Following yesterday’s background to this Top Ten, here are the first five books in the countdown of obscurity.
10. Maurice Blondel’s Action (1893)
Nominated by Greg Sadler
To say that I was surprised by the search engine results for this one was an understatement, and I began to wonder if the results were skewed by the simplicity of the book’s title. While that might be the case, there is still tremendous discussion of this text out on the internet, although it is no way considered a standard text in phenomenology, existentialism, or deconstruction, all of which could be gainfully compared to Blondel’s work. Action was Blondel’s fiercely-contested doctoral thesis, and provides a philosophy of action that breaks substantially with the rationalist currents of Kant and other Enlightenment philosophers. Blondel claims “action is that synthesis of willing, of knowing, and of being, the link of the human composite that one cannot separate without destroying everything that has been deunited.” The obscurity of the book in philosophy circles is inverted in its importance in French theology, and Sadler’s Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy page for Blondel (which was the top hit) stresses its influence in forming the “New Theology” that influenced the Second Vatican Council.
9. Ludwig Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)
Nominated by Benjamin E. Hardisty
There’s an irony to this appearing in the list, since I had originally given it as an example of a book that overshadows others by its author. But there is a very real sense in which Hardisty is correct to nominate this: despite its huge importance for twentieth century philosophy, almost no-one now recommends reading the Tractatus. In part, this is because the significance for this text has radically changed over the last century. Whereas Wittgenstein’s mentor at Cambridge, Bertrand Russell, considered this to be an essential advance in understanding philosophy, it has gradually come to be recognised that Wittgenstein’s own view of this book was radically different, a point I briefly explore in Wikipedia Knows Nothing. Another significant issue with the Tractatus is the sheer difficulty of the text, which makes even Heidegger seem straightforward.
8. Robert Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)
Nominated by Adrian Voce
It’s certainly the case that few if any philosophers recommend this book, although Pirsig’s narrative has been hugely popular ever since its first publication. Espousing a ‘metaphysics of quality’, Pirsig is not especially involved with Zen (or Ch’an) Buddhism, but rather in a distinction between “romantic understanding” and “classical understanding”, which is sometimes compared to Nietzsche’s split between Apollonian and Dionysian. This is the highest selling title in this Top Ten (indeed, the highest selling philosophy book of all time), having shipped more than 5 million copies, and also holds the world record for greatest number of publisher-rejections, at 121. While it scarcely qualifies as a candidate for a ‘library of forgotten knowledge’, it is resolutely exiled from academic philosophy, where it is never recommended. Neither the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy nor the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy mention it once.
7. Herbert Marcuse One-Dimensional Man (1964)
Nominated by Stefano Gualeni
Now the search engine hits are beginning to recede, and we proceed more convincingly into our deep dive into publishing obscurity. Marcuse’s book, subtitled Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, is another text (like Blondel’s Action) that is well-read, but only in a particular context, in this case the ‘New Left’. But this is a book not just for Marxists, and its critique of “one-dimensional thought” offers palpable rejections of twentieth century linguistic philosophy, philosophy of science, and social science. In his retrospective upon this book, Ronald Aronson, a student of Marcuse, declares that it “teaches us that we need to slow down in making our assessments”, and suggests Marcuse’s thought still possesses revolutionary potential.
6. Georges Bataille Theory of Religion (1973)
Nominated by Will H.
We have still not reached the depths of the truly obscure, but we are far from the well-trodden paths of philosophy now. Bataille’s provocative and challenging book, a slender volume of little more than a hundred pages, presents religion as a search for a lost intimacy, and recognises that life can be affirmed through destruction. Despite its short length, it is often viewed as a difficult read, which perhaps accounts for the lack of any clear critical consensus upon it. One of it’s core idea is that an animal exists in the world “like water in water”, whereas humans develop an awareness of mind that severs them from this state of being. Religion, in Bataille’s view, is an attempt to recapture this pure immanence. Clearly influenced by both Nietzsche and Durkheim, Bataille himself seems to have viewed this text as a radical reworking of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. He never got further than drafting it during his lifetime, and it was published posthumously.
Next Week, the Final Part: The Top Five