Phi Beta Cons

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Re: Speaking of Darwin


My top-ten list yesterday prompted this extraordinarily thoughtful response from philosophy professor Kenneth W. Kemp of the University of St. Thomas. Indeed, this is a situation where the sequel is clearly superior. Be sure to click through to the jump:

Dear Mr. Clegg,

Here are some thoughts in response to your interesting attempt to construct a list of “ten most influential books.”
1. Of course if you are only going to list ten works, many influential authors and books are not going to make the list. Worse, maybe there are not ten books that are clearly more influential than all other books.
2. The most obvious omissions from your list, I think are Euclid’s Elements, St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, and Descartes’s Meditations.
3. The output of bellelettristic authors is probably by its nature more particularly prone to division among books in a way that keeps any particular book from making the list than are books in the social or natural sciences. Newton has to cover a lot of ground in the Principia; Shakespeare can’t take up the same number of problems in a single play.

4. Plato may have the same problem. Aristotle, by contrast, could have written more comprehensive treatises than he did. Still, a case might be made for inclusion of the Republic if not also the Nicomachean Ethics or the Prior & Posterior Analytics.
5. The leading candidates among non-Western books would, I suppose, be the Analects & the Rig-Veda. Part of the reason why they don’t make the list is that their reach is not worldwide. Then comes the interesting question of whether that is an accidental result of the fact that Western civilization has influenced Eastern ones more than they it, or whether that greater influence (of West on East) has something to do with the content of the books that each civilization produced.
6. I’m not sure about the inclusion of both Copernicus & Newton on the list. Though Copernicus gives us our first modern heliocentric theory, it still seems to me to be the penultimate version of the Platonic program of reducing the motions of the planets (a new list, to be sure) to simple geometrical figures. And, as early critics of heliocentrism pointed out, he had no physics to go with his astronomy. Though Copernicus obviously laid the foundation for Newton, Newton’s system, unlike Copernicus’s, both abandons the Platonic approach entirely and embeds astronomy into physics (with, for example, a law of universal gravitation–the moon orbits the Earth because its heaviness makes it “fall”). Here the tension is between influential ideas (of which heliocentrism clearly was one) and influential books (which, in a certain way, the The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was not, at least not compared to Newton’s Principia Mathematica). As a book, I suspect that Galileo’s Dialog concerning the Two Chief World Systems was also more influential.
7. The same contrast between books bearing influential ideas and influential books, as well as the sometimes piecemeal nature of the development of scientific knowledge (which you mention), is probably at the heart of what keeps important works of chemistry off the list, e.g., Lavoisier’s Elements of Chemistry and Dalton’s New System of Chemical Philosophy.
8. There is one other reason why no work of chemistry makes the list–it’s less fundamental than physics, less grand than astronomy, and less anthropological than biology. Interesting and useful it may be, but in terms of general influence, it will always be eclipsed by other sciences.
9. Perhaps the next best candidate for science (after Newton & Darwin), would be Maxwell’s Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, though that thought reminds us of the vagueness of “influential.” While Maxwell’s book had an immense importance to physics, it had very little cultural resonance, in contrast to, say, Darwin’s or even Newton’s.
10. The Koran is surely influential in that it forms the basis of the religious beliefs of a huge number of people, but for two reasons I wonder whether it belongs on the list. First, it is not influential in the sense of being productive of other great ideas and works. (A devout Muslim might reasonably object that that is not the work’s goal. Again the question arises–influential in what sense?) Second, some of its major themes are shared with the Bible–saliently: monotheism, creation, and providence.
So, in the end, despite reservations, I’m supposed to list ten? In an attempt to avoid duplication in order to get breadth, let me propose (in chronological order):

1. The Bible
2. Homer’s Iliad
3. Herodotus’ Histories
4. Plato’s Republic
5. Euclid’s Elements
6. St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae
7. Newton’s Principia
8. Locke’s Second Treatise on Government
9. Descartes’ Meditations
10. Darwin’s Origin of Species

Probably my principles are a bit different from yours–since the Iliad is an influence on the Aeneid, let the first great epic stand for what follows. The influence of the Iliad is that it creates literature. Similarly for Herodotus’s Histories as the creator of history. Other items on the list of course are not creators in the same way, but are nevertheless early highpoints or later critical points in the development of philosophy, theology, science, etc.


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