Canonical texts: are these the most influential books ever written?

Are you obsessed with a 'baggy monster' or has a photocopied pamphlet sparked your passion for a whole new area of research? To kick off our new weekly series, leading scholars explain which books they believe are definitive in their field

四月 23, 2009

What is the best book for those who want to learn how to read English poetry? Were the ancient Greeks passionate and conflicted or just coldly rational (and why should we care)? How should we interpret landscapes, from Pembrokeshire to Papua New Guinea? And where can we find the most authoritative analysis of what is going on between men and women, not least within universities?

To answer such questions, Times Higher Education asked leading scholars - in disciplines ranging from anthropology and architecture to social policy and international relations - to select a title from their personal canon. Their reflections are an inspirational introduction to a weekly series that will in time cover most of the academic landscape.

Our writers were asked to choose a key text that defined their subject, set their personal academic agendas or even changed their lives. A single formative reading experience can often launch a long and distinguished academic career.

Of course, every canon is, and emphatically ought to be, subject to dispute. We hope readers will enjoy our experts' choices and the cases made for their inclusion in this canon. Although the list is unlikely to be adopted as a syllabus anywhere, we are sure it will generate outrage, astonishment and disagreement. We confidently predict - and welcome - many impassioned letters and postings on our website.

Fierce disputes about canonicity are nearly as old as the academy itself. Confronted with any list of "great books", one should always ask whose interests are being served and whose voices are being excluded.

Yet radical traditions soon establish their own canons or anti-canons. When a discipline is in danger of getting bogged down in sterile repetition, a vital book can emerge from left field to stir things up and generate important questions. Politically committed writings designed to change the world find their place alongside those content merely to interpret it.

All this keeps academic fields alive and relevant. But it also establishes new canonic titles, to act as an inspiration (and an irritant) to the next generation.

Canons, in other words, are never static. John Milton and Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and D. H. Lawrence have all seen their places slip in the stock market of esteem. Others have engineered an unexpected revival. Thomas Hobbes was addressing topical issues in the 1650s; the nuclear politics of the Cold War and its aftermath have given him renewed relevance since the 1950s. The credit crunch and crisis of casino capitalism have made John Maynard Keynes, comparatively sidelined in economic theory for some time, very much a man of the moment.

But, despite inevitable limitations, this canon is notable for its range and variety. It includes books that everybody has heard of and that have long featured on undergraduate overviews of "Western thought". But it also features, for example, a short pamphlet by a Finnish architect that enjoyed a kind of underground status and was circulated in the form of fading photocopies of photocopies.

There are canonical texts cited here that offer a highly intelligent and sharply observed kind of common sense. Others open up completely counter-intuitive ways of thinking. What might it mean if our everyday interactions with other people, not to mention our sexual identities and orientations, are not natural to us but a kind of elaborate performance we choose to take part in?

Our canon includes books at the outer limits of human mental capacity, which everybody finds headache-inducingly difficult. Who has ever truly got to the bottom of Immanuel Kant's or Jacques Derrida's work? A whole lifetime would hardly be enough. Then there are the "baggy monsters", ambitious projects their authors never managed to complete, but that bring together thousands of sharp and provocative insights.

Yet there are also books that defined a new discipline so clearly that they still read like a breath of fresh air in a world full of jargon. Unlike the hard sciences, where knowledge is cumulative and few people now read Dmitri Mendeleev or Sir Isaac Newton's original work, the social sciences and humanities are often refreshed by a return to the original sources. Many of the finest examples are celebrated here.


By Immanuel Kant

Critique of Pure Reason enjoys the rare distinction among philosophy books of having featured in a Hollywood movie. It appears in the scene in Superman III in which Lorelei Ambrosia, the ditzy blonde bombshell, is seen secretly reading it. "But how can he say that pure categories have no objective meaning in transcendental logic? What about synthetic unity?" she squeaks - showing some mastery of the jargon - before hurriedly covering it with some girlie trash as her gangster boyfriend enters. Director Richard Lester's choice was perfect: surely no other book could be such improbable reading for Lorelei and also be recognised as such by the audience.

It was published in 1781, when Immanuel Kant was 57 years old. It is the culmination of a decade of development in which his previous Inaugural Dissertation was modified to cope with David Hume's criticism of the notion of causation. Famously, Kant later said that it was Hume who "awoke him from his dogmatic slumbers", and Critique is a long engagement with what remains of philosophy and metaphysics once Hume's lessons are properly absorbed. Kant shared Hume's fundamental empiricism, or the elevation of the solid data of experience above the cobwebs spun by uncontrolled reason. Talking of reason divorced from experience, Kant uses the lovely image: "The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space ..." showing that in spite of his notorious obscurity, he can write superbly. But Hume had not recognised properly the power of our conceptual thinking: like John Locke and George Berkeley before him, he "sensualised the understanding". The question for Kant was where we got to when we repaired that defect.

Most philosophers would agree that Kant's epic wrestling with this problem left us the greatest single work of the modern era. Much of it still sets the agenda: the distinction between things as they are for us and things in themselves, the interface between thought and experience, the nature of the self, the nature of spatial and temporal thinking, and the scope and limitations of metaphysics, are still philosophers' bread and butter.

As its name implies, Critique can be seen partly as a sceptical work, and was seen as such by its contemporaries. Kant became famous as the Alleszermalmer or all-crushing sceptic and critic of rational theology and metaphysics. Indeed, contemporary opinion tended to assimilate Kant to Hume, but even more to the notorious idealist Berkeley, a charge with some justice to it, but one that he took care to rebut in the revised edition of the work. Time and space may be the forms that our minds impose on the world, but any attempt to think them away, as Berkeley did, is doomed to failure.

Nobody has ever found Critique an easy read. I suppose it has to be my book for a desert island, but I always pick it up with trepidation, and I would not try to read it all at once.

Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy, University of Cambridge.


By Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex was first published in France in 1949, becoming an immediate bestseller. It was (badly) translated into English by H.M. Parshley and released to the Anglo-Saxon world in 1953. Despite its huge initial success (and notoriety), the book was to acquire its canonical status only in the context of the greater intellectual visibility of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s; it then became, according to various authors, "the Bible of feminism".

