The Western canon is the body of books and, more broadly, music and art that Western scholars generally accept as the most important and influential in shaping Western culture. As such, it includes work perceived as the greatest works of artistic merit. Such a canon is important to the theory of educational perennialism and the development of high culture. The idea of a Canon has been used to address the question What is Art?; according to this approach, a work is art by comparison to the works in the canon—or conversely, any aesthetic law, to be valid, should not rule out any work included in the canon.
The process of listmaking—defining the boundaries of the canon—is endless. The philosopher John Searle has said, "In my experience there never was, in fact, a fixed 'canon'; there was rather a certain set of tentative judgments about what had importance and quality. Such judgments are always subject to revision, and in fact they were constantly being revised."
One of the notable attempts at compiling an authoritative canon in the English-speaking world was the Great Books of the Western World program. This program, developed in the middle third of the 20th century, grew out of the curriculum at the University of Chicago. University president Robert Maynard Hutchins and his collaborator Mortimer Adler developed a program that offered reading lists, books, and organizational strategies for reading clubs to the general public.
...The true University of these days is a Collection of Books.
There has been an ongoing debate, motivated by politics and social agendas, over the nature and status of the canon since at least the 1960s, much of which is rooted in critical theory, feminism, critical race theory, and Marxist attacks against capitalism and classical liberal principles. In the United States, in particular, the canon has been attacked as a compendium of books written mainly by "dead European men", that does not represent the viewpoints of many in contemporary societies around the world. University of Chicago professor, political philosopher and literary critic Allan Bloom in his bestselling 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, has disagreed strongly. Yale University Professor of Humanities and famous literary critic Harold Bloom (no relation to Allan) has also argued strongly in favor of the canon, and in general the canon remains as a represented idea in many institutions, though its implications continue to be debated.
Defenders maintain that those who undermine the canon do so out of primarily political interests, and that such criticisms are misguided and/or disingenuous. As John Searle has written:
There is a certain irony in this [i.e., politicized objections to the canon] in that earlier student generations, my own for example, found the critical tradition that runs from Socrates through the Federalist Papers, through the writings of Mill and Marx, down to the twentieth century, to be liberating from the stuffy conventions of traditional American politics and pieties. Precisely by inculcating a critical attitude, the "canon" served to demythologize the conventional pieties of the American bourgeoisie and provided the student with a perspective from which to critically analyze American culture and institutions. Ironically, the same tradition is now regarded as oppressive. The texts once served an unmasking function; now we are told that it is the texts which must be unmasked.
One of the main objections to a canon of literature is the question of authority—who should have the power to determine what works are worth reading and teaching? Searle's rebuttal suggests that "one obvious difficulty with it [i.e., arguments against hierarchical ranking of books] is that if it were valid, it would argue against any set of required readings whatever; indeed, any list you care to make about anything automatically creates two categories, those that are on the list and those that are not."
Though there is debate among theorists, individuals such as teachers and students consider works within the canon those best for understanding social and historical contexts from select time periods. Additionally, the works are usually considered a craft and commonly serve as a guide or rule, particularly for senior students, when reading and writing. Altieri (1983) supports this stating canons are "an institutional form for exposing people to a range of idealized attitudes." It is according to this notion that work may be removed from the canon over time to reflect the contextual relevance and thoughts of society.
Works commonly included in the canon include works of fiction, such as some epic poems, poetry, music (especially symphonies), drama, novels, and other assorted forms of literature from the many diverse Western (and more recently non-Western) cultures. Many non-fiction works are also listed, primarily from the areas of religion, mythology, science, philosophy, psychology, economics, politics, and history.
Works that directly address the canon (both for and against):
- Hirsch, E. D.; Trefil, James; Kett, Joseph F. (1988). The dictionary of cultural literacy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 9780395437483.
- Guillory, John (1993). Cultural capital the problem of literary canon formation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226310442.
- Knox, Bernard (1994). The oldest dead white European males and other reflections on the classics. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 9780393312331.
- Bloom, Harold (1995). The Western canon: the books and school of the ages. New York: Riverhead Books. ISBN 9781573225144.
- Owens, W. R. (1996). Shakespeare, Aphra Behn, and the canon. New York: Routledge in association with the Open University. ISBN 9780415135757.
- Bloom, Harold (1998). Shakespeare: the invention of the human. New York: Riverhead Books. ISBN 9781573227513.
