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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Influential (Actually Published, Actually Read Cover-to-Cover During College or Graduate School) Books

Matthew Yglesias has put up a list of ten books that have been important influences in how he thinks about things. I can do that, too. Except, one problem: when it comes to my thinking--particularly stuff relevant to the political, philosophical, or otherwise intellectual thinking that I went to school for eleven years for--the reading that has influenced me most has usually come in the form of a journal or magazine article (or lately, a blog post). I'm not particularly proud of that, but that's the truth (and I suspect it's true for most academics as well).

So herewith, an attempt to be rigorous, and focus only on the books (though more than a few of them are collections of essays or articles). That means I'm leaving out some essays that profoundly influenced me, but you've got to put your boundaries somewhere. Also, I'm sticking with stuff that I read and which influenced me while I was forming my intellectual academic foundation, meaning the years from 1987 to 2001, with a two-year break in there while I was gallivanting around South Korea. (That means Tolkien is out!) And also, I'm going to have to go to fifteen, because I'm just verbose that way. In alphabetical order:

Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future. Essays like "What is Freedom?" and "What is Authority?" gave me an entirely different way of thinking about democracy and liberty--or, at least, gave me a language for expressing what I had already been thinking about for a while.

F.M. Barnard, Herder's Social and Political Thought: From Enlightenment to Nationalism. The first--and, as yet, the only--complete and published study of Herder's political ideas that I ever read, and, as much as I in time came to disagree with some elements of Barnard's interpretations of his subject, his account Herder's romantic contribution to a historicized but still morally truthful account of culture and language still draws me in--much more than Herder's own actual writings do.

Frederick C. Beiser, Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought. Came at a time in my education when my studies of Herder had convinced me that the struggle between the Aufklärer and the advocates of Counter-Enlightenment told the only philosophical story really worth knowing. I grew out of that obsession eventually, but this book and others like it gave me a historical context for understanding my own nascent romantic and/or hermeneutic approaches to political life, cultural identity, and religious truth.

Herbert Fingarette, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. A slim book, but packed with provocative ideas. By treating Confucian ritual teachings as religious and "magical," Fingarette helped my anthropological and ideological interest in East Asian philosophy become a moral one as well.

David C. Hall and Roger Ames, Thinking Through Confucius. The first in a series of books which Hall and Ames wrote together, exploring--sometimes in a phenomenological, sometimes in a Deweyesque manner--the application of Confucius's Analects to essential philosophical questions from the Western tradition: the nature of truth, the purpose of society, the cultivation of the self. Helped give me a basic orientation as to how I wanted to make use of all these notions I'd brought back with me from East Asia.

Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings. Like much of Heidegger's writings (yes, I did try to read Being and Time; I got about a third of the way through) some of the essays are opaque and overwrought. But some of them--"The Letter on Humanism," "The Question Concerning Technology," "The Way to Language," for example--had a transformative impact on how I understood our way as human beings of perceiving and constructing both reality and society.

Richard K. Matthews, The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson: A Revisionist View. I think I must have underlined every sentence in this book. It was the first book I'd read that made me think both critically and practically about all the stuff I'd been reading about "republicanism" for years.

Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto. Nowadays, I would probably put Marx's "On the Jewish Question" as the most important bit of Marxist thought in my own thinking. But at the time, actually reading, carefully and thoughtfully, through the Manifesto was a bit of a revelation.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rousseau's Political Writings. I don't use this edition in my own work or my teaching any more, but it's the collection that kicked-started my own engagement with communitarian thought, though I didn't call it that at the time. Much of what I still believe about equality and modernity can be traced back to The Second Discourse, the first work of political philosophy I ever took seriously.

Nicholas H. Smith, Strong Hermeneutics: Contingency and Moral Identity. Helped me put Gadamer, Ricoeur, Taylor, and many others together and draw out the fundamentals of their insights; and by so doing, it helped focus my interest in developing a kind of "conservative" approach to culture and identity which did not fall into a literalist or natural law trap.

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. The single heaviest, sustained philosophical argument I have ever taken myself through, and far and away the most influential in how I think about the relationship between truth claims and the historical and cultural narratives they are invariably embedded in.

Stephen K. White, Sustaining Affirmation. A book about political theory, but it had a huge impact on how I, as a religious believer, took the hermeneutical arguments I'd come to accept and constructed them as part of the moral engagement I wanted to have with the world.

Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. Presented a way of thinking about "liberalism" and "conservatism" in the American context that I don't think anyone has yet been able to refute. More than that, it's also a tour de force, linking the history of America, the nature of rhetoric, and the meaning of democracy and constitutionalism together into a single, succinct argument.

Sheldon S. Wolin, The Presence of the Past: Essays on the State and the Constitution. Like a deeply planted time bomb, this book's various observations and arguments (mostly about Tocqueville and the Federalists and Anti-Federalists) kept coming to me, suddenly making sense, while thinking about community or politics or government or religion or philosophy or just about anything else, years and years after my advisor first recommended it to me.

Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Helped me see why republican ideas and language mattered, why those ideas gave rise modern democracy, and why the rise of democracy would mean means republicanism's inevitable fall. I don't fully agree, but it's an argument I can't shake, and which I make use of in my classes to this day.