Thus the curse of "The Book" and the status of the sacred text descended on The Second Sex. What was originally an intensely personal exploration of being feminine was often read as a guide to Western culture and a definitive account of gender relations, both of which I would question. But what remains is not the famous sentence about women being made, not born - discuss, as endless examination papers have asked - but the thesis about women as "the other". The account of male and female biology, of misogyny in literature, of the various states of womanhood - all this could be abandoned. The world of which (and in which) de Beauvoir was writing has changed dramatically, not least in the weakening of many of the harsher regulatory practices about gender that de Beauvoir described.

While we might therefore wish to abandon at least half of The Second Sex, there is a strong case for retaining its central thesis, that woman is "the other" and widely regarded as the aberrant human form, as opposed to the definitive male. Across the planet we can observe the various ways in which being female is still regarded as being "inferior" and a person to be automatically excluded from certain social rights. The anger with which de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex was probably more complicated than the anger we may feel today about those various forms of the exclusion of women and the feminine. It is possible to see, as Margaret Walters so aptly pointed out, that de Beauvoir's own project was to replicate many aspects of the privileges of the privileged male. At the same time, we might regard de Beauvoir's critical account of motherhood and "traditional" femininity as suspiciously close to a defence of her own inner space; all this, and the endless speculation about de Beauvoir's own life, will no doubt provide different readings of The Second Sex for decades to come.

Reading The Second Sex for the first time, in the early 1960s, I thought it was a study of the past. Once I became a professional academic, I thought it a pertinent account of the present world of universities, less because of its detailed accounts of particular contexts than because of its assertion of the centrality of gender difference to social and intellectual life. In a world that was often dismissive of or simply embarrassed by such a difference, The Second Sex was (and remains) encouragement for the possibilities of transformation.

Mary Evans is visiting fellow, Gender Institute, London School of Economics.


By Christopher Tilley

Landscape has long been central to archaeology as the context within which sites and monuments are preserved, and as a long-lived dynamic entity deserving explanation. Intellectual tussles over the interpretation of ancient landscapes have seen the pendulum of endeavour swing back and forth between Romanticist and Enlightenment traditions but always driving thinking forward in what Andrew Sherratt characterised as the "European cultural dialectic". The mid-20th century belonged to Modernists bent on determining order and progression in landscape evolution. A blizzard of aerial photographs captured by the pioneers of aviation opened up exciting new vistas and a wealth of previously unsuspected remains. The meticulous historical geography of W.G. Hoskins, epitomised by his The Making of the English Landscape in 1955, and detailed fieldwork by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments in England and sister bodies in Wales and Scotland made for a Golden Age of landscape archaeology, leading some to declare the whole of Britain one huge archaeological site. So where could research go next?

The answer came in Chris Tilley's A Phenomenology of Landscape, which melded anthropology with social theory to create a new application of cultural relativism for the interpretation of spaces and places. It is a book almost every archaeologist wishes he or she had written, and it holds the record as the fastest-selling volume from the tables of Oxbow Books when it was launched in 1994 at a meeting of the Theoretical Archaeology Group in Bradford.

At its heart is an analysis of how individuals experience the world now and in the past, using the relationship between "Being" and "Being-in-the-World" to unfold the process of "objectification" through which people set themselves apart from their world. To be human, Tilley argues, involves first creating a gap between the self and what is beyond and then trying to bridge that gap through perception, bodily actions, movements, emotions and awareness, which are structured and given meaning through systems of belief.

Alongside the phenomenology of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty are studies in the social construction of landscape by small-scale societies as diverse as the Baktaman of Papua New Guinea and the Mistassini Cree Indians of Quebec. The idea of landscape as a set of relational places linked by pathways, movements and narratives is then used to explore case studies in the Neolithic sites of Pembrokeshire and the Black Mountains of Wales and Cranborne Chase in southern England. Tilley's methodology of capturing observation and experience is easily replicated, thus making it a book that launched 1,000 theses documenting how undergraduates and postgraduates alike investigated space and place in landscapes across the British Isles and beyond.

More than a decade on, it is still widely cited. Andrew Fleming and others have picked away at the fieldwork, and questioned how contemporary observations can be back-projected to the experiences of prehistory, but its significant long-term influence can easily be seen in the emergent biographical approaches to landscape, including my own for the Stonehenge area, and the many recent innovative studies of materiality, temporality and the social use of space.

Timothy Darvill is professor of archaeology and director of the Centre for Archaeology, Anthropology and Heritage, Bournemouth University.


By E. R. Dodds

The Greeks and the Irrational opens with an encounter in the British Museum. E.R. Dodds was busy looking at the Elgin marbles when a young man interrupted: "I know it's an awful thing to confess, but this Greek stuff doesn't move me one bit. It's all so terribly rational."

Were the ancient Greeks really the calm, intellectual rationalists that the young man thought? "That is the question", Dodds explains, "out of which this book grew."

In answering with a resounding "no", Dodds was not the first to attack the idea that classical culture was essentially rational, and that its greatest achievements (from pre-Socratic science to Aristotelian logic and beyond) were cerebral. Fifty years earlier, Jane Harrison - the first professional female academic that Britain ever produced - had explored the violent, messy, irrational world that lay under the shimmering white exterior of Greek religion, earning herself the nickname "Bloody Jane" in the process.

Dodds did it better. Combining sharp philological skills (he was, after all, professor of Greek at the University of Oxford) with wide reading in anthropology and the human sciences more generally, he showed how wrong it was to ignore the inspired dreams of the Homeric heroes, or the murderous ecstasy of the maenads of Dionysus. Classical culture was defined not simply by its intellectual achievements, but by an extraordinarily productive combination of the austerely rational and the wildly irrational. Craziness was part of the classical world.

His book changed the face of classical studies for ever. Much of the most important work in the history of ancient culture (for example the revolutionary studies of Greek myth and religion by Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet) goes back to this book.

