Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages



Simulacra and Simulation

Simulacra and Simulation
Jean Baudrillard

You’ve got to be quite the academic mind to pick up Simulacra and Simulation – or anything by critical philosopher Jean Baudrillard. But that doesn’t mean you’ve not been impacted by his work. Indeed, if you’ve seen The Matrix, you’ve been introduced. The film was profoundly influenced by Simulacra…, and the book was required reading for actors who were going to participate in what became one of the most important and successful films of recent decades. Now, Baudrillard himself¬† certainly had his concerns about the link between his philosophizing and Keanu Reeves, calling The Matrix’ interpretation of his work a misreading or distortion at best. But whatever, Baudrillard. That’s what happens when you toss ideas out there. They get altered with every reading.

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Novum Organum

Novum Organum
Francis Bacon

“New Instrument” would be the English title – a new instrument of science, of logic, which would come to be known as ‘the Baconian method’. Observation of phenomena, reduction of those observations to their core similarities or dissimilarities – it is a gradual process, it takes time and commitment and slow, careful study of what is in order to derive what general principles might lie behind the specific. It’s induction, the opposite of deduction, the opposite of assumed truths that take shape in particularities. Scientific method? Not really. But it’s close, it’s in the same order of thinking, and it certainly is important in the development of empiricism and the methodical, observational approach of science. But Bacon is a philosopher not a scientist. He’s not out to discover anything in particular, but to examine the nature of existence, of truth, of knowledge.

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Critique of Pure Reason

Critique of Pure Reason
Immanuel Kant
1781 (revised 1787)

Kant’s “First Critique” – before those of Practical Reason and Judgement – is not only his most significant, but one of the most important books in all of western philosophy. A reaction to the rational skepticism of David Hume, Kant’s work seeks to explore and understand knowledge that is independent of experience. We do understand the world through experience, but that isn’t the whole of it.¬† We also know the world a priori – meaning, in the words of contemporary philosopher Galen Strawson, “you can see that it is true just lying on your couch. You don’t have to get up off your couch and go outside and examine the way things are in the physical world. You don’t have to do any science.”

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Being and Nothingness

Being and Nothingness
Jean-Paul Sartre

He wrote novels and plays and stories that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1964 – thought he refused to accept it; he became a prominent socialist (and later, he said, anarchist) thinker and hung out with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara; he was partner to Simone de Beauvoir, a literary, philosophical and political heavyweight in her own right, and – many would argue – smarter and more significant historically than he; and his name became synonymous with existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre was 4’11” of smarts. And Being and Nothingness probably the best-known of his smarty-pants ramblings. Continue reading “Being and Nothingness”

Tao te Ching

Tao Te Ching
Lao Tzu
Approx. 600 BCE

Lao Tzu – or Laozi – may or may not be a real dude. He’s often said to have been a court record keeper during the period of the Zhou dynasty, though a signficant number of historians believe he’s actually a philosophical character, a composite of real historical figures and mythological ones. Doesn’t really matter, either way, for our purposes – the Lao Tzu we know is the recognized founder of Taoism, and to many a near-deity.

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Edward Said

Said’s analysis of power and knowledge as they appear in Western representations of the Middle East has become a classic text of post-colonial theory and has entered the canon of post-structuralism more generally – though Said, it should be noted, considered his work to be firmly grounded within the humanist tradition to arise out of the Enlightenment. Rooted in historical and literary analysis, it argues, in short, that Western perceptions about the Middle East are based not on actual knowledge of the region but on a long-standing archtypical conception in which something called ‘the East’ is fundamentally dissimilar to and at odds with something called ‘the West’. Continue reading “Orientalism”

The German Ideology

The German Ideology
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Before there was The Communist Manifesto there was The German Ideology, Marx’ and Engels’ first thorough articulation of the theoretical framework that would come to be called Marxism – its historical materialism, its critique of capitalism, its idea of socialism. It is, really, an outline or notebook, a text in which Marx and Engels work through the insights and critical appraisals of other thinkers in order to set out what’s different about their own analysis. That is, The German Ideology is not the place to go for the most sophisticated or polished word on Marx’s framework; but it is the place to go to see how Marx got to his framework, how he put it all together in the early years, and where the origins lie of so many other of his and Engels’ works. Continue reading “The German Ideology”

The Characters

The Characters
319 BCE

Student of Plato, student of Aristotle, Theophrastus was chosen by the latter as his philosophical successor and inheritor of his writings. As with the other great thinkers of his age, Theophrastus’ writings run the gamut from biology and ethics to grammar and logic to physics and metaphysics, each informing the other. It is his botanical work that has been most influential in scholarly terms. But The Characters is the one of more general significance. Continue reading “The Characters”

Arabic Works

Arabic Works
Jabir Ibn Hayyan
785 – 815

Astronomer, mathemetician, medical doctor, philosopher, chemist, scholar of music and grammar, and perhaps the first to actively explore alchemy. And on and on and on. The man did it all. Quite literally – you’d be hard pressed to find some area of exploration, contemplation, study, that Jabir Ibn Hayyan did not engage with. Some 3,000 works of scholarship and argument are associated with his name (though some perhaps penned by his students), works that draw widely on earlier scholars of Greece, Persia, Egypt.

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