Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Twelve books that changed the modern world

The following is a list of books by modern thinkers that have had a long-lasting and deep impact on the way we act and think.
  • Discourse on Method, by Rene Descartes. Descartes was the father of modern rationalism as Francis Bacon was the father of modern empiricism, the two branches emerging from the nominalism of William of Ockham. Descartes establishes the modern quantitative view of reality that, in conjunction with empiricism, dominates all later Western thinking. The quantitative view sees all reality as a sort of mechanism. His method of completely ignoring all previous thinkers in his philosophizing and relying entirely upon individual reason to the exclusion of tradition also provides the model for the method of most modern thinkers.
  • Emile, by Jean Jacques Rousseau. The Ur-text for modern public education objectives and methodologies. It is this book, a tract on philosophic romanticism, that influences modern ideas on education more than any other except possibly Democracy and Education, by John Dewey. His book The Social Contract performed an almost as influentual role in modern political philosophy.
  • Phenomenology of Spirit, by Friedrich Hegel. Famous for its explication of the "Hegelian dialectic," this book established idealism as a major school of philosophy and served later to provide on of the excuse for Marxism, Fascism, and modern atheistic existentialism.
  • Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. Established the theory of evolution as a biological theory, and used later to under gird a broader philosophical evolutionism that is now taken as dogma (and defended as such) by many thinkers in various disciplines.
  • Utilitarianism, by John Stuart Mill. Explication of the ethical and political theory of utilitarianism, the idea that action should be judged the best which results in the greatest good for the greatest number. The theory is broadly assumed in modern political discussions.
  • Das Kapital, by Karl Marx. A manifesto of social and political theory that is the basis for much of modernist and postmodernist thought. Although Marxism, a materialist dialectic ("turning Hegel on his head" was how Marx put it) applied to society and political systems, has not had the success in the West as a practical political theory that it has had in the East, it has at times dominated in Western academic institutions and still survives either as a positive principle or, in the case of postmodernism, a foil against which much of its theory is a reaction.
  • The Will to Power, by Friedrich Nietzsche. The book thought to constitute the "end of philosophy" (although some would attribute that honor to Heidegger's Being and Time) explicates Nietzsche's repudiation of traditional premodernist notions of truth and morality as well, ironically, as modern scientism and issues a call for a transvaluation of values. This is where atheism eventually leads--for those intellectually honest enough to take their beliefs to their logical conclusion.
  • Democracy and Education, by John Dewey. Despite Dewey's sometimes incomprehensible prose (which William James termed "damnable; you might even say, God-damnable"), his instrumentalist ideas were hugely influential on American thought in general and on the public education establishment in particular. Considered the father of the progressive movement in education--the idea that schools should be used as a means to change society, he later repudiated the movement when it was taken over by the pragmatist faction, which saw schools not as a means to change society, but as a way to adjust children to society as it existed. The perennial contest between the progressivists and pragmatists still largely dictates what happens in the nation's schools.
  • The Ego and the Id, by Sigmund Freud. In which Freud inverts the traditional privileging of the conscious over the subconscious, resulting in the idea that the subconscious has the major influence over our thoughts and actions. This book, among others, helped to establish the most influential of the three great modern schools of psychology, along with with Carl Roger's humanist psychology and Jungianism. Freud's views are now broadly assumed and applied well beyond the sphere of human psychology, and, along with Marxism, are the touchstone for post modernism.
  • Pragmatism, William James. James' explication of his pragmatist philosophy that the value of a truth depends on its usefulness to the individual. Another philosophical speculation taken now as dogma.
  • Principia Mathematica, by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead. A book which every competent logician was expected to read for close to 100 years which sets forth the ultimate scientific language first proposed by Gottfried Leibniz. Made up in large part of a sort of logical calculus, Russell and Whitehead proposed that rational thought could be captured in a formal system. This quantitative idea of logic conflicted with the classical view of logic held since Aristotle that it was a descriptive, not a prescriptive discipline. One of the step children, one might say, of Descartes quantificationism.
  • Being and Time, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger, building on and reacting to Nietzsche and others, such as phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, tried to bring philosophy back to the question of being as such, rather than just beings. His view of truth--as aletheia, the Greek idea of truth as an "unveiling," was set forth as a response to the modern view of truth as a "correspondence with reality." Heidegger's active support of National Socialism in the Germany of the 1930's and 40's, although reprehensible, seems to have been more a function of practical politics than of the ideas which constituted his academic writings. Heidegger's philosophy provides a contrast to the positivism of Russell and Whitehead (as well as A. J. Ayer and the earlier Ludwig Wittgenstein) and is the basis of much of modern existentialism and post modernism.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

How have most of these books actually changed the day to day life of 90% of the world's population?
If Das Kapital inspired communism, then that has undoubtedly the largest effect. Darwin has had an effect, mostly in giving people something to argue about. (It also provided a basis for biology, but why single out that scientific discipline?)
If these books hadn't existed, how would our modern world of electronics, technology, fast food, movies, sports, etc - the things most people care about - be different?

jah

Anonymous said...

At least Martin didn't include his own books on the list.

Martin Cothran said...