But The Greeks and the Irrational was influential not only in a narrowly academic sense. In its closing pages, Dodds reflects on why ancient irrationality still matters today - words that hark back to the first delivery of the book as a series of lectures given at Berkeley in 1949. In that immediate postwar period, Dodds saw that rational behaviour (then as now) was a fragile thing. The message of the book is that if we want to understand our own madness, we might well start by reflecting on the madness of others. He did not deal in crude comparisons. But you could not read the book without seeing that ancient culture still had something very modern to offer.

And who were the readers? Professional academics, of course, and they continue to read it as a major contribution to the history of ancient culture. But there were thousands more, schoolchildren among them, wondering what was the point of learning Latin and Greek. Dodds gave them an answer they could believe in - that the ancient world was still exciting and relevant.

I was one of those kids. The Greeks and the Irrational answered my question, just as it must have answered that of the disgruntled young man in the British Museum. It reminded me of why Classics still mattered.

Mary Beard is professor of Classics, Newnham College, Cambridge.


By Claude Meillassoux

Every one of us who knows the great anthropologists, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway's Nobel acceptance speech, could make our own selection according to our knowledge and our conscience. My selection of Claude Meillassoux's Anthropologie Economique des Gouro de Cote d'Ivoire (1964) will not therefore be uncontested. It did, however, provide our intellectual history with a paradigm break, in Thomas Kuhn's sense, at a time when British structural functionalism and Levi-Straussian structuralism were beginning to reach their sell-by dates. Most importantly, his work has stood the test of time.

His paradigmatic break was really located in his seminal article "Essai d'interpretation de phenomene economique dans les societes traditionelles d'autosubsistance", published in 1960 in Cahiers d'etudes Africaines. A former student recently recalled a colleague arriving in the Cafe La Sorbonne feverishly branding an issue of the Cahiers and shouting: "I have just discovered the article that will change the face of anthropology."

Meillassoux's work was responsible for the sudden rise of research in economic anthropology, initially in France and then in the UK and further afield. As the Gouro was not translated into English, anglophone students often knew its context better than its content, with many of them not encountering Meillassoux's work directly until reading his translated works, such as his contributions to Economy & Society ("From reproduction to production", 1972) and Femmes, Greniers et Capitaux (his 1975 book published in English in 1981 as Maidens, Meal and Money). By that time, his work had fashioned new perspectives within anthropology and the social sciences, especially in the Marxist intellectual community where he in effect put an end to sterile debates about the Asiatic "mode of production" and the relevance of "base" and "superstructure" to pre-capitalist societies.

Meillassoux's familial experience as a factory-owning member of the French bourgeoisie, along with his education at a US business school, gave painful insights into the capitalist system that led him to read Marx. It was not Marx's limited writings on pre-capitalist societies that struck Meillassoux, but his analysis of capitalism. Meillassoux's application of Marx's method of analysis of capitalism to pre-capitalist societies, especially the logic of commencing with production rather than exchange, enabled him to accomplish the real goal of historical materialism.

I personally benefited immensely from Meillassoux's work. Like many other researchers of the 1960s and 1970s, I was able to make better sense of my subject matter, the Tuareg, thanks to his insights. I also travelled extensively with him in Africa, by which time his seminal analyses - of the articulation of capitalism with traditional economies; lineage-based societies and the construction of nation states; neo-colonialism and imperialism; development and underdevelopment; not least his contribution to women's and slavery studies - had given us a profoundly better understanding of the colonial and post-colonial worlds.

His legacy is twofold. First, he demonstrated how academic research and political engagement, intellectual responsibility and militancy could be combined. Second, he placed economics in its proper place, as a branch of economic anthropology.

If the "masters of the universe", whose education he once shared, had only half his insight into the workings of capitalism, it is unlikely they would have so wantonly destroyed the Anglo-American version of it. Nor would we have chancellors boasting the end of "boom and bust" or advocating "quantitative easing", a practice hitherto regarded as the hallmark of banana republics.

Jeremy Keenan is professorial research associate, department of social anthropology and sociology, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.


By Carl von Clausewitz

On War bestrides its subject like a colossus - "not simply the greatest, but the only great book about war", pronounced the US strategic thinker Bernard Brodie, an authority not given to hyperbole. Few would dissent. Yet it is, on the face of it, an unlikely eminence. Carl von Clausewitz's great book is a baggy monster, with all the makings of Honore de Balzac's unknown masterpiece: a work continually reconceived and for ever unfinished; a sprawling mass of incoherence, spoiled by ambition.

Vom Kriege was first published, posthumously, in three volumes between 1832 and 1834. Its author died in 1831 at the age of 51, after fighting and writing his way through the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars in the service of the Prussian Army. Clausewitz was a scholar and a practitioner, a professional soldier and an omnivorous autodidact. He was also a compulsive writer. On War was to be his summa.

He began with the idea of encapsulating his subject aphoristically, a la Montesquieu, in bite-size chapters called kernels. After many years of working and reworking, these morsels turned into a full meal. At his death, On War had been elaborated into eight parts, only one of which was revised to his satisfaction. Clausewitz had cooked up a feast. The menu, however, was incomplete. The dishes were in disarray; the ingredients muddled; the order of the courses moot. But oh how we have gorged ever since.

The aphoristic thrust remains. "Everything in war is very simple," says Clausewitz, "but the simplest thing is very difficult. The aggressor is always peace-loving ... he would prefer to take over our country unopposed." Modern military thinking takes its cue from his fundamental tenets, many of which have entered the language. "War is merely the continuation of policy by other means." "Action in war is like movement in a resistant element" - his famous "friction". His emphasis on "the fog of war" chimes with his preoccupation with the play of chance. Clausewitzian wisdom has a timeless ring to it. "In war the result is never final."

On War was first translated into English in 1873. A century later, in 1976, Michael Howard and Peter Paret published a new translation that is now standard. That same year I made my first acquaintance with it, in a small undergraduate class in a cell-like seminar room in All Souls College, Oxford. This was the special subject in "Military history and the theory of war", taught by none other than Michael Howard, who arrived at our first meeting with an armful of Clausewitz, in English, French and German, and advised us, urbanely, to get started. The class was exciting and terrifying in equal measure. I was hooked. Twenty years later, my former tutor introduced me to the widow of Basil Liddell Hart, "the Clausewitz of the 20th century", an encounter that led to a biography of that remarkable figure. The process of transmission is also subject to the play of chance.