On a different day, I'd probably come up with a slightly different list, but I think this hits all the big, influential books in my intellectual genealogy. Obviously, it reveals my graduate school interests: communitarianism, pluralism, comparative and American and the history of political thought. Nothing much there hinting at my later interests in socialism, populism, or localism. Even on it's own terms, I'm not terribly proud of the list: not enough original sources, and too much commentary on what others have said. Also, for someone who got a PhD in political philosophy in the 1990s, it's kind of sad to admit that big books by Rawls, Sandel, Young, Kymlicka, Rorty, Walzer, Okin, Rosenblum, Cohen, etc., just didn't move me as much as the (mostly more specialized) books above did, or as much as the smaller articles and secondary literature these thinkers produced did. But that's the way in happened, for better or worse.

Your turn, if you're so inclined.


Matt said...

Interesting. I'm surprised not to see Spheres of Justice on there, knowing what I know of your views. The Confucius is interesting, too. You should try to watch the Confucius action movie if/when it's available on DVD or in theaters.


This one shows the action more:


I've not read much confucious or serious commentary, but I've always had a soft spot for the analects.

Aloysius said...

Paul Johnson's book Intellectuals was enlightening. He eviscerates Rousseau and Marx.

Matt said...

Paul Johnson's book Intellectuals was enlightening. He eviscerates Rousseau and Marx.

I'm sure that the list of people who know something about Marx and/or Rousseau and think this is true could be counted on no hands.

Aloysius said...

Thinks what is true? That Paul Johnson rips them a new orifice? Of course he does. Just read the book.

In fact he does a great job of shredding all those who think that they are smart enough to run the world.

Perhaps you mean YOU don't agree with him. Since you are the only anyone in your mind that would then be true by self definition. Perhaps you are an intellectual.

Matt said...

Aloysius, I wish I had any idea what you are talking about. I strongly suppose that you wish you had any idea what you are talking about, too.

Aloysius said...

Huh? No I think that is you who doesn't know what he is talking about. Reread and rewrite your first reply and perhaps we can start over.

Matt said...

What have you read from Marx and Rousseau? I've read some Johnson and think he's mostly crap. (That's certainly his reputation among historians.) My impression of that book is that he mistakes showing that Marx and Rousseau were unpleasant people (we know this about Rousseau from his own writings- Johnson doesn't even show much that's new) with criticism of their ideas. But only an idiot would think that's a valid argument. That this was so is why no one who knows anything about Marx or Rousseau thinks Johnson's work is of use as anything more than a bit of voyeurism. But I'm pretty sure you don't know anything about Marx or Rousseau, so it's no surprise you don't know this.

Russell Arben Fox said...

I have to agree with Matt, Aloysius. Johnson's overwhelming argument, from what I can recall of it (it's been years since I read the book) is that those he deems "intellectuals" are 1) creepy and 2) occasionally stupid. Pointing out another person's creepiness and occasional boneheadedness makes for great gossip. But it does not actually explain why the ideas themselves are not worth serious consideration. I suppose if you believe that every individual labeled an "intellectual" expects others to embrace their arguments on the basis of their sterling moral worth, then Johnson's argument carries some weight. But given the fact that, to use your own examples, both Marx and Rousseau spent most of their productive lives in flight from any kind of personally empowering social situation, I'm not sure how showing that either of them were jerks or made some stupid decisions counts for much of anything, argument-wise.

Anonymous said...

Not the right Gordon Wood. Radicalism is deeply flawed in reading Jacksonianism back. A better choice, his Creation of the American Republic.
Western Dave

Russell Arben Fox said...

Creation of the American Republic is probably Wood's magnum opus, Dave; I'll grant you that. It, along with Bailyn's and Pocock's big books, changed the whole way republicanism was perceived as part of American history. But I like Radicalism best, because I think it's explanations are less troubled by an attempt to put the whole meaning of America into a world-historical gestalt. I don't think he's reading Jacksonianism too far back into American history; I think he's just rightly, persuasively connecting the ideological dots, between the democratic impulses of the confederal/post-revolutionary era (1770s and 80s) with those which emerged even more strongly with the triumph over the Federalists in the early 1800s.

Aloysius said...

Read it again RAF. You have forgotten it entirely. He makes the case that intellectuals are morally incompetent.

Of course that is of no consequence to people who don't believe in morality as a basis for leadership.

Unknown said...

Loads of stuff I admire, and one I'd put on my own list (sort of)--Rousseau's Social Contract.

But I am surprised to see so many many secondary sources. No text by Herder himself? No classic in Christian thought? No novels?

I'm a faithful Yglesias reader and I thought about this kind of list the other day. I was surprised-disturbed-delighted by turns that 2 or 3 of my ten were books I've read in the past year.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Loads of stuff I admire, and one I'd put on my own list (sort of)--Rousseau's Social Contract. But I am surprised to see so many many secondary sources. No text by Herder himself? No classic in Christian thought? No novels?

I'm glad that Rousseau impressed you as well, Jeremiah. As for your complaint, I feel its force. I confessed in the post that I was somewhat embarrassed to admit that relatively few primary sources--Plato's Republic, Augustine's City of God, Hobbes's Leviathan, etc.--had as serious an impact on my thinking as did secondary sources about them. (Though I can partly defend myself by further confessing that most of them don't meet my "actually read cover-to-cover" criteria; I've never read all of the Augustine or Hobbes, for example.) Herder I don't feel bad about admitting the truth, though--he's a fascinating thinker, but he's just damn hard to read, and much clearer when one focuses on his shorter essays or just selected excerpts. As for novels and other more popular writing...well, I got into this groove where I was focusing on the shaping of my "professional" mind while going to school, and that meant the fiction and essays which really have influenced me--from Orwell to Nibley--got left out. Maybe another, differently focused list would include them.

Stuart Buck said...

So how do you know whether to believe Yglesias’ list? http://stuartbuck.blogspot.com/2008/12/yglesias-on-reading.html