pick which way they wish to go; and this is more easily accomplished through the use of secondary sources early in their education. But the philosophy curriculum in far too many schools, however, use only primary resources even in the undergraduate curriculum. In practice, this tends to reduce the amount of time one has to introduce students to different schools of thought.

  2. "I wonder if one of the stumbling blocks is that philosophers still place a great deal of importance on reading the primary sources"

    You must really be out of touch with what goes in current US philosophy programs if you really believe that students are still expected to be reading the kinds of "primary sources" that Wolf lists. In most leading US programs, you can get by completely fine if you never read anything by Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Hume, Nietzsche or Wittgenstein. In fact you are encouraged to focus your attention on the latest top journal articles instead.

    1. Yikes. What graduate programs are you talking about? There is zero chance you'd get through without reading several of those in every decent analytic program I know about.

  3. Anonymous@8:51: You must be referring to graduate school; of course there one is "encouraged to focus [their] attention on the latest top journal articles". Using primary sources is surprisingly common at the undergraduate level, especially in philosophy programs at small liberal arts colleges. My point was, if one wants to build a global *undergraduate* philosophical curriculum, one that would *fairly early* give a student a sense of direction on what kind of philosophical education he/she would like to pursue, then more judicious (or minimal) use of primary sources even at the undergraduate level might be wise. But the use of primary sources is not uncommon, especially not at SLACs, and even in the state universities around where I teach.

  4. Part of what seems so strange and alienating (to me) in Wolff's little list and his comments on the list: he sounds as if he's so completely at home here, so happy and (self-) satisfied with the whole experience that lies in the background. For example, there's his little comment about how in grad school he and his friends used to joke about being older than X when X wrote Great Book B. Back then he and his friends were bound together by their shared appreciation for these great works and great ideas, and he just looks back on it all fondly, just as confident as he was back then in his judgment that these are great works and great ideas. I've had the opposite experience, and I can't relate to people who feel this way.

    When I was a student, I often felt that I was _trying_ to appreciate the Greatness. Often not succeeding. When I was being a bit more honest with myself, I had to admit that I often couldn't really understand why some of these things were supposed to be so Great. Part of it was personal (but maybe not only personal). What difference could any of Gareth Evans' opinions possibly make to my life, or anyone's? Why should anyone care about any of that stuff? Part of it was more intellectual. Yes, Hobbes' Leviathan is important historically. But is there _really_ anything in there that is useful to us in understanding the philosophical or political issues that the book is supposed to be about? Anything that I hadn't already thought of on my own? Anything that is really Hobbes's creation and also plausible or illuminating or true? Anything that is really _so great_ that it warrants the reverential attitude we're supposed to take towards it? No doubt Hobbes was very intelligent, etc. If I were interested in the history of ideas -- within a very specific cultural/historical setting -- then I'd have to know about Hobbes. But I've read most of the books on W's list and I'm not sure that I really know anything especially deep or important about their topics. (Or, at least, anything important that I didn't already know or hadn't already kind of figured out on my own.)

    Maybe the problem is just my own lack of imagination or insight or something. But it very often seems to me that the texts held up as Great Works are not really that great. Many people are capable of doing work that is just as good. (Not always, of course. Maybe Plato really was a unique genius for example.) It seems pretty obvious that there are sociological (institutional) reasons for lists like W's, and for the attitudes of philosophers. Hobbes wrote weird stuff about a state of nature, giving only the sketchiest arguments for his views, not properly explaining what exactly he had in mind... If a student handed in a similarly unclear and poorly reasoned paper in a philosophy course the professor would just conclude that the paper was kind of bad. But since it was _Hobbes_ who did this, we now have lots of books and articles devoted to carefully teasing out the implications, offering all kinds of clever interpretations -- and if something is just unclear or seems false, it's understood that this is just a "puzzle", a topic for more nuanced reverential discussions, etc. It would be interesting to ask Wolff: What _exactly_ did you learn from reading Hobbes that you couldn't have figured out on your own? What exactly is it about Hobbes' ideas (as opposed to his historical-cultural role or influence) that you think is intellectually important for all of us -- and which we couldn't get from many other things?

    1. N, I think it is worthwhile to read the original, historical texts; though one has to also engage with the kind of challenges you raise.

      Why read Plato or Hobbes if we can have these thoughts ourselves now independent of reading them? I think it is because when doing philosophy it is helpful to know how, and in what context, the philosophical problems got going. It is a way of gaining perspective on the problems themselves. And sometimes there might be ways of thinking about the problems which we have lost and which can be regained by reading some of the original texts. As I see it, it is just like why a contemporary rock and roll band might want to listen to Chuck Berry or the Beatles: sometimes going to the origins is a way of getting rejuvenated.

      There is another reason as well, this more focused on students: Perhaps you might have enough self-confidence to feel you don't need to read Plato to do philosophy. If so, I am all for that. But for the vast majority of people, putting these ancient or famous philosophers on a pedestal is a main obstacle to their doing philosophy themselves. They are apt to say, "Oh, I am no Plato". Reading the original texts can be liberating, and make one feel like one can engage with even these famous thinkers. It is a rite of passage to see oneself as being in the same tradition as these thinkers, and that we are the current generation picking up that baton of inquiry. One of the nice things about teaching is seeing students who might otherwise put themselves down awakening to this sense of their potential, and that they can converse with Plato and Hobbes.