On War is a vade mecum and Clausewitz a kind of familiar. I have a foggy feeling that he hasn't finished with me yet.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, University of Nottingham. His latest book is On Art and War and Terror (2009).


By Richard Hoggart

The Uses of Literacy has been continuously in print for 52 years. When Richard Hoggart sent the manuscript to Chatto, the publishers let it lie for a long time, decided to publish, were told by the lawyers that it was dangerously libellous and predicted that when it finally came out it would prove to be a steady enough back-shelf seller.

It instantly became a succes d'estime and a scandal. What sort of thing, after all, was it? Was it sociology? No, not enough numbers. Was it autobiography? No, too much generalisation. If it was about working-class history, where were the unions, the blackened faces and hobnailed boots; where was the General Strike? Was it literary criticism? Well, perhaps, but then who on earth would write criticism of sex-and-violence thrillers or agony columns?

Like all great works, The Uses of Literacy created for itself a quite new form. Hoggart had found the historical theory that was latent in the teaching of English literature he studied at university at once compellingly confident, and wrong. It taught that the old self-explanatory decorum and sacred rhythms of an agrarian culture were gone, and that mass commercial and subhuman forms of popular art had replaced them.

It was and is a powerful story; single-handedly, Hoggart rebutted it. He brought F.R. Leavis' practical criticism to bear on the moralising saws and dicta of his class ("landscape with figures"), on the great but living archetype of the working-class mother, on the goodness of "a good table", its "tasty" black puddings and tinned salmon, on the great swell of feeling accompanying the songs at the club, on "the close-ribbed streets" (in Philip Larkin's words) "like a great sigh out of the last century". There he found not a lost proletariat but a mighty continuity, a strong, living and active culture, carried by the old big words, for sure - solidarity, neighbourliness, community - but also by its jokes, its tiny gestures, its biking excursions and seaside outings, its downright bloody-mindedness before the facts of political life.

At the halfway mark, the book changes tone. "Unbending the springs of action" tells us of the softening of old resilience and uncovers on the page a new literacy of reflex cynicism. Hoggart takes a grim but minutely careful roll call of an imaginative class life nourished by a corrupt and phoney mateyness in its daily and weekly papers, and distracted from boredom by the deathly fictions of brutal punch-ups and panting, pointless sexual sadism.

Accused of indiscipline, the book created a new discipline of itself. Cultural studies sprang autochthonously alive at the University of Birmingham. Worldwide it became a new sort of multicultural and industrial anthropology.

The subject is nowadays liable to doses of moral hypochondria, sanctimony and dreadful prose no doubt, but it keeps alive Hoggart's originary vision of the evaluation of ordinary life, the cherishing and the sharp criticism of, in the master's later title, "the way we live now".

When the now 50-year-old and international confederation falters, it needs only to go back to its founding father. Hoggart teaches by example how to shape and hold the defining practice of the human sciences. In his great book, we see and feel how judicious objectivity and loving kindness become synonyms, and feel directly how keen moral sympathy dissolves into historical understanding.

Fred Inglis is emeritus professor of cultural studies, University of Sheffield.


By William Sheridan Allen

When William Sheridan Allen's The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922-1945 was first published, it broke new ground in a number of ways. It was the first detailed study of politics and everyday life in a small German town while the Third Reich was being established. Unlike most other books in the field, it carried the story back to the early years of the Weimar Republic and on to the end of the Third Reich. It was based on extensive and in-depth interviews with local inhabitants, from the town's former Nazi leaders to their Social Democratic opponents, all of whom Allen had evidently charmed into speaking with unprecedented openness and frankness. All of this made it a unique and enduring contribution to scholarship.

The book was immediately greeted with enthusiasm on all sides and quickly became a classic. It has remained in print ever since. There have been many other local and regional studies in the decades since Allen's book was first published that followed the trail it first mapped out, but none of them has achieved the intimacy of detail conveyed in Allen's classic work. He presents us with innumerable anecdotes, vignettes and stories that bring home how the Nazis took over a small German town and what this subsequently meant for its inhabitants.

Three main arguments in the book are particularly important. First, Allen shows how the Third Reich was established in 1933 as much "from below", on the streets, as it was "from above" in the corridors of the Reich administration.

Second, he shows how the Nazis established and maintained their hold on the town, and by extension on Germany, by force, and how they took over every local organisation, from football clubs to male-voice choirs, and turned them into Nazi institutions.

Third, and finally, he shows how the Nazis failed in their attempt to instil in the population positive enthusiasm for the Third Reich, and had to be content by the late 1930s with mere lip service to their ideals.

The aspect of Allen's book that seems most dated now is its insistence that the Nazis succeeded in atomising German society. More recent historians would argue that some group cohesion remained, most notably in the churches, which receive too little attention in the book. But The Nazi Seizure of Power remains a key text of social and political history; without it, for example, I would not have paid so much attention to the local, the ordinary and the everyday in my own work on Nazi Germany. In 1984, Allen produced a second edition, incorporating a mass of new documentary evidence and restoring the real name of the town, Northeim, disguised in the first edition as "Thalburg", along with the real names of his interviewees. In its final form, Allen's classic work remains required reading for everyone interested in Nazi Germany.

Richard Evans is Regius professor of modern history, University of Cambridge.


By Thomas Hobbes

A colleague once defined a political theorist as someone who was obsessed with 24 books. Many of us are obsessed with one. Some with Plato's Republic, others with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract, and I with Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan.

When Leviathan was published in 1651, its immediate purpose seemed clear to many of Hobbes' critics. Hobbes was in exile in Paris with the future Charles II. He had been very ill, and had no way of knowing that he would live for another 28 years and die in his 90th year. He wanted to go home. The message of Leviathan was clear: political authority existed to secure peace; a man who accepted the benefits of a stable government - peace, and the enjoyment of his property - had in all essentials agreed to obey that government. Previous promises to a government, or to a regime such as that of Charles I, had been invalidated by its inability to protect its subjects' lives and possessions. The late king's subjects were free to make their peace with Oliver Cromwell and live under the Commonwealth.

