Sunday, April 09, 2017


Many years ago I had an epiphany while struggling with Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. How many philosophers, I thought to myself, have ever had the time to take it seriously? How many have ever really carried out a transcendental deduction of the categories of experience? We say we're "beyond Kant", "post-Kantian", etc. But how many people have really read him, really mastered his thinking? Is it a question of going further than Kant in our understanding of pure reason? Or aren't we first and foremost struggling just to reach his level of precision on the matter? The same, I realized, goes for later thinkers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger. Who ever really gets the Philosophical Investigations or Being and Time under their skin? Who knows enough to go beyond them?

The insight also applies to literature. When did anyone really have time to read In Search of Lost Time or Ulysses carefully enough? When did anyone finish with Hamlet or Don Quixote? All of these works are inexhaustible; they reward any amount of rereading. Also, they provide a point of departure for the study of virtually all Western literature. Anything you read can be understood better by setting it in their light. They are the exemplars par excellence of "modern language", just as Kant, Wittgenstein and Heidegger epitomize "modern thought".

I'm not trying to suggest a "canon". I'm happy to let you replace any of the these works with works you find to be equally inexhaustible but more interesting to you. My point is that once we have chosen six or eight of these books we don't, in principle, need any more. These can be the core of a curriculum for a particular college; they can constitute what the students have to become intimately familiar with. Their authors can serve as the masters of the craft that the students are themselves pursuing—always partial—mastery of. In short, they are masterpieces.

There are those who would point out that I have chosen exclusively white males. In my defense, two of them are not straight. Also, I would argue that even a college that sets itself to "deconstructing Western metaphysics" will need to deconstruct precisely these six or seven works. These are the texts you must struggle with. It is not, I would argue, as easy as some people think. A mind that is capable of deconstructing the "presence" and "privilege" of Shakespeare and Proust has some serious intellectual skills.

It should go without saying that the students can and will read much more than the core curriculum. In class, the core works will be continuously exposed to what came before and what came after in order, of course, to better understand not just the core works, but also what came before and what came after. In any case, masterpieces—whichever ones a college chooses—must be at the forefront of the curriculum. Programs should be organized around them. They would read Woolf to shed fresh light on Ulysses. When they read Deleuze they are really improving their understanding of Proust. When they read Borges they are enriching their understanding of Cervantes. Plato helps them to read Heidegger. Beckett opens new perspectives on Wittgenstein. Lisa Robertson takes them through Heidegger to Dante. Etc.

Imagine 2400 students that, in addition to their particular specialties and idiosyncrasies are all conversant about Hamlet and the Quixote, Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time, Being and Time and the Investigations. Or six comparable works. Imagine the intellectual culture on a such a campus. Surely, we would here have students capable of thought, speech and writing at a level worthy of Western civilization. They would be something our civilization could be proud of. And they could, perhaps more importantly, be proud of themselves.

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