      From this angle, my problem with Wolff's list is by making the "top philosophers list" so traditionally Eurocentric, he is (a) not really going to all the great texts and philosophers around the world who contributed to the origins and development of philosophy, and (b) by defining the great texts so narrowly, he is contributing to structures which make it hard for many people to awaken to their potential. If Wolff was a rock and roll teacher, it is like he keeps saying how it all began with Elvis Presley, and keeps offering a list of greatest artists who are all white bands from the 60s and 70s.

  5. Bharath -- It seems we're agreeing (?)... You're saying that there are good reasons to _teach_ some of these classical texts, mainly because students will then come to see that they are able to engage with these ideas and philosophize for themselves. Absolutely. On the other hand, my impression was that Wolff was offering his list for a different reason -- that he was saying (or implying) that these texts are on the list because of their especially great philosophical worth. And if that was his intention, the point on which we agree seems to put us in disagreement with Wolff. After all, one way to put your point about the pedagogical value of these texts is this: Hobbes, for example, is not So Great that the average intelligent person can't hope to think Great Thoughts on his level. Instead, there (often) is not such a huge gulf between the ideas of these canonical thinkers and those of ordinary people doing their best to think through the issues. And that's why students can gain confidence from reading Hobbes or Plato, etc.

    But then maybe you and I disagree too? I'm happy to agree that there really are specially great or important philosophical ideas that stand out from the rest, and thinkers who really are special -- geniuses, whatever. On the other hand, I'm skeptical that the specific "tradition" we take for granted, indicated in Wolff's list, corresponds in any systematic way to that special body of ideas and thinkers. Your analogy is useful here. Sure, it would be good to include musicians other than white bands from the 70s in a rock and roll course; and it would be better not to insist that it all began with Elvis. But (to extend the analogy) my question is in effect whether Elvis, or those white bands from the 70s, have _any_ kind of central or fundamental or even important position in a fair accounting of rock music on strictly _musical_ grounds. To be sure, given all the non-musical or non-aesthetic factors at play historically and culturally, Elvis or Zeppelin will be really important in any historical understanding of rock music. But there are musicians and singers and songwriters just as good as Elvis or Zeppelin that we've never heard of. There are people playing open mic nights down the road who really are just as good, if we're considering things from a purely musical point of view. (Not all of them are, of course, but then by the same token lots of famous and influential musicians are no good.) The picture of "great rock and roll" that we take for granted is totally crazy and miscellaneous from a musical point of view -- because, of course, it's largely the result of marketing and politics and all kinds of other things that have nothing to do with music. Likewise, I doubt that our philosophical tradition (as we normally understand it) is a meaningful or valuable thing from a _philosophical_ point of view. It's a crazy miscellaneous mix, held together by politics and institutional power, etc. Students need to learn how to judge it for themselves, how to tell what is truly philosophically valuable and what is just historically or culturally influential. In doing that, they aren't really taking up the "baton" from the tradition they're learning about -- in part because there isn't really a distinct _philosophical_ tradition there. Though they might be picking up the baton from some other tradition that has no societal or institutional identity.

    1. N, I agree with much of what you say. I especially like (a lot) what you say in your second paragraph. To keep to the music analogy: the philosophers who get read in schools (like Wolff's list) are like musicians who get played on the radio a lot; the DJs will go on about how the bands being played on the radio are the very best, but this kind of claim has to be taken a large grain of salt. There is a big distinction here, which I think you are highlighting: who is good at X, and who in certain institutional structures gets called the best at X. I think it is a sign of kind of intellectual growth to be able to look past the latter kind of claims, and not take them at face value. Someone who thinks a rock station's top 25 songs list is mapping onto an objective reality is missing something big, and the same is true for philosophical texts.

      In fact, this is a main reason why I believe in non-academic philosophy. Academic philosophy is like a radio station: it plays some of the best works, and just those works, ad nauseum over and over again, and after a while it assumes that making it onto the academic list is making it to greatness. But, as you rightly say, there are all sorts of reasons why things make it onto a radio list, or an academic list. If one is not mindful, they can get caught in a trap: like thinking that to be a good musician must mean making it onto the radio and being able to destroy hotel rooms on tours. Similarly: one might think that to be a philosopher one has to be make it as an academic philosopher, and writes texts in a certain way, etc. There is no one tradition in philosophy, not even one academic traditions. There are all sorts of overlapping, and sometimes disconnected, traditions, many of which are not academic.

      One clarification: I don't think reading the historical greats is only useful for students. I think it is useful for everyone. The reason for this isn't to find out that, say, Hobbes isn't that great after all. It is to discover that we are that great, after all. Having ancient thinkers as intellectual companions helps one to gain reflective distance from one's current culture and discourse. This is not to say everyone needs to learn Greek or Sanskrit, and pour over ancient texts in the original language; I myself was never much into that. Nor is it to say the texts academia highlights are the ones everyone has to master. But it is to say that being able to dip into ancient texts is one way of staying mentally young and getting rejuviated from time to time.

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