But Leviathan was vastly more ambitious than was needed to justify Hobbes' decision to go home. It marked an intellectual revolution. Its sweep is extraordinary; it begins with an uncompromisingly materialist picture of nature and of mankind as part of that nature; that launches a bold and not always credible account of human psychology - of how we, constituted as thinking machines, feel, reason and act. Hobbes' 17th-century readers were much offended by his naturalistic view of religion: belief in God comes from the same source as a belief in ghosts, which is to say our anxiety about the future and our wish to understand the causes of things. Religion, in the sense of the doctrines taught by authorised churches, was, as he had told Bishop Bramhall, "law not philosophy". Peace-minded subjects would say whatever they were required to say in public and entertain whatever private beliefs seemed plausible.

The centrepiece of Leviathan, however, is "the warre of all against alle". Hobbes imagines us without government, laws or police; in such conditions, we must, however peaceful we might like to be, take steps to preserve ourselves that will inevitably result in war. The reasoning was rediscovered in the 1950s, when states possessed the ability to wipe out an opposing state by a nuclear first strike, but had no ability to strike second. Absent government, we can kill another, but have no way to retaliate once dead. Absent an adequate deterrent to attacks by others, we must, as rational creatures, strike first - however little we want to. Not, of course, that everyone will not want to: Hobbes was eloquent on the subject of the antisocial emotions, and insisted that "man is born inapt for society".

Given government, our peaceful and co-operative natures can be liberated. No wonder Hobbes, in a rare moment of reverence for his "great Leviathan", referred to government as "that Mortall God, to which wee owe, under the Immortal God, our peace and defence".

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.


By Judith Butler

There is one feminist philosopher who has been loved and hated in equal measure by her academic peers. This has made her best-known text an enduring presence within the feminist canon, however adulatory or ambivalent the attitudes of those who cite it. I refer, of course, to Gender Trouble by Judith Butler, published in the UK in 1990.

Why was this book so significant? Butler was far from the first to break with essentialising biological conceptions of sexual difference, which had for so long been used to subordinate women in general, dictating so many of the constraints used to hobble them. By the time women's studies was launched towards the end of the 1970s, feminist writers had already begun exploring the compelling cultural mythologies underpinning our polarised assumptions of gender and sexuality, so routinely framing the "feminine" as subservient to the "masculine", while also investigating the complex institutional and social practices that maintain hierarchical gender practices, from bedrooms to boardrooms and billboards to governmental bills. Whether citing de Beauvoir's axiom, "one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman", or Gayle Rubin's anthropological reading of diverse but ubiquitous sex/gender systems regulating reproductive and emotional labour, feminist scholars were already familiar with the complexities of the cultural production of gendered subjects, usually referred to, somewhat awkwardly, as "social constructions".

What was innovative about Gender Trouble, however, was that here, for the first time, gender and sexuality were fully liberated from any stable notion of intrinsic sexed identity, female or male, and from any secure attributions of identity, feminine or masculine, except as performatively monitored, incited, named and marked in discourse: women are neither born, nor made; but our bodily actions are rendered intelligible via, and only via, the involuntary performance (or flouting) of the discourses grounding gender in the prescriptive matrix of heterosexual desire.

It was this coercively produced cultural reiteration of diverse bodily gestures, movements and enactments that together created the illusion of an abiding gendered self. Whatever actions or events happen to fall outside the heteronormative framing, linking femininity to passivity and subordination, masculinity to activity and dominance, remained abject, unmarked or occluded in language.

The dynamic and liberating aspect of Butler's writing was that gender trouble was always imminent, however painfully, or playfully, expressed. Gender Trouble helped launch the birth of queer studies in the 1990s, with its exuberant celebrations of sexual dissidence, and frequent disdain for the feminist scholarship from which it grew, even as Butler herself was, and remained, embedded in a feminist trajectory.

This book was certainly a difficult text to absorb. Its reworking of Foucauldian genealogies and Derridean deconstructions was seen by some feminist critics as too distanced from their immediate concerns with the intransigent materialities of gender subordination and denigration. Women's place as the chief handmaidens and perennial victims or scapegoats in the global terrain clearly survived any and all conceptual challenges to gender binaries, whether in theatres of semiotic sabotage or the abstractions of feminist scholarship.

Butler was herself the first to highlight the misuse of her text and the limits of deconstruction and transgressive performance as a means of dismantling traditional binaries, which by their nature can be endlessly reiterated and renewed. Nevertheless, in emphasising the permeabilities between authenticity and artifice in the gender arena, alongside the fraught fragility of those oppositional markers of heterosexuality, Butler's text remains as pertinent as ever.

Lynne Segal is professor of psychology and gender studies, Birkbeck, University of London.


By Juhani Pallasmaa

This little book (just 32 pages on publication) burst upon the architectural scene in 1995. After rapidly selling out, it passed from hand to hand in photocopied form. It has since been augmented and updated (it is now some 55 pages) and seems to be as popular among students and architects as it ever was.

It was written by the Finnish architect and critic Juhani Pallasmaa and was inspired by his concern about the way that architecture was conceived, taught and critiqued as though no other sense mattered apart from vision. The book is structured in two sections. The first focuses on "occularcentrism", its origins and manifestations, and culminates in a new vision of a sensorially balanced architecture. The second part is devoted to "the interactions of the senses". Here, Pallasmaa gives some "personal impressions of the realms of the senses in the expression and experience of architecture". One of these, his highly visceral description of the physical exertion of opening a cathedral door, must have inspired me to write about the relationship between body and architectural detail, one of the central themes of my own work, although I would never have acknowledged it at the time.

In writing the book, Pallasmaa provided a generation of students and architects with a shared platform from which to debate the importance of the senses in architecture - this at a time when architecture was recovering from the autonomous excesses of Post-Modernism and had been captured within the shiny cold carapace of High-Tech. It responded to a real hunger for authenticity, for the celebration of construction as embodied experience, to the tongue-tingling delights of touch and sound - smell, although so very evocative of memory, always takes a back seat in such discussions. Simultaneously it at last gave licence to generations of architects, unable to swallow feminist ideas about the embodied nature of knowledge, to take their own subjective experiences seriously while at the same time retaining some semblance of academic and professional credibility - a slightly dead-end street, but one that was to prove cathartic.

