Western canon

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Dante, Homer and Virgil in Raphael's Parnassus fresco (1511), in which the Western canon is visualised

The term "Western canon" denotes a body of books and, more broadly, music and art that have been traditionally accepted by Western scholars as the most important and influential in shaping Western culture. As such, it includes what are claimed to be 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 of the works included in the canon.[1]

Some scholars and theorists have criticized the way that canons are formed. Andrew Tripp argues that "art history is, like every discipline, inherently problematic. In its history, it has focused overwhelmingly on so-called "geniuses," a privileged group who form the canon, who "are nearly entirely white and male." [2] For example, American musicologist Marcia Citron argues that the classical music canon, which includes a long list of male composers, excludes women composers because the genres in which they wrote — art song and piano pieces — were not deemed as "serious" as the complex sonata form symphonic works composed by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.


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."[3]

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.

An earlier attempt, the Harvard Classics (1909), was promulgated by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot, whose thesis was the same as Carlyle's:

...The true University of these days is a Collection of Books.


A montage of the great classical music composers, all of whom have notable pieces in the canon of classical music. All of the composers pictured are males and almost all are white. From left to right:
Top row: Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven;
second row: Gioachino Rossini, Felix Mendelssohn, Frédéric Chopin, Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi;
third row: Johann Strauss II, Johannes Brahms, Georges Bizet, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Antonín Dvořák;
bottom row: Edvard Grieg, Edward Elgar, Sergei Rachmaninoff, George Gershwin, Aram Khachaturian

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.[5] 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. Allan Bloom in his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, has disagreed strongly.[6] Yale University Professor of Humanities Harold Bloom (no relation to Allan) has also argued strongly in favor of the canon,[7] and in general the canon remains as a represented idea in many institutions,[3] 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.[3]

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."[3]

Although there is debate among theorists, individuals such as teachers and students would consider the works within the canon to be those which are the most appropriate in exploiting social and historical contexts from selected time periods. Additionally, the works are usually considered a craft and are commonly used as a guide or rule, particularly for senior students, when reading and writing.[8] Altieri (1983) supports this stating canons are "an institutional form for exposing people to a range of idealized attitudes." It is with this notion considered that work may be removed from the canon over time in order to reflect the contextual relevance and thoughts of society.[9]


Works which are 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 which directly address the canon (both for and against):

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 tends to not be represented.

In music[edit]

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:

The Great Books of the Western World is an attempt to present the western canon in a single package of 60 volumes

University reading lists reflect the Western canon:

More comprehensive collections that include large parts of the Western canon include the following:

Chronological brackets:

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Leo Tolstoy (1898) What is Art?, p.164
  2. ^ Tripp, Andrew. "“In sorrow, she created delight”: An Appeal for a Greater Appraisal of the Life and Art of Niki de Saint Phalle". http://www.academia.edu. Academia. p. 1. Retrieved 24 October 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Searle, John. (1990) "The Storm Over the University", The New York Review of Books, December 6, 1990.
  4. ^ "The Hero as Man of Letters" (1840)
  5. ^ Hicks, Stephen. (2004). Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Scholargy Press, p. 18.
  6. ^

    "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
  7. ^ Bloom, Harold. (1995) The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages Riverhead, ISBN 1-57322-514-2
  8. ^ https://portals.mum.edu/customized/uploads/bydate/2013/june_2013/june_7th_2013/vol.%206.%20consciousness-based%20education%20and%20literature79296.pdf#page=27
  9. ^ http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-a-literary-canon.htm
  10. ^ BBC - The Big Read (April 2003)
  11. ^ Official website of the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade
  12. ^ Great Works List, Brigham Young University
  13. ^ "Curriculum". Catholic University of Portugal. Retrieved 2015-01-15. 
  14. ^ http://www.hsc.edu/Academics/Minors-and-Programs/Western-Culture.html
  15. ^ The Ogelthorpe Core
  16. ^ "The Core Curriculum". Shalem College. Retrieved 2015-01-15. 
  17. ^ The Great Books Reading List at Trinity Western University
  18. ^ University of Massachusetts Commonwealth Honors College
  19. ^ Directed Studies at Yale University

External links[edit]