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Shadow fundamentals

October 5, 2014

I love my Fundamentals list. I really do. But spending almost a year with the same fifteen books, while for the most part enjoyable, can occasionally grow a bit stale. Especially when there’s a formalized list of “books I’m supposed to be reading right now.” One begins to speculate about what books one could have put on that list, but didn’t… one is tempted, in fact, to read even the most difficult works, so long as they’re not on the list, just for the sake of variety. To read phenomenology in order to procrastinate on your Thomism.

The time of the exam is almost upon me. So I have no serious post for this week; instead, to exorcise the demons of procrastination, I have put together a list of my “shadow Fundamentals.” Some barely missed the cut the first time around. More only occurred to me after my list was approved. A few I even now have not yet read, and just want to. (These categories are not mutually exclusive.) And it’s almost surely the case that this list would not pass muster; it’s quite poorly balanced–over half are English language! a quarter are works of literary criticism!–, there’s not nearly as many heavy hitters, several entries are too idiosyncratic, at least one would be quite a stretch for the category in which I’ve put it… but–doesn’t it look like fun? As with the real list: these are all books that I want to be friends with.

Imaginative Literature

Philosophy, Religion, and Theology

History and Social Theory

Note that Aristotle, Augustine, and Dante make appearances on both the real and the shadow lists. This isn’t to say they’re my favorite writers; they just happen to have written multiple books for which I have quite a bit of affection, and which are different enough that switching from one to the other would be a nice change of pace. I’d have liked to keep on Plato, Aquinas, Shakespeare, and Wittgenstein as well, but–aside from the fact that doing so would make my shadow list way too much like my real one–the prospect of switching from my favorite to my second-favorite Platonic dialogue (etc.) doesn’t really sound all that appealing; it would just be more of the same.

It’s like what Isaiah Berlin says about foxes and hedgehogs, I suppose. But not exactly; you’d think foxes would be more likely to make both lists than hedgehogs–more variety–but while Plato’s a hedgehog and Aristotle’s a fox, no doubt, Augustine and Dante would usually be considered hedgehogs, and Shakespeare and Wittgenstein foxes (P.M.S. Hacker wrote that Wittgenstein was “by nature a hedgehog, but after 1929 transformed himself, by great intellectual and imaginative endeavour, into a paradigmatic fox”). Perhaps the point, then, is that variety of idea is not the same as variety of topic. Shakespeare and Wittgenstein were hedgehogs in their approaches, but each nevertheless had a single topic to approach, whether it be how we interact with each other, or how we interact with language. On the other hand, while Augustine and Dante each saw the world through a unified lens, they were nevertheless both interested in the entire world–in the individual life, the life of the city, the universe, and what lies beyond it. They were able to write literature, philosophy, and politics; foxes though they may be, I have difficulty imagining Shakespeare writing anything but drama and lyric, or Wittgenstein writing anything but… whatever it is he writes.

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