What makes the book so very useful, from a teaching point of view, is that it provides a potted summary of sensory thinking based on the ideas of phenomenology. This enables architecture students, continually scavenging for new ideas, to get on with their latest design project instead of spending long hours in the library struggling to make sense of Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Hans-Georg Gadamer and the differences between them.

The danger, however, is one of oversimplification, and it has left this book subject to much criticism in recent years. However, none of this negates its extreme importance as polemic. I find that my mind is clogged up with readings of the book, second-hand from students and from other sources, that have distorted its innate usefulness and clarity - so it is a pleasure to discover it anew once more.

Flora Samuel is reader in architecture, University of Bath.


By Friedrich Schleiermacher

Friedrich Schleiermacher is often called the father of modern theology. In 1799 he published a little book, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, without which modern theology cannot be understood. There are two great themes in the book, best expressed in the second and fifth speeches. One is an attempt to define the essence of religion as "the sense and taste for the infinite". The other is his view that "each religion is one of the particular forms eternal and infinite religion necessarily had to assume".

He argues that religion is not primarily a matter of doctrines or a system of morality. It is a matter of feeling or intuition (Anschauung). By this he means an immediate apprehension, not a mere subjective state. But it is a sui generis apprehension of what he variously calls the infinite, the whole, the one-in-the-all or the eternal. Reflecting William Blake's Auguries of Innocence, he writes: "To be one with the infinite in the midst of the finite, and to be eternal in a moment, that is the immortality of religion."

Schleiermacher virtually invented the concept of "religion" as a distinctive category, and he inaugurated the Romantic idea that the essence of religion was personal experience of a distinctive sort. In this he was to be followed by Rudolf Otto, William James and scholars in the phenomenology of religion. His basic thesis proved very controversial, and his claims that there is an essence of religion as such, that religion is founded on experience, and that things such as miracles or revelations are fanciful elaborations of basic "intuitions of the infinite", are highly debatable. But without such debate no informed study of religions can take place.

His second great contribution was to inaugurate a global understanding of religions, thus inventing comparative religion. He held that each religious tradition was founded on a distinctive central intuition of the relation of finite and infinite. Since each intuition was partial, many diverse intuitions would found different traditions, and they should all be accepted: "Let the universe be intuited and worshipped in all ways." So he upheld freedom of choice and a wide tolerance in religion. He rejected "natural theology" as too abstract and intellectual, and held that each religion should be studied in its historical origin and particularity, not reduced to some universal highest common factor of belief (that is, all intuitions of the infinite are unique and diverse).

Schleiermacher was a Prussian Reformed pastor and highly successful preacher, who later wrote a large book on the Christian faith. He thought that Christianity was the highest form of religion. So he is criticised both for reducing Christianity to one religion among others, and for affirming the superiority of the Christian faith. The issues of religious diversity, of a global understanding of religions in all their diversity and of how Christianity is to be interpreted, remain significant. It is unlikely that Schleiermacher's views are defensible in their original form. But without addressing his work seriously, any understanding of modern theology or religious studies will be culpably negligent.

Keith Ward is Regius professor of divinity emeritus, University of Oxford.


By Erving Goffman

You are walking along a city street and pass a stranger going the opposite way. Chances are that you very briefly scan the face of the other before almost immediately glancing away. In that tiny and evanescent exchange of glances nests a whole swath of social development. It was Erving Goffman's achievement to show how and why. In looking away very quickly, we show our respect for the privacy of the multitude of strangers we pass on the pavement: that is to say, we define them as "strangers". As he puts it in his first and in many ways his major work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956), "in a public place one is supposed to keep one's nose out of other people's activity and go about one's business". Goffman calls the brief glance individuals give each other in urban settings "civil inattention". His point is that the ordered nature of city life doesn't just happen - it is "done", "achieved", by all of us in thousands of different ways every single day.

So much of what we do, in conjunction with other people - in informal as well as formal or more impersonal settings - depends on minute control of the gaze. Only in a few circumstances of social life does it happen that one holds the gaze of the other. Lovers look deeply into each other's eyes, and doing so is part of "doing" being in love. Gazing - "staring" - at the other, however, can also be an expression of hate.

Goffman used these observations to create extraordinary insights into the nature of "madness". Those who we label "mad", both in a "serious" and in a more trivial day-to-day sense, either cannot or will not deploy the cues that "normal" people routinely make use of. The mentally disturbed sit or stand too close to others, and either stare at them or refuse the gaze of the other altogether; they don't "listen" to what the other is saying, or interrupt "rudely" and aggressively.

Everyday life, Goffman showed, is a performance that can be likened to role-playing on the stage. Around this theme he was able to develop a whole theory of the emotional content of self. Freud regarded repression as internal to the personality. Goffman showed that emotions are also managed socially. People - for instance, waiters in restaurants - give vent in the "back region" (the kitchen) to their frustrations with the customers that they can't express while serving them.

The Presentation of Self has influenced almost every social science discipline, including especially sociology, social psychology, anthropology and linguistics. The book was crucial to my work. I took from Goffman the theme that "society" is an active and continuous accomplishment of all of us, not just - as Emile Durkheim argued - an "external" force. The impact of the book has extended through to theatre studies (naturally), media and cultural studies - and to the theatre itself. I don't know whether or not Goffman directly influenced Harold Pinter, but their writing ranges over much the same territory, especially the explosive mix of anxiety, rage, jealousy and hatred that lurks on the other side of everyday rituals of politeness or decorum.

Anthony Giddens is a Labour peer in the House of Lords.


By Jonathan Wordsworth

Jonathan Wordsworth's volume William Wordsworth: The Borders of Vision is not only one of the finest on its subject of the past half-century; it is also one of the most eloquent expositions of British poetry in general. It was the distillation of decades of experience of reading and teaching poetry and was widely attacked on its first appearance, both for being insufficiently attentive to US criticism and for being overly respectful of it (depending on which journal one read). The truth was, its author had less interest in secondary works than in the poetry itself - and therein lay the value of his work.