Jah,

Are you saying biology is the only scientific discipline on which Darwin has had an influence? Have you heard of "social Darwinism"? And what about the political ideologies that appealed to Darwinism for support that changed the very map in the 20th century?

And do you think Freud has been insignificant in how we view ourselves and everyone else? You have hard time finding a biography of anyone anymore that doesn't have some psychoanalytic aspect to it. The whole advertising industry seems premised now on using subliminal messages to invite your desire for this or that product (including advertisements for electronics, technology, fast food, movies, sports, etc.)

And utilitarianism is about the only political philosophy evident in modern political discussions.

And Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger are the chief influences on the postmodernism that seems now to have taken over the humanities (and a few other disciplines) in academia. If your assertion is that this is not having an influence on people, most of whom now seem to go to college, all I can say is that I wish you were right.

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous,

No, I didn't. So what's your point?

Martin Cothran said...

Jah,

And I forgot to mention Dewey. Do you really Dewey, who has been the chief influence on public schools which almost everyone attends, has not had a significant influence?

Anonymous said...

First of all, I haven't read any of the books.

But I don't see where there has been a huge effect. That is why I asked, so that my ignorance may be dispelled.

To what extent has Darwinism or "Social Darwinism" influenced map changing in the last century? Not the Lysenko-ist Soviets. I doubt Hitler would have behaved much differently without Darwin.

Was Freud ever much more than a fad such as Mesmerism? Don't I recall that on some recent anniversary there wasn't much celebration of his work?

And even if postmodernism (whatever that is) has currently swept the humanities, what practical effect does that have on the average US resident?

I don't know Dewey's time of influence but comparing kids today, my generation, and the previous, I don't see any earth shattering differences in our learning.

What difference did these books make? How different would our present world be if they had never been written?

jah

Art said...

What? No "Green Eggs and Ham"?

Martin Cothran said...

Jah,

I didn't mean in any way to demean your questions by the way. I think your they're important questions, I was just stating my case. But my read on this is that we tend to think that just because we don't see these people explicitly referenced that that is an indication that they have had little influence on our culture.

I grant that you don't always see their influence on the surface, but if you trace the genealogy of ideas back, I think you find these books (and a few others) at the headwaters of the culture.

Just to take an example, Marx (and you kind of mentioned this in your previous post) has had the most obvious influence. But I doubt if Marx would have existed without Hegel. The whole idea of the materialist dialectic was conceived as an inversion of Hegel's idealistic dialectic.

I also think Freud is quite obvious. You can't pass a day without hearing someone talking about what someone "really thinks", or how someone just needs to "get his feelings out" or how someone was affected by something that happened in his childhood. People just didn't think this way before Freud. Freud's ideas like the Oedipus Complex, the Ego and Id, his views on repression have become commonplace. And how many times have you heard the expression "Freudian slip"?

Also, if you haven't, you might try reading Aldous Huxley's Brave New World sometime. The society of Huxley's book is one built on Freudianism. It is amazing how prophetic it looks 60 years later.

In fact, in one sense, the fact that we assume the ideas of these people without even knowing it shows just how influential they have been.

Martin Cothran said...

Art,

You got me there. I don't know how I missed that one.

Anonymous said...

Jah,

It's precisely that the effect these thinkers have isn't obvious at first that demonstrates how deeply rooted they are. The things that seem most obvious to us determine most fundamentally how we think of ourselves, other people, things, and the world in general. We assume utilitarianism when we talk about political policies, at least for the most part. When it is questioned, the unreflective person refers back to the supposed "obviousness" of that moral principle. Really, the principle is not obvious at all.

That's just one example that hopefully shows how the more a principle is overlooked and considered obvious, the more ingrained it is in our thinking and the more influence these thinkers have had on us, without us really even knowing it.

Anonymous said...

A few things-

Will to Power is an interesting book to pick for Nietzsche, as there is a lot of debate over how representative it is of his thought--Kaufmann considered it pretty much inconsequential, but Heidegger thought it was Nietzsche's greatest work. In any case Nietzsche in many ways wanted a reversion to pre-modern notions of morality (that is, morality in strength and nobility) and pre-modern attitudes toward truth (as not necessarily important).

Be careful about skipping over Nietzsche's transvaluation of values as the reductio of atheism: Nietzsche was signaling the death of metaphysics, but he also was preparing the way for something new. What exactly this was is not quite clear (even in Zarathustra) as he had health problems all his life, and his writing career was cut short when his mental health deteriorated in his fifties.

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous,

I think here that where you say "premodern" in reference to Nietzsche, you really mean "preSocratic". By "premodern," I think most people probably refer to "classical"--i.e., the thought of the ancients after Socrates. Just a clarification.

Thomas said...

Yes, there are actually two senses in which the term "modernity" may be used. Nietzsche sees modernity in the general sense(accurately, in my opinion) as producing modernity in the more restrictive sense which begins with Bacon, Galileo, Newton, and Descartes. Nietzsche wants a sort of return to pre-Socratic (i.e., pre-Christian) morality, but in other ways, he wants to surpass both pre-Socratic and post-Socratic morality.

In any case, Nietzsche is the greatest challenge to modernity in both senses, with the sole exception of Christ.