- Ross, Trevor (1998). The making of the English literary canon from the Middle Ages to the late eighteenth century. Montreal Que: McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 9780773520806.
- Morrissey, Lee (2005). Debating the canon: a reader from Addison to Nafisi. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781403968203.
- Owens, W. R. (2009), "The Canon and the curriculum", in Gupta, Suman; Katsarska, Milena, English studies on this side: post-2007 reckonings, Plovdiv, Bulgaria: Plovdiv University Press, pp. 47–59, ISBN 9789544235680.
- Gorak, Jan (2013). The making of the modern canon: genesis and crisis of a literary idea. London: Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 9781472513274.
- Carpeaux, Otto Maria (2014). Historia da literatura ocidental [The history of western literature] (in Portuguese). Rio de Janeiro: LeYa. OCLC 889331083 isbn= 9788544101179.
Critics of canons and other lists of works considered to be of a higher aesthetic or intellectual quality point out that in some cases, these lists consist almost exclusively of works and pieces by white males. Literature, music and art from women, non-whites and minority groups are far less represented.
In classical music, during the nineteenth century a view developed that selected pieces from the common practice period formed a "canon" of the most important works. In the 2000s, the standard concert repertoire of professional orchestras, chamber music groups and choirs tends to focus on works by a relatively small number of composers, such as Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. Many of the works deemed to be part of the musical canon are from genres regarded as the most serious, such as the symphony, concerto, string quartet and opera. While women composers do have their works performed, almost all of the commonly-performed works in the standard concert repertoire are by male composers.
Examples of shorter canonical lists of most important works include the following:
- Bibliothèque de la Pléiade
- Great Books of the Western World
- The Harvard Classics
- Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century – books of the 20th century
- Modern Library 100 Best Novels – English-language novels of the 20th century
- ZEIT-Bibliothek der 100 Bücher German Die Zeit list of 100 books
- Library of America, classic American literature
University reading lists reflect the Western canon:
- Brigham Young University's Honors Program's Great Works List
- Catholic University of Portugal program in political science
- St. John's College Great Books reading list (established by Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr)
- Trinity Western University's Great Books Reading List
More comprehensive collections that include large parts of the Western canon include the following:
- Everyman's Library (Modern works)
- The Modern Library
- Penguin Classics
- Oxford World's Classics
- 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die
- Philosopher John Searle suggests that the Western canon can be roughly defined as "a certain Western intellectual tradition that goes from, say, Socrates to Wittgenstein in philosophy, and from Homer to James Joyce in literature..."
- Canons of Elizabethan poetry
- Easton Press – Books That Changed the World series
- Franklin Library – Great Books of the Western World and Oxford Library of the World's Great Books series
- Great Conversation
- Classic book
- World literature
- Liberal arts
- List of books banned by governments
Notes and references
- Leo Tolstoy (1898) What is Art?, p.164
- Searle, John. (1990) "The Storm Over the University", The New York Review of Books, December 6, 1990.
- "The Hero as Man of Letters" (1840)
- Hicks, Stephen. (2004). Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Scholargy Press, p. 18.
"But one thing is certain: wherever the Great Books make up a central part of the curriculum, the students are excited and satisfied."— Allan Bloom (2008) The Closing of the American Mind p.344, Simon and Schuster, New York ISBN 0-671-47990-3
- Bloom, Harold. (1995) The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages Riverhead, ISBN 1-57322-514-2
- Official website of the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade
- Great Works List, Brigham Young University
- "Curriculum". Catholic University of Portugal. Retrieved 2015-01-15.
- The Great Books Reading List at Trinity Western University
- "The English Literary Canon – a work in progress"
- "Great Books Lists: Lists of Classics, Eastern and Western"
- "World Canonical Texts"
- "Harold Bloom's canon"
- Harold Bloom's Western Canon, with links to online texts
- "Infinite Canons: A Few Axioms and Questions, and in Addition, a Proposed Definition"
- "Great Ideas" Website
- A "Great Books" Website
- Western Canon Great Books University
- Columbia College Core Curriculum
- The World's Greatest Books page at Project Gutenberg of Australia
- Greater Books - a site documenting lists of "great books," classics, canons
- Great Books Lists of Classic Texts from Western and Eastern Civilizations compiled by Alexander Argüelles (an American linguist)