It begins with the conceit that writers in the British tradition have always been aware of what the author calls "the border state", in which things - people, animals, natural objects - "are enviable not just for their peacefulness, but because in their extreme passivity they approach, or seem to approach, a boundary that is the entrance to another world". That observation (though anticipated by a number of earlier critics) has less to do with critical schools of literary thought, none of which Jonathan was attached to, than it has with the essential qualities of the verse. From that small acorn, he elucidates a compelling and provocative reading of Wordsworth's greatest poetry, beginning with that of 1798 and 1802, and running through the entire Thirteen-Book Prelude of 1805.

Jonathan's central strategy was not to theorise; instead he concentrated, unfashionably, on what the poet meant to say - his sensitive, detailed readings being informed by patient study of Wordsworth's manuscripts. Unlike other interpreters, Jonathan placed the poet first, and the critic second; no other commentator would have framed his interpretation with the remark: "None of this needs an explanation - the poetry can stand on its own without support."

It was hardly surprising that reviewers disliked it. Its unfavourable reception dissipated Jonathan's appetite for writing commentary and, although he published much else before his death in 2006, The Borders of Vision was his last critical outing of any substance. For all that, it enjoys continuing popularity among readers, providing not only an excellent introduction to the first-generation Romantics but everything one needs to appreciate the poetry of other periods. I don't see Romanticism as Jonathan did, nor do I agree with everything he says, but throughout my work I've followed him in endeavouring to understand whomever I study as they might comprehend themselves - and, if possible, to see the world from their vantage point, at least as a first step. Nor am I the only one. The Borders of Vision has exerted an influence on the work of Nicholas Roe, Michael O'Neill, Stephen Gill and Lucy Newlyn, among others, and provides a source of strength to those who persist in believing (against more sophisticated authorities) that not only do poets intend something by their work, but that, at its best, poetry has the power to alter the psychological, emotional and physical constitution of its readers.

Duncan Wu is professor in the English department, Georgetown University.


By Jacques Derrida, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

When it appeared, the book's title suggested an ancient tome on an obscure science, while the subject - the relation between speech and writing - seemed unpromisingly narrow. The author's name, however, had been heard with increasing frequency within the English-speaking academy over the previous few years, and the fact that the major writer discussed, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was as much a literary as a philosophical figure no doubt encouraged curious readers in literature departments. The upshot was that the 1976 translation of Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology became one of the most influential works in literary theory to be published in the second half of the 20th century.

I was probably better prepared than many who embarked on the book, having first encountered Derrida's work when I was a PhD student six or seven years earlier, and having an interest in the relation between linguistic theory and literary criticism. Nevertheless, Derrida's invitation to push my thinking to the very limit of its capability presented a considerable challenge. The argument about speech and writing turned out to be an investigation of the inadequacy of logical thought and empirical deduction in dealing with the fundamental operations of language and meaning. What made this project more difficult - for its author and for the reader - was Derrida's acknowledgement that the tools at his disposal were none other than logical thought and empirical deduction.

At times, Derrida's writing engages in what one might call "literary" manoeuvres as a way of finessing this problem - one reason why the philosophical establishment has often found his work hard to stomach. But the bulk of Of Grammatology offers careful readings of particular texts, by writers including the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, as well as Rousseau, to reveal a repeated pattern in the treatment of the speech/writing relationship. (Later, Derrida would find related patterns in Plato, Hegel and J. L. Austin, among others.) The fullest and most direct manifestation of language is taken by these authors to be speech, while writing is regarded, and often condemned, as imperfect and unreliable, temporally and spatially distanced from its source in consciousness. What Derrida's meticulous analysis shows is that these writers - and this is a measure of their distinction rather than their fallibility - find themselves unable to sustain this hierarchical opposition, with the very characteristics for which writing is censured continually cropping up in their accounts of speech.

On the basis of these readings, Derrida posits a generalised notion of "arche-writing": a condition of displacement and deferral that underlies both speech and writing, making them possible but also setting limits to their operation. What disturbs the founding principles of Western thought (and "common sense") is that this argument cannot be articulated in plain syllogistic language. Speech both is, and is not, writing. Literature, however, comes into its own when logic fails, testing and exploring the reach of language, so it is not too surprising that this difficult work of philosophy became, and has remained, essential reading for the literary theorist.

Derek Attridge is professor of English at the University of York.


By John Maynard Keynes

John Maynard Keynes wrote The General Theory in the 1930s during the Great Depression. It is his most influential book - arguably the most significant economics text of the 20th century. While his ideas fell out of favour during the decades of monetarism, economists are returning to Keynesianism in the face of a relatively severe global recession.

Keynes' earlier works were controversial in parts, but The General Theory represents his most revolutionary undertaking: in it, he constructs a significant attack on laissez-faire economics. He asserts that: unemployment is not voluntary - workers "are not more truculent in the depression"; consumption "is the sole end" and, at best, saving is "a mere residual"; worse, the "paradox of thrift" stops spending, exacerbates involuntary unemployment and lengthens slumps. Keynes believes that laissez-faire doctrine provides an overly optimistic, confused account of how to lower unemployment: "The wild duck has dived down to the bottom as deep as she can get - bitten fast hold of the weed and tangle and all the rubbish that is down there."

Consumption and investment are central to prosperity for Keynes, but "liquidity fetishes" fuel speculation: while speculators are harmless if they are "bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise", in unregulated financial markets instability emerges when speculators dominate. When economic development is "a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done". Given endemic uncertainty, entrepreneurs' profit expectations interact with psychological factors, including "animal spirits" (spontaneous urges to act), "nerves ... hysteria ... digestions and reactions to the weather". Even ephemeral fluctuations in confidence and the "political and social atmosphere congenial to the average businessman" will dampen animal spirits and choke private investment. None of this is irrational, he notes; the fragility of decisions reflects uncertainty and the "extreme precariousness" of knowledge.

