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The Great Books of the Western World (2nd edition), Encylopedia Britannica, 1990. Photo by R.D. Smith, 2005. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The term Western canon denotes a literary canon of books (and, more broadly, music and art) that have been 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". Although previously held in high regard, it has been the subject of increasing contention in the latter half of the 20th century.

In practice, debates and attempts to define the canon in lists are essentially restricted to literature, including poetry, fiction and drama; biographical and autobiographical writings; philosophy; and history. A few accessible books on the sciences and mathematics are sometimes included.


Examples of shorter canonical lists of most important works include the following:

  • Great Books
  • Great Books of the Western World
  • The Harvard Classics
  • Yale College Directed Studies curriculum

University reading lists reflect the Western canon:

Longer, more comprehensive, lists include the following:

  • Everyman's Library (Modern works)
  • The Modern Library
  • Penguin Classics

Chronological brackets

  • Philosopher John Searle[1] 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..."


The process of listmaking — defining the boundaries of the canon — is endless. 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."[1]

A notable attempt 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 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.Thomas Carlyle


There has been an ongoing, intensely political debate 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.[2] In the United States, in particular, the canon has been attacked as a compendium of books written mainly by "dead white European males", 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.Template:Page neededTemplate:Request quotation Yale University Professor of Humanities Harold Bloom (no relation to Allan) has also argued strongly in favor of the canon,[3] and in general the canon remains as a represented idea in many institutions,[1] 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.[1]

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."[1] The origins of the word "West" in terms of geopolitical boundaries started in the 19th century. Prior to this, most people would have thoughts about different nations, languages, individuals, and geographical regions, but with no idea of "Western" nations as we know it today(Citation needed). Many world maps were so crude, inaccurate, and not well known before the 19th century that specific geographical and political differences would be harder to measure. Few would have access to good maps and even fewer had access to accurate descriptions of those who lived in far away lands.

SomeTemplate:Who suggest that Western thought as we think of it today, is shaped by ideas of the 19th and 20th centuries, originating mainly in Europe. What we think of as Western thought today is generally defined as Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian culture, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and colonialism. As a consequence the term "Western thought" is, at times, unhelpful and vague, since it can define a wide range of separate, though sometimes related, sets of traditions, political groups, religious groups, and individual writers.Template:Original research


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 Dead Father by Donald Barthelme (ISBN 978-0374529253)
  • Debating the Canon: A Reader from Addison to Nafisi by Lee Morrissey (ISBN 978-1403968203)
  • The History of Western Literature by Otto Maria Carpeaux (eight volumes, only available in Portuguese)
  • The Oldest Dead White European Males and Other Reflections on the Classics by Bernard Knox (ISBN 9780393312331.
  • Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom (ISBN 978-1573227513)
  • The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom (ISBN 978-1573225144)

See also[]

  • Canons of Elizabethan poetry
  • Great Conversation
  • Harold Bloom
  • 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
  • Scott Buchanan
  • Stringfellow Barr


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Searle, John. (1990) "The Storm Over the University", The New York Review of Books, December 6, 1990.
  2. Hicks, Stephen. (2004). Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Scholargy Press, p. 18.
  3. Bloom, Harold. (1995) The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages Riverhead, ISBN 1573225142

External links[]

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