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Western canon

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Western canon

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 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] The concept has become challenged by advocates of multiculturalism and critics who charge that it has been influenced by racial, gender, and other biases.


  • Origins 1
  • Debate 2
  • Works 3
  • Examples 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes and references 6
  • External links 7


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."[2]

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 greatest university of all 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.[3] 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.[4] Yale University Professor of Humanities Harold Bloom (no relation to Allan) has also argued strongly in favor of the canon,[5] and in general the canon remains as a represented idea in many institutions,[2] 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.[2]

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."[2]


Works which are commonly included in the canon include works of fiction such as some epic poems, poetry, music, 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):


  • "The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy" by E.D. Hirsch


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:

Longer, more comprehensive, lists include the following:

Chronological brackets:

  • Philosopher John Searle[2] 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..."

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Leo Tolstoy (1898) What is Art?, p.164
  2. ^ a b c d e Searle, John. (1990) "The Storm Over the University", The New York Review of Books, December 6, 1990.
  3. ^ Hicks, Stephen. (2004). Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Scholargy Press, p. 18.
  4. ^
    "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
  5. ^ Bloom, Harold. (1995) The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages Riverhead, ISBN 1-57322-514-2
  6. ^ BBC - The Big Read (April 2003)
  7. ^ Official website of the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade
  8. ^ Directed Studies at Yale University
  9. ^ Great Works List, Brigham Young University
  10. ^ The Ogelthorpe Core
  11. ^ The Great Books Reading List at Trinity Western University

External links

  • "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
  • "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
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