These prescriptions are enduring and topical today. Low interest rates encourage investment but loose monetary policy is not a complete panacea during slumps. Keynes is sceptical of "merely monetary policy" advocating "comprehensive socialisation" of investment while harnessing private initiative. He suggests, facetiously, if we "fill old bottles with bank-notes, bury them in disused coalmines filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise to dig the notes up again, there need be no more unemployment". In financial markets, intervention is needed to slow destabilising speculation but money-making is not necessarily destructive: "dangerous human proclivities can be canalised into comparatively harmless channels ... better that a man should tyrannise over his bank balance than over his fellow-citizens".

While its building blocks have origins elsewhere, The General Theory offers a unique, provocative synthesis that inspired generations of economists and spawned a giant body of interpretative literature. Keynes' language is archaic and the book is mysterious in places, but his writing is passionate and full of colourful, humorous metaphor. He admits he has no definitive answers, warning that "ideas, not vested interests ... are dangerous ... Practical men are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back": as true today as it was in 1936.

Michelle Baddeley is fellow, college lecturer and director of studies in economics, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.


By Ferdinand de Saussure

Ferdinand de Saussure's lectures at the University of Geneva in the years 1907-11 transformed modern views about the most universal and distinctive activity of the biological species Homo sapiens: language.

After Saussure's death in 1913, his teachings were reconstructed from his students' lecture notes and published in 1916 by two of his colleagues at Geneva. This publication, the Cours de linguistique generale, was to become one of the most influential manifestos of the 20th century. It not only proclaimed the academic autonomy of modern general linguistics, but set up a landmark in the emergence of the broader current of Western thought known as "structuralism". Translations into Japanese, German and Russian appeared during the interwar period.

Saussure proposed to treat linguistics as one branch of semiology, the more general science of signs in society. This opened up new perspectives in the analysis of human communication of all kinds. His basic ideas were later appropriated and misappropriated in the study of art, literature, philosophy and social anthropology.

The most ironic of these misappropriations is that which, in retrospect, identifies Saussure as one of the sources of postmodernism, a movement that Saussure, had he lived to see it, would have found shallow and intellectually rebarbative. The postmodernists mainly responsible for this gross misreading of Saussure were Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, with some second-hand assistance from the likes of Roman Jakobson and Claude Levi-Strauss. For anglophone readers, an approach to Saussure is additionally bedevilled by the appalling American translation published in 1959, which still seems to be in use in some universities.

When not viewed through the distorting prisms of postmodernism and mistranslation, the Cours de linguistique generale can be seen as a revolutionary text. The revolution in question is some-times described as "Copernican", and the term is not inappropriate. For Copernicus replaced one view of what revolved around what in the solar system with a quite different view. Saussure, for his part, treats words not as being peripheral to non-verbal reality, but our understanding of reality as revolving about the human use of verbal signs.

This marks a radical break with a whole philosophical tradition. Words are no longer to be seen as vocal labels attached to things and qualities that are given in advance by God or Nature, or to ideas already grasped independently by the human mind. On the contrary, languages themselves, viewed as collective products of social interaction, supply the conceptual frameworks for the human analysis of reality and, simultaneously, the verbal equipment for our description of it. The concepts we use are creations of the language we speak. And that includes our metalinguistic concepts.

Viewed in this light, the Cours de linguistique generale is still the key text of modern linguistics. It poses a challenge that subsequent theorists, including the current champions of generativism and so-called cognitive science, have yet to face up to, or perhaps even to grasp the full implications of.

Roy Harris is emeritus professor of general linguistics, University of Oxford.


By Edward Said

Few 20th-century books have witnessed Silver Jubilee celebrations but, 25 years after the 1978 publication of Edward Said's Orientalism, it was commemorated by his faculty at Columbia University. Months later Said died of cancer at 67, but the book continues to be hailed in lists of the most influential academic works, and still dominates the discipline of postcolonial studies that it kick-started.

Orientalism's groundbreaking importance lies in the connections it makes between culture and empire-building. Drawing on Foucault's theories about the intertwining of power and knowledge, and Gramsci's insistence on the centrality of culture in securing the consent of the dominated, Said argues that colonisation was not merely about territorial expansion, but inculcating in the minds of rulers and ruled that colonisation was to universal advantage.

Said asserts that Western scholarship, and even that supposed bastion of cultural transcendence, art, produces an image of the "Orient" as the Other. Ideas about non-Western peoples are a fantasy created by centuries of "Orientalism", which denotes both scholarly and popular representations of the East. This discourse legitimates Europe's colonial expansion into non-Western countries. Said holds that Orientalist texts defined the Orient through binary oppositions: if the East is always stereotyped as the inferior partner, irrational, primitive and despotic, it enables the West's self-definition as rational, modern and democratic.

The Other that Said examines is largely Muslim and Arab, although he does pay attention to other Others, notably Indians, as depicted by Orientalists such as William Jones. Said was an outspoken proponent of the Palestinian cause and was often believed to have Islamic heritage, but was in fact "a Christian who is culturally Muslim".

Criticisms have been levelled at Orientalism for gender-blindness; inattention to the specificities of history, "the West" and its individual scholars; neglect of indigenous counter-representations or resistance; and philosophical inconsistencies, inter alia, some of which were addressed in Said's later essays. However, Orientalism is arguably more relevant than ever in our Manichean post-9/11 political climate.

Scholars of Muslim history, politics and culture are again turning to Orientalism for its discussion of stereotypes and the culturally imperialist construction of a bifurcated "West" versus the "Muslim world".

Joseph Massad, now also a professor at Columbia, has inherited (and radicalised) Said's legacy in Desiring Arabs and The Persistence of the Palestinian Question. Simultaneously, many rightwingers and Zionists remain hostile to Said's memory, and academics regarded as "Saideans" were pressurised by organisations such as Campus Watch during the George W. Bush Administration. It remains to be seen whether things will change under Barack Obama.

Were it not for Said, I would not be researching postcolonial literature, and Orientalism still informs and nourishes my teaching. Along with Frantz Fanon, Said was the first theorist I truly engaged with, not least for his emphasis on material exploitation as well as representations. The other members of postcolonial theory's "Holy Trinity", Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak, scrutinise it too, but their work seems abstract and abstruse when measured against Said's fearless and unerringly humane call for non-coercive knowledge of other peoples.

Claire Chambers is senior lecturer in postcolonial literature, Leeds Metropolitan University.



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