Top Ten Incredible Philosophy Books No-one Recommends (1): Prelude
Defending Game Metrics

Top Ten Incredible Philosophy Books No-one Recommends (2): From 10 to 6

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)

211,000-426,000 hits
Nominated by Greg Sadler

Blondel L'ActionTo 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)

180,000-290,000 hits
Nominated by Benjamin E. Hardisty

Wittgenstein TractatusThere’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)

172,000-192,000 hits
Nominated by Adrian Voce

Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcyle MaintenanceIt’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)

60,400-79,500 hits
Nominated by Stefano Gualeni

Marcuse One-Dimensional ManNow 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)

30,900-43,600 hits
Nominated by Will H.

Bataille Theory of ReligionWe 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

Comments

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To be fair, Pirsig's 'Zen etc.' is a novel with a philosophical theme - it has no pretensions to be a work of philosophy in any academic sense - and, as such, would not expect to be much cited in that context. But how cool that a discourse on the nature of perception reached such a huge audience. It certainly changed my 17-year old mind in some wholly positive and irreversible way.

Aye, Adrian, but the same is absolutely true of Voltaire's Candide, or Jean-Paul Satre's Nausea, or everything written by Albert Camus! Which is another good reason for never setting a boundary to what qualifies as 'philosophy'. Thanks so much for nominating this one - I enjoyed revisiting it!

Many thanks,

Chris.

I read Pirsig's book so long ago that I didn't even connect it to C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures" until now. And speaking of connections to the Apollonian/Dionysian split, I just repurchased a few of my favorite old Rush songs... one of which is "Cygnus X-1: Book II" that is entirely about this division of human reason and human feeling into separate hemispheres.

Finally, it's too late for this list, but I should have suggested James P. Carse's _Finite and Infinite Games_. It has the nice distinction of being both related to games (what are they, how are they experienced, and what do they mean) and a philosophical outlook on human existence. Plus it's not all that well known. :)

Hey Bart,
David Kanaga recommended Carse's Finite and Infinite Games to me a while back, and it's been on my reading list ever since. I should chase this up! But don't worry about not nominating it, as you have a nomination in the Top Five coming up next week. ;)

All the best,

Chris.

The Blondel work sounds absolutely fascinating. I'm curious about the Catholic connection with phenomenology and philosophy of action.

[I'm not so hot on Prisig or Wittgenstein being in a list of 'books no one recommends' - because they are most definitely books that many people bring up in my circles. However there's something to be said about how ubiquitous Prisig's novel is particularly to non philosophy people I know].

Hi Michael,
I made a commitment early in the process not to make exclusionary decisions about what qualified - except by setting aside recent publications, for the reasons I outlined at the very beginning.

Yes, it's odd to describe Pirsig or the Tractatus as books that 'no-one recommends' - but then, there's a reason they're near the end of the list, and it's striking to me that Blondel - which I'd never even heard of - scored even lower on obscurity. It's a reminder that obscurity is a function of community, and that treating humanity as a single community is very misleading when considering topics like this.

Those two books in particular mark an interesting contrast - the popular philosophy book no academic philosopher recommends, and the academic philosopher's book that no popular readership ever encounters. Have you ever recommended the Tractatus to someone? I know I haven't! Seeing it on the list of nominations made me realise that this is a book everyone in academic philosophy knows, but it's not a book anyone recommends. And that itself was interesting to me.

Thanks for commenting - and nominating! Your book will be coming up in the Top Five, in case you hadn't guessed. :) Rest assured, it only gets more obscure from here!

All the best,

Chris.

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